The Lighthouse

the lighthouse

18 November 2013

Of buildings and Ben

Buildings. Houses. Public places. Civic spaces.
Structures, the designing of, and construction of, are fascinating.
It's fun to read Dwell and Domus and der architekt.
Conversions, reproductions, restorations, cutting-edge new builds, all are scope for imagination and dreams and daring.
The home I live in is charming. It's warm and mostly weather-tight (one outside wall tends to be cold in winter, and my toes freeze in the bathroom.)
It isn't terribly imaginative or innovative, however. It's very typical of detached houses of its time, which means solid and stolid construction, not terribly sensitive to the landscape or in cooperation with the environment.
One of my guilty pleasures is watching design and real estate programs. "Constructing the world's tallest office tower - in a desert", "Building a new life in the country", "Redesign a room in your neighbour's house", those sorts of things. It's nice to dream along with the poor sods who are undergoing the stress and pressure of a thousand and one daily decisions while watching the plot of land they just paid a fortune for slide away unexpectedly down the hillside.
There is a common bit of folly I've noticed, and that is the trend to super-upsize and uber glamorize the dwelling. It could be an empty nest couple, on the brink of retirement, and there they are, moving from a 3 bedroom semi-detached to a five bedroom, six bath behemoth in the countryside. Or on a steep slope for which they'll need to buy a herd of goats to tend the grass.  Or on soft clay that requires dozens of truck loads of gravel to stabilize.  The houses always have multiple 'reception rooms' and a formal dining room and an eat-in kitchen. So they can entertain. And have visitors stay.
Unless they have a very wide social circle and have staying guests frequently enough to qualify as a B-n-B, to me that seems like a lot of space to heat, and light, and furnish. And clean.  Who wants to clean six loos? Not to mention the stores of toilet paper and towels needed.
Our families have gotten smaller, so there are fewer people in the house. I think it's natural, too, for people to gravitate to a favourite spot or two, and generally prefer a place that feels cozy and welcoming... which is why most of today's living happens in the rec room, underground. Perhaps if the living room were finished as warm and friendly-like, I'd be seeing more lights in front windows as I walked the neighbourhood at night!
I just watched two episodes back to back of Grand Design from England, a show that follows people through their (mostly) unusual building projects. In one, a family was undertaking to build from scratch a Georgian rectory (to modern eyes it looked like a mansion. If Mr. Collins lived there, he wouldn't be doing too badly!) Not ten weeks into the project they were more than a hundred thousand pounds over budget. You read that right. These were not millionaires indulging themselves with a little architectural conceit; it was a woman who'd 'always dreamed of living in a Georgian manor'. They had to stop work before the house was finished in order to raise another hundred thousand pounds to complete the painting and decorating.
In contrast was Ben, a woodsman, who'd after ten years of living in tents and caravans in the forest was granted permission to build 'a house that stands lightly on the land'. He tends the forest, builds bespoke furniture, makes shingles, poles, timbers, charcoal... all completely from his land. And from his land he constructed a remarkable, beautiful, simple home. By himself. He uses solar and wind power to run the few electrics he has, uses harvested wood for heat and cooking, grows his own food, etc. You're picturing a hippy, aren't you?  But he's not. He has  real eye for design and the craftsmanship to bring it to life. The house was built for something like thirty thousand pounds.
Guess which house I wanted to live in?
After building his home, Ben met a lovely woman. They got married, and Ben's simple, beautiful construction is now home to two children.
I just loved Ben's approach to life which is evident in his home: choose only what is necessary. Let that be well made and beautiful. Simple, simple, simple. Harmony with and appreciation for the environment and land.  Ben was a big hit all over England, apparently, because Grand Design went back to visit him twice more over six years. He now teaches workshops and has open days where he tours people over his land and through his house.  Which, by the way, is now thoroughly lived in, with evidence of young and busy life all over - bookshelves chock full of books, toys on the floor, and so on.  Simplicity looks slightly different for him now, but it's still there at the heart of his family's life.
Why would you choose a mammoth construction and a massive bank loan instead of that?

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