Ova Gray

What Building Wants


It’s very difficult to describe what makes the built-world feel natural, and impossible to quantify. Those who have done it most artfully have even called it “the quality without a name.”1 It is a combination of spiritual and ephemeral qualities, as well as aesthetic and functional. It is about the way a space is used, how it is constructed and deconstructed. It is about the space’s ability to evolve according to its surrounding environment. The space in question can be a building, a park, a courtyard, or a playground. As designers, builders, and inhabiters of the constructed world, we seek to achieve a quality in our spaces that evokes a sense of truth. A moment of enlightenment described by author Annie Dillard as seeing “the tree with lights in it,” when you see an object not for what it is defined by but rather for what it appears to be in that moment, composed of shapes and fleeting images. Robert Irwin describes this quality with the assertion, “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” He is describing a moment of enlightenment and clarity that can be evoked through a well-designed space.

Part of the quality we seek to achieve in building is functional—for it to feel safe and secure, to feel like it will last as long as you need it to. Part of it is spiritual—for it to make you feel peaceful and comfortable. We want building to feel alive—to evolve with time and changes in its environment.In an effort to define this “nameless” quality—I ask the reader to concede that it exists, that there is a character that makes certain spaces feel alive, beautiful, versatile, and timeless--I will explore a few of my experiences and observations about building. We need a better picture of what makes a healthy, natural, functional, and beautiful constructed world.

Part of the difficulty in honing in on this mystical character of well-designed spaces is what we mean by ’natural’. In one way, for something to feel ’natural’ is for it to feel intuitive and easy—in the way that someone might be ’a natural’ at playing the guitar. Another way of using the term is to refer to ’nature’ in the Thoreau-ian sense, trees, rivers, and rocks (as opposed to skyscrapers and shopping malls) The inconsistency in the two definitions is a result of the contrast implied in the latter, that nature is something separate from humans, which makes it very difficult for the human-centered built environment to 'feel natural’. In concert with many other environmental thinkers, I argue that a space that feels natural can be achieved through integration with its environment. The best constructed space is the one most in harmony with the myriad other elements that make up the space: its surrounding environment, the materials with which it is constructed, and the ecologies and communities that inhabit it. The way to achieve this harmony is through first recognizing that there is a chorus of voices to be heard in the process of design—from the animate environment in which one builds to the inanimate materials with which one builds. After recognizing the agency of nonhuman elements in the built-world, one begins to understand them through observation and attention to their patterns. By factoring these patterns into the design and building process, one can achieve a constructed space that isn’t simply based on the dictations of the human elements that control the design, but rather is based on the many human and nonhuman voices that make up the environment with which the constructed space will integrate. The two definitions of ’natural’ are not so far removed from one another if we can imagine that nature is what drives intuition—the force behind the chorus of voices in the animate and inanimate environment, of which humans (along with everything else) are included.

My goal here is to tell of the minute decisions and situations that employ this philosophy, as I have experienced them, and to explore a few examples of built space that epitomize the quality we wish to achieve. These small moments of decision-making arise throughout the process of design and building. They are opportunities to employ the grand-scale building philosophy described above. The intuitive, holistic quality of integrated spaces is not necessarily achieved through all-organic building materials or through government-sanctioned green building standards. It doesn’t need to be innovative,expensive, or popular. It is an approach and a sensibility that has existed in craftsmanship for hundreds of years.

My boss’s name is Dave. Dave has been a carpenter for more than half of a century, and he has this addictive building vocabulary--phrases that he uses to both give me a direction while also alluding to the intuitive and nuanced nature of what I’m trying to accomplish. When I’m determining a close cut on the table saw the answer is almost always, “sneak up on it.” As if there’s this highly elusive animal I’m trying to approach that is going to bolt the moment it realizes I’m trying to capture it. He talks about planning out the sequence of cuts on a project as “the choreography of cutting,” and he really views building as a carefully performed dance. Of all of his delicate descriptions, the way he explains working with wood I find most poetic. “A tree is like a person, it has pressures and stresses that depend on its structure and when that structure is gone, who knows what will happen.” The wood, in Dave’s mind, is suffering from all the complexities of life in the same way that humans do. As the tree grows, tensions build and become intertwined; and when you cut and mill the tree, you release those tensions and habits change--sometimes violently and sometimes slowly. The wood, though no longer alive in the sense that it was when it was a tree, doesn’t cease to become an agent in its own courses of action. It changes based on environmental conditions of its storage, its use, stresses it underwent 25 years prior. A good woodworker tries to predict what the responses to these conditions might be, and correct for them, but doesn’t begin to think that they can prevent them.

Perhaps my favorite Dave-ism is his habit of describing a certain condition of objects being constructed as “wanting” to be arranged in a particular way. A door “wants” to hang a quarter inch out from the jamb, the siding and joist skirt ”want” to sit in the same plane. Sometimes he employs this description to show how a condition needs to be constructed, and sometimes he’s explaining what we have to correct for. Dave’s approach toward his craft is that there is a certain diplomacy about building, that it’s about finding the balance between what we want and what the material we’re building wants. And though it isn’t attached to any particular design system or popular green-building prescription, it is a deeply holistic view of the constructed world. It holds that the materials we use have a certain amount of agency, and that it is possible to understand their actions if you observe carefully. If a building element or a certain material “wants” to be used in a certain way, it is implies that there is something more natural and intuitive about that arrangement. This understanding sees and accepts the chaos and organic patterns of nature while reconciling those patterns to the square geometry of building. Beyond seeing and accepting them, we can even understand, harness, and utilize those patterns for an integrative built environment.

There are many other “wants” that one has to be present and aware enough to hear in the process of constructing the built-world. There are the live ones, the ecology of the space in which we build and how our addition fits (or doesn’t) into the landscape. Not all human-engineered construction is an imposition on nature. It’s possible to create mutually beneficial spaces for wildlife and human civilization, but only if one can first recognize “the autonomy of nonhuman nature”2. Environmental elements have their own actions and reactions and habits to work with or against. Most pressing of the ecological considerations necessary for integrated design are climate, weather, and terrain. It’s not hard to imagine why floodplains and stormwater run-off are crucial considerations in urban planning, but on a different scale, so is the snow load on the roof of a single house. Builders in Vermont are painfully aware of the 60 Lbs per linear foot that is the recommended dead weight for the roof or deck of a proposed building. Roofs with a shallow pitch “want” to cave in. This is the autonomy of nonhuman nature as it reacts to the decisions of designers and builders.

In addition to recognizing that there are “wants” of nonhuman nature, it is necessary to understand those wants. The most effective way to understand the voices of nonhuman nature is to learn its patterns through observation and awareness. Climate patterns, migration patterns, watershed flows, wind currents: while these elements can not be predicted, they can all be understood, mapped, and accounted for in design. They can be experimented with and tested. Ecological engineer and artist Natalie Jerimijenko has done a number of projects that explore the agency of elements in our environment that aren’t humans. In her bird habitat project, she describes setting up a grid on a rooftop in New York City and filling it with various types of bird habitat, “to see what kind of habitat the birds prefer.” Jerimijenko is not only intentionally creating an environment for non-human inhabitants within a human system (the rooftop of a building), but one that assumes the right of the birds to choose what they want. By testing the birds’ preferences, she is able to better understand what kind of human-constructed environment would achieve the most mutual benefit.

They same is true for the habits of building materials. Timber framing is a method of building that relies on using timbers (dimensionally larger than traditional lumber) and wooden joinery (mortises, tenons, and pegs) to connect different posts, beams, rafters, and other building elements, as opposed to conventional building techniques that rely on fasteners (nails and screws). It is a traditional form of building used to build very large, very long-lasting structures that was primarily relied upon in the 19th and early 20th century to build barns, churches, and homes. Timber-framed buildings are excellent examples of holistic design in both their form and function. Where each joint is made on a timber, a sacrifice is made in the strength of that piece in order to carry its partner. The entire design is a balance of these give-and-takes. The strength of each timber is accounted for by its type and grade of wood, so attention to the materials is crucial. Because of the large size of the timbers, less energy is required to process them (as opposed to dimensional lumber), so the wood maintains more of the properties it held as a tree. There is also a participatory quality—the timbers, once joined, must be raised with a pretty sizable collective strength, traditionally by a number of people in a surrounding community who gather for a “barn raising.” Its continuing relevance as a way to build safe, long-lasting, and beautiful structures is indicative of what is achieved by environmentally integrated buildings.

In timber framing, the joints that connect different pieces are held together with wooden pegs. Conventionally, these pegs are industrially manufactured as turned pieces of a desired dimension. However, it is also possible to make the pegs by hand using a drawknife, or even by turning them individually. The benefit of making a peg individually is that with each piece of wood, one can form a peg according to the grain of the wood. A drastically bent peg that stays true to the grain will still be stronger than a straight peg that cuts away at the grain. The integrity of the structure one seeks to build relies on the integrity of the peg, and thus ability of the builder to know the desire of the grain to remain consistent. In order for the wood to best perform its function, the builder must recognize the grain, understand its pattern, and utilize that knowledge.

In a way, the builder must be able to “hear” that voice. Any woodworker becomes acutely aware of the boundless potential of power tools to impose their will on a piece of wood. Table saws, routers, and jointers ruthlessly shave off material in an effort to make a bundle of straws (an oft-used metaphor for wood) a square, flat-sided object. While these tools can be utilized to achieve incredible feats with building materials, they can also literally and figuratively drown out the voices of the very materials we depend on. A lathe, used for turning wood into cylinder-like objects, can be very efficiently used to turn a piece of wood into a peg. However it must be engineered such that the operator is adjusting the piece to remain true to the grain, rather than cutting away arbitrarily to the desired size. The same is true for cutting through knots, or straightening bowed boards—tools can effectively be used with proper attention to the wants of wood itself. When that voice is ignored, tables can shrink, joints don’t fit, or worse—the irregularity and agency of the wood causes houses to crumble or tools to maim their operators. Shop tools harness the extreme power of centrifugal force to accomplish difficult tasks very quickly and accurately, which is actually an example of utilizing one of nature’s most powerful patterns. But like all technology, they too have a voice to some extent—and a balance between the power of the tool and its operator must be struck.

Once we learn and understand the patterns that make up the voices of nonhuman nature, factoring them into the design is no easy task. The “chorus of voices” that I described earlier in the essay are in reality more like a cacophony, with dissident voices and contradictory wants. With the chaotic input of nature and humans alike, it is impossible to create what would be, in the design philosophy we’re working with, a ’perfect’ constructed space. That said, certain constructed spaces I’ve experienced achieve a high level of environmental integration. One purpose of a treehouse, for example, is to bring humans into a realm that they don’t normally inhabit--to give them a perspective of the ecologies that exist in the trees. The function of the treehouse, as well as its aesthetic and structure, is integrated with its surrounding environment. Tree-like in their construction, the structure of tree houses relies on the strength of the trees to which they are attached as posts. The building depends on its ability to be constructed without damaging its supports. It uses the tree in a way that it has literally grown to be used—for its strength, rigidity, and height. The tree, alive and dynamic, enters a phase of its life in which it is harboring a totally different kind of ecosystem, and we as humans experience a new perspective on the local environment--one from 30 feet above ground and in the leaves.

The practice of hearing, understanding, and factoring in the many voices involved in the built-world is a kind of ecological democracy. With ecological democracy as a principle, the best design eloquently strikes the balance between the desires of its users. These spaces have a ring to them,like when two strings of a guitar are perfectly in tune.They resonate. You can feel when you walk into a space that has struck that balance. It’s not that it’s perfectly without flaws--but that its flaws are managed by the life of the place, by what happens inside of it and how it changes. Implied in this principle is some kind of a commentary on conventional building, and maybe even a warning for ignoring the voices of nonhuman nature in design. The grand-scale consequences for ignoring climate patterns and environmental changes are well-documented through a mind-numbing plethora of natural disasters. It’s true that ignoring the desires of building materials and local ecologies is less catastrophic. A poorly built elementary school doesn’t “feel” as good: It isn’t particularly healthy, it seems more like a prison to its youth than a place of inspiration and learning, or at worst the floor joists rot from trapped moisture and have to be replaced. But these small decisions, the everyday constructed spaces, aren’t these spaces where we have the most say in our relationship to nature?

There is a treehouse at the school where I work. It is circular, with a wheelchair accessible ramp leading to it from a hill behind. It has a hammock and some wooden furniture built by teenagers in a class. From the space between its shingled roof and the curvilinear waist-high wall around the perimeter you can see mountains peppered with October’s gold and orange. The first night of my job at the school I slept on the floor of the treehouse and awoke to the morning glow with myriad emotions of peace, hopefulness, ambition, contentment, and goodwill. I felt acutely aware of the sounds of the trees swaying around me, the sound of the highway in the distance, the feeling of all the people before me who had come to that place for morning yoga, for a morning cry, for a morning phone call or guitar practice. I felt the presence of every squirrel that strayed there, birds that had nested there. I sensed that many important moments would occur there--my first bonding moment with a fellow coworker, and a tearful goodbye with a friend. I saw the signs of evolution and growth in the space, one of the trees dead, its bark stripped, another of the three having already outgrown in 13 years the hole that was left for it in the floor and in the roof. This structure will not last forever, it may not even last the winter. Its floor joists are rotting from the moisture transmitted by the tree growing around them. The dead tree will eventually cease its ability to support the structure as it hollows out and is overtaken with forest fungi which will spread to the structure. But the treehouse will live on--everything that happened in will continue to exist. It will take on a new shape, harbor new homes and have new functions.

There’s no way to quantify why the treehouse feels so good, what makes it a good building. It simply feels natural. It’s ephemeral and chaotic, integrated and whole. It’s the truth we, as designers of the built world, should seek.

1 Alexander, Christopher, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction

2 Cronon, William; “The Trouble With Wilderness; Or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”

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