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North Hills Monthly

Not all Landscapes are Equal

Jan 29, 2016 05:24PM ● By Matthew Schlueb

"Look!" Olin called with a hush, standing frozen in the woods outside our house. We were climbing a gentle slope and just above us a buck was wandering by, picking at the underbrush.

"Keep quiet," I whispered to my other son, Oskar, who was walking next to me. All three of us became statues, as the lone deer continued along a well-worn path.

Suddenly he took note of us. I’m not sure if he could see us, he more likely smelled us since there was a slight breeze from below. He continued looking in our direction, curious and slowly working closer, stomping a rear leg, shaking his head, trying to get us to flinch.

We waited patiently, quiet and still. Eventually he got within 20 feet of Olin. Moving my hands like a sloth, I eased the phone out of my pocket and snapped a picture of the two of them checking each other out. Then, the deer decided to get back to feeding, so he turned uphill and went on his way.

Olin was excited for the rest of the day; a brief exchange with nature on our morning walk was enough to send his mind racing. "Why do deer always walk on the same trampled down path?" he asked, "to keep from getting lost?"

I replied that our house sits off of a busy road that was once an Indian trail—the Kuskusky Path, a pre-colonial pass between two Lenape Indian settlements that became Allegheny City on the Northside and present-day New Castle further north.

“Ancient Indian trails often came from deer paths that the natives would follow while hunting them," I explained. “Deer follow water runoffs to find streams for drinking, and rainwater gathers like veins, cutting through the soil, down the path of least resistance. These channels erode away vegetation, defining seams between thickets."

Indians called these paths holzwege, naturally forming wood ways and meandering meridians that wildlife could navigate easily. These natural paths follow patterns deep underground, and soft sediment fissures fill between rock formations, becoming depressions that form variations in the landscape. These materials have been disintegrated by temperatures, ground down by glaciers, eroded by wind and water, sculpted by tireless forces qualifying each other. They are all externally modified by time as they modify this earth in a ceaseless procession of change.

"In the end, the major roads we travel today trace the earlier Indian trails, which follow deer paths, which follow rainwater gathering toward a stream, formed by soft spots in the soil fingering between rock formations deep within the earth," I finished.

These routes we take are not by chance. They are founded on repeated journeys, and the trusted wisdom of those who come before us.

Last week I was called to the South Hills by a homeowner who had just moved into a house they had built, and was unable to sleep at night due to loud trucks driving up a nearby route. There was also a train track within earshot and a flight path overhead. This house seemed to be at the crossroads of every mode of transportation and the homeowner was looking to me to solve the noise problem.

I walked around the outside of the house, measuring decibel levels with a sound meter app, noting the noise level drops from retaining walls blocking the line of sight to the busy road down the hillside. It snaked through rock outcroppings on both sides, which amplified the traffic noise up into the valley, directly in line to their backyard.

I then took readings inside the house, going from room to room, registering the increases caused by vaulted ceilings, wood floors and large expanses of windows. Unfortunately, the best solution was things that should have been done before the house was finished, such as selecting windows with a high Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating and using a spray foam insulation in the walls and ceiling to seal off air infiltration, as sound travels through the air leaks around openings in the house perimeter.

In addition to those measures, one of the most effective sound barriers in a residential setting is a double layer of half-inch drywall held off the wall studs with resilient channels on the inside, along with a stone or brick veneer on the outside. But this news was a little too late for this household. Wanting to avoid a major retrofit, involving time, money and quite a bit of dust in a recently completed house, their simplest course of action was to move.

As an architect, I am hired to avoid such pitfalls. When selecting a piece of property on which to build a house, many factors come into play. For a family building a home for the first time, some of these factors are overlooked. If a house is designed well, the site will determine its features and character. Unfortunately, with builders who use stock plans, often the house design is not adjusted for the site. And in this case, which was a builder who had an architect on staff, adjustments still did not address the homeowner's concerns over the builder's concerns.

I have found that my most valued tool is becoming attuned to the surroundings, and keeping my senses sharp to take notice of subtle cues in the landscape that have great influence on life around us. I go into the circumstances and come out with a design from within. Much as deer and early Native Americans followed the landscape, there are good reasons that things take the course they do. And over the years, I have made far fewer mistakes following that flow, rather than ignoring it.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.