BUILDING WITH THE BREATH OF LIFE - Tom Bender - revised draft text 8 Jan.1999


There is life in all Creation. There are wombs in space that give birth to galaxies and stars. The hearts of stars sing like bells. The rocks under our feet thrumm with messages from within and around the world. Trees make love with a thousand others at one time. The microfauna in our cells create communities and transportation systems. All communities have life different from individuals. A forest is a single organism. A planet has what can only be termed consciousness. And they all sing in harmonious celebration of life.

Places, even, do have souls. Small or great, gentle or fierce, nurturing or debilitating. Like all life, they have distinct and often strong personalities. They have auras, and energy bodies. They are touched and altered by our regard or disregard of them, and they are able to move our hearts and alter our lives in turn.

We have ignored this aspect of place in recent years. Except for the rare exception, the places we have been making have not had souls of which we could be proud. But we are learning again to make places with good, and even great souls - ones which enrich and nurture us, empower and connect us.

Most simply put, making places with souls is the most central thing we must attend to in making buildings to shelter our lives and nurture our hearts.


A building with a soul has a number of characteristics:

FIT: A building with a soul fits its site and makes best use of it, making almost magic connections between location, relationships, and views. The arrangement and organization within it, outside it, and in connection with the life around it are apt. It fits its climate, its use and users, and the dreams that drive their society.

COMMUNITY: A building with a soul fits and belongs to the natural community of the local area. It uses local materials, local ways of building, local traditions of design, and supports local patterns of living. It chooses local wisdom for dealing with the similarly local climatic conditions and ways of heating, cooling, ventilating and sheltering. It nestles into and celebrates, rather than standing apart from, its unique ecological community which has evolved through the on-going testing of centuries. It touches the spirit of where it is. [wildflower lawn] [wilson ice garden] [jack frost window]

SIMPLICITY: A building with a soul takes a simple and modest route rather than a complicated one to fulfilling our needs. It lets nature do the work rather than machines. It finds simple answers to needs (with complex reasons why they work so well) rather than complicated high-tech ones. It knows that excess is as harmful as meagerness, and discriminates between things that harm and those that enhance our abilities, our relationships, and our lives. [Hasht Behesht]

INVISIBILITY: Like a good servant, a building with a soul is invisible - a presence known only through the smooth and faultless orchestration of energy, communication, and flow of experience. When our places act as good servants, they draw back into shadow, revealing themselves only slowly, revealing quiet surprises to us from time to time. They let the light and attention rest on their inhabitants and their partners in Creation. They place but small demands on us for attention, operation and maintenance.

They evoke deep and moving experiences. Their making and use pay attention to important inner qualities rather than superficial outer ones. They surround us only with meaningful things, and convey love and clarity of intention. They make us subtly aware of important things in life, so we can come to feel at home everywhere.

They are filled with the emptiness of Lao Tsu's teacup, and reverberates with the peace of silence. They are free of unnecessary possessions and mechanical noises, and open to the joyful sounds of birdsong, laughter, and the sound of the wind. They have learned restraint and simplicity, and the ability to say, "No." [Bender house]

CONNECTION: A building with a soul is enriched and given meaning through its connection with other things. It brings us into closer touch with each other, the rest of the world and the rhythms of nature. It connects us to the daily and seasonal cycles of the sun, the moon, and the stars, and to the visible and invisible universe. It adapts readily to changes in use and additions to its structure. [Loft skylight]

GENEROSITY: The relationships of a building with a soul are based on "giving" rather than "paying". Its retaining walls give more than needed - a place to sit as well as holding back the earth. Its roofs shelter birds and other creatures, as well as passers-by on the street. It may well accomplish that generosity in surprising ways - like a Japanese room, which is generous in space because of its emptiness, not because of its size. Its generosity is created out of the love and energy put into its making. It gives the unexpected. [Japanese room] [MacNaughton terrace]

RESPECT: A building with a soul honors its surroundings, and the lives of materials which were given up to make its existence possible. It honors the skill and competence, and the sacredness of the work gone into its making. It honors its users, like the Japanese placing a guest before a tokonoma, giving them a sense that they and their activities are of value. In respecting its building tradition it honors the insights and wisdom gained by the past. By planting trees, or other means, it honors a hope for a future. It celebrates age, and newness, creativity, death, and its neighbors. It honors all life, and the power that begets it. [Bender door] [Brygman chapel] [ Nurselog]

COHERENCE: A building with a soul is consistent and arises out of a single, whole, and clear vision of the needs it can fill and the possibilities it can unfold. It reflects a lucid and unencumbered intention of its owner, designer, and builder. It has sought and found the heart of the institution it is sheltering, and found ways to honor and unfold that heart in its making. The issues it has addressed are fundamental and not frivolous, and the solutions it has created are sound.

ENDURANCE: A building with a soul is built to endure beyond the needs of its makers - to become a gift to future generations. It acknowledges that a building that lasts 200 years costs 1/10 as much as one that lasts only 20 years. It would be as comfortable a thousand years in the past or future as it is today. It is comfortable with the changes of time, neglect, and love - mellowing and becoming enriched rather than tarnished and tattered. There is a hoary strength and a nourishing peacefulness in the timeless qualities of a building that truly fits our hearts and spirits. [S. Chapelle]

NOURISHMENT: A building with a soul enfolds, shelters, gives peace and rest to all who enter it. It uplifts our spirits, nourishes our souls and brings us into harmony with its own. It gives refuge and sanctuary. It welcomes us with water in the desert, fire in the cold, shelter in the rain; food and friendship everywhere. [MacNaughton porch]

It fills primal psychic needs - for protection, for warmth, for companionship, for meaning. It moves our hearts, and enhances our chi. It helps us marshal our inner resources and stimulates us to use those resources for growth. It affirms sacredness and meaning in our lives and surroundings, and creates places for our hearts and minds as well as our bodies. A building with a soul draws on and connects its users to power extending beyond just the material world. [Kiyomizu] [4 elements]

Together, these qualities combine to create a place that gives us deep welcome and refuge - a place which connects us with the beauty of a unique locale, and draws us more closely together with the rest of Creation.
1 Entering it, we are drawn into an inner calmness, peacefulness, and joyfulness.


The energy basis of Creation is reflected in the altered roles that buildings are designed to fulfill, in the kinds of activities that we undertake and need to house in buildings, and in the image of our society and our universe which is reflected in those buildings. It influences the kinds of institutions we develop which need buildings. We might have restorative justice centers rather than prisons, healing centers rather than hospitals, learning centers rather than schools. It influences the honesty of our building. No fake-brick, no pseudo-Georgian manors, no hyped-up shopping malls.

Energy fields in the earth are acknowledged in choosing locations for buildings that support sensitive uses. They are used to avoid places with bad natural energy for all buildings and in the location and design of buildings to balance and augment the chi of the landscape. They are important in the preservation without buildings of landscapes which have powerful energy.

The Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, Japan, is an outstanding example of this kind of design. The favorable spot was so near the edge of a hillside that the temple builders went to the great effort of a "scaffolding" support structure to permit exact location of the temple. That temple has a very powerful effect on visitors, leaving them with an exhilarating sense of well-being. The temple itself, interestingly, has managed to escape the vicissitudes of popularity and neglect that are inherent in the lifecycles of almost any institution, and certainly of most other temples in the city. [plan and photo]

The interaction of chi in people and place makes it important that the emotional and spiritual well-being of building's users are considered in its design, so that our user energy imparted to the building is good. Fulfilled users leave positive feelings behind, just as pilgrims leave good energy in temples, churches, and shrines they visit. It leads to increased consideration of others in the use of our buildings. It increases the care we take with electromagnetic fields in our buildings, the materials and design, the connection with the outside. It ensures that we design to shield from bad chi and to connect with good energy.

Consideration of chi affects the use of gardens in conjunction with buildings. It leads us to have skylights to connect with the night as well as the daytime sky - connecting to the northern lights or the stars. We may reduce exterior night lighting so we can experience the night, the darkness, and the stars. It brings our buildings to reflect clarity of intention, and at times to focus energy in yantric fashion, where specific geometry of design of space or sculpture affects the chi of building users.

Consideration of the health of all Creation asks us to reduce our numbers and our consumption of material things (such as large or second homes) which take space and resources from other life. It calls for the use of solar heating and natural cooling rather than using fossil fuels. It is acknowledged in the use of renewable resources in construction, the consideration of durability, and the sharing of "our" places with other life. It becomes reflected in smaller scale of communities and their interweaving with more natural areas. It rejects the use of toxics in building construction and maintenance, and encourages our buildings to nestle in with the rest of life in its place. It may affect the exterior impacts and connections required by our building patterns....transportation, land use, food and energy cycles, community, or health.

The role of our minds, hearts, and beliefs in the energy flows between us and our buildings brings about design that deals with the psychological needs of its users. It teaches us to trust our tummies and to design for what feels right. It brings us to seek patterns, such as those developed by Christopher Alexander,
2 which fulfill emotional and community needs.

Both the real and the psychological concerns of a vehicle going out of control and crashing into your space led long ago to an aversion to building at the head of a "T" intersection of roads. Concern with lack of privacy, bad energy, or views of our activities by people on the street leads to avoiding doors opening directly from the street into interior use spaces.

Our relation with the past led the Chinese and many other cultures to emphasize the importance of tombs and their locations, to having ancestral shrines in houses, and to respect for traditional design concepts. It leads us to honoring good tradition and existing surroundings, and to creating places to honor and connect with our ancestors. Consideration of our relationship with the future leads to durability, planting trees, and to sustainable use of resources. It brings us to supporting values and practices which teach future generations enduring patterns, and which bring our intentions in line with that of Creation.

Consider how differently we would feel as a community making decisions, if the actual ashes of a hundred generations of our ancestors were kept in urns under the benches we sit upon as we ponder our actions. We would have a sense of continuity, of durability, of responsibility into the future far different from acting alone just in the here and now.

The greatest achievements and most shameful failures of the past would unavoidably be present in our minds as guidance, support, and measure of our own actions. Aware of how our lives are impacted by past actions, we would realize how greatly the future is impacted by our present behavior. We would instinctively draw upon the wisdom of the past as well as our own, and at times perhaps even feel unequal to the standards they have set. We would think to call on the aid of our ancestors themselves to resolve our problems.

Harmony with our cosmology leads to building design incorporating creation and cultural myths, and making connections between our lives and aspects of the cosmos important in our beliefs. It brings an awareness of cyclic change, and of balancing the qualities of energy in a place.



Entries to buildings, particularly homes, hold an importance in this process far beyond their actual size. Getting a sense of the multiple and important roles they play is vital to successful placement, design, remodeling, or accommodating their function even in an apartment.

[suburban house]
A typical North American residential patterns shows us almost everything not to do with entrance to a home. A large living room window open to the street across an open front yard ensures lack of privacy for the occupants, exposing them constantly to the view of passers by. Anyone approaching the front door has to walk directly in front of that window, waking up in an embarrassing fashion the owner sleeping there in his underwear amidst the ruins of last night's party. Once at the front door, the visitor stands there in the rain getting soaked, with no place to put down their packages or sit and rest while the owner runs around inside trying to get presentable. When the owner answers the door, the visitor comes directly into the living room, interrupting whatever is going on there, and becoming the immediate focus of attention of everyone in the room.

How would your tummy feel as either visitor or resident in this pattern?

Chinese feng shui pays a lot of attention to which room an entry door should open into. The real answer, perhaps, is that entry requires a separate place inside the house, apart from all interior activities. Entry deals with strangers as well as family, and needs to accommodate their business without impinging on the occupants of a house. This doesn't need a lot of space. It does require separation. At minimum, it needs a bookcase, or portable screen, or even a curtain, that can visually close off the entry door area from the rest of the interior.

An entry has to address many needs: weather protection, being a thermal "airlock", putting on and taking off outdoor gear. It has to deal with privacy, safety, protection; places to sit, to put bags and gear, and to discuss business or life. In snow country, roofs need to be designed not to dump snow or icicles on visitor's heads when the door is slammed. Other climates have different needs.

Entries are also the settings for important rituals in our lives. Passionate goodnights after a date, farewells, waiting for family or friends to return, setting off to school or work, return to comfort and rest at the end of a day. They are places of celebration, grief, joy, reticent departures and emotional returns. They are entwined with love, beautiful mornings, sadness, loneliness, excitement. They sometimes denote entry into and departure from sacred space. They become containers for ritual energy, adding to the power of those rituals. They can show connection and how our lives are nestled into the native community of life of the place. Most of these events require at least an eddy out of the way of traffic in and out of an entry door. Some require much more.

Entries can also be a place of giving - offering shade, coolness and water in the desert; warmth and shelter in the cold. They can be a place of giving to the street....of beauty, of caring, of connection and conversation, of guardians and a watchful eye, of mingling the emotions and energies of family and community. They can be places of honoring - honoring visitors and guests, honoring the neighborhood, nature, the materials whose lives were given up in the making of the place. They can be a place for expression of caring.

All this takes more than just the 1-3/4" thick door we usually give to entry! Designing, modifying, and adding elements to an entry area to accomplish these things creates the conditions of harmony between us and others and between us and our surroundings.

The ambiguity of the suburban living room with picture window facing the street is an important one. It speaks of absence of even the most minimal awareness, skills, or traditions to provide privacy to the occupants of the home. But it also speaks of the need for connection, of loneliness, of wanting to know what's going on out on the street and desire to connect with it. While the suburban "front lawn" is a particularly odd and wasteful pattern, connection with the human world outside is an important need.

If designing from scratch, placing the house closer to the street or building a front porch can create a useful in-between space. Even with a row house in the city, placing a couple of pots of plants beside the front door can create a "front stoop" area which can make it comfortable for us to "hang out", talk, or just enjoy the street scene.

[Fire Mt. School or Head Start]
Using topology, or "rubber geometry", we can often accomplish more than one thing at a time, and more than one thing can occupy the same space. By stretching an entry walk over towards one of the sides of a front yard, the rest can be fenced or walled in for private outdoor space for the residents, while still giving access to the entry. In a small elementary school, rubber geometry can stretch the inside "entry" space so it is large enough for a "Commons" - a non-classroom place for parents to wait for kids or to meet with each other, a place for kids to have lunch, do individual work out of class, or hold small group meetings.

At the Saihoji Zen garden in Kyoto, the entry walk is rubber-stretched to extend around two whole sides of the garden, to give the city world time to drain out of visitors' heads, and to bring them to where the garden could be viewed with full attention and with the vegetation backlit by the sun. A front entry can be stretched around to the side of a building if needed for better weather, surroundings, or to link better with the interior arrangement of activities.

[Bender house approach]
One of the first of our needs that entry responds to is our anticipation and need for comfort. Approach to this house gives a glimpse of warm light pouring out of a kitchen, with reserves of food visibly at hand on the shelves. Smoke from the chimney, a sheltered porch, and a full woodpile easily at hand give immediate assurance of warmth, shelter, food, and companionship regardless of power interruptions, road closures, or the worst of weather. The wood is dry, the larder full, a haven in any storm. We start to relax already!

[Bender entry and plan]
Inside, a soil cement floor keeps the entry as part of the ground; steps up to the house floor provide a seat for removing or putting on shoes; a shoji screen provides visual and thermal separation from the living space while bringing light into the entry; a stairs provides access to upstairs offices; and a pantry provides storage for bulk food purchases.

[MacN entry]
Where site conditions dictate living space on the upper level, rubber geometry can stretch the connections entry needs to make. With having entry on the downwind side of the house, and by extending the roof overhang to give rain shelter to the entry stairs, approach to the entry door can occur outside, opening into a lovely wooded area. At the front porch, a bench and shelf gives place to set packages, rest, or take off muddy boots, then a right-angled turn brings visitors to the entry door.

Interestingly, that right angle turn works differently leaving the house. Opening the entry door, the porch gives direct connection out into the wooded part of the lot, then you remember the stairs going down on the left! This pattern makes it possible also, by opening both entry doors, for the house to connect out directly to the woods on nice days. All this from a kink in the entry path!

[MacN patio]
Design of the garden side of the same house used careful organization of levels of outdoor terraces and walls to provide seating without view obstruction. At the same time, it created a rubber geometry stretching the ground level up to the upper floor, although the house floor is almost a full story above grade. By locating circulation paths so people are drawn to a corner of the site, a distinctive view of the ocean and the end of the mountain gives a special sense of connection with the forces of nature.

The wonderful Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck used to talk about doors and windows as a special category of "in-between spaces". He talked about the specialness of walking along the edge of the last landward movement of water on a beach....that in-between realm between water, earth and sky...and how such places have characteristics of their neighboring realms and additional unique ones themselves.

[Nepalese grandma]
Doors and windows do lie on that kind of edge - between the inside and out. Enlarging that edge into a realm of its own containing porches, verandahs, and entries, can recognize its specialness and capture its special potentials for making us comfortable in our complex world. Steps between inside and out can give us a place to sit when we are unsure whether we want to be out or in. It lets us be part of what is going on both outside and inside. A window seat can allow us to linger in that in-between world, able to be securely inside our home, yet able to call out to a neighbor or friend, start a conversation, or just enjoy the passing world outside.

[Queensland porch] [Alquezar]
Houses in the Queensland area of Australia developed a unique pattern of front porches enclosed with a wood lattice - allowing breezes to pass through, giving visual privacy, yet allowing view out to the street. "French windows" in European villages give connection between upper story rooms and friends in the street below. "Spirit walls" outside entries in Japan and China allow entry without losing visual privacy.


[The Arbors]
One common entry problem is "Where is the doorbell?" Its underlying issues are confusion between intended and perceptible boundaries between public and private areas, and how visitors can make their presence known. Consider a site enclosed by a wall, with a closed gate. Do we knock on the gate until the owner hears us, or is it okay to open the gate and go up to the house? Will the owner be upset...after all the gate was closed?

Or as here, when we approach the house, what if there are several possible "front" doors? Or we get to the outside porch door, there is no doorbell, we hear the owner inside but they can't hear us knocking. The glassed-in porch is obviously furnished and used as part of the house. Do we go on in and ring the doorbell at the original front door? Or will the owner open the door and say, "What are you doing in my house?" Again, how does your tummy feel as you try to sort all that out? And why should you have to sort it out?

If we consider everything inside our walled front yard to be private, we should locate a doorbell at the gate. If we expect people to enter and go up to the house, we should keep the gate open, or otherwise indicate welcome. If we close in our entry porch to use as a sunroom, we should move the doorbell to the outer door. Of course, we rarely think of doing those things, but when we don't, there are psychological consequences for others and ourselves.

[Rombalski entry and plan]
Some geomantic traditions such as feng shui emphasize a compact house design, ideally one that will fit easily onto the square geomantic chart diagram. These same guides, however, go on to show how to stretch those diagrams to fit differently onto a house through addition of a sunspace, outdoor room, garage, etc. This suggests the greater importance of our comfort with how things fit together than an exact theoretical fit of a diagrammatic overlay. A good design usually has indoor, outdoor, and in-between places. Fitting a chart onto such subtlety becomes more and more problematic.

Strict geomantic analysis would not result in an "L"shaped house. But this one fits beautifully. In this case, numerous factors resulted in a strongly "L" shaped house design - even more, an "arrow" shaped design. Orientation was with the diagonal of the house facing south rather than a side elevation. The owner did not want the garage dominant to approaching guests, and the Oregon rain indicated the value of covered entry approach. The owners also wanted view out of the house to the north to an entry garden and the rest of their property.

The design of a garden as part of the entry accomplished several things. Interestingly, this brought entry into the center space of the overall house, not one of the perimeter spaces. It gave "protection" from the north, while enhancing the view. And by carefully locating the entry walk, visitors are brought to the front door along the edge of the garden under a wide roof overhang, while the pond keeps them outside the sight lines from the entry windows. This simultaneously maintained view out to the garden, visual privacy of the interior from approaching guests, and rain shelter for the approaching visitor. With rubber geometry, things can be molded and stretched to accomplish what would initially appear impossible from a rigid geometric thinking.

Work out what feels right, then tweak it or stretch the diagram to fit!


[Inland Sea]
Then, of course, there is the story of the Japanese Zen master. As the story goes, a famous Japanese tea master was given a piece of land with an outstanding view of the Inland Sea. When his teahouse was finished, his first guests arrived, curious to see how he had sited it to take best advantage of the magnificent site. They were shocked to find that he had planted a hedge that totally blocked out the dramatic view of the sea.

Then, as they bent to drink the traditional dipperful of water before entering the tea house, a hidden opening in the hedge exposed a view of the waves breaking on the rocks below, just as the water in the dipper touched their lips.

Later, when the master had finished the tea ceremony inside, he quietly slid aside the shoji screens and brought the sense of water that lingered still on their lips and in their hearts together with the powerful vista of the sea below.

The design of entry can do many things!


Homes are personal places. Our living patterns, cultural traditions, and individual comfort levels are very different. The energetics of personal space are dominated by our hearts and minds. Glare, noise, smells affect us differently. What represents comfort and security to each of us is vastly different, and it is those personal perceptions that need satisfaction. Listening to our tummies as to what feels good or bad to us is vital.

Every part of the daily patterns in our homes contains opportunity for embodying the sacred in our lives, for honoring others, finding meaning in our lives, and for deepening our rootedness with the rest of our cosmos:

* A good kitchen does not need fancy appliances, or cabinets filled with equipment and packaged foods. It needs to be a place capable of honoring and enabling those who feed and care for others. It needs to cradle the social rituals of making meals. It needs to honor the foods, allow them to embody the energy given through them by the cook, and enhance their ability to nurture our energy as well as our bodies.

* A bath can be the heart of a home - a place to honor and restore our bodies and our spirits, to wash off the fatigue and tensions of the day, and find wholeness out of its experiences. Our bodies, too, are sacred and wonderful. Even our wastes are food for other life, and nutrients that need to return to the fields.

* Where and how we sleep is not important. Where and how we dream, whose hands we put ourselves into when we sleep, what we wake to and say goodnight to are important. The place between sleep and awake is a place where the veils to the spirit world are thin and where our dreams can be brought to life.

* "Living-room" is a seed of family and community. It is a place for enabling and evoking our relationships, honoring others, our relationships, and ourselves. It is a place of opportunity to care for others, to give gifts of spirit, hope, love, and support.


There are many things we can do to align our lives with our surroundings and our universe. We can change our lives - our perceptions, beliefs, actions. We can make physical changes to our surroundings - choosing or not choosing a site, modifying it; determining or changing the characteristics of what is built on it. Or we can work directly on the energetic level to alter or augment the forces at play and how we relate to them. Beneath all the rules, the goal remains achieving a sense of "rightness". That rightness comes in providing the nurture and love needed for us to feel comfortable within our surroundings and part of relationships and patterns that give meaning and power to our lives.

38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© 8 Jan. 1999

1 My THE HEART OF PLACE and ENVIRONMENTAL DESIGN PRIMER go into more detail on building with a heart and related issues such as geometry and order, giving life to existing places, economics of a sacred world, the inner and outer product of work, and other aspects of sustainable building .

2 Christopher Alexander, et al, PATTERN LANGUAGE, Oxford University Press, ?????