Sunday, February 12, 2012

Maidman Residence Nearing Completion

The client on this project needed to cut down a few large douglas fir trees to make room for a better septic system and to insure uphill trees did not one day fall on another residence.  It was an opportunity to make a strong project about resource conservation and the meaning and beauty manifest by natural resources repurposed on a single property.  These days, so many “green projects” are the opposite of this.  We are often told a material is “green” but the process of its creation is often highly engineered and complicated beyond any layman’s understanding (e.g. trex decking). 

Working with a hyper-local material seemed like a refreshing respite from the “mystery meat” of eco-materials on the market today. 

Every project has a narrative that gets told by the occupants. It can be a story of recycling, pure beauty or, like on this project, it can be a story of how the site gave to the house.  

The idea was simple:  First, we designed a building that highlighted the grandeur of the site's wood in the main space with large beams that could not be obtained affordably through more traditional lumberyard channels.  Anything over a 12" member tends to be special order at lumberyards and, after reviewing the size of the trees that were slated to be harvested, we went ahead and designed the space to work with 6x14 beams. Secondly, we planned for a consistent interior board finish that could be a convenient biproduct of the beam production and therefore minimize waste.  With this dual pronged approach, it was our intention to outfit the interior of this building with both a structural narrative and a visual majesty.   It felt meaningful to tell a story about the strength of this site both before and after the advent of this building.

It is a common american custom for a job to define an individual.  To know someone well we often ask them what they do. This holds quite true for objects as well despite the fact "doing" and "being" are a conflation of meanings.  What something is and what it does are different things.  Be that as it may, if one points at a log cabin and asks what it is, the proper response could be "wood" or "a house." In philosophy this is an ontological issue. The question speaks to the being, reality or existence of the thing.

These days, objects can be so highly processed we make very little connection between the object's materiality and the natural world. In the absence of knowing what something is made from, we have a natural tendency to fasten on the story of its making.  What was it made for?  What engineering process created it?  In the absence of a greater knowledge and interest in the material origins of things, we instead lay emphasis on the human project of its design and function.  One could even say we talk about the materiality of things now through the lens of our own ingenuity.  How much is the story of composite wood decking about wood and how much is it about the act of compositing and recycling materials or the advanced world of science that lies therein?

With the steady parade of contemporary green buildings our portrayal of the natural environment, and how we can go about protecting and honoring it, becomes quite skewed.  Exactly what constitutes a green material is often measured by how much highly processed salvaged work is involved in bringing an architectural product to the marketplace.  Countertops with recycled glass aggregate, insulation from old jeans or wood chips in composite decking are just a few of the products that fit this bill.   Few of us, when confronted with these products, could speak articulately about what they truly materially are.  

It begs the question:  If, on a gut level, we don't perceive our homes coming from any specific plants, trees or earth, how can we expect to truly care about the natural environment in the essential and visceral way that would insure their well being.  With the absence of this consciousness, don’t we have that much less perceived skin in the game?

As an American phenomenon, the green building movement has  parallels to the organic food movement.  Many scholars cite a major shift in the organic food movements when it "went industrial."   The word organic became more trivialized.  It often meant the simple practice of ingredient substitution.  If honey, for example, replaces corn syrup we consider the label of organic to be viable.  Deeper practices of making are neglected.

Similarly, on a typical green project the idea of substituting one classically unpopular material for a laudable green one is the popular device for achieving a credibly green project (e.g. a recycled green product might replace the use of wood).  

But it’s worth noting that reliable building materials that have been thoroughly vetted over time still endure.  This project is hopefully an example of this.  If it becomes necessary to remove trees for other reasons, the idea that one could use these same trees on site is a strategy worthy of examination.  The practice can contribute to the esthetics, the ecology and the economy of the project in a holistic and powerful way.  

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