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Saturday, Mar 02, 2024

In crowded, consumerist Hong Kong, can we build and live with less?

In crowded, consumerist Hong Kong, can we build and live with less?

Building more efficiently would minimise waste and maximise space. And when we understand that the most essential things are not material goods taking up space, we can re-evaluate how much living area we really need.
“Less is more!” This is how Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – “Mies” in the architectural world – described the essence of the International Style he pioneered in the 1920s. Even if they were unfamiliar with the architectural icon and stylistic jargon, most people would have heard of this catchphrase, used in the minimalist movement or pop culture.

Mies’ buildings, whether in Chicago, Barcelona or Berlin, stand the test of time; decades later, they are still more contemporary than many new projects. The International Style is not only “international” but also timeless.

But less of what, more of what? Mies aspired to build with only the necessary structural components to define and enclose architectural space. “Less” is about reducing materials, clutter and decorative elements that are superfluous to the building’s construction.

What resulted are large interior volumes, full-height glazing and clean planes from floors and walls to ceilings. “More”, meanwhile, is about maximising spatial quality, daylight, connection to nature and flexible usage.

More than 100 years later, Mies’ architecture is still relevant. His motto is often cited beyond the design world in crafting a meaningful and productive lifestyle – long before Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn promoted “A rich life with less stuff” on TED Talks or Marie Kondo launched her tidying consultation empire.

Some consider “less is more” to be synonymous with minimalism, but it should be closer to essentialism: keeping optimal, meaningful and vital elements for the best outcome. This concept is particularly relevant in today’s environmentally conscious world and more effective than any retrospective sustainability measures because of the proactive approach of consuming less right at the beginning.

There is no greenwashing, deception or hypocrisy and it is much more effective than damage-control policies such as buying carbon credits to offset emissions, feel-good approaches such as sorting plastic bottles into recycling bins, or penalising schemes such as charging HK$2 (25 US cents) for a plastic bag. To paraphrase Thomas Friedman in Hot, Flat and Crowded, “the best form of [material] is the [material] that doesn’t have to be generated at all because you eliminated the demand for it”.

In a free society, we can hardly impose a lifestyle on people, especially when consumerism is the bedrock of commerce. How we live is a personal choice, but we can educate ourselves. The energy crisis due to Russia’s war in Ukraine and reduced food yields due to extreme weather have forced us to confront wasteful habits and behaviour, and consider how we can better use and distribute resources to foster a healthy, holistic and sustainable society.

In design and construction, the Building Information Model (BIM) industry offers tools for architects, engineers and contractors to build more efficiently by minimising material wastage and labour, reducing construction time and lowering project costs.

The BIM industry’s global market size is estimated at over US$5.7 billion with a double-digit growth rate annually. We need similar tools in all sectors of society, given that the world population surpassed 8 billion this month, and demand for resources are only going to increase.

The best lesson we learned from the Covid-19 pandemic is prioritisation. We are more acutely aware of what is important and what is not. We are much more concerned when markets run out of fresh vegetables and paracetamol than the fashion retailers going out of business on Russell Street and Canton Road.

We realised we could only survive the seven, 14 or 21 quarantine days in a hotel room because we could connect with our close friends and families. We learned that being able to go outdoors for a run or simply a breath of fresh air without wearing a mask is priceless. None of these are luxurious goods; they are edible, spiritual or intangible.

When we understand the most essential things are not material goods taking up space, we can re-evaluate how much living area we need. Last year, the government decided on 280 sq ft as the minimum flat size for housing projects. It did not really explain how the size was determined but made a point to exceed the 250 sq ft saleable area for the Anderson Road Starter Homes.

According to guidelines by the Japanese government – a country confronting micro-living challenges as much as Hong Kong, if not more – a person should be able to live comfortably in at least 25 sq m (269 sq ft) of residential space, although the ideal is 430 sq ft.

The minimum size set by our government is slightly more generous than Japan’s but it might wish to say whether this is for a single occupant as opposed to a family of two or more.

Perhaps 280 sq ft with only the essentials would feel more spacious and comfortable than 400 sq ft full of stuff, and perhaps the new open-plan “light public housing” units might not be too “light” with decent equipment and utilities installed.

Given a reasonable flat size, comfort can be a matter of how the occupant uses the space. Consuming and living with less is a decision, and the Latin origin of the word combines de, meaning “off”, and cis or cid, meaning “to cut” or “to kill”. Just as Mies decided to maximise spatial potential through his architecture, we can choose a more sustainable and productive way to live.

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