Five principles of lean building design

by David Week on 28 September 2010


This is a short paper which has been presented in a number of contexts. It started life at the RAIA National Housing Convention, Adelaide 2001 as “Thinking Lean”. This was republished in the South Australian Architect in February 2002. Finally, in 2007 I used it as the basis for a presentation at the Teaching in Architecture Conference, Donau-Universität Krems, Austria.

Preface: An introduction to “lean”

“Lean” is a way of thinking that was developed by the Toyota Motor Company, and to which many attribute its dominance of world car manufacturing today. Lean is all about eliminating waste, or “muda”. However, Toyota redefined “waste” in a new way. You can see Toyota’s “Seven Types of Waste” here:

Most of us are trained in an “efficiency” concept of waste. Efficiency comes from an accounting understanding of utilization. It asks us to maximise the output of every dollar, of every professional hour, of every machine. It sees idle resources as “waste”. But lean takes a broader view and asks: what if what is being produced at that moment is something that no-one wants… that ends up being put into inventory, or scrapped later, or sold at a discount to get rid of it?

The lean conception of waste is: anything produced by the process that is not actually wanted by the end-user.

An example from architecture is working drawings. No client wants working drawings, they want a building that works for them. If we can eliminate working drawings, contracts, and site meetings—all of which the client pays for, but none of which is actually something that’s part of the end product.

It’s this way of seeing that makes lean thinking so radical… and radically effective. All kinds of things you once considered “necessary”, you instead start seeing as “waste”.

One of the seven forms of waste is “waiting”. And one of the applications of lean to development is to get rid of the very long design and approval cycles between a request or need, and delivery. Every month that passes means:

  • recipient needs change and evolve away from the original statement, rendering it irrelevant
  • donors and recipients lose focus between iterations, losing track of important insights and information
  • faces changes on both sides of the negotiation, and key information is lost
  • the result, often very needed, is delayed: time when the result could have been in use, saving lives or educating kids, is lost forever

Imagine if you squeezed all the waiting time out of a development project: how fast it would be, and how exciting. How fast is that? We don’t know for development, but we do know for building construction. Habitat for Humanity has shown that it’s possible to build a house in 3 hours 26 minutes 34 seconds… as opposed to the many months it normally takes.

The following paper doesn’t focus on speed. It just focuses on what people value.


Lean architecture for sustainable development

Working overseas, in places like PNG, Vanuatu, or Timor, heightens one’s sense of the importance of being efficient in the way that we build. The mission of most of our overseas aid clients is “sustainable poverty alleviation”. You can’t alleviate poverty if you overexpend scarce resources in the way you build. You can’t make such alleviation sustainable if you leave the end-users with a structure that overconsumes resources in its operations or maintenance.

This leads us to think lean in everything that we do.

From this experience, we have learned that sustainability requires far more than new technology. It requires that we look at buildings as nodes within vast ecologies — social, natural, economic, cultural, political, perceptual — and designing them within that understanding. From this, in turn, we have developed five principles which we think are applicable to the practice of sustainability generally.

1  House, school, office, shop

90% of the environment is composed of a few basic building types: house, school, office, shop. In order to change the way environment works, we have to change these types. That change has to happen first not in the physical fabric of the environment, but in the way we conceptualise these types. Any wide scale change in the built environment can only come from a broad reconceptualisation of these basic types. And this in turn means that we need to focus architectural thinking not on a few landmarks, but the vast sea of built environment against which those landmarks are set.

2  Size matters

In Australia, we see far too much focus on the building materials and technology with which stuff gets built, and not enough on the amount of stuff that gets built. This leads us to the paradox of the million-dollar “ecologically sustainable” beach house, packed with sustainable systems and built of all the right materials. It ignores the fact that there is nothing sustainable about expending a million dollars of resource on a house for a nuclear family, let alone a holiday house for that family. In the Pacific, we build houses of 50m2 for families, and they still have great lives. The most significant single strategy for reducing the ecological impact of buildings is to reduce the size and scope of what gets built.

3  “No new buildings”

A friend of mine at the University of Oregon, Dan Herbert, once said: ‘Architects still don’t get it, do they? Sustainability means no new buildings.’ This is a slap in the face to traditional architectural culture, which dotes on new buildings. It elevates maintenance over construction, and adaptive re-use over design, inverting classical architectural prejudices. Since these prejudices are closely linked to the way in which architects traditionally make a living, that too needs to be re-thought. The upside of this is that in a truly sustainable building culture, an architect’s fees may well exceed the building budget, because more money will be spent on ideas than on stuff. Another consequence will be that there will be precious little to photograph, and that the great projects will not produce great images.

4  Crossing the chasm

Technically, the ESD revolution happened thirty years ago. The New Alchemists built the first autonomous house in the early 70s. The new paradigm was set then, and most of what has happened since is filling in the gaps. The challenge now is to cross what Seth Godin calls “the chasm” — the huge gap between the 15% of the market that constitute Innovators and Early Adopters, and the 70% who constitute the Early and Late Majority. Whereas the Early Adopters buy stuff because it’s cool, the majority want it just to work. And this requires a major rethink of sustainable design, because it means that benefits have to be local, obvious, and immediate. René Dubos’s dictum “think global, act local” has to be discarded. Some think that the majority’s local, immediate way of thinking is a problem, and a threat and a threat to the world. But that’s just the way Nature evolved human society — with a healthy safeguard against the waste and damage which can arise when people serve an abstract humanity over actual human beings.

5  A new art

The first four principles necessitate a major shift in architecture’s historical biases: to focus on the ordinary, instead of the landmark; to build less instead of more; to elevate maintenance and re-use over new construction; and to cater for the ordinary user instead of the leading edge. One of the most positive signs to come out of recent awards is the Wilkinson Award to Sam Marshall, whose warehouse home embodies these principles. But this is nothing compared with the achievement of Roy Barton, who once ran a value management workshop which resulted in the cancellation of a $30m building project already well into documentation. That was an extremely efficient and effective ecological act. But it put the project team into shock. How many architects would have the courage to do that?

Architecture has long considered itself an art. But what we’ve forgotten about art is that new art has historically shocked — and even repelled — contemporary practitioners. It embodies not aesthetics but a radically new way of seeing the world. It upsets the current order in a very deep and disturbing way.

There’s little we see in architecture today that fits that bill. The touchstone of successful ESD as an art is that we should find it deeply unsettling. It should force us to question who we are and how we work.

  • Bob Theis

    As to new architecture being shocking; the big challenge to status quo architecture right now is those designers who are creating buildings that fit in. After decades of the profession celebrating creations that stand apart, this is heresy indeed.

    In his new book The Original Green, Stephen Mouzon argues that our collective wisdom about what makes for good places and buildings, ( dismissed by most of the profession as “historicism” ) is the surest way to move as quickly as we need to toward human environments that will endure.

    That accords with my experience. Admittedly, my reputation as one of the few designers experienced in straw bale construction has skewed my data base, but while they espouse a desire for ecological design, the deepest hunger of my clients is for settings that they resonate with, and, not being designers, the way they communicate that most often is by referring to tradition: “We’d love it if it looked 300 years old,” is something I’ve heard too many times to not take seriously.

    That ordinary middle class folks, not self-identified eco-pioneers, were seeking me out to jump into this new building technique was a mystery at first. But over the years, it became apparent that it was the allure of thick walls with real presence, not the superinsulation nor the renewable resource, that was the real draw.

    I doubt, then, that the best design will be deeply unsettling ( except to modernist architects ). The places and buildings with the potential to go viral will be the ones that feel like a homecoming.

    • I understand what you’re saying, but I want still to argue the inverse. First, I think that there’s nothing “unsettling” about the Birds’ Nest in Beijing, for instance, or The Gherkin in London, because they do exactly what people now expect architecture-by-architects to do: something weird and wonderful. These buildings are totally conventional.

      On the other hand, the homes that people like—again in a conventional way—are not strawbale houses, but the suburban pile, the McMansion, or even the modest tract house. This is, by convention, what makes people feel at home. And they go to it in their millions.

      The kind of unsettling that I’m talking about, is the unsettling of such conventions: that public architecture should look like a gherkin or a bird’s nest, and that the family home should be like a McMansion.

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