7 - the Simpler Way

front porch of one of the outbuildings at Rosemont plantation in southern Mississippi

   Humanity has, for almost all of recorded history, had an excellent way to build simply and control costs, but we discarded this method in most places roughly a century ago. Today, we seem bent on getting the look we want, even if it means we have to build with plastic wrap and duct tape. What was that simpler way, and why does it matter to sustainability?

   The simpler way is something known in some architectural circles as the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum. The most classical building in a state or province might be the state capitol or the state supreme court building. The most vernacular building is a very simple barn. Everything else is somewhere in between these two ends of the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum.

the Image Problem

buildings along the town square of Portofino in Italy

corner of Portofino square

   Most of us living today have spent our entire lives in the era of “ticky-tacky houses,” so it’s hard to even imagine how the simpler way worked. Let’s first consider how today’s method works: Developments most likely begin in the offices of the marketing strategist, who comes up with an image of the place. Maybe they call it Fox Run, and infuse the marketing package with naturalistic pictures. But of course, what Fox Run really means is “the place where the foxes will never run again.” Or maybe it’s a more refined image, like Georgian Estates, with pictures of fine brick buildings from the days of King George III. The specific image is unimportant... the point is that a place today starts with an image. Here’s why that’s a problem:

the Image Paradox

   As the quality of the marketing strategist’s work gets better and better, the chances of the developer being able to execute the image gets worse and worse. Here’s why: If the image in the marketing package is vague (think the architectural equivalent of comfort food instead of fine French cuisine,) then it’s easier to build in a way that occasionally comes close to fulfilling the marketer’s promise. But if the image is powerful, then it evokes strong connections with images of ideal places in our minds. Because the image in our mind is strong, we know without doubt when the developer has failed to build to the image.

hilltop view of Portofino harbor

Portofino's harbor

   Portofino, shown here, has been used as a development image countless times, yet there is still only one Portofino. The better the image created by the marketing consultant, the more miserable the failure of the developer when the place doesn’t measure up.

   And it isn’t just that they fail, it’s how they fail that is so regrettable. Because the development image rarely squares up with the best and most sustainable ways of building in a place, the developer is reduced to using the region’s normal construction methods to build the building shell, then slathering architectural “image goo” all over it. In most cases, the image goo is cheap plastic, foam, or other stuff that is all too often a sad and hideous fake of the material it is intended to represent. Buildings made in this way are far too easy to discard at some point in the not-too-distant future. Clearly, throwaway buildings are unsustainable.

the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum

Illustration of the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum, with barn at Organic end, Nashville Parthenon at Refined end, and brick house at the Median setting, in the middle

   The Classical/Vernacular Spectrum works in an entirely different way. First, it is based upon the best ways of building in a particular region. This makes image goo unnecessary because you don’t have to fake anything. Next, it is infinitely adjustable based on the needs of each building. Need something more affordable? Fine... just dial it down the Spectrum a bit. Need something more refined? Just dial it up. And it’s highly explainable to everyone from homeowners to builders to framers to masons, so that everyone understands why we build this way in this place. It’s not just about something as fleeting as architectural fashion; rather, it’s much more durable, and is characterized simply as “this is how we build here.” It’s not a style; it’s what works best, for this people and for this place.

Sustainability Versus Construction Cost

wood-frame house on farm outside Cassett, South Carolina

   Sustainability is about much more than Gizmo Green, but unless you’re building in a place where natural methods can do the whole job of conditioning a building, then more efficient machines are essential. And better machines are almost always more expensive machines. Within a fixed construction budget, something’s gotta give. In tough economic times such as the ones during which this book is being written, people usually choose the long, slow bleeding of monthly utility bills over up-front costs for energy equipment that would dramatically reduce or even eliminate the utility bills.

streetscape along High Street in Bourton-On-The-Water in England

   In order to buy the energy equipment, we must find savings elsewhere in the budget in most cases. The Classical/ Vernacular Spectrum is the most powerful cost-control device in the history of human construction. As a matter of fact, it has created more affordable housing than any other method ever devised. It’s high time to employ it once again... and put away the architectural image goo once and for all.

   ~Steve Mouzon


   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #7 in the top 10 items we can do.

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, January 5, 2010 - 05:36 PM


Interesting comparison. The city of Portofino, and the entire Ligurian region of Italy, has it's own goo. Due to the issues of hauling cut stone through the rocky terrain they instead used trompe l'oeil painting to mimic stone detailing. It's a different class of goo, though, since its high quality really is good at fooling the eye.

Thursday, January 7, 2010 - 11:11 AM

Steve Mouzon

Ken, I'd distinguish the Ligurian ornamentation from the image goo I'm referring to here in this way: The Ligurian ornamentation is an elaboration (to varying degrees) of the plaster that naturally goes on a masonry wall except, as you've noted, if it's fine masonry that can be exposed. Architectural image goo, on the other hand, is a whole system of applied foam and plastic stuff that, more often than not, has nothing to do with what it means to build well in a particular region. The better thing to do is to figure out how to build in a place, then figure out how to make that way of building more or less elaborate according to the needs of the job... or at least that's the proposition of the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum.

Saturday, January 9, 2010 - 11:01 AM

Rod Stevens

I worked on a large project inspired by Portofino, and about ten years ago another giant project in New Jersey took down an insurance company.  From a purely financial point of view, the world would be better if we blew up the original!  People might then quit copying it and simply do what works in their own back yards!

Friday, January 22, 2010 - 09:16 AM

Steve Mouzon

Interesting perspective, Rod... I'd never thought of it that way! But you're correct that the failed attempts to replicate Portofino have undoubtedly created tremendous sums of financial disaster throughout the western world. But it seems like that's our fault, not Portofino's fault. A world without highly compelling places like Portofino would surely be more impoverished.

Friday, February 12, 2010 - 09:04 AM


   Steve, I agree that this architectural “image goo” is a problem, but it seems that there is an underlying issue that is not being discussed.  The question we need to ask is “why do people build with architectural goo?”  I think you answer that partly in talking about marketing strategies, but even the slickest marketing strategies will fail if they are not based on what ‘the people’ want.  As an American culture we not only want our own little Portofino, we want more, bigger and faster (which is ironic because houses in Portofino are probably fairly modest in size).  This consumptive desire is in my mind the thing that allows those marketing strategies to work.  And it makes sense that to put the ‘more and bigger’ into a new house and still pay the same, you have to use cheaper materials – the “goo” that you speak of.

   I for one, long for people to build on the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum.  Your description of that spectrum (your terminology?) really conveys the core issues:  “The better thing to do is to figure out how to build in a place, then figure out how to make that way of building more or less elaborate according to the needs of the job…”  I think the question for our society and us as those who desire to change it is, “How can we change the underlying consumptive drive?”  I don’t know, and I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 05:48 AM

Steve Mouzon

   Matt, thanks so much for the thoughtful comments! I'm wondering if the problem doesn't result from a subtle misunderstanding? Here's what I mean: "The people" aren't the ones building with architectural image goo, for the most part. It's the developers and their builders. Why? We all know that Portofino and other similarly great places turn up again and again in focus groups hosted by development companies. So it's natural for them to say "we've gotta build Portofino."

   But what if that's not what the people are really saying? What if it's not Portofino itself, or the Cinque Terre themselves, that people are actually wanting? What if the thing they really want, but can't adequately describe, is the mysterious sense of harmony and appropriateness to its region and its context that these places all embody so deeply? This sense, I believe, is the real key... and is something we need to understand far better than we do now. My upcoming Original Green book deals with it to the limits of my understanding of it, but this warrants far more study and comprehension.

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