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What’s beneath us reveals us.
Going thru this year’s “Worst Winter In History”‘ New England has gone well over a month without a full thaw. A day or 2 of above freezing for some hours here and there, but between, unrelenting, deep, single digit (sometimes with a “-“) temps.
The subsoil in New England has been churned, scraped, dropped and composted by a glacial occupation that invaded, stopped, and melted – leaving a few thousand miles of Canada scattered over bedrock. The soils are magnificently inconsistent, making building any foundation an adventure.
So when the ground’s water is both trapped and frozen, and that freezing descends from the surface, down, down, down to the 3ft depth of water-soaked soil that is more insulation than transmission of the bitter cold, the hidden water that becomes ice that is entrained throughout the sand, clay, loam, peat, and organics that make of the Mulligan Stew of New England Subsoil violently grows as that ice takes up more space than the water that was there before freezing.
Parts some subsoils contain more water that becomes ice (organic material, clay) grow and push up like Topsy: but others, sand and gravel let water flow through them before freezing and stay about where they were.
Frost Heaves Happen.
What was invisible makes our cars bang, buck and brake. We trip over them. Some things literally pop out of the ground, and some poorly design foundations crack and fail.
It took a special condition of stress to reveal what was completely unseen and always there. Engineers try everything to dewater subsoil into safety, but humans inevitably fail.
Those failures to design away reality, to compensate for potentialities, to remove history from impacting what we have built are not limited to frost heaves.
My failures, old and new, are heaved into view every day, often at night where the dreams of broken lives and feared outcomes push up through the sound stable sleep.
Sometimes I am not exhausted enough to sleep through them, even while awake.
But Lent gives me a place to deal with them, a little.
Reality heaves up when stress becomes undeniable.
Cause and effect does not equal change.
When the Mad Men metronome of Mid-Century norms allowed the Greatest Generation to heal after the world ruptured a second time in 20 years it wrecked my parents’ lives.
Contrary to the bliss of the American Dream of suburban calm and shared cultural values, my parents bliss was going to jazz clubs in Harlem in the 1930’s: But the Post War world told them, in their 30’s, it was time to move out of their very cool apartment on East 10th St., move to Westchester and have kids.
The cause of cultural healing after being ripped apart by overwhelming war compelled them to flow with their fellow post-warriors to a place they knew was “right”, but was not what they wanted.
Change happened, but it did not change them, it only changed what they did: 2 hours on the train every day for my father, 15 years of young children for my mother and a second half of life spent remembering the first half, and wishing they were there.
They were not victims. Moving to the ‘burbs and birthing was not a sentence, it was a choice. But it was a choice without much thought. Not thinking much about what to have for dinner may give you indigestion, but not much thought about how to spend the last 40 years of your life can wreck it.
So even though the counter cultural 1960’s were actually more akin to their values in the 1930’s, they were outraged, angered and defensive that the world that they had built was being disassembled.
They had no tools for retrospection: their parents had survived by following well worn paths of coping. Even though my parents had rejected following in their parents’ footsteps and stepped out into Jazz Age NYC, when another generation decided to do the same thing 30 years later, they had no sense of the comparables.
Lent can give a whiff of the comparables.
It’s not change that wrecks things, its not changing with it.
Humans tend to desire what is not possible.
The rarer the beauty, the more its impossible possession becomes central to our outlook. A prom date, THE best school, a job that transforms your life (and let’s you buy the Perfect Car) – “hunger is the best sauce” and the more elusive something is, the more we seem to want it.
But some of us got the date, the school, the job and the car. None of us get the one thing everyone wants and is not in the Rules of the Game: predictability.
No 2 days have the same length, weather is a humbling wild card, our kids can grow up to be strangers, we get sick.
Some have even more extreme inconsistencies: a spouse you love comes to hate you. A child dies. They cancel Star Trek.
We use tricks to accept the overwhelming presence of randomness in our lives: horoscopes, numerology, scriptural interpretation, political extremism – all create a hard edged matrix to understand our incapacity to understand.
We create the concept of “Fairness” – that there is a cosmic balance sheet that should tally out, where there are no math errors, no unknown equations, no teacher’s pet when grading happens.
Good luck with that.
It is beyond trite to say that “the only constant is change”. And incorrect. The sun comes up, people die, you feel and think.
The constant, the definitionally present consistency in each of our lives is simply us: we are seeing, hearing, feeling and reacting to these engines of inconsistency.
Lent takes that reality one step back into a quieter place of getting OK with that.
Things change, you are still there.
Brains can be glutted.
7 meetings in 7 locations in 12 hours yesterday meant my brain serially loaded up and dispensed. I had a form of “mindfulness” – just not the one venerated by New Agey Spiritualists.
I had full mindness – loading to refusal, the norm for most of us.
Humans tend to yin-yan, swing like a toggle switch between on and off, black and white. So its not surprising Monks found each other, dialed the world back, hunkered down and hunkered in to find the alternate universe to the cacophonous life we are dumped into: even a thousand years ago.
But the binary, the flip side, the either-or is, to me, a cop-out. Evil exists, as does grace: but humans do not flick a switch one way or another twixt perfect good or bad.
We evolve to states of being that push us closer to knowing where we are, or mask it in meetings, bitterness or resumes. We wallow in knowables and flow to our comfort zone in a stream of things we think we can control, or at least understand.
In my car, alone, I float to those meetings I most perfectly understood yesterday: But I know they were less important than the actual time in the car, where, like a monastery, I found refuge from a full mind. Kinda like Lent.
The easy road is distraction.
Exhaustion is not rest.
When World War 1 ended, there was a winner and a loser, but there was no peace, just a pause between war.
Those who have problematic childhoods – https://savedbydesign.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/extremity/ – tend to view life as a continuous struggle, with cessations due to failures that only simulate rest.
In this world of applied victimhood, the natural reaction to each shortcoming is that it reveals undeniable fate. The world will soon win over your efforts, defeat you, and reveal the reason for your failure: the inadequacy of you.
Unlike the vast preponderance of nature over nurture, this abiding mindset is learned behavior, at the foot of parents who, in turn, saw the crushing inevitability of disappointment as unavoidable gravitational pull.
“Live it hope: Die in despair.” Said my Grandma Summey. She meant it, because she lived it.
On most days I feel incomplete and inadequate without exhaustion. On the days I go to bed spent, I know that win or lose, I can do no more. Not peace, but the incapacity to commit failure.
If Lent is anything it’s a simulation of the peace that escapes some of us, that allows a brief window into what exhaustion simulates, but pre-empts.
I am an exhaustion junkie, but I still need rest.
Silence does not happen.
If you can hear, the quantity of sound around you can be reduced, but sound never goes to zero: to silence. Effective silence means no sound holds your attention, and I guess that’s what Lent is about (for me, anyway).
The Seattle Seahawks football team has a “12th man” – the 80,000 screaming attendees who seek to aid their team – not by cheering them on, but by thwarting the efforts of the Seahawks’ opponents with noise.
Thwarting with noise is not limited to football teams. The very vehicle of this missive, the internetswebs, is the loudest sound machine humans have created. But it is silent without an “on” switch. We opt for the “12th Man” in our lives every day: we seek the noise of affirmation, or at least think its futile to try to avoid the deafening din of a world who has not a clue you exist, and trivializes your life with every dissipation.
The Seahawks had to play the Super Bowl away from a stadium filled with 12th Men, and they lost: not because they could not distract their opponents with noise, nor were they distracted by it: a 22 year old human, who had worked for a decade to hear what he needed to by spending thousands of hours focused on what made him better, read a single step of his opponent, acted on it and won.
We live surrounded by noise: we act focused in silence.
Everyone breathes, but some of us smell the roses.
Eating is mandatory to keep breathing, but most of us want more than the Space Food Stix we thought astronauts ate to survive in space without haute cuisine.
You can live a long while just by drinking water, but brown alcohol makes drinking much more interesting.
Every human necessity has the potential for enhanced delivery systems in their satisfaction: the desire to enrich and engorge seems part of the same genetic coil that enables us to breath in a coma. Having just had the best meal in my 59 years last night, during Lent, that involved any number of hours in preparation and in doing the work that paid for its exquisite price tag, its natural to ask whether excessive consumption is morally unsupportable.
As an architect who often gets paid for designing homes, I am acutely aware that no one “needs” what I do: there are 90 million existing homes and a hundred “1,000 House Plans for $19.95″ books that make what I offer a response to “want” and not “need”. Yes, I have designed about 80 Habitat homes and about 100 other projects on a pro boom basis, but even those probably could have become reality without someone of my pretenses.
So why indulge in Lent if everything beyond breathing, drinking water and consuming Space Food Stix is indulgence?
I think its because value and meaning are deeper than absolutes: the beauty of food, flowers and brown alcohol is, for me, undeniable, even if I try to in times of guilt and getting things done. In dialing back the literal noise of Law & Order reruns while dialing up my workout to 90 minutes at Level 23 (a new high, I am told by the person who sold me the bike) in these 40 days I can see these indulgences as gifts, not earnings.
For there is nothing we have that comes only from us or for us.
Despite all distractions, or because of them, everyone wants “Me Time”.
“Me Time” seems to be a Boomer construct, created when we decided to create our Perfect Children and then nurture the living Hell out of them by micromanaging every ounce of potentiality out of their increasingly sullen bods and brains. Tiger Momming is hard work: and even though it is completely ego-driven, it is focused on someone else – and that someone else is going to HARVARD! …or not…
So lapsing back into the familiar Me Generation modality, Boomers created a naming opportunity for respite from parental overloading and dubbed it “Me Time”. Of course “Me Time” has been co-opted/evolved into use by those with similarly over focused marriages, careers or belief systems.
The idea of isolating yourself from externally focused devotions is spookily similar to Lent.
New Age-ish naming rites have made it “mindfulness” or “being present” or earlier “finding yourself” – but its far harder to be quiet and be open to something that is not you, that is much larger than you – without the screeching hype and ego investment of kids, careers and causes.
Its seems that much of my own petty place devolves into imponderables: knowing extremity is extreme and being extreme anyway – knowing flowers smell good but never noticing as you kill yourself creating a garden out of rock, or simply hearing the Still Small Voice and opting to keep on driving:
It’s not simple: and that’s the point.
All living things perceive. Single cells respond to stimulus, pigs find truffles. Women typically walked away from me in high school.
But the gross force feeding to refusal of our perception highways has catapulted into absurdity in the last generation.
In the 1980’s a smoking, sunglassed, headphone wearing woman completely wrapped in chic caught my eye on 6th avenue: a perverse combination of manipulative attention grabbing and yet layered in cloaking devices to block or screen the world she so desperately wanted to notice her. Smell, sound, sight and body were completely filled with manmade distractions. She, like most of us, desperately wanted to control the world she was forced to walk in.
The present level of technologically propelled dissipation seems to be crescendoing to the point were a chip or 2 set next to the right neurons will allows to be in the Matrix without the pod.
Watching Morning Joe on a 1990 cathode ray tube TV/VCR may not be high tech overload, but its the way I multitask when working out. Well not for the next 38 days.
What? Oh yes, I am still holding an IPad and typing. what’s the difference? I have no idea – but at least difference is different…
All living things consume.
Consumption confusion happens when “need” is blurred with “want” – and a century of Industrial Age cheap goods facilitation of “want” has rendered us irredeemably needy. But there are other “needs” besides those we engorge, own and use.
Distinct from all other life forms around us humans “need” validation, justification: purpose: a friend noted he wanted academic recognition of a mathematical formula that synthesizes disciplines: he “need”ed that despite having children, wife, career and possessions (and a full belly). It’s easy to mock “First World Problems” as the rest of the world’s problems are vastly tipped into the “need” category: unlike us in our comfy Western perch,death is close and real for most at any age.
The response to our own overfed absurdities of flailing against purposelessness – following fashion, politics, sports, pets, spirituality, food or Internet Hell to distraction is nothing new: a century ago those things were not fetishes for anyone save the 1%, but religion filled all voids of purpose: most “knew” the purpose of life: Serve God.
That simple Prime Directive has become a point of ridicule where I live as the overwhelming secular overload is stuffed down our lives with pre-emptive factoids, dissipations and legitimate struggles to avoid death and earn a living.
So Lent lingers for some as the Anti-Want Zone, the denial of dissipations, the rejection of distraction – good luck with that: these 40 days will see how I do. 90 minutes pushing off work by working out. Done.
39 to go.
As Seen in the New York Times, 12/2/2014
The outdoor chapel at Incarnation Camp in Ivoryton, CT
CEPHAS Housing 25 Years Ago in Yonkers NY
In Hartford Courant (login required): A Classic Street Ages, But Retains its Beautiful Bones
In New Haven Register: Forum: Yale, Pearl Harbor bridge projects show branding matters, money follows
In New York Times: Everything and the Kitchen Sink
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In Hartford Courant (login required): “Christmas in Connecticut” was Perfect for War-Weary 1945 American Moviegoers
In Room One Thousand: Sixty Panes of Faith
In Behind the Walls: The Not So Tiny House Movement (Part 1)
In New Haven Register: Quarantining Architecture
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Archive: Real Life Survival Guide
On Common Ground with Annette Ross: She asked “Where is Architecture?”, I answered
On HGTV: Mercedes Home Diaries Password: mercedes
On Home Page, Binnie Klein & I debut our new radio show. Listen here!
On A Miniature World, Binnie Klein & I discuss springtime striving, mislaid spirituality & the folly of architectural terms. Listen here!
Most people now assume that when they go to build anything, regulations will limit what they can build. The earliest codes were designed to address safety and health concerns in dense city environments, but once the suburbs exploded and whole towns were created in a few years, aesthetic concerns came into play when neighborhoods’ quality of life suffered from those who built too big, too close or too tall.
People in existing communities during mid-20th century American suburban sprawl came to realize that what other people built can have real impact on their property values. So new laws were created by local governments that located buildings, including houses and additions to houses.
These laws most often use measurements of area, separation from property lines and height. The area of any building is pretty straightforward to compute. How far a home sits away from its property line is just a dimension. But when the grade slopes, roofs have pitch and/or there are several peak and eave heights, the height of any building is subject to a lot of interpretation.
If you are considering building a new house or addition with more than one floor, understanding how high your roof can be before you begin designing it is a good idea.
Every town or county in the vast majority of suburban communities has its own idea of what a building’s height is. It’s not just the dimensions involved —10 feet is 10 feet anyplace in the land — but where those dimensions are taken to is the subject of extreme variation.
This house had more than 10 eave heights and 5 peak heights. The coastal town in Connecticut where the home is located used the architect’s definitions of an average of all the various roof heights to verify compliance. The cupola was not limited by the rest of the roof’s average height limitation — it had its own 50ft. max height limitation for its peak, which this example was well shy of.
The different places to measure to and from vary from town to town when it comes to figuring out how tall a home is. First the low side: the grade upon where the home is located can be an average from the highest point to the lowest point of the grade that is at or near the house. Sometimes the low point is the starting point, sometimes it’s the high point. The actual grade can be what existed before construction, or after construction.
The high point of measuring a home’s height can be the highest peak, the average of the home’s peak, and average between the eaves and the peak, and on and on.
Computing height is not only complicated it is completely subjective from town to town. Getting a variance for a height that is higher than the laws allow is very difficult because the perception of bulk of any building is greatly impacted by how tall it is, no matter how the dimension of its height is defined and calculated.
HIGH NOON – WPKN 89.5FM or http://www.wpkn.org – THURSDAY FEBRUARY 26!
This week in Home Page, Binnie Klein and Duo Dickinson dive into The Tiny House Movement. The Tiny House Movement is not a niche – although it celebrates them. If homes mirror values then many of us feel alienated by the values of the Default Home of the American Dream: a too big, too dumb, too impersonal box on a cul de sac of futility and waste.
In extreme response to suburban glut a growing number of homeowners have opted to find the other end of the spectrum. Like Henry David Thoreau, we want a place that fits snugly and contours to our values. Control seems elusive in a recession and a world gone mad with extremism – but creating and living in a Tiny House makes some feel they are conquering an impersonal world, one home at a time.
Binnie and Duo’s guest this week is Marianne Cusato a leading advocate for Tiny Houses as an option in the housing market. Cusato the designer of Cusato is the designer of the 308 s.f. Katrina Cottage design which won the Smithsonian Institute’s 2006 “People’s Design Award.” Cusato is the author of “The Just Right Home: Buying, Renting, Moving…or Just Dreaming–Find Your Perfect Match.”
Tiny Homes: perfect response to a world gone mad or self-indulgent fantasy piece? Home looks at the movement’s past, present and future – JOIN US!
For Most people, houses embody a style that is draped over the home’s exterior and applied to its interior. Many people are comfortable picking a style like an entrée off a restaurant menu, but they’re often not very familiar with what created all those styles in the first place: homeowner needs and values, the builder’s vision and expertise, the local and available materials.
There’s another strong influence that often goes unseen. Since the 1950s basic house prototypes and every other home built in or around most urban centers have been further defined and limited by a growing number of building regulations. The best designs embrace those governing regulations — as well as the desires of homeowners and the natural context — to create homes that surprise and comfort.
There are rules that every new built house must follow. These regulations shape and define many essential elements you may think came out of a designer’s imagination.
Rules and beauty are not enemies, however. Talented designers can make limitations disappear, requirements can express themselves with delightful details, and idiosyncracies of homeowners can become artful features anyone can appreciate.
If you are thinking of creating a home you love by rebuilding it, adding on to it or building it from the ground up, you will need a building permit, and in more and more places, getting that permit has an increasing number of strings attached to it. Truth be told, the most artful homes still have to follow the most artless of inspirations: codes, commissions and costs.
Every home has to follow rules; it’s just that some of them do it beautifully. Before you even put pen to napkin, building codes, zoning laws, septic engineering requirements, federal regulations for building on the coast, energy codes, wetlands regulations and even sustainability factors are also designing your home, whether you know it or not.
In the past generation, village districts, historic districts and architectural review boards have boldly gone where no regulatory body has ever gone before: into aesthetics. These outside revisionists look over your shoulder as you envision how you want to live and often provide a perspective that is not yours. So if your home is on or near water in a historic neighborhood or an urban center for example, these new labyrinths of design review and approval have been set up to protect that water — whether you think your home represents a threat to it or not.
In extreme cases, these regulations can be budget busting. My office is the design architect for the house shown here, in California; it needed 13 consultant firms (geotech, archeological, hydrological and on and on), two years of applications and hearings, and more than $600,000 in soft costs to get a building permit for a design that needed no variances. The site is set half a mile inland from the coast with no wetlands, no historic district and no architectural review board approval required.
Beyond addressing codes and rules and bureaucratic review, every single home design has requirements that have nothing to do with style. Construction cost, the particulars of how you cook, how you use your bathroom, if you can handle steps, or if your children or parents may return to the nest all fix a home’s bones before the art part invents your design.
Additionally a great tree, a dramatically beautiful or ugly view, or just road noise can challenge every “Home Sweet Home” dream you had before you found the exact place on the planet for you and your family.
“Style” is not the wallpaper glued over these inartful origins. Whether you renovate, add on or build new, the design of where you live first finds inspiration in every aspect of what your home needs to be.