Resilience has so many dimensions; the word is popping up all over these days.
And I love old tractors, as yet unmentioned in any post.
So my mission today is to identify some interesting relationships that are a result of thinking about resiliency and to use old tractors as examples.
To get us going, a few simple definitions; resilient to start, efficient for later. These are not perfect definitions:
Resilient: Withstanding stress and catastrophe. This is a common definition, and it reminds me of a boat that stays afloat in a storm. I would rather it said something about adapting and thriving through change. I could have just changed the definition but it gave me an opportunity to make the point!
Efficient: Achieving maximum production with minimum waste.
The rate of change in most things is increasing, so it follows that resiliency is wound into all sorts of discussions: our businesses need to be more resilient in changing markets, our economies need to be more resilient to withstand times like the great recession. And our lives need to be more resilient in the face of the large changes going on around us.
To be resilient has tremendous implications on sustainable design. The buildings and communities of buildings we design need to withstand, adapt, and (hopefully) thrive through all sorts of change: climate change, resource availability change, and social change to name a few. I would like to think we can do better than designing “boats that remain afloat;” that we can design buildings that resiliently promote positive change.
There is a sense of safety in resiliency: combining thoughts of resilience with the future releases one type of tension. This is part of why doomsday prepping has entered the popular consciousness and resiliency is in the Boy Scouts’ motto; it’s empowering. When we’re trying to plan for the future normally, we get wound up in trying to predict how it will go, with a lot of detail. In architecture we ask: How much will fuel cost, where will we be living, what will our habits be like, etc. Our previous pattern has been to build less and less resiliency into things as time progresses; our technology gets touchier and touchier, like on Star Trek when the Enterprise broke down if someone sneezed. Things have trended this way because of our concern about efficiency, which I will get to in a bit. The more resiliency we build into our design, way of life, etc., the more we are able to release our worries about the exact course of the future.
If we add tightness of fit to the conversation the whole tone changes. When we make things most efficiently, they fit their end use tightly. There is an increasing tension between tightness of fit, resiliency, and the future. My firm is designing a new school building, 100,000 square feet, net zero energy use planned. And part of our conversation regarding energy is exactly how our client will use the building: what hours of the day they will inhabit it, how many computers they will plug in, the type of kitchen equipment they will use, etc. But the more we design this building to meet their exact needs today, the less resilient it is in the future. This is not a hard rule, but net zero energy use at such a large scale indicates a very tight fit. A tension is created because at the same time we’re saying this school should last at least 50 years and will need resiliency through great change. What if they want to change the room configurations? What if the river near the school keeps flooding higher every year? What if average temperatures go up 5 degrees in the next 50 years? Bye-bye net zero pro-forma.
Old tractors are good examples of the relationship of tightness of fit and resiliency. I collect old International Harvester tractors, and I still use them on my farm. My most useful tractor is a Super C, built in 1953. It has a hitch that can attach to modern implements, and I can raise and lower it to hook up heavy wagons. The other tractors I own are not quite as useful because they all have fixed hitches. The hitch was a small change in the tractor that increased its resiliency greatly. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Efficiency and resiliency often work at odds. In other words, quite often the more efficient something is, the less resilient it is. To make things efficient, we tailor their design to the task they were intended to do, and we minimize extraneous parts. So another example from my tractor collection can be summarized by what the old-timers say: “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” They’re right; old things usually last longer than new things because they were built to looser tolerances, which means they take wear better, with operational inefficiency (fuel and oil) as a consequence. And they were built with more redundancy and less efficient use of initial resources (iron and steel) in their manufacture. Metallurgy was not as sophisticated as it is today, so parts were designed more robustly to make up for possible defects in steel and cast iron. Farmers did things with tractors that the designers could not anticipate, so they designed tractors to take unintended stresses. The quality of available fuel and oil varied widely so carburetors accepted a broad fuel/air mix, cylinder compression ratios were low, oil capacities were large and moving part tolerances loose. Maintenance was often by the farmer, whose primary business was farming, not mechanicking, so systems were kept simple. All together this resulted in a machine that is not an efficient use of resources by any modern analysis, but is robustly designed and therefore resilient enough to be functioning 70 years or more after it was manufactured. I cannot generally say that its long lifespan has made it the most efficient option over the long haul, because such tractors are only useful to small hobby farmers like me, in this age of industrial farms and 200 horsepower machines.
The old timers were right, but unfortunately the good old days of robust engineering are largely in the past for a couple of good reasons:
- It flies in the face of resource efficiency and the almighty “lowest first cost” that drives consumer markets
- Change happens too fast. Maybe I could take a guess at what a tractor might look like in 50 years, but a computer? A car? A phone? Not a clue.
So now I have brought together resiliency, efficiency, the future, and old tractors. I have not offered any solutions. But I’ve said all I set out to say, almost.
There is a peace in knowing some tensions in life are just fine to hold without resolution, and that settling into their exploration can be a generous source of creativity.
I’m smiling here because I really just wanted to write about old tractors anyway.
And I’m smiling because if you expected a solution from me you do not know me very well.