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Roots of a Home

Feb 26, 2016 05:37PM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

When I was a kid, we lived in a neighborhood with front lawns the size of postage stamps; just big enough to lie in the grass and daydream about the clouds. Spring was the best time for that, as cotton balls churned and swept by.

Now I live in the woods, so my kids lie on a bed of leaves looking up at tree canopies filling the sky. "Our trees are so slender and tall, why don't we have any good ones for climbing?” my youngest son, Olin, asked on one such afternoon.

"They are racing to the sun, each one trying to outgrow the next, competing for sunlight at the top,” my other son, Oskar, replied.

"It's true, they need sunlight, but trees are more cooperative than competitive," I said, "In our woods, many of the trees are related and all of them are networked together by their roots underground. Trees have found it more efficient to share sunlight, air and rain. Each tree lives longer by being part of the group, with a reciprocal relationship exchanging nutrients when in need from those with more than enough.

"When a new sprout takes root," I elaborated, "they are so far down here on the forest floor, what little sunlight makes it through become dancing spots from a spring breeze tickling tree leaves. As a result, the older trees of the forest nurse these young saplings, giving them the sugars they can't photosynthesize themselves."

I explained to Olin that while we might not have branches for climbing, we could interact with our trees in more amazing ways. "Every step into the woods has miles of microscopic roots tangled together underfoot, much like the network of neurons in our brains,” I said. “When we notice a new tree, our mental map of the forest changes in our heads; new connections are made to physically model our perception of that tree."

I explained how the trees respond to us walking through the woods as well. “The roots in the top soil compress, the carbon dioxide we exhale is absorbed, and the shadow we cast is felt by their trunks which are receptive to light,” I said. “These things are subtle; many people don't even notice. But, they are happening nonetheless—traces of us can be found in the tree, just as remnants of the tree are in our head stored as memories."

When we built our house a decade ago, I wanted to set it in the woods so we could look out from our bedroom windows at the birds nesting high up in the trees. To do this required cutting a few trees down. I tried to find a clearing, but none fit a house. My neighbor, with similar intent, cut down all of the trees within falling distance of his house to avoid possible damage from violent storms. I wasn't so cautious; only the ones within the house footprint came out.

Just as no two trees are alike, everyone is different. What feels like a safe distance for one can feel too distant to another. I studied these proximity relationships while writing my graduate thesis in architecture. I learned how things move about, reacting to each other, finding balance points where everything feels most comfortable. It happens at every scale, from insects living under leaves to the planets hurtling across the night sky.

Much of my studies examined the formal aspects of weight and space, manipulating awareness, and making refinements to identify perceptual thresholds. However, living in the woods, I have come to realize the significance of things more nuanced, less visual. Our individual personalities have far more to say in the matter.

A daydreamer can walk through the woods unaware of things going on around him, while a child walking through just after sunset, who is afraid of the dark, will hear the snap of a twig or rustling leaves. The forest is not singular or static; it is defined by our perceptions.

And our perceptions are based primarily on scale. We give very little credence to the things beyond the range of our senses. Forests are often thought of as peaceful places, but there is quite a bit of chatter going on between the trees, swapping signals underground and on the wind. Our perception is narrowed to the things that concern us. What need do we have for what the trees are saying?

When designing a house, I have found it essential to take these individualized perceptions into consideration. Sunlight casting across a kitchen island warming a granite surface may start the morning off right for some, just as a cup of coffee will for another. The table a parent reaches across to set is not the same table to the toddler crawling underneath. To lay out a kitchen, and all the other rooms of a house, the perspective of each family member is vital. Taking care of these multiple viewpoints in a household not only creates a more meaningful house, but more importantly, gets to the root of the network that defines a home.


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

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