Civilization needs a new operating system

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One of my heroes is the writer, speaker, businessman, and sustainability activist, Paul Hawken. I first saw him speak over twenty years ago; a talk that it would be no exaggeration to say changed my life. For one thing, he closed with a Rumi poem that, in that moment, felt like it had been written for me.

He brings a rare mix of realism about how our civilization is wrecking our only home, this planet, and hope that we can turn things around: Continue reading

Perfection is the enemy of the fun

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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

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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

Nostalgia is my body’s cry of longing

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In my master’s thesis, I wrote about two properties of the materials we build with: denotative and connotative. Mostly, we think of building materials as themselves – a brick is a brick, a steel beam is a steel beam. But I discovered another, subtler quality – what the material connotes, the assorted cultural values and meanings that are assigned to it.

What I didn’t know at the time – and have been discovering lately – is this is just the tip of the iceberg, the human story about that material. In reality, everything is animate, even bricks and steel beams, and certainly the trees and ore and fire from which they are made. Materials awaken something within us, because our senses reach out to and are seen and touched by them, in ongoing but unacknowledged communication. Continue reading

In praise of maintenance

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A common refrain for clients over the years has been to ask for a “maintenance free” building, which in their mind often meant plastic, vinyl and other space-age materials that promise immunity from aging. Yet the laws of physics (otherwise known as the conditions governing all of life on earth) make that patently absurd. As soon as any building is finished, before the paint is dry, the furniture moved in and the art hung on the walls, the process of decay begins. Certainly, some materials are more durable than others –brick versus wood, for example. But mortar and even brick break down over decades of exposure to sunlight, water and freezing temperatures.

The maintenance-free mantra is another example of our futile attempts to master the forces of eternity. Continue reading

The poetry of thresholds

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Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins has quipped that poetry will continue until everything has been compared to everything else. I like to play with that in design and writing, to bring in something seemingly unrelated and let it illuminate a previously invisible aspect of the subject. It’s one of the joys of collaborating with other people – their contributions always open a door into new possibilities.

Comparison reveals hidden connections. The poet Pablo Neruda’s view of art has been described as coming out of a longing for mutuality. Isn’t that what poets do so well? Rilke asks a knight to tell us how, by remaining armored, we miss out on the beauties and joys of the world. Or he erects a bridge to give us a way to move between contrasting (possibly warring) aspects of ourselves, especially to try out our little-used qualities. Continue reading

Are we really rewriting the OS?

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Last week, a tech entrepreneur announced the OS Fund, offering $100 million of his own money to the best and brightest startups that want to change the world by designing a better future. Sounds exciting, right? Their manifesto says it straight:

“In order to affect real change for humanity at a global scale, we need to think and operate on a fundamental level: the operating system.”

Yes, I thought, he’s onto something. It’s another way of saying we need a new story. This is a compelling perspective:

“Historically, germ theory, American democracy and the Internet rewrote the operating systems of healthcare, governance and our societal infrastructure.”

Can’t argue with that. As I read further, though, I realized this wasn’t about a new OS at all. It’s about fancy new software. An arms race of software, like those fat seats and giant cupholders in American cars. Continue reading

Rediscovering the gift

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“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” ~ Albert Einstein

As an off the scale intuitive on the Meyers-Briggs chart, I can relate to this. I frequently act on feelings or ideas that draw me out ahead of my ability to explain them to others. In practicing and teaching architecture, I learned that it’s a good discipline to be able to toggle between the two.

Intuition is a wellspring of creativity. When designing a building, I would sometimes get into a trance-like state and just let the ideas keep coming. Continue reading

Growth, surprises and remodeling

Toby-plant_smThis is a drawing my son made in third grade. He has a cameo later in this piece.

Frank Lloyd Wright said the architect’s best tools are the eraser in the drafting room and the sledgehammer in the field. The process of designing and creating something from scratch is a source of endless fascination to me. No matter the medium, there’s a long tradition of craft – the rules, structures, guidelines, and accepted practices to get someone from an idea to a finished product. This applies to everything: cooking, making pottery, and writing included. In every medium, there are always the outliers who push the boundaries and take it to a whole new level. The best of these have a deep knowledge of the rules, though; they aren’t breaking them out of ignorance, but by choice. Continue reading

Shedding Water

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Learning architecture properly takes years, decades really. Architecture students are notoriously dedicated to their design studios and lackluster about all other subjects, including what was called in my day, “Tech,” but is now “Building Science,” the study of the physical realities of buildings. Tech Professors were always the geekiest and most boring people, wash-ups from related professions like mechanical equipment sales. Stupid from all nighters in the design studio, we weathered their classes in a sleep-deprived haze. We pried our eyelids open in cavernous basement classrooms to view forensic slides of rotted insulation and rusting metal structures, failures that could have been avoided with better window flashing.

Jim Tuley, my graduate school detailing professor, changed all that. He approached detailing – the intricate thinking-through of how a building is put together – with the focus of a Zen monk and the casual profanity of a 1960s Malibu surfer. Continue reading