The Theory and Practice of Full-circle Architecture

Theory has been fundamental to the practice of architecture since ancient times. A long-accepted theory of architecture centers on the coexistence of three factors: firmness, commodity, and delight (Latin: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas). A high-powered ancient Roman architect, engineer, and thinker named Vitruvius created this theory, but in practice, I think he missed something.

For posterity’s sake, it is true that good architecture must possess this triad containing structural stability, appropriate spatial accommodation, and attractive appearance, but sustainability and sustainable-thought will bring a deeper dimension to any building.

Sustainability in and of itself is a broad philosophy that seeks to keep all creation thriving. In theory, the natural world and human-created habitat should work together like a symphony. However, in practice humans have continued to struggle to create and operate our architecture within nature’s balance.

Before industrialization (when things really went south) building materials and skilled labor for architecture were sourced locally. We essentially worked with what we had close at hand and “nested” within our habitats - similar to other native species.

Now, we are waking up to the fact that we have been building without considering our impacts for far too long. Like the Prodigal Son, our definition of good architecture has been on a quest of excess, seeking perfection of form/function and novel design, and now is slowly returning to a more naturally intimate concept of holistic soundness. Maybe we will come full circle and truly return to the land.

Historic adobe brick recovered after a building fire in San Luis, Colorado.

Reconsidering our Future Legacy

According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Global Status Report 2017, “Buildings and construction together account for 36% of global final energy use and 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions when upstream power generation is included. Have we have "hit bottom” in our exploitation of CO2 producing power consumption?

Due to the recent efforts established by the Paris Climate Agreement, humanity has its first plans toward global sustainability - to halt global warming. It is both horrifying and gratifying that we are finally doing something. Just like generations from centuries past, we want to leave our own lasting legacy.

Now we find ourselves at a pivotal point where we must consider how to become re-connected with the natural world. Nature has always modeled the balance we need, so our problem of becoming reacquainted with our local environment is our own. We have gotten too far away from her, relying on technology and convenience. It is time to work with everything modernity offers and create a new vernacular for the natural region where we live.

In Jason Mclennan’s book “The Philosophy of Sustainable Design,” he outlines the importance of having “respect for the wisdom of natural systems, respect for people, respect for place, respect for the cycle of life, and respect for the energy and natural resources.” His book offers a vibrant view of how to integrate the concept of sustainability into architecture and design.

To close, I would argue that in addition to Vitruvius’s triadic maxim of firmness, commodity, and delight, we must add sustainability. In the ancient Greek language there was no word for sustainability. There are ancient translations for soundness, maintenance, and tenability, but these are not quite the same thing. Perhaps theories are meant to be tested, and expanded when necessary? Maybe a more significant question is, “Why does our human nature lead us into paradoxes that seem so bright, yet cause our own demise?”

Architecture in our modern era should balance attributes of firmness, commodity, delight, and sustainability in every instance.
— LL

Post-script: The idea of “Full-circle Architecture” occurred to me while creating a headline for this piece, and I am sorry that I could not develop it completely. I have a feeling that this term is going to stick around this site. I like the sound of it!

I appreciate you reading! Hope you will take a few minutes to cache any thoughts/ideas you have in the comments below.

This Post Contributes to Architalks

ArchiTalks is a collaboration of practicing architects that blog from all across the world. One day each month, we post on the SAME topic on the SAME day. We hope this can give you more insight into the multi-dimensional field of architecture.

This month’s lead is Ann Lebo (@anneaganlebo), and she wanted us to write on how theory plays an integral role in our practice.

To see how the other architects responded to our "Theory/Practice" theme, follow the links below. 

#ArchiTalks 47 Contributors: 

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
You Can Do Better

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
the architecture of theory and how it is evidenced in my practice

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Theory -- If Apple Practiced Architecture

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
In Theory / In Practice

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Theory and Practice

Larry Lucas - Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
The Theory and Practice of Full-circle Architecture