Looking At Design, Part 1: Natural Materials


stone building

In this series, I will explain what specific design principles tend to make for good design, verses poor design, in our built environment. This series will discuss natural materials, shape and proportion, color and texture, spaces and room environments, and how all of this pertains to green building.

On occasion I have heard someone say that they want their home to be maintenance free and therefore want the house  to be built out of cement block and other factory made materials. My feeling is that there are options that do not sacrifice aesthetics.

Materials that age well may be a higher priority than “maintenace free”. Natural materials fall into this category. Take a look at the building above. I would say that this structure looks as good today as it did when it was built many decades ago. It stands as part of the environment instead of being a blight on the environment. The upkeep has been minimal, yet age has only added to its beauty. The building is “relaxed” and has an ambience that is missing from many modern day structures. Lets find out why this works and compare it to its modern counterpart.

The cement block building shown below is an example of a common, low-maintenance structure that is king of the build-it-fast-and-cheap approach at the expense of visual value. The design itself says “No Admittance” so the sign is a bit redundant. :–) This is not to say that a nicely designed structure can not be made of cement block or any other mass produced material. They can. It does take a considerable amount of work and careful design in order to pull it off. Few designers have this ability and the typical home builder would find it very challenging. Natural materials lend themselves to beautiful structures with a lot less design effort.

The key active design element in this stone structure is contrast. This is not contrast of light and dark, but of shape, texture, and color. These natural green building materials reflect and mimic the environment from where they came. Looking within one shape reveals additional shapes and colors. It is visually multi layered.

Starting with the side wall, look at the variety of large stones naturaly flowing into smaller stones and smaller patterns. The grout lines are not predictable and therefore your eye does not become bored with repitition. The wall of the building transitions into a brick wall of similar, yet slightly different colors and patterns. The transition of the two walls is not abrupt. They overlap and are therefore visually and structurally connected. The edge of the slate roof eases gracefully into the wall below. The key is that there are no perfectly straight lines—just as in nature. This keeps the entire design in harmony as the overall feel of the structure can not be quickly analyzed. The smaller patterns of the roof tiles emulate the patterns of the leaves on the ground. There is no doubt that the overall shape of the building is a human made geometric form. Yet the patterns of the material contrast with the linear geometric building shape. The large overall mass is geometric and the smaller material shapes are organic. This is the contrast that I am speaking of. Your eye perceives larger formal shapes of rectangular walls, windows, and a pitched roof. This is contrasted with organic patterns and textures of the building’s structural materials.

cement block building

The cement block structure is sterile in comparison. There is no contrast—only repetition. The precise shape of the blocks are repeated in the hard-edged shape of the door and the angular hand rail. The paint is the final blow as it even robs the potential for color variation that might be inherent in the block itself. The building is lifeless due to its absolute precision, repetitious patterns, and lack of contrast of form and color. It is the fast-food of building design—its cheap and it fills up the space.

Good design is part of green building. The stone house has lasted for generations. The cement block building does not give much reason to preserve it for the future. This is one reason why the newer parts of our towns and cities are not inviting. Why should we care if the designer does not?

To be continued.
—Ted Owens

stone building photo: amandabhslater/flickr
cement block building photo: Martin LaBar/Flickr

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  3. Thanks for posting this article. I’m decidedly frustrated with struggling to search out pertinent and rational comment on this matter. Everybody now goes to the very far extremes to either drive home their viewpoint that either: everyone else in the planet is wrong, or two that everyone but them does not really understand the situation. Many thanks for your succinct, relevant insight.

  4. I have just come across this site and its filled with great content, interesting and informative.
    I have to say that there is nothing worse than, plain boring concrete its so impersonal and really does not give any life to a building were as the stone gives the building character as the building ages.

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