Building With Heart

"The search which we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search for any person, and the crux of any individual person's story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive."
—Christopher Alexander, "The Timeless Way of Building"

See "Further Reading," below, for titles and authors

As I mentioned in a previous post, we're in the process of looking for land to buy, with the ultimate goal of building a home of our own. It's a goal that I know is shared by not a few folks on Lopez, many of whom will recognize at least some of the books in the photo above.

Those books are full of images & concepts that represent an ancient lineage of vernacular building and the modern interpretations of these traditional forms of shelter. It's a rich history, but for us living here now, that history might as well have never happened: for each and every building portrayed in these books would be illegal to build in San Juan County today.


To build one's own shelter... such an ancient impulse. I have been thinking about this idea for most of my life: as soon as I figured out that things could be built, I started building. My Dad was supportive—he taught me how to use and care for hand tools and let me rummage through the scrap lumber pile—but he wasn't indulgent, so if there wasn't something useful in the scrap pile I didn't have it to build with.

I remember a few early projects:

—The adobe cabin, which got about 8 inches high before I realized how much work it is to make your own mud bricks;

—The A-frame cabin, which got a bit drafty since I only had enough wood for one wall, the other being Dad's brush-hauling tarp, which was regularly commandeered for its intended purpose;

—And my masterwork, an ambitious elevated platform between two magnificent 80' tall redwood trees, the top of one which also happened to be my primary perch for surveying the neighborhood.

I grew up in Menlo Park, California and at a tender age discovered the Whole Earth Truck Store, a trove of books and tools for the budding back-to-the-land movement. It's possible that it was here that I first encountered the book Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher's Art. (It was published in 1973, when I was 13.) Whatever the origin, that book immediately catapulted my imagination into new realms of strange and wonderful spaces. I realized that grown-ups were doing what I wanted to do: to build from the inner eye.

In the summer of 1977 my high school best friend's parents were having a new house built: an ambitious, earth-sheltered passive solar house perched on a high, west-facing ridge of the Coast Range. It was being constructed by the design-build team calling themselves Jersey Devil. It turned out to be a perfect place for us to escape the parental units' supervision, and we hung out at the site as much as we could that summer. It was my first real experience with the kind of organic, free-thinking and boundary-shattering approach to building that I had encountered in the Woodbutcher's Art. I was hooked.

Unfortunately for me, the timing wasn't ideal. In 1977 the design-build philosophy was seen as kooky and fringe-y. No design school was teaching it; architecture programs wouldn't even admit that "design-build" existed. One was either a carpenter, or one was an Architect, and never the twain shall meet. (And oh yes, both carpenter and Architect were universally male...) My parents, understandably, didn't see any point in my interest in a non-existent career path.

After some educational fits and starts, I found myself at The Evergreen State College in 1983. In the spring of 1984 I took an Environmental Design course and was introduced to Christopher Alexander's seminal works, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language. Alexander sought to describe and codify those intangible elements that, taken all together, create the feeling of "aliveness" that we feel in a building, or in the spaces between buildings.

 From Christopher Alexander's "The Timeless Way of Building"

From Christopher Alexander's "The Timeless Way of Building"

It seems to me that a building or space that we experience as vital and alive is one that has come to that condition either through fortunate age, or through the hands of loving and imaginative builders. When we see cookie-cutter, ticky-tacky, hostile, or sterile buildings we instinctively understand that they feel that way because they have no heart.

"Part of our troubles results from the tendency to ascribe to architects—or, for that matter, to all specialists—exceptional insight into problems of living when, in truth, most of them are concerned with problems of business and prestige."
—Bernard Rudofsky, "Architecture Without Architects"

Architects and contractors must concern themselves with budgets, permits, and the expectations of their clients and their peers. In vernacular architecture, as with the homegrown, the aspirations of the space are more intimate and human-scale: a space for a family or for art, for conviviality and sustenance. In the days when a land could still be found cheap, an individual or a family could slowly put together shelter as time and money allowed, and that space could grow and evolve with the needs and resources of its inhabitants. Nowadays the building must be planned completely in advance: plans must be stamped and submitted, filed and adhered to, until, at long last the grace of one's "final" is bestowed and the inhabitants can legally dwell therein.

Nowhere in this process is there room for spontaneity, or inspiration gained from working on the site and learning new ways that the building might marry its ground: new aspects that may present themselves only after weeks—or seasons—on the land.

Is it possible nowadays on Lopez Island, within the strict confines of building codes and limited budgets, for one to build a home that has heart? It doesn't, on the surface, seem so... but I would nonetheless like to purse the idea, and dream of a building that honors those craftsmen and women who have built here before me, and that pays homage to the ancient traditions that inspired them.

Finally, a special treat for you: the building of an marvelous wooden house (made mostly with hand tools) by Jacob, a young Latvian craftsman and founder of John Neeman Tools:


Further Reading

(This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a stepping-off point...)

Architecture Without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky
The Natural House by Frank Lloyd Wright
Shelter by Lloyd Kahn
Builders of the Pacific Coast by Lloyd Kahn
Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art by Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro
Greene and Greene Masterworks by Bruce Smith and Alexander Vertikoff
Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design by Richard Olsen
The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander
A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing