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August 5, 2016

Architects deal with gravity first. If the design in mind won’t stand without freaky expense, it’s just not viable. If the design is not thought thru, and the building is simply unstable it’s a hazard, not a refuge.

Buildings are built as protection first, all other aspects come after that benchmark. Job One is providing safe harbor in a world fraught with dangers – weather and human. Families are also about protection, so where families live is a doubly sensitive reality. Homes protect what needs protection most: the love and care for our intimates.

As an architect it would be a lot easier to design homes if nothing changed. But families age-out children. A baby is born. A job moves home. But functional accommodation has relatively simple answers for any building. The first design criterion for a building to be modified is that it is stable to start with.

With 21st century engineering humans can pretty much build anything anywhere with stability: but it often takes huge resources, and the right structural design. In San Fransisco the design of a very large expensive building, the 58 story Millenium Tower, saved money by not extending its supporting piers to bedrock, and having a large underground transportation hub built next door, the building has sunk 16 inches in less than 10 years and tilts a bit.

But humans are the essence of adapting to survive: so our buildings reflect that. The little house you see at the top of this piece was built in 1935 on the east shore of Lake Chaplain, a huge body of water carved into rock by natural force. Humans may adapt, but we are also prisoners of our specific perspectives: when this house was built, it was on solid rock.

Since the last ice age ended, the east edge of Lake Champlain – a sedimentary stone coming close to slate – has eroded by water (flowing and freezing), tree roots growing between laminations and the actions of humans. But when a member of the family that owned the cottage’s site set to build a 500 square foot studio on the edge of the rock ledge 20 ft above the water it seemed like a great idea. Building on stone with an incredible view.

But soon after its 1935 construction some of that rock began to subside to the lake below – to the extent that when invited to a party a few years later the building family member would not venture to the lakeside of his little construction. “I know what’s under there” he said of the living room extension, now held up on posts over the water.

Building on anything, sand, stone, values does not mean much if those things change under you. Growing up in the most traditional nuclear family imaginable, it was a breaking shock to see its foundation simply vanish as the drinking life of my father, so joyous in the 1930’s became so desperately unhappy in the 1950’s.

The cottage you see in the picture has had several underside restructurings, and over the last 21 years I have inspected those: I can warrant nothing has moved – the rock, for now, seems stable. But that cannot last.

There will be a time when support will fail, despite all good accommodations, and the little house, and it’s exquisite stone mantle fraught with shells and sacred bits of memory applied by its first occupant in 1935 will either be moved or removed…

The stability of anything relies on its support: airplanes use the zillions of molecules in the atmosphere for that: when constant in their orientation those molecules allow for a smooth flight, when moving too much those molecules create “turbulence” – just like stormy seas for a boat or eroding rock under a little cottage at the edge of a lake.

Foundations moving do not matter much when on flat land, but building at the edge of a even a small precipice means that any movement, any instability, any lack of sport can be disastrous.

So our little cottage we visit once a year has radical care and attention that the other 70 little structures on the site do not need to stay stable. In the places of fragility care must be taken. Designing and renovating buildings, the resolution of gravity is primary: in the creation and care of relationships stability needs to be fundamental, or doubts are legitimized.

Instability is a fearful thing, in buildings, in cultures and in the people who create both. A crazy election makes for instability in the out years, causing fear and making people look for buttresses for their views and values.

Erosion is not limited to the shores of Lake Champlain. At 6 I knew my life had no foundation as my parents were in a free fall of coping, buttressing the breakage they caused, making no safe support for their children or each other. The results in my life, and thus my family’s, are the belt-and-suspenders overkill applied to any future possible instability.

We have perhaps created a presumption of support in our children akin to that of the Millenum Tower. My children rightly assume their parents’ constancy and support. But it is only so ardent and extreme because we had so little of it ourselves growing up.

When things went south in my childhood it was scary, but not unfamiliar: what is known becomes normal – just like the struts holding up our little cottage are invisible when you are inside it, all is well in a family until you can get some perspective and see the extremities needed to support a dangerous instability.

There are no cracks in our cottage’s sheetrock walls and ceilings – I look for them every year with keen attention – just as I look at my children’s lives – looking for signs of danger.

So far, so good.

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