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


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

Nostalgia is my body’s cry of longing


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

Releasing environmental hope


Driving away from a coffee meeting a couple of years ago, I was suddenly flooded with longing to go back and shake sense into the young woman architect I had just met. Her question to me, a local advocate of sustainability, was innocent enough: “How can I plug into this movement more effectively?” In a burst of empathic knowing, I was this woman, twenty years earlier, talented and hopeful and full of ambition and possibility.

I thought it was the work in her graduate portfolio, her obvious delight in ideas that had pushed me over the edge. The tangibility of hand and eye and imagination, of drawings and models, sculpture and paintings employed to make artifacts of meaning and beauty. Art for art’s sake.

She could spend a happy lifetime doing work like that and instead was about to leave it all behind by stepping into the fast-moving water of environmental hope. Continue reading

Rediscovering the gift


“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

2013_8.23_Maine view_crop

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