The path to sustainable design got a new branch recently. Or perhaps it is more accurately characterized as an heirloom scion grafted onto the growing family tree of the green movement. The Architecture Foundation of British Columbia announced a competition to design a new house using only “materials and systems made/ manufactured / recycled within 100 miles of the City of Vancouver.” Additional parameters include a maximum area of 1,200 square feet and 4 occupants. Affordability is not the focus of this competition but certainly an important consideration for any real-life project.
While the 100 Mile House idea might seem revolutionary, in some ways it is a return to fundamental ways of designing and building. Materials found close to a site are uniquely adapted to the enviromental conditions of a given region. Vernacular architecture grew out of low-tech (although not unsophisticated) responses to site conditions and building methods and varies considerably from region to region throughout time.
The experience of realizing the design and construction of a 100-mile house near Vancouver provides examples of the challenges and rewards of this approach. Writer and naturalist Briony Penn describes the experience as “fun” in a Good Design article by Mark Boyer. While Vancouver is a major city it is also rich in natural resources and production of wood and other building materials. The 100-mile restriction may be more onerous in a region focused on a different industry or geographically more dispersed. But if this movement gains a foothold it could lead to a revival of smaller and decentralized manufacturing and resource management initiatives to revitalize regional economies and job creation.
Early human settlements were scaled to the distance a person could cover on foot then on horseback/donkey then wooden carriage and bicycle and motorized vehicle. Now we zip from one continent to another in a matter of hours. It is understandable that the footprint of our buildings and their provenance has expanded with our highway systems and passports. Now that we have discovered the whole wide world (superficially or otherwise) the 100-mile House Challenge asks us to reconsider our own backyards and Main Streets. The satisfaction of building a home by supporting businesses that build community is akin to exploring a new country by revisiting our old ways.