Assembly-Line Building: The Biggest Hindrance to Sustainability?

At Sparano + Mooney Architecture, we are full-fledged supporters of sustainable design. Salt Lake City mostly agrees with this philosophy as well, but perhaps only in principle. When it actually comes to purchasing a new home designed around sustainability principles, those principles may no longer be so important. And unfortunately, it frequently boils down to money. We have created a system of assembly-line home building in North America and Europe that makes it possible to erect massive volumes of new homes at affordable prices. But this practice could be the biggest hindrance to sustainability in the long run.

We note that the UK is in the midst of a perceived housing crisis that has created an environment making it nearly impossible to move up or down the property ladder easily and affordably. Housing advocates in the UK say one of the biggest problems is that they are not building enough new homes – especially for the elderly and low-income young people. Furthermore, the new homes that are being built are not affordable for those who need them most.

There is no talk of a similar crisis here in the U.S., yet the cost-availability issue is still alive and well in this country. We want affordable housing. In fact, affordable housing is said to be a fundamental human right. But creating that kind of housing requires reliance on assembly-line building strategies. We can explain the dichotomy this presents by contrasting what we do in the U.S. with something happening right now in Bali.


Building Sustainability with Bamboo

Tree Hugger magazine recently profiled a Bali architect and her construction team who are changing the housing market in that country one structure at a time. They are doing so with the extensive use of bamboo, a natural material that, according to Tree Hugger, has the:

·         compressive strength of concrete

·         a strength-to-weight ratio equal to steel, and

·         a capacity for regeneration far superior to timber

Architect Elora Hardy absolutely loves bamboo as a primary building material. She says it is underutilized worldwide and, if we could change that, bamboo could be one of the most prolific materials for housing people, especially in tropical regions.

Here's the problem with bamboo: it is a wild grass that is both hollow and tapered. Therefore, it is almost impossible to streamline bamboo construction in the same way we do with timber. All of the bamboo structures Hardy creates are custom designed and built according to the particular bamboo supply she has to work with.

With traditional timber construction, it is possible to machine lumber in such a way as to create uniform pieces that can be fit together to create fabricated designs on a large scale. This is why builders in America can construct entire neighborhoods for next to nothing. You cannot do that with bamboo.

Sustainability at a Price

What Hardy is doing in Bali is both noble and worthwhile. She is creating beautiful residential structures using a very sustainable material and a design philosophy that seeks to be in harmony with the land. But would such sustainable design in Los Angeles or in Salt Lake City work? Would it work anywhere in the U.S.?

The truth is that sustainability is not always the least expensive path. Building sustainable housing comes at a price we don't seem all that excited about paying. And until we are willing to invest in the sort of customized design and construction that maximizes the principles of sustainability, we will continue to favor assembly-line home building as the primary means of meeting our needs. Assembly-line construction is a hindrance to innovative sustainability. The question is, does it need to be?


1.      Tree Hugger –