7.8 Building Design: Simplicity in Design

Author: Connor M Almond 

ABSTRACT: We as humans often over-complicate. It is in this complexity that many of our sustainability problems stem. If we wish to resolve this growing problem, we can look to simplicity: in how we design and live our lives.


Simplicity is defined as the quality or condition of being or something that is natural, plain, or easy to understand. Simplicity in design, however, is far more than this. It is purposeful; responsible; critical; ethical; sustainable; and economical. 

Simplicity in design makes things easier. With a simple design comes easy communication: fewer drawing, renders, models, and potential meetings. Implementation is easier with fewer moving parts, fewer interactions, leaving fewer opportunities for failure. The building will be easier with the use of simple materials, simple shapes, and simpler construction. Operations are easier and cheaper, as the many complexities are non-existent and systems in place are efficient. Finally, modification and evolution in a simple design are made easier with less incentive to demolish simple builds and additions can be integrated with ease as time goes on. 

Just because simplicity in design makes things easy, does not mean simple solutions are easily come by. Often, it will take more personal time, effort, and energy to conceptualize and realize a simple idea or design. All worth it because simplicity is sustainability.

Three builds that embody simplicity in design:

Passive House – provides a low energy, low carbon, comfortable living environment that seeks to positively impact the climate crisis. Efficient systems, simple design, and quality materials come together to create this detail-oriented home. Passive strategies also look to use natural resources that are freely available, like sunlight for heat gains, shade to reduce overheating or positioning the building in a certain direction.


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Dumb Boxes – are literally simple, geometric boxes with few windows only as needed. These homes are resilient, low carbon, low energy, and are far less expensive than other modern-day houses. The cubes remove excess materials, juts and jogs, and complicated roofing resulting in a cozy, more conscious space to live.

A building with cars parked in front of it

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Low-tech Homes – are another way of embodying simple design. Achieved by decreasing the technology throughout the building design and during the design and building process. Asking oneself, “do I need everything to be smart and connected?” … the answer is: probably not. Or at least not when the lasting environmental effects are considered in relation to the needed materials for smart devices. Plus, the inevitable, ongoing, and increasing costs associated with the upkeep of said devices. Furthermore, many smart systems are consuming energy that could be saved through simpler design (like opening a window to adjust the temperature).

Simplicity is a solution to the carbon crisis and encourages sustainable living on multiple fronts. However, one must be willing to dedicate the time and effort to critical thought and reflection. Simplicity actively fights for basic and holistic approaches that require far less carbon-intensive processes, materials, and waste. Simply sourcing locally, choosing low-carbon and renewable alternatives, designing without excess and considering factors to efficiencies, integrating nature, and implementing efficient systems pushes us in the right direction for a sustainable future.

“Simplicity is a great virtue, but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matter worse: complexity sells better.” – Edsger W Dijkstra

The quote above encapsulates an important perspective on simplicity and the current global stance. We need to make simple, conscious designs and choices to see a better future. Often, we get caught up in what has been made of this world rather than appreciating and reflecting on what is already provided to us. Simplicity is the future – if we want one. Simple designs do not look to regress but thrust us forward into new ways of living and impacting our world. Finding balance in what we need versus what we want. Simplicity directly opposes the materialist, over-consuming, over-producing, over-populating, and over-complicating way of life. Leading us into a more earth-conscious future. One can even take simplicity in design so far as to focus your entire lifestyle around it. Simplifying all facets of your everyday life. Designing a life of simplicity. 

The world is already so complex, and as Lloyd Alter says, “complex designs create complex problems.” Complex problems, in turn, require more energy, materials, and money. So, going forward we need to start simple, enjoy simple and continue simple. Simplicity in design leaves little room for problems.


Alter, Lloyd. “In Praise of the Dumb Box.” TreeHugger, TreeHugger, 11 Oct. 2018, https://www.treehugger.com/praise-dumb-box-4853131.  

Alter, Lloyd. “In Praise of the Dumb Home.” TreeHugger, TreeHugger, 11 Oct. 2018, https://www.treehugger.com/praise-dumb-home-4851698.  

Alter, Lloyd. “Why Do We Make Everything So Complicated? We Need Radical Simplicity Right Now.” TreeHugger, TreeHugger, 11 Feb. 2021, https://www.treehugger.com/why-do-we-make-everything-so-complicated-we-need-radical-simplicity-right-now-4847466.  

Building Simply 05: Eco-Simplicity — Alt-Architecture. https://www.alt-architecture.co.uk/curiosity/building-simply-05-eco-simplicity.  [site shut down March 1, 2022, https://www.alt-architecture.co.uk/]

Elgin, Duane. Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. Harper, 2010. 


Connor Almond is a fourth-year undergraduate student, currently studying in the Creative Industries program, focusing on fashion and interior design, at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson) in Toronto. Preparing for graduation and joining the workforce, he is excited to apply his knowledge and explore avenues of sustainable design through his creative endeavours.

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