Let’s build something worthy of us for a change

I’ve written before about the play between mythos and logos, particularly the impoverishment of our lives from the elevation of logos—reason, facts—over its partner mythos—meaning, context. Logos alone sends us looking for truth in news items, not in fairy tales. At least until recently. The very crisis of the so-called “fact-free” world we woke up to post-election points to the inadequacy of logos alone to make sense of the world. And we’ve gone so long without mythos; it’s hard to visualize its relevance anymore. Or what it even looks like in the physical world.

In the first century BCE, back when mythos and logos still enjoyed equal billing, a Roman architect and engineer called Vitruvius wrote an architectural treatise called The Ten Books on Architecture. It’s actually an interesting read. The most quoted principles from it are the triumvirate: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, or “firmness, commodity, and delight.” Vitruvius argued that architecture must be structurally sound, functional, and beautiful—all three. It must serve its purpose economically and spiritually. Though human cultures and their architectural styles have taken many different forms over the centuries, these underlying principles have generally held. When logos was promoted over mythos, the unraveling began. Continue reading

Thatching our way to a new story of relationship

Polly house compositeI made these sketches for my longtime collaborator and friend, Polly Bart. After a couple of decades as a green builder, she is building a house for herself using all natural and salvaged materials, including trees harvested from her land, strawbale walls, a green roof, and—possibly best of all—a thatched roof over the main living room’s steeply pitched log structure. Last month, the master thatcher came from Ireland to put up the roof. The photos of it are stunning. (Scroll down this post for a slideshow of six images, or follow this link for more.)

This morning, I awoke from a dream of her roof, thinking about the differences between a roof like this and conventional construction. Modern construction technology favors industrial materials put up in layers, each with its specialized purpose: structure, enclosure, water shedding, waterproofing, insulation, and to bridge and/or seal thermal movement of the different materials. Thatch, by itself, takes care of all of those purposes save the structure. Great skill and long training are required to do it correctly. Continue reading

At play in the field between imagination, fantasy, and reality

2010_8.12_620w

“Logic only gives man what he needs… Magic gives him what he wants.” ~ Tom Robbins

When you steep a while in the world of Story, everything starts to seem a little less “real.” The line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Even when I work with clients, their businesses and buildings can feel a bit staged, like a game we are all playing. I am aware that few—if any—of them see it that way, so I’m careful about what I say. The truth is, though, that I’ve always had a rather loose hold on reality, feeling more at home in a world of fantasy and imagination than in the hyper-competitive, fast-paced, dog-eat-dog world out there.

This may account for my proficiency at writing proposals and designing buildings. I can cast forward and imagine the shining whole, complete and beautiful. It’s the in-between stages that are more of a slog, with their constraints of budgets and code officials and physics. Slogging is what I was taught—what we were all taught—about turning ideas into reality. In recent years, I’ve been encountering and learning about other ways to do it, ways that reach me on an intuitive level but that mostly elude me on a practical level. These are ancient ways of relating to the world and tapping our human faculties that we moderns can learn even today. Continue reading

The Muse is my client: thoughts on writing and architecture

Labrouste_composite

“Acknowledging that the first draft is the equivalent of a sculptor going down to the quarry to buy a big slab of marble, or a mason buying a skid of bricks and 100 pounds of mortar is a very difficult thing to do.” ~ Shawn Coyne

It takes longer to write a novel than to design and build a good-sized building. Something like a church might take three or four years, start to finish. Apartments or a university classroom building maybe two-and-a-half. A house is more like a novella in size, but can take just as long, depending on complexity and how decisive or demanding the client is. A kitchen addition is a short story. It can be done in eight or ten months, give or take.

What is the use of writing a book? A building shelters thousands of people for decades, if not generations. It touches lives. It affects people. Even a bad building—say, a Target or a WalMart—serves a useful purpose. The literary equivalent might be a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is maybe why you see racks of them at stores like that. A few great buildings rise above, delighting us with their artfulness and lasting for hundreds of years. These are lovingly restored from time to time, and contain deep cultural, social and political histories. Continue reading

On knowing, despair, unknowing, joy and the wisdom of the body

1999_2.27_Boats_620w

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

~ Mary Oliver, from “Mysteries, Yes

I am a recovering expert. For many years, I was paid to have answers: to advise clients on the best approach for their project; integrate the work of structural, mechanical and civil engineers; and design details that keep the weather out while looking great, costing little and lasting years with no maintenance. In short, I had to know how to juggle a staggering number of variables, get along with others, and tolerate a high potential for disappointment or even failure. It was stressful.

During his recent online course, “The Space Between Stories,” Charles Eisenstein made the observation that thinking you know anything is a prerequisite for despair. He illustrated with a recognizable litany of things we know: We know the world is doomed because of climate change, species extinction, human trafficking, genocide. We also know how things work and what’s possible, so we know it’s not possible to fix any of this. We’ve tried. Consequently, we know we’re doomed. Continue reading

Jumping out of a moving car is ill-advised, but I did it anyway

1987_8.1_Piazza-Armerina_620w

I am not by nature a patient person. Back when I was working with organizations to design and launch sustainability initiatives, we had a metaphor that I liked very much. I borrowed it from one of the early thought leaders of green architecture, William McDonough. He was fond of pointing out that a fundamental problem with sustainable design as defined and implemented is that so much of it was about “being less bad.” He would say, if you’re driving to Canada at 70 miles an hour and you realize you really need to be going to Mexico, you won’t get there by driving to Canada more slowly. You have to turn the car around.

I’m all about turning the car around. Why use all this energy when technology and craft exist to cut our energy use in buildings by 70% right now, today? Yet, clients seemed always to be dragging their feet, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. One day, when I was voicing my frustration with how long all this change stuff was taking, my colleague accused me of wanting to bail out of the car altogether, while it’s still going 50 mph. And he was right! Continue reading

Living with the messy realities of both/and

2014_7.3_620w

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” ~ Charles Dickens

This opening to A Tale of Two Cities is a perfect encapsulation of how reality feels to me these days, and I am aware that many of us are living with the strangeness of both/and. I’ve had several conversations lately to puzzle over the apparent stalling of green building in my area, even while trend graphs put out by the U.S. Green Building Council look rosy as ever. I wouldn’t go so far as to lament that it was a fad that’s now fizzling, but I am curious about what feels like a slowdown, if not a general lack of interest, as compared with most of the 2000’s. Here’s a story that is not atypical. Continue reading

Perfection is the enemy of the fun

1991_Dennis-beach_620w

I am a recovering perfectionist. I thought I had cleansed myself by adopting the mantra, “it’s good enough,” but a recent dream showed otherwise. My perfectionism has gone underground, migrating from my daytime personality into a shadowland, though not only to sabotage my happiness. This re-revealing of an old truth encourages a new assessment of the ways that perfectionism works in my life, for good and ill.

Yesterday I went to a meeting of a group of design professionals and experts about alternative water treatment and stormwater system design, in the context of a new green building framework called the Living Building Challenge. It’s a deeper, more holistic and ambitious program than the LEED Green Building Rating System you may have heard of. Continue reading

The love song of head, heart and hands

2014_8.26_620w

At my son’s grade school, there was a conscious engagement of head, heart and hands. Using them together requires a dynamic balance between intuition, reason, and action. These tools of the body enable us to interact with and make our mark on the world.

In a balanced person, the heart and hands have an equal role to play, not only to implement plans that the head comes up with, but in deciding what to do in the world and how to do it. Continue reading

How can you balance an elephant on a seesaw with a mouse, and why even try?

2008_6.30_620w

My entry into the world of sustainable design came out of an Earth Day talk by the architect William McDonough. For a long time, my why was a reaction against bad news: oil-coated ducks; mountains of trash in landfills; coal mines that leveled living mountains and shoved them into pristine river valleys; climate change; “Cancer Alley,” where they make PVC, a known carcinogen that’s in countless building materials.

I thought, we’ve got to turn this thing around, and we are smart enough: we have the know-how and technology to do it. In my lectures, after pictures of the bad news, I would show a diagram of a circle drawn with arrows, depicting closed loops by recycling materials. I would show case studies of buildings designed to use very little energy, heated and powered by the sun, sheltered by the constant temperature of the earth, roofed with gardens that birds could call home. Continue reading