In the Built Environment, the Tyranny of the Big, the Beauty of the Small

Green building leader Jason McLennan on ways to keep our buildings and cities at a healthy, human scale.
Burj Khalifa by Ahmad DXB

The Burj Khalifa building in Dubai stands at 2,717 feet, making it the world's tallest built structure.

Photo by Ahmad DXB.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”

—E.F. Schumacher

The world’s tallest built structure, Burj Khalifa, looms 2,717 feet over Dubai’s central business district, boasting the human species’ modern architectural and engineering capabilities. This glass and steel behemoth outstretches Chicago’s Willis Tower by 1,266 feet and is more than two and a half times the height of the Eiffel Tower.

Less significant than its stature, though, is Burj Khalifa’s profile. Viewed from any angle, the building’s shape is reminiscent of an exaggerated line graph that begins at zero before shooting sharply upward to its highest point then plummeting dramatically back to nothing.

In my opinion, Burj Khalifa’s silhouette stands as a poetic—and prophetic—representation of the past and future of ridiculously oversized ways of building and living. The tower’s profile reminds us that we began our architectural history by designing modest-sized dwellings (close to the earth and the y-axis) before “progressing” over time to our current skyscraping, unsustainable abilities. Soon, environmental realities will force our return to designs that better suit the human scale. The fact that Burj Khalifa was funded by vanishing oil money only reinforces the idea that the era of enormity in our structures, roads, homes and egos must and will come to an end, just as the global inventory of fossil fuels is undeniably finite.

The Righteousness of Scale

We have lost the ability to relate to and understand our food systems, economic systems, energy and transportation systems, and ultimately the environment itself.

In his book, Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher delivered compelling arguments in favor of appropriate scale. “Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful,” he wrote. First published nearly four decades ago, the book is equally if not more relevant today. While Schumacher’s thesis was aimed primarily at 1970s economics, his assertions apply perfectly to 21st-century supersizing trends. Environmentalists still relate to Schumacher’s message that a person or a thing need only be as big as required to fulfill its intended function. Otherwise, beauty, meaning, and accountability are lost.

Simply put, we have let things get way out of hand by distorting scale. Our tendency to oversize says more about our egos than our wisdom; our lust for power generates a craving for big things.

Whatever the cause, we must arrest this toxic tendency to build/eat/live large. Now is the time to return things to a scale that is relatable and survivable. Nature does this, so why can’t we? And where nature doesn’t (such as when populations surge beyond capacity) the system quickly corrects itself.

The Size Creep

Throughout history, empires have built structures to symbolize their power. Temples, coliseums, cathedrals, and statues all rose to great heights to dramatize societal influence. Often, these creations were meant to intimidate individuals and remind average citizens of their relative insignificance. For centuries following their construction, the pyramids of ancient Egypt were the world’s largest and most complex structures, broadcasting messages of wealth, power, and the effectiveness of marshaled resources. As awe-inspiring as they were in their day, they were ultimately abandoned as priorities shifted and empires crumbled.

Our modern societies have elevated the “build to honor power” effect by engineering taller high-rises, longer bridges, larger dams, and more expansive power plants. Similarly, in the name of progress, we shear the tops off of mountains and rely on huge factory farms for our food. Across the globe, mega-metropolises (Los Angeles, Mexico City, Mumbai, Tokyo and Moscow among them) are expanding as if growth alone was a desired outcome. Our economies are driven by enormous corporations and financial institutions that dwarf previous economic paradigms. All of these large-scale societal components work together to yield little more than greed, waste, and inequity as far as the majority of humanity is concerned.

At a certain scale, we become strangers to the things we create and strangers to nature itself. We are decreasingly connected to the natural world, which makes us increasingly apathetic to its destruction.

There is a point where individual accountability, familiarity, and sense of place disappear. And we have reached it. Taking things to these extremes has minimized our ability to understand and truly make a difference in the systems we have built. We have lost the ability to relate to and understand our food systems, economic systems, energy and transportation systems, and ultimately the environment itself. We’ve exceeded the carrying capacities of the very places where we live. Like the Egyptian pyramids, our sky-high towers and our out-sized systems are unsustainable.

The Logic of Natural Connection

At a certain scale, we become strangers to the things we create and strangers to nature itself. We are decreasingly connected to the natural world, which makes us increasingly apathetic to its destruction. A skilled hunter, for example, is an environmentalist even if she doesn’t consider herself one, given her familiarity with the land and her proximity to the source of her food. A good farmer is one who knows his fields, including his soil and water health.

Our societal disassociation with food sourcing and production allows us to tolerate the widespread abuses to land and animals because we are consumers and it is none of our concern. To know something means to connect with it on a relatable scale. Our food systems used to be part of our knowable community—now it is ‘somewhere else.’ The natural environment used to be all around us—never far from our towns and villages. Now nature for most people is an abstraction, something seen only occasionally on TV, again ‘somewhere else’ and not relevant to our daily lives.

Big-Time Ripple Effects

National policies, subsidies, and incentive programs support large corporations and have contributed to the demise of small-town enterprise.

The modern U.S. was built on super-sized initiatives, interstate highways, the military-industrial complex, and massive retail empires among others. The idea that bigger is better is embedded into our cultural psyche; large size, we’ve been told, is the surest way to compete and succeed in a global marketplace. To compete you have to get bigger. Growth is typically framed as size-based rather than quality based. This assumption, of course, implies that local and small equal backwards and inefficient. Even political agendas come into play. National policies, subsidies, and incentive programs support large corporations and have contributed to the demise of small-town enterprise. Family farms get absorbed by factory producers as official policy. Local dairies can’t compete with regional operations. Community banks struggle while national financial institutions grow "too big to fail." Along the way, a handful of people get wealthy as communities suffer and the environment pays a heavy price.

A Starter CastleThe Righteous Small House: Challending House Size and the American Dream
An architect asks, at what point does size cancel out sustainability?

Now, we realize that we have a brewing crisis on our hands, which is coming from numerous angles. Our economy is nearly ruined, a victim of its own belief system, and we devote what little capital we have left trying to prop the machine back up. Our centralized food system is wreaking havoc on citizens and the planet and making us increasingly vulnerable to widespread disruptions. The attention that is finally being paid to global climate change has essentially been lip-service with only the vaguest goals to reduce emissions—in the future, rather than now—to still unsustainable levels. Yet we attempt to solve these problems using more mega-solutions since it’s all we know how to do. Headlines announce plans for giant smart grids, nuclear power plants, and massive wind farms—agronomists look for the next ‘green revolution’ to avoid change and politicians prop up Wall Street rather than Main Street. Whether our politicians are too caught up in a pattern of pork spending or the lobbyists are simply too compelling to refuse, we tend to throw big answers at big questions as if they were the only solution.

We tend to throw big answers at big questions as if they were the only solution.

The expression “too big to fail” should set off blaring alarms every time it is uttered. When something is too big, I believe it is destined to fail. There is a ‘right-size’ for any system that, if exceeded, spells certain demise even if for a time the growth seems impressive. Therefore, failure and risk should be managed so that size alone can never take down an entire system. Nature offers countless examples of this rule through diversity, redundancy, and resilience. When we shoot for sameness, uniformity, and sheer magnitude, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Sadly, societies throughout the world have adopted the U.S. size standard and our misguided influence is now affecting communities around the globe. Debating on the "right size" for any system is extremely difficult, but these days it is almost never a topic amongst economists, in corporate boardrooms or in the halls of power. The right size is always deemed to be bigger than whatever is currently in place. We just can’t seem to get our heads around the idea of limits.

The End of the Built Environment As We Know It

James Howard Kunstler, noted author and speaker, has addressed the inevitable demise of our present built environment. Earlier this year, he wrote on his blog:

“The vast oversupply of malls, strip malls, office parks, and other furnishings of the expiring ‘consumer’ economy is about to become the biggest liability that any economy in world history has ever seen. Who will even want to buy these absurd properties cheaply, when they will never find any retail tenants for the badly-built structures, nor be able to keep up with the maintenance (think: leaking flat roofs) or retrofit them for anything? In a really sane world, a lot of these buildings would go straight to demolition-and-salvage—except that it costs money to do that, and who exactly right now will make a market for used cinder blocks and aluminum window sashes?"

I would further Kunstler’s assertion, predicting that the age of the skyscraper will also come to an end within the next couple of decades. An experiment that began just a little over a hundred years ago, culminating with the Burj Khalifa at nearly 1,000 feet taller than its contemporaries, will be done within twenty years. In an era of peak oil, declining environmental health, global population above seven billion and climate change, it will be impossible to sustain the paradigm in which high-tech materials come from all over the world and large-scale technological solutions are required to fix creeping large-scale engineering problems. Our experiment of building mega structures will be complete. As Kunstler has said, “many buildings being built today will never get retrofitted.” Certain historic structures will get restored, as the Empire State Building recently was, for a variety of cultural and locational reasons—but we’ll be done with new buildings over 500 feet by 2020.

Big turnip, photo by Camille Sheppard Dohrn"Localization is the Economics of Happiness"

My belief is that we cross the scale barrier with buildings somewhere between 12 and 14 stories high. Moreover, we can reach suitable densities well beyond current American norms with average heights closer to six to eight stories. We’ll return our focus where it belongs: closer to the ground. Our structures may end up being less lofty, but we’ll be able to reach all we need.

The future of our built environment will need to be rooted in solutions that endure through time. The unique carrying capacities of each place—its community, its watershed, its ecosystem—must define the scale of the projects it houses. When solutions and systems cross these boundaries, they become too big. Elegance is lost when overshadowed by size. The only oversized movement we need is the one that takes us closer to small, localized solutions.

Put It To The Test

The only oversized movement we need is the one that takes us closer to small, localized solutions.

So how do you determine if any system, institution, building, or process is too big to be healthy and sustainable? While it’s difficult to set rules that apply in every situation, I’ve found that if any of the metrics described below are exceeded for any given example, the thing in question has likely become too large:

    When the risks of a system’s failure exceed those of its benefits, the system crosses the "risk scale barrier." Risks, in other words, must be proportionate to (and in truth should be significantly lower than) the benefits.
    When the consequences of a system fall to those in a different generation than those who will see the benefits of the situation, it crosses the temporal scale barrier. Risks should be handled by the same generation that benefits from it. Only benefits should accrue through time.
    When the size of the system or artifact in question is not relatable to human scale through its design or function and has the effect of diminishing community/human interaction rather than increasing it, it can be said to have exceeded the human scale. Our constructs should create, not diminish, community by bringing us together, not pushing us apart.
    When the size of a system cannot be understood, grasped or managed by a small group of people who know and can relate to each other, it has crossed the mental map scale barrier. Decisions should not be made by people who neither understand the consequences of their decisions, nor empathize with those their decisions affect.
    When the activity of a system permanently degrades the health and biodiversity of any ecosystem, it has crossed the environmental scale. Environmental impacts are inevitable, but working within the functional carrying capacity and natural resilience of a place is essential.
    When a system by its nature only concentrates wealth rather than distributing it, then it has crossed the economic/social scale. When the workers whose labor supports a given system can’t afford to purchase the very things they make, it has crossed this line.

Right vs. Wrong

I am huge proponent of finding any initiative’s “right size, or sweet spot.” I believe that something is scaled properly when it serves its intended function as simply as possible with little to no waste. In the wise words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

The best-designed objects are those that have, almost magically, achieved the "right size." The product of good design seems to perfectly fit our grasp. All of us, to some degree, can relate to the idea of something that just doesn’t "feel right." While designing to a "right-sized" object is difficult, knowing when you haven’t achieved it is easier. You can feel it. A perfect teapot, an iPhone, the right chair—we know when a product has achieved it. Similarly, I think it’s possible to feel when the scale of a street or building is appropriate or even when a farm or market is the right size. They feel and function as they should.

I think it’s possible to feel when the scale of a street or building is appropriate or even when a farm or market is the right size. They feel and function as they should.

Good designers, whether they focus on buildings or systems or solutions, are always sensitive to scale. They ensure that people experience their work in ways that are appropriate relative to the task at hand. Structures built within traditional human-scaled modules, like a brick or a board, have an easier time remaining within an appropriate scale—although not always. Any material—in the right hands can be made to fit.

I often think of the lovely Thorn Crown Chapel, designed by E. Fay Jones and sited in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains. Built to reflect the light and beauty of its surroundings, the chapel pays constant tribute to nature. Perhaps more profoundly, in order to protect from the typical site devastation when machinery gets involved, Jones dictated that each structural element be small enough to be deliverable through the woods by no more than two men on foot. With this attention to scale and impact, something profound was created. Individual pine beams were hand-carried to the location and larger elements were constructed and raised on site. The result is a beautifully scaled, responsibly organic place of worship. It just fits.

Smaller Can Be Sweeter

The days of the “big project society” are numbered. We will be forced to change our ways because our access to inexpensive energy will diminish before disappearing altogether—we have already entered the extreme age of oil. Just as our economy adjusted from the exploitation of human labor in the 19th century, we will need to find alternative approaches to petroleum-based systems. By bringing solutions closer to home and scaling them more appropriately, we can begin to relate more directly with the things we build, purchase, and consume and make a graceful transition from paradigms that only worked because energy was plentiful.

Dee WilliamsLiving Large in a Tiny House
Dee Williams found happiness in a 84-square foot house on wheels.

I have written previously about the “sweet spot” of urban density, discussing the ecological and societal implications of designing cities that offer just the right amount of people-per-square-feet. Housing that is too high detaches us from the earth; far-flung sprawl eliminates a sense of place.

The same idea must be applied to the size and scale of any system or institution. We must seek the “sweet spot” in our designs to ensure our ability to relate to our buildings, communities and systems. Finding the appropriate and sustainable size for all our systems is indeed the work of our generation. It’s about realigning the scale of civilization and reconciling it with the technology we’ve developed to this point. If we apply our ingenuity within the context of a right-sized society, we can begin to correct our errors and sustain ourselves into the future. And we can begin again from the far side of the metaphorical Burj Khalifa line graph.


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