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History of Building Materials Adds to Appreciation

Apr 30, 2016 12:07PM ● Published by North Hills Monthly magazine

One of my favorite summers as a child was spent building a treehouse in our backyard. My friends and I needed a place for our secret club to meet and elevation in a tree, where our little sisters would not follow, made the perfect spot. All kinds of details were added; ropes on pulleys to haul up treasures, false floors with removable boards for hiding code books, and a mounted telescope to keep a lookout for spying sisters.

I remember conversations my dad had with neighbors inquiring about this tree he planted in our backyard. He selected an Eastern Sycamore because it was fast-growing and would quickly mature and provide a canopy of shade over our backyard patio. Fortunately for me, I was growing up along with it, so its lowest branches were just the right height to encourage climbing.

Although sycamores of the Ohio valley are some of the most massive trees in North America, the most beautiful sycamores I have found are in southern California. Conditions there are ideal for trees to spread out long, low, twisting and turning branches; the kind of branches that make anyone with a childhood of tree climbing excited by the potential. I imagine this is what my father had envisioned when he was instructed to cut off the top of our tree when it was just a sapling to discourage tall growth, so that branches would spread out over our backyard.

 However, our tree was not so easily persuaded; it clearly had other intentions. That fateful trimming was only a minor delay. The canopy did not fill out horizontally, as my father had hoped. The following summer, the trunk sprouted out to the side of the stunted top, then turning upward as it continued on it way, reaching for the sky above the roofline of our house.

All the better for me, making higher heights to climb to see things from a bird’s perspective. During my prime climbing years as a child, that bend in the trunk had grown to the height of my second floor bedroom window that overlooked the tree—the highest point that I would dare climb. But when I did, I was rewarded by this truncated turn, just the right shape for reclining back to get a close-up view of the clouds overhead.

It is these turns in a trunk that become the physical record, placeholders of memories, markings of past acts in the life of a tree. A woodworker friend of mine celebrates these variations that reveal a history, and allows the tree to speak through the material that he works with in creating tables, chairs and doors. Each palimpsest gives pause, stirring curiosity and wonder about what might have occurred years ago. What course was set by a father pruning the top of a sapling, now recorded in this strange canopy, clearly not the result of a natural occurrence?

If our backyard tree is cut down someday, maybe by a future homeowner seeking more sunlight, it might be processed into boards—a second life, as my woodworker friend calls it, to be made into useful things for a home.

As an architect, I seek out unusual materials, those with a unique grain telling a story of a hard, worn life of growing. So much time goes into the making of materials, some more than others—trees can take centuries to age, while the veins in a slab of marble, by contrast, take millions of years.

Recently, I had a homeowner quip, “These things are not that important, it is all so materialistic.” There is some truth to that statement; I have witnessed far too many designers wax poetic and spend far too much of their clients’ money on material finishes that they believed were absolutely necessary. In my opinion, if the design of a space hinges on one particular material selection, the space itself has far greater problems to address.

However, there is also something to be said for the integrity of building materials. Architectural finishes do not need to be exotic, luxurious or precious to create a beautiful space. Even the most basic of materials can elevate the feel of a space, when treated in a simple, honest manner, reflecting their true nature. And in the end, don’t these materials, such as wood that we take selfishly for our own use, deserve the respect and reverence of any living thing? Before wood is efflorescent patterns, silken textures or sinuous grains, it is first the life of a tree.

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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