BUILDING WITH THE
BREATH OF LIFE - Tom Bender - revised
draft text 8 Jan.1999
. GETTING TO KNOW A PLACE
The goal of getting to know a place from an energetic viewpoint is to become aware of the physical and energetic patterns in it and their interaction with the influences impinging upon them. It is to see in what ways the place is good or harmful for the activities and people concerned, and in what ways it can be made more beneficial to the purpose of life, the communities and individuals involved. It is to begin to communicate with the place, to get to know and to love it in its complex living wholeness.
This involves, obviously, both objective, physical information and also more intuitively gained awareness of energetic flows and patterns. The skills of apprehending all these things are rarely found in a single individual, and you may need to get help with what is outside your skills and abilities.
On the other hand, don't underestimate your tummy. The most important thing is how comfortable you feel in the place. Someone else's sensitivities or concerns may have more to do with their own inner needs than yours. Trust your gut feelings. And look at this discussion just as a checklist to remind you to "look both ways before crossing the street".
No place exists by itself. Its neighbors, history, and impinging future all influence its present existence. It was discovered recently that the mountain we live on used to be the riverbed of the Columbia River millions of years ago, which filled with molten basalt from the cataclysmic rock floods in eastern Oregon. As the land rose, sedimentary rock on both sides eroded away, leaving a monolithic mountain chain of volcanic rock where once was the river's channel draining the entire northwest section of the continent. What a shift in perspective of where we live!
Those long flows of history live in our minds and hearts, and color in subtle ways our current patterns of life. Look out from the particular place you are concerned with, and try to see what larger patterns it is part of. The surrounding land, geology, soils, water, topography, watersheds and airsheds can teach much about the individual place itself. In hilly areas, cold air drains down and pools in valleys - cooling in the summer, but extra cold in winter. Fog and rain follow particular landform patterns, and even tornadoes.
The area where I grew up in Ohio was situated between two east-west glacial moraines. Old local legends said that tornadoes never strike between these "North and South Ridges". This was all interesting folklore until one day a tornado funnel moved directly towards our house from the west. Suddenly, a couple of blocks away, it split into two funnels, one passing north of the North Ridge, the other passing south of the South Ridge! Enough for doubts of the importance of landforms.
From maps, from high places, from the air, and from moving on the ground through the area, examine the patterns of natural features. In an urban area these still exist underneath the aggregation of buildings and roads. Look at the patterns of mountains, hills, prominences; the kinds of rock, steepness and stability of slopes, the geological history of the area. Follow the branchings of valleys and gullies; rivers, creeks, lakes, ponds, and waterfalls. Trace them in and out of their bondage in culverts.
Look at drainage, wet soils, marshes and swamps; isolated trees, forested areas, patterns of vegetation in general, and the kinds of wildlife. When a local builder moved a bulldozer onto a site to prepare for foundations, he found that the ground belched sewer gas every time the bulldozer went back and forth. It turned out that the site was a ravine filled with accumulated peat, over which a couple of feet of dirt had been spread before it was sold. This kind of study could have alerted the builder to check out the site before buying.
Look at areas with no sun or no shade. Is the area subject to earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, ice storms, floods or other intensive natural events? Feel these things both in the wholeness of their patterns and how the place you are considering is part of those patterns. New knowledge of local tsunami hazards in a community can cause a plummeting of value for certain low-lying lots.
Together, these things show the history of interaction of natural forces out of which has evolved the character of a region. What is the temperament or spirit of the landscape, and the character of life which has matured in it? What is and will be the character of people living as part of those patterns? Hill people, valley people; agricultural and hunting people; people of the deserts, of the snows, of the rain countries - all are and become different people.
Look then at the human elements which have become part of the surroundings - at how they have responded to the natural features, changed them, and added to them. What are the meanings and implications of the agricultural and urban patterns? Look at the fields, hedges, drainage systems and canals; the roads, bridges, airfields; phone and electric lines and microwave towers. What energy and spirit have tunnels, quarries, junkyards, industrial sites, and road cuts created? What is moving in over the horizon?
A peaceful campsite on the Oregon coast at noon on Friday can turn into bedlam by Saturday morning when the weekend dune buggy racers arrive. Many whole communities go through such changes regularly due to tourism and other seasonal changes.
Try to become aware also of what invisible forces - both natural and human - are at work in the surroundings and what impacts they may have. The apartment is lovely, but what about the subway trains shaking the foundations eighteen hours a day? One friend's house looks idyllic until you peek through the trees and realize that it is surrounded by TV broadcast towers beaming microwaves across the site. What are the energy flows and concentrations in the earth and air? What are the auras of the land and cities? What about its electromagnetic fields? In a city, zoning regulations may not be visible at first glance, but a zoning decision last week or next year could totally transform the area.
What population pressures are there that may cause rezoning of the area from rural to urban, from residential to industrial. What transportation and political pressures might generate a new freeway artery that brings large numbers of people into the area? Where might the next airport go, bringing planes overhead or development next door?
What is the health of the area? Does it feel nurturing or debilitating? How could it be changed for better, or might it change for worse? What are the colors of the area? Who are the plant, animal and human neighbors? Can you see the stars at night, the rising and setting of the sun and moon? Can you feel the patterns of clouds moving overhead? What changes do the seasons bring? What changes has the last, and might the next century bring?
Do the patterns feel generative of life? Remember that life includes waterless rocky areas and windswept plain, not just farms and people. How do individual topographic elements feel from the site? Do they give a sense of protection, high energy, stultification, threat? Does your spirit rise or fall as you sense the patterns of life? How does this area feel as a place to be? And how easy is it from the site you are examining to feel, and be part of, all these aspects of the flow of life around it?
Particularly in urban areas, look at the small patterns immediately surrounding the place. What are the size and density of buildings, presence or absence of trees? Again, what about phone lines, electrical wires, drains and culverts? A friend built a house in Vancouver BC, only to have his basement flood while the neighbors' all stayed dry. He found out that his lot was crossed by a now-buried creek. Are there electromagnetic fields from power lines or transformers? Will street lights shine onto the site? Are the houses next door so close as to feel claustrophobic? Are the neighboring townhouses fire- and structurally-separated?
What kind of wealth, cultural and social patterns do surrounding residential areas reflect? Is there love in their making and use? Do people's houses look inviting and cared for? The neighborhood of manicly manicured lawns might not be welcoming to your vision of an unmown wildflower meadow around your house. Is there welcome in the streets and the businesses? Is there space to walk and breathe among the cars? What are the intentions or values underlying what is there? Is the land use pattern one for people, or is it automobile based?
What about places to play, places to worship, schools, workplaces or markets? What are the sounds of the neighborhood, and its energy - hostile, angry, loving? Are there institutions you would want to be near or ones you wouldn't want to have for neighbors? Is there singing, screaming, loud music, or laughter? Do you hear people, birds, and animals - or machines? Is there community?
What about sources of negative energy? Are there graveyards, hospitals, old battlegrounds, police or military installations, industrial facilities or similar places nearby? Being on the ambulance approach route to a hospital a couple of blocks away might keep you awake at night, but also make you superconscious of death, illness, and accidents.
Are building materials and landscaping subject to conflagration? What is the proximity of other buildings, walls, windows; shapes of roofs, direction of roads and driveways? Do the impacts of these things on the property you are examining feel protective or threatening? Are there ways to shield or alter them to better influence?
Look again for hidden things. Ask yourself, "What is there that I'm not seeing?" The beautiful trees surrounding a house on a hill in a lovely neighborhood may be screening a view into a railroad freight yard below. All night, it could turn out, freight cars might crash together as the next day's trains are assembled. At another apartment I remember in Virginia, there turned out to be a single railroad track tucked out of sight across a parking lot. What was invisible turned out to be quite audible, however. This was the precise point where the engineers would put all five engines to full throttle to get headway up to cross the mountains.
What impacts - positive and negative - would the use being considered for the place you are examining have on the neighborhood and surroundings? What could it give to the neighborhood?
THE SITE AND SITE BUILDINGS
Come to know the place as intimately as possible - by day and in the night, in rain and dryness; in all seasons. Does it receive adequate light and sun? Does it feel too exposed or too shaded? What is its orientation? Will it overheat from afternoon sun? Is it buffeted by wind or stifled by lack of air movement? Does it feel protected or threatened; energized or deadened by the people, places, and things around it? The north-slope site that is cool and shady in the summer might also turn out to be dank, chilly, and sunless for six months of the year.
Looking at the site, consider the same things as in its surroundings, but paying attention to their detail on this site and how it relates to those surroundings. Does entrance to the site or building feel exposed? Is the site located on the outside of a bend in a river which feels like the river could undermine it? Will the headlights from cars coming down a street shine directly in the windows? Are there steep banks above or below the site, and are they stable? Does anything neighboring have a presence of looming over the site? What are the soils, drainage, views, vegetation, shading or access to sunlight?
Do the site and buildings feel like they have good chi? Could it be enhanced? Does it feel like there is good chi nearby to connect with? Is there a feeling of bad energy on or impinging on the site? Could that be changed by drainage, planting, building, or clearing of energy on the site? That little asphalt "dam" across the driveway could alert you that the long sloping driveway drains water directly into the house every time it rains. Does it feel like exposure to good or bad energy is stronger in one direction or another? Could plantings, walls, storerooms, garages, or other seldom used areas shield from bad energy? Could important spaces be oriented towards good energy?
Does "street energy" come directly into the site or into the building through perpendicular walks, roads or driveways? Are front and back door directly opposed, causing a feeling of public space through the building? Is there privacy on the site or in the building? And is connection maintained with the community world of the street? Is there anything about the site, building, or surroundings that would attract thieves? Or are there "friendly watchers" that prevent such encroachment?
Is there exposure to lightning, high winds, reflected light, noise, or anger? Are other forms of life present and bountiful on the site? What about other life attracted by poor maintenance and living practices - cockroaches, fleas, rats, or other poor neighbors? Is there any evidence of use of hazardous herbicides or pesticides?
What about connection between people using the site or building and outdoor spaces with other people and other forms of life? Are there outdoor spaces? Are they as carefully considered regarding their possible uses, access, and interconnection as spaces inside the building? What do those spaces connect you with? How do they feel? How would they feel in a different season? Are they easy to access and do they encourage their use? Does the intention and design philosophy expressed in the buildings and gardens reflect a positive attitude towards all life?
What is the people history of the place and its neighbors? Are neighbors happy? Is there a history of death, divorce, unhappiness, personal, family, or business failure connected with the property or the neighborhood? Can causes be found and remedied, and energy cleared? What changes have historically happened to people using the site or surroundings?
There are two buildings, one old and one new, on our local main street, where businesses have never lasted more than a year. The reasons are different with each building, but the situation has gone on so long that locals now assume that any new business in those buildings is going to fail, so they don't even try to patronize them!
Look at how the past, present, and future touch the site. What changes in it, or its context have occurred or potentially might occur? Look at connections and barriers - what are the sightlines in and out, what kinds of soundlinks exist? What about acoustical separation between neighbors on the other side of a wall, floor, or ceiling, or with close-by windows? How clearly are boundaries established between public and private space, and can they be clarified?
Is entrance to the building confusing or difficult to find? Are there multiple doors? Is access awkward - are there sticking doors, broken latches, storm doors, steps, railings, tree branches, snowdrifts or anything else that makes it uncomfortable to go in and out of the building? Is there evidence of care and love in maintenance and upkeep? How does the place smell?
What are the patterns of ownership, management, and care for the buildings and neighbors that may impact their condition and values they reflect? What values are reflected by the design and construction, building patterns, proximity, and connections?
Are there things in the layout of the building or site that give improper signals to people? A stair directly facing an entry door may make it appear that private upstairs rooms are really the main public spaces in the building. A bedroom with an outside door more visible to visitors than the entry door may receive unexpected guests. Unclear access paths to different apartments or businesses in a building may cause confusion and people going to the wrong doors.
Lack of clarity whether a door opens into public or private space may result in tenants feeling invaded and visitors feeling embarrassed. I have known several apartments where closet doors looked just like the entry door. Guests frequently would walk into the closet rather than out into the hall, much to everyone's chagrin. These and similar things also convey that the builders and owners have not been aware of their surroundings and their impacts on people, and may cause lingering concern about what other surprises lay in wait.
How does the place move your heart - or does it? Are there specific things or a general feeling that attracts you, moves your heart, and makes you want to stay; are there things that make you want to leave, or is there nothing present that moves you at all?
Places that have dramatic and abrupt features, like houses on the edge of a cliff, often have powerful energies. They are also generally not easy to live with, and at best require special and careful connection from us in order not to be malign.
The shapes and configurations of buildings, lots, and spaces should also be considered. Complex shapes of a property may be hard to utilize well. This can sometimes be overcome by utilizing the otherwise awkward configuration to create a series of connected outdoor "rooms" rather than a single oddly shaped space. Sloping properties can sometimes be used to advantage to create uses separated vertically instead of just horizontally. Here again, use the tummy-test. If you feel comfortable about being able to use it, okay. If it feels awkward to you, it is.
Buildings, like all creatures, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are put together poorly, others well. A giraffe is an unlikely, but beautiful creature, well suited to its conditions. Similarly, a building can take an unexpected or unusual form to achieve something valuable. Another with the same form, just to be different or out of poor design, feels wrong. Again, we feel the aptness when we sense its connection and purpose, or lack of it.
What is a strange looking house to one individual or culture might be a wonderfully harmonious home to someone else, or in another culture. (Whether that person or culture is in harmony with the earth and the universe is, of course, a different question!) We have to be sensitive to context and meaning. And as Frank Lloyd Wright always warned, new things may not feel comfortable until we become familiar with them.
Probably the important criteria is coherence - a oneness of intention, purpose, attainment, and congruence with the purposes and needs of the intended users.
Remember also, that our little Earth-ball has extremely varied conditions within which have existed long lasting cultures filled with joy, wisdom, creativity and beauty. What may appear to be a hostile or unlivable place to an Englishman may, to a Bushman, Inuit, or Khmer, be the receptacle of thousands of years of joyful existence. And vice versa.
Where I live might be to many a harsh and unfriendly world - 100 inches of rain a year, unstable ground, hundred mile per hour winds. It is home, however, and I love it. In turn, I feel uncomfortable and smothered when I cross the Coast Range into the Willamette Valley, a tame and benign place where everything can and does grow. So what is good in terms of place is only what is good in terms of culture, history, connectedness and context. There is no universal answer. Get that old tummy out again - it is still the best measure of rightness and feels-good.
Inside a building, we need to pay particular attention to the needs of individual activities and the connections between them. A place where kids play should have close connection to where an adult is able to keep an eye or ear on them. In one family, this may be the kitchen, in another a home office. We can easily get over-specific in this area, as our real needs are much less than our common cultural patterns, particularly in materially rich cultures.
Privacy doesn't need "separate rooms". It was achieved, for example, in a traditional Japanese family home without interior partitions, merely by turning to face the wall. It was an accepted signal to others that a person wanted to be alone for a while. Similarly, people from cultures filled with "things" are often amazed at the wonderful meals that can come from the simplest "kitchen", or the enjoyable life possible in homes without dining rooms, TVs, separate bedrooms, computers, or garages.
In some cultures, people rarely bathe. In others, the bath is the most important space in the home. In others yet, the homefire is the core of "home". Some cultures have separate rooms for different activities. Others, like the Japanese, have lightweight furniture and storage separate from the rooms, so that a room can be used for dining, living, sleeping, or other purposes at different times.
In looking at a house, or a floor plan, try to throw out preconceptions, and just look at the individual spaces, their size, orientation, and connections, and try to figure out how best to use them. If room A isn't big enough for a home office, it won't work. If room B is the sunny and warm room, in many climates everyone will gravitate to it regardless of the intended use. And if we have to go through room C to get to room D, that interlinks the use of both.
A comfortable entrance, with separation from the interior space of the house, is important. Comfortable places to gather, eat, play, prepare meals and sleep are important. Connection with the outside worlds of nature and community is important.
In perhaps the majority of buildings, detailed rules of what is good or bad for movement of chi in the place are probably far less important than two overriding considerations. The first is the chi generated from the happy and harmonious use of the place. And the second is the chi generated from the clarity of intention of the designer and builder and the harmony of that intention with the spirit of life in the place the building is located.
The presence of soul in a building is necessary in order to attain either of these considerations. This involves, in part, absence of machine noises (TV, toilets flushing, washing machines, refrigerators, furnaces). It involves use of natural building materials and honoring their past lives. Elimination of excessive space, energy use, and TV are necessary also, along with honoring the heritage, the ecological community, and the spirit of all life.
One general principle of comfort and security in a place which is buried deeply in our genes is freedom from surprise. In geomantic rules, this translates into not having our back to the door of an office, or having our bed facing away from the door of a bedroom. There is reason to these rules, but they need not be followed to excess. There are usually a variety of clues and senses by which we become aware of someone approaching. In a quiet house, a squeaky floor can fulfill the same purpose, or at night, reflections in window glass. In our own house, we can see from our bed if the kids are sneaking into the cookie jar in the kitchen, through reflections in the windows!
Another element of security is faith in the adequacy of our shelter. Fears of the roof blowing off in a storm or of a nearby tree falling on a house silently sap our energy. Worry about a sagging floor or beam, or a leaking roof diffuses our attention, as does movement of a building in the wind. Even a well-designed building can feel uncomfortable if we are sitting or sleeping right under a very large beam and becoming aware of the immense weight it must be holding up. (This effect doesn't seem to occur as much with repetitive rafters or floor joists, or beams with an arch or curvature to them.) As mentioned earlier, a typical geomantic response to this beam/weight situation in existing buildings is to hang a feather, or a flute, or something associated with lightness from the beam. Our minds intermix the two senses and escape worry about the weight overhead. [feather/beam]
Assurance that our home will meet our needs of shelter gives peace of mind and creates a true sanctuary. Security is a root of at-homeness. Shelter, a full pantry, firewood at hand, a loving smile are true welcome. A community we trust and are at peace with gives true peace of mind. [woodpile / full pantry]
Several cultures have developed specific building practices to avoid this feeling. Certain temples in India use corbelling (further projecting out of successive courses of masonry from the wall) to span spaces without the feeling of bending from beams. Roof structures of Japanese temples employ a particularly clever sleight-of-hand. The builders wanted the feeling of shelter from wide overhangs of their massive tiled roofs. But they wanted to achieve that feeling of shelter with an effortlessness that wasn't really possible structurally. So they ended up building ceilings of fake small rafters hiding the big structural ones, with upward curvature to the whole roof so it feels almost weightless from underneath!
[Mt. Abu][Japanese temple verandah and section]
Some cultures have had specific rules in their geomancy of homes for locations of kitchens, toilet rooms, entrances, and other use areas. These and other traditional rules are worth looking at and considering. Many of them appear to have emerged from commonsense considerations of health and odor in urban houses in cultures without running water or sewers, rather than from geomantic considerations.
This is probably the first time in history that accumulation of excessive personal possessions has become so widespread as to become a serious impediment to the energy between people and between people and place. Dealing with possessions is not built into our genes, so we have to develop new skills for clearing out excess possessions as easily as we accumulate them. I had a client come to me once to build an addition on his house. In the process, he told me about how lucky he was, that someone had given him a pool table absolutely free. I scratched my head for a minute until I was sure he wasn't joking, then replied, "That wasn't a free pool table, it was a $50,000 pool table. That is what it will cost you to build this addition you're wanting to house it! It might be wiser, and certainly cheaper, to give it to the coffee house across the street in return for free use!"
Some other friends we were visiting a couple of years ago had a house more filled with belongings than any I'd ever seen. Their garage was so full of stuff that they had to park their cars on the street. Their basement, likewise, was filled. We'd go into one room after another, lined with shelves and bookcases full of stuff. Once those had filled up, they had set up a second row of shelves in front of the first, and now they were filled up.
They'd bought a television and a couple of comfortable chairs, and put them in the corner of a room. But pretty soon that corner was so full of stuff it was unusable, so they bought another TV and a couple more chairs, and set them up somewhere else. And again, and again! They were totally paralyzed in dealing with their belongings, and were even thinking of building a new house because their existing one didn't have enough room in it!
Possessions can be a joy, but are unquestionably also a burden. They require care, use, maintenance, storage, access, and replacement. We're constantly having to lug stuff around, and move stuff to get to something behind it. Stuff is always diverting our energy and attention - yelling at us that we could be doing something else. We are constantly having to learn more consumerist hair-splitting to decide which stuff to choose. It is reaching the point where we're beginning to live in walk-in closets filled with stuff, not in rooms!
For most of us, it is time to learn to say no, to learn to pass on and get rid of stuff, to decide against getting more stuff because of the downstream effects of such actions. It's time to learn enoughness, to live lightly, and to let go of the past and gain the freedom of walking free and unencumbered through the world.
Sometimes it feels good to be surrounded by loved and meaningful things. Most of the things we have are neither. In the midst of doing something, it is inevitable we have a lot of stuff around, and that's okay. It's inactive, overwhelming, excess, forgotten, and neglected stuff that nags at our subconscious.
In part because of the fire hazards of their wood and paper houses, the Japanese developed an interesting way of dealing with possessions. They built a fireproof kura, or storeroom building, separate from the house itself, where they kept all valuable and out-of-season belongings, safe from fire. Each room was then an empty vessel, into which they brought just the one painting, flower arrangement, or carving they wanted to focus totally upon and enjoy, and the table, seats, or sleeping futons needed for the immediate use.
Clearing out old "stuff" and dealing with clutter is like weeding a garden. It opens space and light for new things to grow in our lives and for us to focus on what is truly important. Things which needlessly divert our attention keep us from our true goals. Possessions - cleared out, and out of mind. Place - focused on people, nature, relationships, and the moment.
No site, and no building is perfect. After examining
a place both objectively and intuitively, we need to summarize what changes
we feel are needed and possible to accommodate it to its intended use -
physically accommodating the new use, minimizing the effects of negative
influences, and enhancing the effects of positive ones.
After seeing what can be given to us through it, we need also to ask what we can give to others through that place at the same time. Then it is time to sleep, dream, meditate, or otherwise let our intuitive processes integrate our overall impressions into recommendations and decisions. And then find creative ways to implement such actions.
38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© 8 Jan. 1999