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Reporting from the Front

Dec 01, 2016 08:38AM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

Over a dozen years ago, we cleared a spot in the forest to build our house. Despite my attempts to minimize impact on existing habitats, several species were uprooted. In particular, a well-established ant hill within the excavation that has been moving around ever since. 

Ants are industrious and I have witnessed them making trails stretching several hundred yards, foraging supplies for their colonies. Needless to say, they are quite formidable foes, with annual assaults on the house that invaded their wooded domain—the framing is an irresistible food source.

Robins, jays, sparrows and a few turtle doves were also forced to relocate from the trees we took down. Some have since taken to building nests on the dozen beams that outcrop under the roof overhangs. I leave them, since we enjoy watching the young ones feed in the mornings. And, I figure we owe them something for us moving in, outsiders that disrupted their natural habitat in trees.

However other keepers of the forest, the squirrels and field mice who gather nuts and seeds into stockpiles for winter, are not so welcome. Don't let anyone tell you the forest is an idyllic, tranquil place filled with singing birds and magical sprites dancing around. Birds spend more time sounding warning calls than flirtatious melodies since there is always something stirring, creating mischief in the woods day or night. Squirrels and field mice are relentless this time of year, climbing all over the house, scratching and gnawing away, seeking a warm wall cavity as cold temperatures loom.

And, not to forget the trees we cut down to make room for a house. I tried to find a spot with the fewest and the youngest trees to preserve the grander ones. Nevertheless, some were sacrificed for our benefit, including red maples, sassafras and wild cherries; in hindsight, I realize now that our house sits on the site of a former pioneering tree, maybe a big tooth aspen or white pine. The natural clearing in the forest density, which was filling in with young saplings seizing access to the sky, speaks to a once large canopy that had fallen years before our arrival. Our home now stands in its place.

When I sought out a wooded site to build a home thinking it would make a wonderful place for our kids to explore, I did not anticipate the lessons it would teach me as well. Our earliest ancestors came down out of the trees to live in grasslands a long time ago. A new frontier to inhabit, with new discoveries to be made, but what knowledge of the forest has been forgotten since we left? What will we learn if we return?

Today we find ourselves living on a planet undergoing great change and while we debate the reasons why, Mother Nature blazes ahead to correct our behavior. We may be one of the most intelligent and adaptable creatures on earth, but we are also one of the most naive and ignorant. In my profession, the architectural community preaches buildings made of locally sourced materials with low carbon footprints and low energy consumption; however, I believe they are overlooking something of grave importance.

The trees of a forest depend on a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi at their roots. In their exchange of glucose and sucrose for water and minerals, both the trees and fungi receive the nutrients they need to survive while contributing to a diverse soil chemistry in a sustainable manner. A similar thing occurs within our own digestive system that works with intestinal bacteria to ease absorption of nutrients from the food that we eat. 

What if a house could be designed on this model, working with the natural environment rather than simply reacting to it?

A small example is my own house that was built with exposed rafter tails protruding out from the walls under eaves. The tight corner recesses provide the perfect dark spot for roosting bats. We see them dart around in the evenings, feasting on pesky insects. In exchange for safe harbor on our house, they provide us with a natural bug repellent, keeping mosquitoes at bay. We can enjoy the expanse of a star-filled sky on an open deck without the need for a screened porch or an arsenal of chemical sprays and electric zappers—a reduction in energy and material consumption, simply by letting a fellow inhabitant of the woods do their thing.

One of my favorite Taoist sayings is to do nothing, yet nothing is left undone (wu wei, erh wu pu wei). Modern medicine is founded on a similar principle—first, do no harm. Over time, this wisdom has been largely lost. We have become accustomed to doing without thought of our actions, then remedies on top of remedies to clean up the aftermath. There seems to be a lot of wasted time and energy with this way of life.

This past summer, I attended the Venice Biennale, an exhibition of work from some of the most talented minds in the field of architecture who tackle some of the most pressing social, political, economic and environmental issues facing our world. The theme for the exhibition was an image of Maria Reiche, a German archeologist, standing atop a ladder to gain a new perspective of the landscape, departing from the usual viewpoint on the ground. What resonated with me was the use of a simple common device to overcome big obstacles. I believe that this approach, a resourcefulness with minimal means if also done in a symbiotic way, will result in novel solutions more attuned to the context in which we exist. A way out of our avarice and oppression.

I started this year off by calling attention to a house that was just breaking ground, an example of the typical suburban house, first clearing and then leveling the land of all natural contour and cover. I would like to end this year by checking back in with that house, reporting from the front on what has been learned and what progress has been made.

A forest desolated, for a homeowner comforted more by grasslands. Missed opportunities, much that is tragic and banal. Conventional materials of traditional methods, little sign of creativity and yet, some hope in a priority for the practical, the frugal, the here and now. Mother Nature speaks the same language, maybe we may hear.

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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