The South African architect Vaughan Burns is known for designing “humane low cost housing.” We’re not talking Katrina cottages or FEMA trailers, y’all. The Goodspeed Update has the goods:

In his view architecture had just four basic elements: floors, doors, roofs, and windows. These structural categories doubled for metaphors of four rules of design that have guided his designs.

The first, the “floor,” is client participation. Vaughan argues for participation both because it is important to creating good design and also because of its transformative impact on the clients.

The second, the “door,” represents multi-functionality of design. Buildings should maximize the use of every space, surface, and room. An architect specializing in alternative building techniques has observed “many standard homes built today feel hollow and empty until they are filled with possessions.” He observed his designs include window seats, window shelves, and creative flooring making the homes “quite pleasing even before you move in.” An efficient home could convince the occupant to choose a smaller space, and even “need” fewer belongings to live.

Third, the “roof,” is the principle of expandability and sub-divisibility to provide maximum future use of the structure. This may mean making halls wide enough to contain a narrow bed should it need to be converted to a bedroom, using easily recyclable materials, or allowing outdoor access to a bathroom to allow it to be shared among several small homes.

Fourth, the “window,” stands for the value of embracing symbolism. Fake traditional touches can be cheap but provide a sense of community or identity. Murals can transform a plain surface into something beautiful, powerful, and meaningful, all at the cost of the artist’s time and the paint involved. Rather than abolish symbolism as inauthentic or unnecessary ornament, Vaughn argues we must recognize the imaginary thing can be just as good as the real thing. After all, in his view through architecture we transform real things — raw materials and labor — into the unreal — comfort, shelter, and space for living.

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