From desire to necessity: Why do we always want more?

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Architect Don Bunting

Building Today columnist and Architect Don Bunting wonders if we feel better and more successful if we own the best and largest house we can afford?

Some years ago I met British industrial product designer Jonny (now Sir Johnathan) Ive at the IAI (architecture) conference in Istanbul.

More than 6000 architects and designers were present at the conference which was headlined by superstar architect Zaha Hadid.

As a friend said at the time, “you could smell the ego in the air”.

At that time Ive was talking about his work with Airbus, and was still to gain public recognition as the Chief Design Officer of Apple Inc; responsible over time for the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad.

His design mantra, clearly illustrated in his designs for Apple products, was good design is as little design as possible.

He borrowed this principle from German industrial designer Dieter Rams, a protege of the Ulm School of Design (successor to the Bauhaus). Rams’ other nine design principles were:

Good design is innovative.
Good design makes a product useful.
Good design is aesthetic.
Good design makes a product understandable.
Good design is unobtrusive.
Good design is honest.
Good design is long-lasting.
Good design is thorough down to the last detail.
Good design is environmentally friendly.

Ram’s greatest regret was not more strongly promoting his ideas about sustainable design and avoiding a culture of over-consumerism.

No fault of Jonny Ive’s, but this is something Apple appears to have conveniently overlooked with its continued development and promotion of new versions of its popular products.

You might say: capitalism equals consumerism, not conservation.

Why is more always best?

Not just more, it is also about the cult of the new, the latest, the sexiest the smartest, the most innovative.

This tends to be the case more with consumer products, including housing, rather than with art and collectables, whose appeal lies more in a combination of potential monetary value and personal aesthetics.

Why, at least for those who can afford it (or think they can afford it), do we change perfectly good, serviceable and comfortable cars every three or four years?

But just try to find any useful advice on what is the optimum length of time you should keep a car, avoiding any long term problems and costs.

No, we just tend to lust after the latest model because of its shape and array of bells and whistles.

Is this about prestige, even down to displaying the fact you have a new car by the new number plate?

Although New Zealand’s inexplicable decision to import other country’s rejects rather confuses that.

Why do we continue to build larger and larger houses and apartments? Is it market forces alone, with developers realising they can make a larger profit on a four-bed rather than a two-bed home?

Or do we feel better, and more successful, if we own the best and largest home we can afford?

And why do we continually have to “improve” the home we have — not because the bathroom or kitchen no longer works, but because it doesn’t look “modern enough”.

No doubt we like to believe that a modern or modernised home will be more efficient, perhaps even more environmentally friendly, and more comfortable to live in and with more convenient services and equipment.

But how often do we carefully analyse the cost benefit of a larger, newer home against a more modest but still comfortable one?

I suspect the decisions are made on a much more emotional level.

The number of home improvement shows on television and the advertisements surrounding the programmes indicate that there is quite a sales pitch going on out there.

Help the planet

If we are to make any significant progress towards reducing our use of non-renewable resources and the effect this is having on our planet, we need to accept the requirement for a dramatic change in approach to our individual, collective and governmental decision-making processes on what we do, build, buy and use.

Not a few minor adjustments alongside nonsensical symbolic statements like “zero carbon.”

Not a few more electric vehicles, each of which contain far too much embodied energy for there to be any significant saving in energy use. But real change, a real reduction in lifestyle.

Slumming it

A real estate article in the New Zealand Herald on financially attractive Auckland suburbs listed those suburbs showing the greatest increase in median house value over the past 20 years; about the same time period we have lived in our present 1880s cottage.

While the apparent seven figure gain might be gratifying in these uncertain times, I was a bit put out by the description of our home suburb Freemans Bay, as “the former slum wedged between the Auckland CBD and Ponsonby”.

Such median, average or mean values are not that helpful, as they are strongly influenced by the mix of housing found in a particular suburb.

For example, Herne Bay has a high percentage of large, attractive stand-alone homes and a very low percentage of small, downmarket flats and apartments, meaning that their median house price will be high.

I’m just pleased that Freemans Bay has retained at least some of its rather tatty charm, including a good mix of large, small, new and old housing. Long may it last.

And it will probably see myself and a surprisingly large number of other resident architects out, former slum or not.