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The Wonderful World of Malcolm Wells

by Dave Hampton

What others have to say about Malcolm Wells
Prototype green building ratings systems
Learn more about Malcolm Wells
In memory of Mac


On January 5, 2010, Urban Habitat Chicago presented a tribute to Malcolm Wells with a lecture: The Wonderful World of Malcolm Wells.

The unique world which architect Malcolm Wells envisioned in evocative watercolors- well-designed, earth-sheltered, energy-efficient buildings integrated beautifully and seamlessly into the landscape - still captures the imagination.

His recent passing highlights his influence on “sustainable” design, holding it to a high standard.

What others have to say about Malcolm Wells

UHC asked other leading lights in the environmental design movement to weigh in on Mac, and here’s what they had to say:

“I first met Malcolm Wells in the early 1970s, when my professional practice (SITE) had just begun. Since our firm had environmental aspirations, he was one of a (then) small number of architects whose voices had persuasive resonance in the nascent green movement. He communicated an infectious combination of spiritual mission and down to earth pragmatism, which I found inspirational during those early years at SITE. Having been dismissed by an architect at S.O.M. (to remain un-named) as a “hopeless idealist” a year or so before meeting Malcolm, I was especially pleased to meet a distinguished fellow traveler in the “arena of hopelessness” category. The S.O.M. encounter - where I had humbly sought advice from the firm’s leading designer by showing him a portfolio of SITE’s first wave environmental ideas - ended with this architect’s humiliating dismissal; “well James, your ideas are interesting, but you will never get anything like that built.” The rest of the story is SITE’s subsequent comeuppance history; but the main value of starting one’s career with such a crushing blow was my first talk with Malcolm Wells, who gave me nothing but encouragement. My memories of him are fond ones - his crusty kindness, his insatiable curiosity, his sardonic wit and his prophetic genius.”

“In the clairvoyant realm, he is definitely the insufficiently credited founder of the earth-sheltered architecture movement. Obviously, the practice of buried buildings is thousands of years old - since there are still ancient troglodyte villages in China, Iran and Turkey - but what Malcolm saw was the necessity of re-thinking this kind of building practice for the new Age of Ecology. Long before it became fashionable to bandy about words like “green” and “sustainable,” Malcolm had charted a full course of action for the responsible construction of habitat in the new millennium. During the late 60s and early 70s, almost nobody in the architecture and construction world was listening; but it was pretty obvious to any thoughtful evaluator of terrestrial fate that the entire earth was under threat from the greed, vanity and myopia of a single species - a proliferation of omnivorous inhabitants quite likely to become extinct by reason of their own petard.”

“Malcolm Wells was a true environmental architecture pioneer. Hopefully some genuinely active scholarship will soon focus on his legacy and give credit where it is sorely due. Most importantly - and unlike the flood of techno “green wash” advocates today - he understood that humanity’s conversion to earth-centric thinking is more of a social and psychological objective than a crusade to be resolved exclusively through technology. In point, as Heidegger astutely observed, “When technology has reached the dangerous stage of ‘debased techne,’ it lifts Mankind to a level where it confronts problems with which technical thinking is not prepared to cope.”“

“In an essay I wrote for the Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook two years ago, I credited Malcolm in the following way. “Malcolm Wells, one of the early green pioneers, opposed the legacy of architectural ostentation and aggressive assaults on the land in favor of the gentle impact of underground and earth-sheltered buildings - exemplified by his Brewster, Massachusetts house of 1980. Since this kind of structure is temperature controlled by terrestrial insulation and much less intrusive on the surrounding environment, its green virtues suggest a form of invisible architecture. Or, described another way, buried structures can be interpreted as having an “iconography of fusion,” as opposed to high profile design. Additionally, as Wells explains: this kind of underground building is, “sunny, dry, and pleasant. It offers huge fuel savings and a silent green alternative to the asphalt society.”“

“At the conclusion of this Britannica essay, I observed: “In a reaction against burgeoning technocracies and their threats of isolation from nature, increasing numbers of people are seeking new symbiotic relationships between the buildings they inhabit and the ways that shelter interfaces with ecological responsibility. This growing motivation is one of the most promising signs of hope in the development of a consensus philosophy of the environment. If successful, it will confirm anthropologist Margaret Mead’s optimistic observation; “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”“

“Malcolm Wells is a pinnacle example of one of those “thoughtful, committed citizens.” The vast expansion of the now global environmental initiative is a testimony to his commitment.”

James Wines, Principal
January 5, 2010

“Malcolm Wells was a friend, colleague and mentor who was far ahead of his time. We all benefited from his work, writings and teaching. He went beyond championing underground structures, inspiring us to consider the symbiotic relationship between built and natural environments in our work. He created the first ‘environmental checklist’ for buildings and developments, the prototype for the LEED rating system, among others.”

Edward Mazria, Founder and Executive Director
Architecture 2030
January 4, 2010

Prototype green building ratings systems

Yes, it’s true.
Before there was LEED, before there was Energy Star, before there was Green Globes, there was… Mac.

As early as the late-1960’s, Malcolm Wells began to formulate criteria for more ecologically sound construction, written in plain English, and organized into sensible categories.

Wilderness Scale, example
Ecologic Standards for Construction, published in Appendix F of Alternative Natural Energy Sources in Building Design, Albert J. Davis & Robert P. Schubert, 1974
A Wilderness-Based Checklist for Design and Construction from Gentle Architecture, Malcolm Wells, 1981

Learn more about Malcolm Wells

Underground America Day


Support the work (and the estate) of Malcolm Wells by purchasing his books!

In memory of Mac

Sign a note of condolence for his family

Malcolm Wells, an architect ahead of his time, dies, Philadelphia Inquirer

Malcolm Wells, Champion of ‘Gentle Architecture,’ Dies at 83, New York Times

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