Are Modern Buildings a Case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? 9

Thursday, October 15th, 2015
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Some of us grew up with Hans Christian Andersen children’s stories.

One of my favourites is The Emperor’s New Clothes. At the risk of losing the poetry of a well-translated version of this story, the summarised version as seen on Wikipedia is as follows:

A vain Emperor who cares about nothing except wearing and displaying clothes hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid”. The Emperor’s ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the Emperor does the same. Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk play along with the pretence, not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretence, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspects the assertion is true, but continues the procession.

The phrase “the emperor’s new clothes” has come to describe something that is pretentious yet hollow, or the social hypocrisy and societal denial that surrounds such things.

The metaphor could be apt in describing how how some of our new buildings are marketed to buyers.

For instance, say you are choosing a building to live in. You might be looking at an advertisement for a development project for an apartment block.  If you Google “Melbourne boutique apartment for sale,” you will find quite a few projects on the go. Many adverts promise sweeping design, glamour, prestige and lush surroundings.

Others still advertise stylish layouts, premium quality, modernity, boutique living and more. No expense is spared in the top quality digital images that accompany the text for these ads.

Now let’s think about collective denial and hollow ostentatiousness. Are we guilty of this when we design, build and market such developments?

A friend of mine stayed in a rental property in the inner city for a while. She has now left saying it was never comfortable. The ground floor was freezing, the middle floor was also on the cold side, and the top floor was always too warm.

Then there is the story of the new city apartment which was so full of mould, all the family members took turns in being sick. The owner installed a dehumidifier and air ventilation unit, improving the sealing of the home at the same time. It cost him a fair amount of money and was quite a challenge to resolve.

And there is the all-too-common experience of rather high power bills which occur due to our need to heat and cool our homes. In Melbourne, we tend to need heating for much of the year. Many modern apartments are not performing well in this regard in that they provide inadequate comfort, unstable temperatures and drafts. They still require large heating units, and the occupier’s power costs are significant.

I have even heard about this in a so-called sustainable block of apartments where the emphasis was on thermal mass, ventilation and cooling in summer. In winter, however, which is our real concern in this climate, one owner told me that the apartments are cold and need significant heating.

When one reviews the advertising of modern apartments, it is clear that comfort and energy efficiency are low on the list of priorities. Is this because people don’t want these things? Can it be that people don’t care if their power bills are high and their buildings are uncomfortable?

It is hard to believe that this is the reason. Perhaps, instead, our developments do not invest sufficiently in buildings that are high comfort and low in energy consumption. As a result, they cannot market such benefits to a consumer.

But if they did invest in better designs, and if they produced marketing materials which sold these benefits, wouldn’t consumers want them? Might they pay for them, and is it possible that developers could even improve their profits?

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  1. David Chandler

    Fiona, good article. A conversation that needs to be had. The ones that should be paying attention are banks who lend money to investors buying these properties. When the current surge settles down the cost of living in some of these new apartments will be telling. The problems you point to will further erode value. Then add the unwillingness of offshore apartment owners to to contribute to any levies to fix these problems in 5 – 7 years from now when their shiny new clothes start to fade. An what if a number cannot make the normal levy payments and fall into arrears. All this lurking. Developers however are happy to make hay while the sun shines, pay stupid amounts for new sites, claim the need for even more scale to be profitable, pay little attention to the cost of building some of these edifices and then test the market's capacity to set new retail price benchmarks. Then of course these is the prospect of vacancy and falling rents. Yes I think it is timely for banks to be becoming concerned – but they helped fuel this problem. Interesting times ahead. Now worrying about my bank shares.

    • Fiona McKenzie

      Thanks David

      Yes it is very short term thinking. Look over here at this bling! Pay money for it! No thought for comfort, health or long term future. You're right it will cost owners as well as the community going forward. Retrofitting these buildings will be a nightmare.

  2. Phil Morey

    Major flaw was the advent of open plan living so that you now have to heat or cool the whole building rather than individual rooms. Doors are helpful airlock tools that every designers seems to have forgotten.

    • Fiona

      Thanks Phil Morey

      With a passive house you take the whole building into account and make sure energy efficiency and comfort go through the whole house. Without that, I agree that zoning is a great idea to save on power.


  3. Julie Ward

    The whole problem is that people have forgotten to build for the Australian climate. There was a reason for verandas and high pitched roofing, grass and trees for climate control etc, not to mention the geographical content that seems only the Spanish and Brazilians and Queenslanders are supposedly educated in. Are Australians becoming so dumb that we have to employ outsiders to do what we used to do so well? When did finance become the bottom line for everything – reality check required I think.

    • Sean Maxwell

      I agree that verandas and high ceilings can help in hot weather, and that was one of the first things I admired about buildings I saw the first time I arrived in Melbourne. But then I visited the same homes in winter. Brrrr! Cold drafts all the time. Truly passive design in temperate climates requires control of the elements year-round – and that needs insulation, air sealing, and mechanical ventilation when the forces of nature are not on your side for the day. Australians (and those in plenty of other places on earth) knew how to make do without AC, but if anyone today expects comfort year-round, they will need to take up the climate-controlling principles of Passive House design.

    • Fiona

      Thanks Julie Ward! Yes finance is a problem if it dictates everything and ignores energy efficiency and comfort.

      As for the Australian climate, I guess it depends where you are. Queensland vs NT vs Tasmania vs Canberra vs Melbourne – some of us get pretty cold!

  4. Bruce Christopher

    Fiona, I think there are a small percentage of homes and larger buildings that are designed more broadly; with true architectural uniqueness, full consideration of location, climate synergy, energy efficiency, visible and unseen material quality and optimum orientation. Rightly they cost more, yet deliver tangible and intangible returns over time for those who appreciate that.

    Then there are the more obvious practical, cheap, plain, shorter life, energy inefficient boxes where one would think there would be no surprises in having lower expectations and outcomes for the money.

    This article draws attention to the many cheap, shorter life, energy inefficient boxes that are dressed up enough to disguise their shortcomings, There is a superficial trend of plonking a colorful two-column structure as a token piece from a very different architectural direction, in front of an otherwise ordinary house, which does not necessarily offer tangible returns, solution to livability or optimum design and orientation to suit the location. As well, there seem a number of unit developments that focus more on modern design cues, while not backed up by quality, compliant materials and construction.