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What is the Nature of a Home?

Nov 01, 2016 07:14AM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

The house I grew up in began as a modest-sized house; three bedrooms with a single bathroom. Growing up with three sisters, my dad quickly realized that a second bath was needed. A few interior walls shifted around over time to squeeze in a fourth bedroom, but beyond that, things sufficed until the end of high school, when a sunroom was added to the back of our house—a place to sit with more natural light than the draped living room provided.

The latest addition to the house was a ramp I built earlier this summer to prepare for the return of my mother, who had spent many months in an assisted living facility recovering from a fall, my father by her side. We wanted to bring her back home and so transformations were made in preparation. 

The house reminded me of a story she read to me when I was growing up, The Giving Tree. The selflessness of that tree always struck me, giving every part of itself, limb by limb, for another in need. I like to think our house has the same intent, giving of itself through all the changes experienced as our family grew, and now supporting my mother one last time in her need to return home.

I have another theory about trees. In the dozen years or so that I have been living surrounded by them in my current house, I have noticed a peculiar thing. As the storms of spring and fall knock aging trees over, nearby trees catch them, holding them up, keeping them from falling completely. Some may say it is merely the result of a forest density that prevents the majority of trees from reaching the ground. But, what if there is more to it than just that?

In the life of a tree, lasting decades if not centuries, time is divided in two equal parts—growing, and then dying. Most trees found growing around a house never make it to the dying years, cut down just past their prime for fear of falling on the house as they wither away, tips of branches no longer sprouting leaves. It makes me wonder if the house is just trying to fulfill a role with a supportive forest nowhere in sight. A tree can live on for many years after it has fallen in a forest—even uprooted trunks will still carry sap-nurturing branches as they reorient to the light in their new-found position.

Isn't a house really a forest of trees? A thicket of wood studs standing together to form walls, roof rafters overhead a sheltering canopy. Cut down and milled, the trees of a forest become a manmade forest, transitioning into a second life as a house. Despite encasement between drywall and exterior sheathing, hidden from sight, out of mind, soon forgotten—is this the source of supportive benevolence in a house? Does the nature of a forest carry through to our home by bringing trees in to become the structure?

We seek our studs when hanging pictures on walls. For most people, the only consideration for a 2x4 is its straightness. Walls that are flat, perfectly straight and plumb are perceived as well-built. What causes a wall stud to warp or bow? There are several factors, but one relatively unknown is its orientation. Installed upside down, opposite of the direction it grew within the trunk, can cause wood to bend. 

There was a time when carpenters were aware of such things, taking care in the handling of materials to work with their inherent flow. However, today we live in an era of do-it-yourself lumber yards, pre-cut studs at $3 apiece, so we’re unaware of the forest from which they came. Time-honored wisdom passed down through generations of craftsmen is lost on our mass-produced society. This is not to say that we should return to an earlier way of life; things change and that is the natural cycle. But to race ahead blindly, not reflecting on what we are leaving behind is also foolhardy.

For me, the wood that goes into a house, even the pine framing that does not take center stage as hardwood flooring or as a dining room table, is more than raw material. The physical properties of strength and stability are not independent of the selfless metaphysical qualities. They go hand-in-hand and maybe when we use trees to build a house for shelter from the elements, our homes also become infused with a supportiveness, the characteristics we feel when returning home. 

If we pause to notice.

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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