The Eco-House of Horror

by | May 9, 2011

Popular wisdom has it that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. I’m not so sure. How could we explain this in terms of ‘necessity’?

[youtube -jw2mNeR1tw]

I’m not knocking it. I think it’s fantastic.

This, on the other hand, is damn awful.

A tour of the Cube from Mike Page on Vimeo.

The designers of the Cube Project are proud of what they have achieved.

The Cube Project is an initiative of Dr Mike Page at the University of Hertfordshire who set out to build a compact home, no bigger than 3x3x3 metres on the inside, in which one person could live a comfortable, modern existence with a minimum impact on the environment.

‘Minimum impact’ possibly… But comfortable — a living space of just 3x3x3 meters? Modern — sleeping and cooking just a few feet away from a composting toilet?

Even if it were on wheels, it would look pokey. The idea of this box being a permanent residence should offend us. There are bigger toilets. There are bigger prison cells.

The designers claim, of course, that it is necessity which drives this un-novation — ‘low carbon living’.

It was an important design criterion that none of the techniques or technologies used in the Cube would be solely applicable to small buildings. When scaled up appropriately, everything we used could equally well be applied in homes and businesses of all shapes and sizes. The Cube illustrates what we believe to be the best of low-carbon living.

If the benefits really do ‘scale up’, then why build so small? Small is ‘low-impact’, see?

Utilitarian approaches to housing people have, in the past, offered less luxury to occupants of new homes than was offered by grander, more expensive houses. For instance, the high-rises and pre-fabricated houses of the post war years, some of which were woefully inadequate, but much of which were solid, and well designed, and offered far better accommodation than had been available. In those instances, the utilitarian calculus was one that began with the $ per sq foot, and the provision of things such as electricity, running water and flushing toilets that many houses lacked. Now, the utilitarian calculus forces people to accept lower living standards for some notion of an ideal balance with the natural world. These are the values which seem to inform today’s designers of the good life. They are so out of touch with people, they have had to reinvent the entire concept of necessity, of utility, and of ‘modern’ and ‘comfortable’.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has some interesting things to say about the influence of ideology on design — of toilets, specifically.

[youtube FJ73hLQ64Ng]

Says Zizek, ‘even such a… the lowest of the lowest, vulgar, everyday object cannot be accounted for in direct utilitarian terms.’ It is ideology that informs the design as much as the necessity. That’s not ideology as it might be understood as a concrete political philosophy, but the whole ensemble of prejudices, cultural norms, values, and so on.

Some weight is given to this view by the fact that it was not some university technical department that conceived this project, but the School of Psychology of the University of Hertfordshire.

As part of our School’s work on behaviour change in a number of different domains, such as smoking cessation and healthy eating, Dr Page has been looking at factors which affect behaviour change in relation to the environment. If we are to mitigate the problems of climate change, we are going to need to deal with problems that are as much psychological problems as they are technological problems. The Cube Project is an attempt to show that many of the technologies that we need are already commonly available and at an affordable price. The question is, why aren’t we using them? This is a psychological question.

One answer might be that people can see for themselves the bossy, authoritarian and self-serving nature of the designers expressed in the design of the eco-lifestyle, just as Zizek claims that German, French, and Anglo-Saxon ideology is expressed by each culture’s design of toilet. That is to say that we can see for ourselves that the preoccupation with our lifestyle habits at the School of Psychology of the University of Hertfordshire belies a desperate search for relevance to today’s world. The psychologists should take a closer look at themselves.

So, if it’s not necessity which is the mother of this invention, the Eco-Cube, what is? This cube may be the answer…

[youtube 01hUyIrubWE]


  1. Luis Dias

    That is, my friend, a truly epic movie! And quoting Zizek, no less. ;)

  2. StuartR

    The carbon neutral idea of the cube seems to be bogus. I mean, after all, the cube requires subsidising from the Feed in Tariff, which essentially means that fossil fuelled tax payers are subsidising the money paid back to its solar generator. How can that be described as carbon neutral?

    Since the designers are psychologists I think the ultimate goal is an excersise to see how far constraint can work on the human psyche. It is an obedience to authority experiment like the Milgram experiment. The cube is all about constraint and reducing freedom. Constraint because it requires you to learn how to move around in a specfic way e.g. always left foot first on the stairs. Always Working to shift bits around to make a space to move. They are exploring how to remove freedoms from humans and get them to adapt to arbitrary constructs, instead of lettin them adapting the environment to their own needs.

    If they can flatten out the cultural differences that make humans desire different types of toilets across europe then you can turn humans into flat pack objects that fit into flat pack houses.

    I think the next logical step in this utilitarian calculus is to genetically modify humans so they can be just left in the corner as low energy brooding cubes of flesh, feeding any excess energy into the Matrix feed in tariff ;)

  3. Ben Pile

    Excellent point about freedom, Stuart. The tragic thing about the eco-designer’s notion that his designs for our lifestyles can save the planet is that they preclude us from designing our own lives. Such a disabling ‘innovation’ is truly the antithesis to design.

  4. Dominic

    The tragic thing about Page’s notion is that it is nonsense.

    If he is concerned about emissions, he should lobby for more nuclear and gas in the UK energy mix, and less coal. That would actually have an effect.

    But it’s so much more fun having a little eco-trip like this isn’t it?

    These ideas are loathsome.

  5. Shub

    The American metal band made a video for their song ‘Prison sex’ – a legless child puppet trying to escape its prison cube through the walls’ panels(

    The computer game Portal by Valve Software is set in a series of cubes and cuboids. The player’s escape: a gun that shoots portals to find one’s way out. The sequel Portal 2 shows the ‘world outside the world’, by moving and retracting hydraulically operated panels that form the sanitized insides of its cubes.

    The cube seems to be a thing of horror indeed.

  6. Luis Dias

    Don’t take the point of the cube being a “thing of horror” too seriously. I’m an architect, I know what I am talking about. :)

  7. Jack Hughes

    The world of architecture seems to be overrun with eco-babble. I look in the bookstore and maybe half the books on architecture have a greenie theme.

    I leave with a lifestyle magazine instead. When I get home the lead story is an architect whining about those rotten residential clients he has to deal with. Apparently they keep on demanding warm and comfortable homes with new kitchens and plenty of living space and huge power-showers in luxury bathrooms. Instead of shivering in miniaturised eco-bubbles while fasting for world peace. They just don’t get with the program.

  8. Peter S

    ‘Necessity’ has the Latin root of ‘necesse’ – needful. So if need is the mother of invention, it’s worth asking what Dr Mike Page’s felt need is that he has made a little wooden box to meet. Little wooden boxes with people inside, of course, are usually called coffins… but then the people are dead. Living ones might require a bit more room. But we get the drift.

  9. Ben Pile

    Coffins for the living. I think we can agree that Dr. Page expresses contempt for the occupants of his eco-cubes. Zizek might call it ‘disgust’, and really what Page is trying to do is lock away the shitty problem with their filth.

  10. Rob Munning

    My neighbour loved Page’s cube so much he bought seven for his back yard.
    The slothful friend of my brother dismissed the design as too large-he had worked out that whilst watching the Tv he’d have to actually get up to fetch beers from the fridge.
    An old schoolmate did try one for living closer to work,but some wag painted wheels on it and subsequently a Jeremy Clarkson look-a-like drove an SUV through it.
    I did hear of an estate agent who positioned a dozen of them near a desirable city centre and sold them as low maintenance weekend crash-pads at £250,000 each.

    Next,an episode of “Escape To The Country” where the BBC’s team of househunters attempts to find a £500,000 property for the Jones’s with outbuildings to house Mr Jones’s collection of life-size models of historic people.

  11. Chuckles

    ‘As part of our School’s work on behaviour change in a number of different domains, such as smoking cessation and healthy eating, Dr Page has been looking at factors which affect behaviour change in relation to the environment.’

    Behaviour change. Says it all.

    Necessity is the mother of strange bedfellows sounds more like it.

  12. Alex Cull

    “The psychologists should take a closer look at themselves”. Agreed, and this is precisely what they don’t appear to be doing. Such endeavours say much more about the psychologists themselves than they do about the human condition.

  13. Yandoodan

    Since this has now been up for several days, I am surprised that no one has pointed out what is, to this American, the most obvious point: that the Cube is meant only for Those Other People, our class enemies who make our environment unpleasant by covering our beautiful farmland with comfortable homes, then clog our roads by commuting on them. “Eco-green” means controlling Those People using oppression and poverty, and eventually removing them via population control. People Like Us will, of course, continue to live in large, well-heated (and air-conditioned!) houses, with plenty of windows overlooking the now-cleansed landscape.

  14. Got a Woody

    one person or two friendly ones? Friendly I think they would have to be in permanent coitus

    Sustainable Chestnut cladding – hmm check wood prices & the situation re subsidies for burning the stuff maybe

    The eco-stair case is quite funny tho

  15. Alex Cull

    Another thing the psychologists don’t seem to have given much thought to – the Cube is not suitable for couples or families, so that’s a whole swathe of the population out of the picture, for a start. Who lives alone? Students do – but I don’t think most students would want to buy a Cube (or afford it even if they wanted to) although I suppose they could rent them (having experienced a variety of student digs in my lifetime, I wonder what the interior would look or smell like after a year or so, in that scenario.) Who else? Elderly people, but I think an elderly person, especially someone with a disability, would find it far too awkward to live here. And they’d have problems if they wanted to keep a dog or even a cat. As for the eco staircase, can you imagine going up or down it after having a few drinks?

    So – basically suitable for a young, single, able-bodied person, preferably with no relationships, pets or family ties, teetotal and with few or no hobbies, with enough money to afford to live in a Cube but committed and Green enough not to mind shelling out for a wooden box little bigger than a portacabin. I’m pleased to say that I know no-one who fits that description.

    There are some more great comments about the Cube and its shortcomings here:

    “They didn’t have far to look for the interior inspiration – it’s just like the inside of a touring caravan! All very nice, but you cook a curry or take a good dump, and you’re living with the smell for weeks.”

    “Very efficient, but I’d probably hang myself with a 1 meter rope hanging from the ceiling after going nuts in this confined space.”

    “Is my maths going wrong here? If it’s 3x3x3 metres and there’s a 2 metre head height – is he only 1 metre tall?”

    Another good comment – surprisingly, here on HuffPo:

    “enlarge it so that all the rooms are on one floor. increase the size of the all the living areas, so it doesn’t feel like a prison cell, and most importantl­y get rid of that compost toilet. oh yeah, put in a washing machine and dryer. then maybe we’ll talk.”

  16. Ian Random

    I have to admit it would be great for a single young person living in the no build zone (smarty pants growth) called the left coast. This reminds me of a guy I knew who lived in a trailer. He used gray water to flush black water and tracked every watt of usage.


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