Manifesto for a happy and creative frugality

in the architecture and planning of urban and rural territories

Philippe Madec, January 2018


The movement of happy and creative frugality is based both on the reduction of material things (soil, energy, raw materials) and on the development of benevolent human relationships around a common project. The objective is an architecture that is more respectful of natural resources, that transforms the existing before building new, that values renewable materials and local know-how, that favours robust technical solutions and proposes a balance between tradition and modernity. In January 2018, the engineer Alain Bornarel, the architect-researcher Dominique Gauzin-Müller and the architect and urban planner Philippe Madec proposed the manifest and invited its signature.

Time is running out

The alarm is sounding on all sides. The IPCC reports confirm human responsibility for global warming. More than 15,000 scientists say that « it will soon be too late to deviate from our doomed course, and time is running out ». The UN deplores the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are stagnating at 52 Gt per year, whereas they should be limited to 36, or even 24, in order to stay below the 2°C limit that would allow a peaceful future. COP 23 is showing its powerlessness: the commitments made at COP 21 in 2016 lead to a rise of between 3 and 3.5°C. But let us remain optimistic, there is still time.

The threats are mounting

In addition to climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions, the threats are mounting: accelerated decline in biodiversity; depletion of exhaustible resources; increased pollution of the air, land and sea; growing inequalities in the distribution of wealth and the impacts of global disruption… Energy control alone will not be enough.

Words and deeds

Are national political choices up to the challenge? Successive governments announce initiatives that they end up putting off. For example, the target of 50% nuclear power in the electricity mix has been postponed indefinitely, ruining the development of renewable energies for many years. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the environmental objective has no longer been the essential goal it was at the beginning of this century. The downward revision of commitments, the announcement of measures with a notoriously insufficient budget, such as for the energy renovation of existing buildings, and the undermining of social housing funding are all evidence of this and are cause for concern.

An obsolete mode of development

Why refuse to see the future? Are we forever trapped in a blind development model? How can we favour increased production of goods without seeing the depletion of resources and global disruption? How can we favour financial prosperity without seeing inequality and our debt to nature increase? How can we favour selfish competition without seeing solidarity being exhausted and generosity being stifled? This old-fashioned mode of development is paralysing the ecological and societal transition.

The good news

But the world is changing and the seeds of possibility are growing all over the planet. Agriculture that cares about people and nature is emerging from the margins and short circuits are developing. A cooperative, social and solidarity-based economy is taking place outside the market sectors and those that call themselves collaborative. In people’s minds, shared use is taking precedence over possession, mutualisation over privatisation, sobriety over waste. A new world is being born.

The heavy burden of the builders

Professionals in the building and land-use sectors cannot shirk their responsibility. Their fields of action emit at least 40% of greenhouse gases for buildings, and much more with the displacements induced by urban planning choices, such as the strong preference for new construction rather than rehabilitation. Choices that remove, every 10 years, the equivalent of the surface of a department in agricultural land. A collective and individual commitment is required.

Energy frugality

The building industry is also changing. On a territorial scale, projects for the production of renewable, local and participatory energy are being developed. At the building level, healthy and pleasant buildings are being constructed without mechanical ventilation or air conditioning, or even without heating. Thanks to natural ventilation, passive cooling, recovery of free heat and thermal inertia, bioclimatic design allows energy consumption to be reduced to a strict minimum, while ensuring greater comfort. We know how to do it and it doesn’t cost more. Why not generalise these practices?

Frugality in materials

We know how to do without materials that waste resources. Wooden construction, long limited to individual houses, is now being used for large-scale public facilities and collective housing of more than 20 floors. Biobased insulation, marginal until recently, now accounts for almost 10% of the market and is growing by 10% each year. Raw earth, the material of our heritage, is emerging from the purgatory into which the 20th century had plunged it. All these advances consolidate the development of local industries and know-how on a regional scale.

Frugality in technicality

Frugality in energy, raw materials, maintenance and upkeep leads to low-tech approaches. This does not mean an absence of technology, but the use of relevant, adapted, non-polluting and wasteful techniques, such as equipment that is easy to repair, recycle and reuse. In both implementation and design, frugality requires innovation, invention and collective intelligence. Frugality refuses the hegemony of the technical vision of the building and keeps the occupants involved. It is not the building that is intelligent, but its inhabitants.

Frugality for the territory

Whether it is located in an urban or rural environment, frugal building is concerned with its context. It recognises cultures and places and draws inspiration from them. It uses land and local resources with care; it respects the air, soil, water, biodiversity, etc. It is generous to its territory and to the people who live there. It is generous to its territory and attentive to its inhabitants. Through its programme and construction choices, it favours everything that reduces its ecological footprint, and everything that makes it fair and pleasant to live in.

For a frugal building

The ecological transition and the fight against climate change contribute to a prudent use of exhaustible resources and the preservation of biological and cultural diversity for a better planet to live in. Maintaining yesterday’s architectural, urbanistic and technical solutions, as well as the current ways of living, working, eating and moving around, is incompatible with the task that falls to our generations: to contain and then eradicate global disruption.

The frugal building and the frugal territory - urban and rural - are the answers we have chosen. We share them in our teaching, our interventions and our publications. We implement them in our projects to help create a happy and eco-responsible society.


To go further

The movement is multidisciplinary, and its members are professional architects, engineers, urban planners, companies, craftsmen, landscape architects, consultants, project management assistants (PMAs), but also public agents, project owners, teachers, students and members of civil society. They are involved in different organisations, institutions, associations, collectives and companies, as close as possible to the reality on the ground. This allows them to have a close and privileged link with many professional networks, potential future partners.