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North Hills Monthly

Why Bugs?

Aug 31, 2018 11:43AM ● By Matthew Schlueb

This is the best time of year, with tree canopies shifting from deep summer shades of green to the rusty red and sepia tones of autumn. More time is spent outside including evenings sitting around a fire pit with friends after a meal prepared in an outdoor kitchen. I remember even slower times, napping through a lazy afternoon in a hammock under the shade of a tree, birds calling to each other as they stir with the breeze. The kind of breeze made for drying clothes, infusing shirts and bedsheets with smells only found outdoors. 

This time of year, every aspect of life can be had out of the house, even showering poolside after a swim. There is something invigorating about experiencing these acts more familiar indoors with the change of context, adding a slight twist, arousing attention. Intrigue is not surprising; life outdoors is wired in our DNA.

It is only recently in our long evolutionary history as a species that we have started to live under roofs and behind closed walls. We are still in the early stages of indoor life, the beta period flushing out the details for the right indoor/outdoor balance. I would contend we have gone too far, life out of balance by too much of one thing. We are reminded of this when we do spend a little time outside, like muscle memory recalling an old habit, it feels fresh but not foreign.

This latest experiment in our development, living inside, was such a departure, such a total change inhabiting a space of our own creation, by our own hands, that we became intoxicated by the newfound potential, the power to control one’s environment. As refinements occurred, it became an addiction, sleeping every night under roof, soon every day behind walls. The world changed, it was now outdoors, no longer the place we reside, it became a place we go.

And when we do, the outdoors treats us with the cold shoulder of an old friend we abandoned. It does not let us forget we were the ones that left. We must learn to be trusted again. All of our time away indoors made us soft, we have been sheltered, life became easy. Conveniences replaced necessities, luxuries replaced conveniences, excess replaced luxuries. We did not notice ourselves changing, but it becomes apparent when we return. So many things moved on without us.

Maybe this rude awakening is a good thing to shake us out of our slumber. It takes quite a bit when we are caught up running around in mazes with blinders on. We need a few bugs irritating us to get our attention.

Lately I have been exploring such ideas, designing a house with more balance; one without doors or windows. Openings are there, just not the physical doors or window panes shutting things out. In fact, the exterior shell has been cracked open like an egg, two halves pulled apart, exposing the interior without walls, bugs let in.

One might ask, is this practical? It is one thing to invite a little nuisance into one’s life, attempting to restore balance, but insects are serious, not to be trifled with. A force of nature, they are relentless daily and if kept at bay one season, they return the next. Withoutdoors, windows or walls, there is no differentiating between the periodic housefly and all the rest. Swatting at bees is just asking for trouble.

But maybe bees have been given a bad name for all that they offer, pollenating flowers, affording fruit in our lives. Even wasps and hornets that instill fear just by the sound of their buzzing wings, may be more propaganda than truth.

For several years now, we have been coexisting with a couple hives under the roof eaves of our house. The hornets and wasps keep to themselves, never invading our space down below. I always felt as if we were tempting fate, pressing our luck, that someday I would awake to find them venturing into our house from a huge infestation in the walls. That may happen, hopefully not. 

Last week during some roof repairs, the roofers spent an entire day invading the space of the hornets and wasps, even knocking down their hives with bare hands, and were not once stung. Maybe we are not the only ones turning soft. 

And yet, we live in a place still recovering from a time when DDT fumigated our backyards and alleyways. Mosquito bites carry an itch, but not malaria. It is easy to hold such a rosy view of insects when they do not threaten life or limb. Most of the world does not have such luxury. And if a house is to offer a more balanced way of life for everyone, everywhere, it cannot treat bugs lightly.

I suspect the old methods of insect control, a fly swatter, the tried and true would still hold up. If one was vigilant every day, things could be managed. But such measures are work and not the low maintenance we have come to expect. Taking a more passive approach, letting spiders spin their webs across the currents of sunlight and air, may catch some in flight paths. Bats roosting in the shadows may take care of the rest. To live with such things is to return to the open caves of our ancestors, which may be filled with romance, but likely also a few other inconveniences long forgotten after our exodus to more civilized arrangements.

If bugs must be kept out, if windows are necessary, at least make them operable and use them, daily. Screens can keep a house free of insects, but still permit the sounds and smells of the outdoors to permeate. A reasonable compromise for a reminder of things kept out of sight, those natural things that can slow pace, offer therapeutics for all the stresses of a modern day life. If we take time to notice, allow them in to our space. 

For the more adventurous, those who seek the full experience, a house withoutdoors may be the answer. Trading the alarm of a ringtone for the buzz of a bug does not eliminate the interruptions in life. It simply shifts focus to the natural world, away from the technology age. To a place that requires sharper sensitivity of things gone unnoticed, illicit thought and reflection of things rarely considered, a universe of life awaiting, by merely inverting the outside in. Quite the potential, in exchange for a few bugs.

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.