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Why Air?

Jul 31, 2018 10:30PM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

Venetian air is unlike any other; the most serene washed in the soft, warm glow of a setting sun, turning mystical under moonlight. It permeates every piazza, puzzling every strade and ponti. And inside, slipping through slender doors open to campo or canale, rooms are infused with an atmosphere unique to this city on water.

Such is the allure for a house designed recently—a mussel shell drawn open, outside let in, stringing pearls with air. The studio is perched off the ground, above tides swelling below, measured by a sloped sculpture garden at the heart of the home. Scents and sounds carry through on a breeze, inspiring the pondering sketches atop a table surface long in time and space.

The salty air of the ocean is not that of the sea. Immensity of scale, continuous across curvature of the earth, a near endless steady force drives against the shore's edge. 

Last week on summer vacation, my oldest son, Oskar, and I completed our open water dives at the beach for scuba certification. Learning to breathe underwater revealed a new world to explore below. But for me, the absence of air was even more transformative. 

Bottled air is very different from natural air. And despite an ability to breathe the blend of oxygen and nitrogen in a tank, it was always a relief to remove the mouthpiece at the surface and take in a breath of fresh air. It was similar to the air you breathe after exiting a plane—escaping the stale, recirculated air of a pressurized cabin. Subjected to such things, the shortest of flights can seem like days, and it takes some time to completely cleanse it out of one’s system, lungs and tissue.

The air in our homes is rapidly becoming the same. With houses built tighter and tighter, air-conditioned with systems rarely built to provide the six to eight air changes recommended for the average house, it is no surprise that indoors can feel suffocating. In an effort to increase efficiencies in heating and cooling, the building code is moving toward a sealed container, a controlled environment, where air can be carefully adjusted for temperature and humidity before exchanged with the outdoors. And this says nothing of the toxins captured inside by building materials off-gassing synthetic adhesives and sealants.

Life will soon be inside space capsules, passing through air locks to exit our homes. The technological advancements pushing toward colonization of the moon are driven by a scientific method that isolates variables in controlled studies. When that is applied to air, manipulating composition and managing flow are necessities to building habitable environments on the moon, a place where we cannot breathe naturally.

During scuba training, when things went wrong and I was short on air, my instinct was to swim to the surface. We take air for granted breathing in thousands of times a day, but when air is absent, it grabs our attention in seconds. That experience has changed my perspective on the future, where houses will be built on foreign planets.

When Europeans ventured across the Atlantic to settle new lands, America was a hostile place but at least there was air to breathe. Living in a pressurized capsule, wearing a pressurized suit just to take a walk outdoors, will be something very different from the life we are familiar here on earth.

But maybe that is what it will take. Like scuba diving, it will take absence, a trip to the moon, before we will fully appreciate the air around us each time we step outside. More thought is needed, consider where all of this is heading, before our giant leap forward. This is not to say we should return to log cabins, getting around by horse and buggy. But a sincere look at the consequences of our actions, an honest reflection of what has been lost by our gains, couldn't hurt and may do some good.

For example, the scent of wisteria drifting as purple clouds in the air outdoors is a complex web of communication channels between the birds and bees, the flowers and trees, the soil and sky. The ions gathering before a storm, discharging electrons as lightning, attach to pollens and bacteria to be transported by rain, replenishing the ground with all of the microscopics found in the air. 

But for us, this life-sustaining cycle has become a nuisance, allergens something to avoid, a reason to retreat indoors. We go to great lengths to filter the air we breathe, ionizers and ultraviolet rays, yet pure oxygen is toxic to our bodies, we need a mix of impurities. By moving indoors, we have sheltered ourselves from pollinating flowers. Those we bring in are cut, sterilized. Plants are potted, deprived of bees. Weather reports in the spring offer asthma and sinus forecasts, dust and dander indexes. 

If we remove from our homes all of the natural impurities our bodies no longer process, what will the homes of tomorrow become? What will our bodies become? What deficiencies will our children's children develop without exposure to natural air?

I cannot imagine life inside a space station, unable to open a window to let in some fresh air. But maybe that is because I was raised in a home without air-conditioning. Summer evenings were hot; delight was found when a cool breeze passed through. Kids today know no such pleasures; they relish windows closed, blinds drawn, world shut out, and refrigerated air, chilled to a constant 68 degrees.

Maybe that is why I dream of a retirement home on an island in a foreign land, not a foreign planet. A house without doors, without windows, so the air outside mingles with the air inside, one in the same. Yes, it may be a bit cold in the mornings, but I will be able to respond to the day intuitively, subconsciously, without need of weather reports. Creativity will flow freely on the winds passing through, a place I can truly inhabit, naturally.

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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