A Sacred Space
Designing out of the Box
How can you design buildings without being passionate about how they are built and the materials they're made from? How can you engineer something strictly by the numbers, sneering at the “artytechs” who actually care about the user experience?
When I was a junior in high school beginning to consider what I would study in college and do with my life, I was torn between pursuing architecture and engineering. I had already spent a few summers working as a carpenter and painter, and my favorite TV show was This Old House. I knew I wanted to build things, but after talking to practicing architects and engineers, I was dismayed by the rift between the two disciplines.
A visit to Tedd Benson’s timber frame workshop gave me the answer. Dr. Ben Brungraber, Benson’s engineer, told me that there was a discipline that blended the two fields: architectural engineering. You mean, I can study the art and the science of building?
Well, it turns out that while architectural engineers receive a liberal education in the science of building, we don’t fit neatly into a box. And an architectural engineer who spends 10 years as a nomadic carpenter really doesn’t fit neatly into a box.
Not that I’m a big fan of conforming, but after working with architects, engineers, and builders of all sorts, I now understand where I do fit in. I’m a designer with special interests in green building and building science, and sensitive to the nature of building materials. The problem is that I can’t call myself an architect because I don’t have the right degree. I spent my 20s working as a carpenter and learning how to run a small business; for the last few years, I've been designing and managing projects. So last winter I decided to go back to school.
Although I started my first semester looking to just get through it as quickly as possible, it turned out to be a refreshing, exploratory, intense (and time-consuming!) semester. During work hours, I met with new clients, drew kitchen details with Autocad or Sketchup, sized ridge beams, and argued with a vendor who supplied us with leaky doors. At 3 p.m. twice a week, I drove an hour to hand-draft and build paper models of theoretical projects through which we explored "spatial typologies," "limitations of method," and other abstract ideas. Several times I had to leave the three-hour classes early, skipping out on such discussions as the differences between two-point perspective and three-point perspective so that I could keep an evening meeting with a client to discuss bathroom budgets and the relative merits of dense-pack cellulose versus closed-cell foam insulation.
Weekends became sleepless work-a-thons, painstakingly hand-drafting plans and elevations, concentrating on line value and rendering shadows accurately, or attempting to finish a model for a Monday afternoon class presentation. At work the next day, I would crank out shop drawings for a custom home theater, size another ridge beam, or discuss stormwater management strategies. Then I would zip off to the class, which consisted mostly of 20-somethings, with an instructor in his mid-30s like me.
What I learned, now that I’ve caught up on my sleep and had a chance to reflect, is best summed up by our final project, a nondenominational "sacred space." We were to work with an actual site for the first time and to think deeply about what we wanted the user to experience, but not to worry about frivolous details such as budget, construction techniques, or the location of the bathroom. Three elements were required in the design: an entry that incorporated the idea of a transition from unprotected to protected space; a stair that expressed the concept of circulation and connection; and a culminating space that fostered a sense of sanctuary, peace, and self-reflection.
I had some fun with the drawings, using a night scene with the building lit from within to expose the structure in the elevation pictured above. But the project really made me think about the design process and the homes we design. It’s easy to focus on the nuts and bolts, solving the problem at hand. It’s up to the designer, however, to inject some "sacred" into the spaces we create and to really consider the user experience. It’s also the designer’s responsibility to keep from getting stuck in a box.
- M. Maines
Tue, 06/16/2009 - 11:33
Tue, 06/16/2009 - 16:32
Wed, 06/17/2009 - 15:29
Thu, 06/18/2009 - 15:31
Fri, 07/03/2009 - 10:48
Mon, 07/06/2009 - 20:35