The phrase Renaissance woman/man is sometimes overplayed but I am fortunate to know someone who genuinely deserves that accolade. Jim is an architect, a gifted water colourist, a teacher and a superb chef. He is also by far the best fly-fisherman I have ever come across (a skill that significantly, includes the art form of fly tying). He also makes architecture – I don’t mean he designs buildings, he does that too, but he actually makes architecture. He physically constructs some of his buildings, this process taking place simultaneously as he designs. Although he has clients for whom he provides a conventional architectural service, the architecture he makes is for himself, largely homes though not always. Not a hobby or an economic necessity – these homes are characterised by an on-going continuous effort that has taken place over decades in numerous locations including the Mogollan Rim in Arizona’s highlands, a small city on the Kansas prairie, and a remote island in Honduras. They range in type too: a cabin drastically expanded from a single-wide mobile home; the extensive remodelling of a beautiful craftsman house; and a new build modern house built on concrete stilts to avoid coastal storm surges. But these buildings share one common attribute – they are all excellent examples of MEA – Minimal Effort Architecture.
What is Minimal Effort Architecture? I admit – it’s a name I have just come up with but I would argue it is something that really exists as a distinctive form of building/design. Its also been around a long time, and is something that is largely under-rated or ignored. MEA is architecture (not just building) that is created quickly to fulfil a need. It utilises available materials and elegant thinking. It is not always pretty but it is always ingenious. Jim’s houses are made mostly from wood – its part of the tradition he was brought up with. The Arizona house was his father’s cabin – land given for free provided you set up a permanent building there. The whole community consists of these trailer homes, which have been added to – a stone fireplace here, a wooden roof and porch there – usually owner-built, usually cheap and cheerful. Jim’s is that too – but what it also is – is architecture. Not just space for living but something that has careful, considered thought present in every element, though quickly put together. Spaces are carefully tuned to the way they need to work, no room is too large or too small. Services are included in resources saving ways with water conservation and minimal energy use in mind. External views are maximised, inside there are specific places designed for art and found objects that emphasises their beauty or meaning.
But this is all done quickly and cheaply… this form of construction has perhaps the most equal ratio between time spent designing and time spent building. Drawings are simple and meant to be read only by the designer/builder (or a helper or two with the author on hand to clarify any issues). Halts in construction are frequent (if short) to consider how to proceed towards the most appropriate and elegant solution. The wood cut scars of changed building decisions are left visible like the ghost images of changing compositions that can be seen in the fugitive paint of 16th century Italian paintings. Trips to the lumber yard and the DIY store are made with a list that is flexible depending on what is available, usually with an open mind about potential solutions. Free or recycled materials and components get an equal look in here too. Cutting lists are arranged around least waste and least cuts. Expediency is perceived as a positive attribute, why screw when a nail will do, why paint when a natural surface will age and weather elegantly. It’s a sort of Segal Method but without the method as that would restrict flexibility and response to opportunity.
One of my favourite books as a student (and still today) was Domebook – a hippy building manual assembled and published in Bolinas, California in the 70s. It included domes (most famously the Bucky Dome – self-made geodesics built from anything from bamboo to flattened car bonnets) but also all kinds of other self-build construction solutions. It featured traditional construction as a model to which the modern builder should aspire – something founded on generations of hard won experience. As students we had a go at making some of the Domebook examples: a habitable dome from sticks; folded plate structures from cardboard; tension structures from canvas, and learnt a lot from it. Later on I self-built a more-or-less permanent studio with found timber, a PVC membrane, a pole and some metal fittings assembled at the local blacksmith (yes, he worked on horses too). There is a definitive pleasure and satisfaction gained from these closest of ‘mind to hand’ constructions that provide lessons learnt in practicality, speed, economy and fitness to purpose. I always look forward to visiting Jim’s places around the world (too many for one man – but then again all of them together cost less than any one conventional house, and he has a lot of kids to leave them to) – to see what has changed, hear his plans for the next ‘development’, and to learn a new trick from the master. And on the way back home my sketchbook comes out and a cutting list starts to emerge for that project I have been trying to find time for… and because of the short amount of time it will take to complete using MEA techniques, its realisation is all the more likely.