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North Hills Monthly

Birdcalls for Home

Oct 01, 2017 11:12AM ● By Matthew Schlueb

Lately, I have been working with my two sons, building robots from miniature servos and Arduino boards. Playing around with such things got me thinking that we could automate the cuckoo clock in our basement, whose gears and carved wooden bird fell silent years ago. The pendulum motion driven by weighted chains and levers could be wired to operate electronically, powered by the sun if we included a solar cell.

I find it curious, as tools and constructs have advanced over time that technological innovations continue to hold references of the natural world they strive to overcome. The charm of this mechanized clock for example, is not found in the wizardry hidden out of sight inside a small wooden box. Rather, it is the surprise of a bird popping open a door, mimicking the sounds heard in nature. As our lives continue to be filled with more and more artificial things, the romance and longing for a more authentic time only grows.

However, maybe something more than simple sentimentality is at work here. Symbiotic microorganisms inhabit plants and animals, in the case of our own bodies, outnumbering human cells three to one. Referred to as a microbiome, these collective genomes found a way to exploit an environmental niche influencing our health and behavior. In short, at the microscopic scale, they play a crucial role in our interactions with all other lifeforms. 

Further, when we leave our house, traces of our microbiome that has exchanged and morphed with other microbiomes in that environment will remain behind without us. And then when we return, our internal ecosystem recognizes those microbes from our body, sending a signal to our senses—that comforting feeling of home. The sentimentality we experience for a place is in part biologically triggered by our microbiome.

When we step outdoors, our microbiome mixes with the mycorrhizal web of life, the multitude of living things that are in constant interaction and change. We may not notice it consciously, but the sensations we feel within our physical body and mind register this biological exchange. It is the reason a breath of fresh air clears the mind, refreshes the spirit.

Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know. Our perceptions, feelings, intuitions extend beyond ourselves; they are largely formed by our interactions with the environment on a molecular level, invisible to the naked eye. We couldn’t survive without them – literally. The fondness we have for bird songs, which compels us to recreate their calls in a clock, stems from a relationship with birds over centuries, remnants of their microbes mixed in with ours.

Thousands of years ago, when societies formed in collective villages or settlements along trade routes, the first houses were packed tightly together. The desire to be close in proximity, acting as a group against outsiders beyond perimeter walls, defined civilized life. Clustered houses created façade-lined streets, concealing families within. Yet, ties to nature were not lost by this new lifestyle–at the heart of each home was an interior courtyard. By each room opening into this outdoor space, household activity remained informed by the natural world.

That is something that has been lost by the modernization of our current homes. Air-conditioning has shut the doors and windows to cross breezes, as well as those microbes drifting on the wind. The air we breathe indoors has become stagnant: in fact, studies have found it to be unhealthier than the air outside. However, a house built with outdoors indoors, a thoughtful insertion, may be just the answer.

If our homes were designed with an open, central courtyard, holding the house together as arms of a pinwheel, the ritual slumber from bedroom to kitchen coffee machine would require passing outdoors, infusing our senses with crisp morning air, possibly a rain shower or a blanket of snow in the winter. Awoken by just a dozen steps, we would no longer have a need for the weather channel or even the aroma of coffee to start our day. We would reconnect in a way more immediate, more natural, a way that has been lost, forgotten.

Our ancient ancestors found an advantage by living close together, closed in by walls with a roof overhead to keep dry as they slept through the night. Yet, they were also not quite ready to cut ties from a natural world that their body and mind had adapted to over generations of symbiotic dependence and connection. We are still not ready today–the boundless possibilities we feel by watching a sunrise or the beauty emoted by a sunset bears witness.

If architectural space is created by layering meaning into each experience, then the emotions we feel that provide meaning and tangible significance result directly from the dialog we are having with the environment we inhabit; a communication facilitated practically by our microbiome operating on a microscopic scale. And, a home without closed doors, keeping nature’s microbes in close proximity, instantly and unfiltered, is the type of environment in which our body and mind were formed, despite a recent move indoors.

You may say it would be crazy to live daily within a house so open and exposed—the added inconvenience of accommodating inclement weather or an uninvited mouse. Such a way of life in today’s day and age, one would call cuckoo. Still, our ties to nature are not so strange, even if they have become estranged. Times have changed by our mechanizations and advancements, but why are Bavarians compelled to make clocks with birds popping out from behind doors every hour of the day? Is an automated birdcall their attempt to bring the outdoors in?

I like to think it is a reminder that we are the cuckoo, shutting ourselves inside a box behind closed doors. Every so often, we need to take a break and pop outside, call out to the world beyond our birdhouse, then pause for a moment to allow our body and mind to feel the response before returning back in. It is a small thing, but still needed. And, a compromise far more convenient than living in a house without doors. 

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.