Buildingin Soul

Christopher Day

Building is expensive - though not half, perhaps not one-fifth, so expensive as having something built for you. It also takes a lot of energy. But most importantly, you invest your soul in what you build, which is why self-built homes are so soul-rich to live in.

It is just this - the soul in buildings - that makes all the effort worthwhile, much more than just a cut-price roof. And self-built homes have infinitely more soul-potential than contractor-built houses. If we cannot build a house ourselves, how can we build-in soul through design and, once constructed, how do we introduce 'soul' into the way we live in buildings? But to have a self-built house or to be built-for, does this issue conflict with ecological concerns?

Buildings are substantive - what they are made of is very much part of their character. Wood, earth, brick, concrete, steel, glass or plastic buildings are totally different from each other to see, to live in, to build and in the forms their construction logically and charac-terfully demands. Their influence on microclimate, air quality, physical health and psychological state is also very different. So, very important in terms of their pollution and environmental costs, are their manufacturing biographies and how they end their life - do they return to nature or become refuse?

Buildings are primarily made of bulk materials. Though some, such as concrete foundations, are invisible, most are in daily view. Secondary materials range from drainage pipes and windows to small bits and pieces such as draught seals, light fittings and so on. While environmental cost is something to consider in every material choice, there is a need to be pragmatic; it is obvious that there is a lot more PVC in floor tiles or wallpaper than in electric cabling so the relative impacts of choosing tiles/wallpaper and the electric cabling will be very different. Fortunately, alternatives to both exist, though they are not always easy to obtain.

A building's furnishings also need serious thought as they are replaced many times in the life of the building. They tend to be newer, and also are often in warm places. So, as well as seeing and touching them, we breathe them: as materials get warmer they tend to give off more of their chemicals.

How do building (and furnishing, maintenance and cleaning) materials affect us, and the wider world? Every material has some environmental cost; some have compensating environmental benefits, as has been shown in Chapter 2. These can be measured in terms of embodied energy or, more meaningfully, embodied CO2. This, however, is an imprecise science and values are seldom transferable from country to country. Timber in Britain comes mostly from the pacific side of Canada; in Central Europe from managed forests only a few kilometres away. Whatever its source, and however cruelly the forests are raped, building timber locks up carbon as do other carbon-rich materials such as straw and cellulose fibre, so diminishing the CO2 emissions from the building.

Contrast this with steel, the cost of which is equivalent to that of 300 times its weight of water and five times its weight of coal - multiplied again by some nine times as much soil excavated as both coal and iron ore. But this is nothing compared with plastic, made at the price of 5000 times its weight in raw materials.

In terms of how we relate to these materials, wood is approachable, easy to work with, absorbs airborne toxins and moderates temperature and humidity. It is sensitive to environment and needs to be maintained and protected from sustained moisture by careful design. Aging adds character. It is easily repairable. It can be recycled or allowed to compost back to earth. Steel is hard, can be worked with hand-scale, semi-industrial tools (such as welding apparatus) and is neutral in health terms. It needs protection from water, but is unaffected by light, insects or aging. It can, with suitable tools, be repaired and recycled. Abandoned, it will rust back into ore - though this does not apply to its (usually toxic) paints and platings. Plastic is generally unappealing to touch and emits toxins. It is unaffected by the environment (except abrasion, UV light and organic solvents) and appears ageless except for scratching, cracking and crazing, which compromise both appearance and performance. It is effectively unrepairable. Little is recycled, some types cannot be, and most types effectively are never broken down - beyond breaking up and slow toxin release.

Not coincidentally, wood is a material from life. Iron is from the earth, but by way of intense heat and heavy industrial rolling. Plastic is from oil and coal deep beneath its surface, after so numerous chemical synthesis operations that it is totally removed from life. These materials connect us to the world from whence

The interior of Christopher Day's house in Crymbch, Wales, with its locally made windows and hand plastered walls (Christopher Day).

The interior of Christopher Day's house in Crymbch, Wales, with its locally made windows and hand plastered walls (Christopher Day).

they came: living and life-cycle bound by nature, or lifeless, dead industrial processes. Whereas plastic needs industrial equipment suited to mass production to form, wood needs only a pocket knife. It is more appealing, accessible and healthy to work with. Indeed, you can put your heart into what you make out of it.

We use thousands of materials in modern building, but a general rule is that the nearer something is to life, the more compatible it is: the healthier to live with, the more recyclable back to earth, thence living matter again. It also needs more care for longevity -

but this care, like the care given to its making, is imprinted into its substance and emanates from it, to nourish those who live next to it. Mass-produced products can never do this; the imprint of care given by an individual maker is, by definition, absent. So the materials of which a building is built, and the extent to which they are imprinted by care and love through hand-work, imprints spirit - or the lack of it - into buildings, even before occupation. This care is something self-builders can easily afford, while those sufficiently well off to get others to build for them rarely can.

One technique I use often is hand-finished rendering. Lime-rich mortar (9:2:1) applied unevenly to walls, preferably with a round-nosed tool so it is a little mounded, but then smoothed by (gloved) hand as soon as it is firm, removing all tool marks and contrived form. This forms a gentle, undulating and sand-textured surface. But more: it has been shaped by the hand. On one hand-plastering course I taught, a massage therapist told me, 'There is no part of the human body that a part of the hand is not shaped to fit'. So this technique imprints our hands into our physical surroundings. And it is impossible to work for long engaging the hands (not just repetitively using them) without the heart becoming involved. Thus, in a hand-plastered room you are surrounded by hand-imprinted heart forces. This works on us in the same way as food prepared with love - as distinct from mass-produced, routinely, institutionally cooked meals.

Another technique I enjoy is repair - inserting a patch of new wood into old. Working with second-hand materials you have to do this quite often. Of course, we use our hands to some extent for everything we make, but the fewer devices between hand and work, the more direct the link between hand and heart.

However, buildings are only part of places. Even 'home' is only part house. It is also entry, gateway and garden - and is enmeshed in street and neighbourhood. Every place has a unique spirit. Part of that spirit comes from how the place is used - the actions, thoughts and values of those who inhabit it. And part comes from how it was formed - the geology, weathering, forces of living nature, the elements and human interaction. Part also comes from how we meet it, the concept of place we then form and how this then influences our thoughts and actions.

How do we meet places? What do they say to us? And how can we transform the negative - all too common in our decrepit cities and their compromised fringes - into the positive, spirit-uplifting?

First impressions tend to influence what we subsequently see, feel and think. The welcome or fortified defensiveness of an entry door colours our expectations - and meaningfully so, for we gain an intuition of the essence of a place. And this impression is

repeated every time we re-arrive there. Whether or not we are commencing a new building or altering an old one, there is some kind of place already there. We are converting a place. What is already there limits what we can do, so how can we ensure the first impressions reflect the spirit we wish to establish there?

There is a technique for this that works with the connections with spirit and matter. To overcome the tendency of individuals to be led by their own ideas, it is a listening technique, so it is easier to do this as a group. We identify and work along the arrival route, from the point that you first meet a building. The first walk is for first impressions if you don't know the place, consciousness of the journey as an entity in its own right if you do. We walk in silence, without judgement, meeting at the final destination, say the kitchen, to reconstruct the journey. This we do at the end of each walk. We then repeat this walk, recording only what is physically there - no feelings, judgements, causes or suggestions. Next, we re-walk the route, focusing only on sequential space: how the space and light expands, contracts, breathes and turns, the gestures of forms and flow of our movements. Our next walk focuses on the moods and the feelings they induce along the journey. Now we can ask how the place would describe itself. What is its essential message? As this message, this spirit of place, is central to why we build, how we wish to live in a place and the nourishment we hope it will feed us will colour our individual ideas of what this message should be. With existing buildings, used for new purposes, there can be harsh discrepancy between the spirit that is and what it should be. A school building, for instance, may well speak of controlling little vandals, not loving and inspiring children on their journey to independent adulthood.

But when we know what a place should say, we can re-walk our route asking: what moods would support this? And then, on our next walk: what journey sequences, qualities of flow, would support these moods? And finally, re-walking to ask: what physical changes would support these qualities of flow?

Invariably these changes are small: pruning trees to form an archway, re-aligning an entry path, pivoting past a bush, easing an abrupt corner with furniture or a plant, flowing ceilings into each other, unifying colour and such like. Small, affordable, material changes that have major impact on what a place says and how it reflects and reinforces the spirit we wish to grow within it.

But what if there is as yet no building? Where should it go? What place should it help make? How can it contribute to, rather than compromise, what is already there?

We use a similar process, starting with silent first impressions and then the physical here and now. But then, instead of looking at time experiences through space (its flow), concentrate on space through time (its biography). How was this place formed in geological process? How was it before the agricultural, then industrial, revolutions, last century, last generation, a decade, a year ago? And continuing into the future, what will it be like next season, year, decade and century? We can thus enter into the flow of time through a place and ask what changes are set in motion when we intervene, postulating various actions and imagining their chain of consequences unfold. We then return to moods and spirit-of-place as before.

We now ask what spirit stands at the heart of what we are about to establish. What activities will this manifest in - and where, in the light of what we know about the place, should these be located? These 'zones of activity' we peg and string on the ground, then record on a site plan. We need now to identify the moods appropriate to each area, and to modify the layout for both this and for appropriate relationships between places, paths, gateways and views. We can next lay paper rectangles representing room areas onto this drawing, confirming its layout more meaningfully. The next step is to replace paper shapes with clay rectanguloid volumes - which rapidly become moulded into more living forms. All this is group work, just one family and myself, or 20 or 30 people. It can be a very strong experience as shared imagination of the future becomes almost substantial amongst the group.

For a single house this is simple (except that small, simple things tend to end up as being the most complicated!) but this process especially suits something larger or a group of buildings. Few larger projects, however, are built all at once. Nor should they be. Disruption to the spirit-of-place is excessive and the greater this is, the more are buildings imposed, not grown. And anyway, cash flow is rarely as predictable as we hope at the outset, so often only half a project gets built. We need to unravel the design to find a sequence so that every phase of building seems perfect - but the next stage makes it even better!

Space need doesn't only grow. In houses, for instance, it also contracts as children grow up and leave home. This doesn't just leave parents with mortgages still to pay, but also with big, lonely empty nests to rattle around in. From working with a Swedish eco-village group, I learnt to design homes that can expand - for instance, into garages, workshops and stores - and contract by division into house and disabled-accessible flat.

Growth is a key to how to blend the new (such as buildings) into the old - be it rural landscape or urban street. Anything that doesn't grow has a different spirit to its surroundings. If they don't talk to each other, can we expect social or ecological harmony, not to mention soul harmony?

With or without human intervention, no place is static. It is changing in response to the living and elemental forces of nature. Socially and economically, it waxes and wanes under these interacting forces; and grows or withers from nodes of growth activity or blight. New buildings feel right in place if they grow in accord with these forces. We can learn from the place study method just described how places want to grow - how they would do so without our intervention. Also what qualities of a place need enhancement and what need balance - so how this growth is asking to be steered.

We also learn about the arrival journey - of central importance to every building, whether home, hospital or work place. 'Home' has an active meaning: 'arriving home' - and a passive one: the state of 'being at home'. Haven and oasis roles. Different parts of the journey: front gate, entry hall, social rooms, bedrooms need different moods, need to meet us with different gestures - which we can gesture with our bodies - and link into different patterns of relationship: front door with street community and socially outward-looking, back garden to neighbour community, yet protectively private and linked into local wildlife habitat.

All these parts of the whole have time- and season-related needs. Bedrooms to wake up in, bathed with optimism for the day ahead. Evening rooms to unwind in. Winter hearth and summer breeze-freshened openness. Sunlight when children return from school or adults from work, not to mention orientations for view, skyscapes, sunsets and qualities of weather.

Rooms within the house range from family to individual realms, each different. Once we start to think of small children's needs as distinct from just practical space planning, new things come up: 'secret' spaces under stairs, in lofts or all the 'lost' spaces architects prefer to hide. With moods of privacy, enchantment, mystery, but also warm security. Then, teenagers need their own 'realms' that they themselves can, to some extent, form. An older person's needs for stability and an anchoring lifespan of memorabilia - along with warmth and sun and the life invigoration of nature's moods, which they can less and less actively partake in. One thing these rooms are not is just rectanguloid volumes - appropriate soul mood is the primary reason they are there.

But no building or garden is just an interior. It links into a wider community, economy and ecology. It links into the infrastructural system of a place. Yet drains and pipes and wires aren't place-related but transporters to and from invisibly distant sources and destinations. Composting, on-site grey-water treatment and autonomous energy link us to ecology, water flow patterns and microclimates. As these have aesthetic implications from water gardens to shelter planting and conservatories, they are also soul links to the forces of nature, interactions unique to every place.

Linkage to place also demands meaning in why we live somewhere and what we do. But our lifestyle and activities relate to where we are - unlike picturesquely preserved holiday cottages, appropriate only in visual appearance but otherwise alien, unrelated and dissociated from place-responsibility.

It also requires local materials. At first sight, many materials -such as stone and brick - don't seem sufficiently energy-efficient - but they can be made more so. Almost certainly, however, local traditional materials are durable in local climatic conditions and have a local skill-base familiar with local, climatically appropriate construction detailing.

The more local and unprocessed materials are, the less the transport and manufacturing energy and pollution, the more health-benign, the better for local employment. Also, the more localized within the community does the money cycle. Local traditional materials also connect us with the cultural continuum of the past and enable us to connect it to a future inspired by different ideals. New technologies and forms can blend harmoniously with the old if given substance in traditional materials and bound by the constructional limitations inherent in them. Giving value to that which has formed the character of a place is also to value its culture, the keystone of community and individual self-esteem. So local materials have energy, minimum pollution, social, economic, cultural, self-esteem and spiritual benefits - and shape, of course, the character of a place - its identity.

Materials connect us to a place. Traditionally taken from the ground, its vegetation and even animals, they are raised into human habitation - connecting those who live there with our roots in place. This is still so, even when we use these materials in less traditional forms: straw as building blocks, timber as round poles tensioned into unfamiliar curves, earth as free-formed cob.

However soul warm are vernacular forms, we should not gloss over the restrictive, narrow conventionality that comes with unnaturally prolonged past ways of life. Turning our back on them, however, merely dissociates us from where we have come from and in so doing blinds us to all we can learn and obscures where we are going to.

The traditional way was to raise the physical materials of a place to be a home for the human spirit. Largely unconsciously, totemic and elemental echoes remained in stone, earth, tree, straw and hide. Matter, in vernacular times, could not be divorced from spirit. Nor can it be today - however widespread its apparent negation. In every aspect of buildings matter and spirit are cyclically linked.

The materials of which a place - land, town, building, room - is made have effects in multiple directions unified, however, by the 'essence' at their heart. They used to, and still can, link us with locality at several levels, give substance to a spirit-of-place growing out of that locality. We can develop these places in accord with the life-generating energies latent within it. And colour its moods to be appropriate to our soul needs, increasingly individualized and different from a generation ago. We can imprint human energy and care - a gift of spirit - into the material substance of buildings. So inspiriting matter and building-in soul.

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