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?