Tom Bender

© May, 2001


The places we make are some of our most visible actions ­ ones that speak clearly to the rest of Creation what is in our hearts and the sources of our love and joy. When I graduated from architecture school, I looked at what I could design, and felt emptiness and sadness in my heart. My designs were lifeless and barren, somehow, and felt very wrong. I didn't like what I'd been taught. As I looked further, it wasn't just me, it was our culture. It didn't know how to touch the heart of things, and therefore couldn't teach it, and the work of my classmates and practicing architects alike suffered equally. As a result, I've spent most of my career trying to learn anew how to put heart back into our homes and into our lives.

In retrospect, it's amazing that it took me, and all of us, so long. It seems so obvious. But it isn't, when you're a product of your culture and its oddness has a seamless internal logic. It wasn't architecture that needed to change, it was everything, and we had to feel our way out of the box piece by piece, transforming the whole web. So my life has been a curious dance, going as way opens ­ between the magic and the mundane; theory and practice; economics and technology and art; words and hammers and nails.

One of the things I remember that brought my path into focus happened while teaching architecture in Minnesota in the early '70s. Change was in the air, the Whole Earth Catalog, Domebook, Radical Software, and other publications networking a heady brew of new visions and action. I would look at the seductively beautiful transparent geodesic domes that people were building in California, and say to myself, "Gee, I wish I could do that here, but it's too cold, and too and too "

One day, a new issue of one of the magazines arrived. In it was an article on the building of a dome, and the wonderful things learned in the process about heat flow in domes and their special value in cold climates. This dome wasn't in California. It was in northern Minnesota, an even more rugged climate than where I lived ­ minus 400 temperatures, mosquito-filled summers ­ you name it. So I could have done something where I was, and hadn't even tried. I played back to myself what I had been saying . . . "I can't . . . I can't . . . I can't . . ." "O.K.," I said, "that word isn't getting us anywhere. Time to throw it our of our vocabulary."

I asked myself then what the most important thing was that our world needed I might possibly be able to help achieve. Then I learned not to look at what we are lacking to change the world, but to look at what we do have, then figure out how we could use what we have to help accomplish what was needed. The third thing, I learned from Bucky Fuller ­ to look for big changes, not small ones, and that it usually takes twenty-five years for a real change to become part of a culture. The fourth was that we learn by doing, and that learning spreads when people can see and touch and feel that something does work, does feel right, does touch them in their heart.

I was teaching architecture. Many of the students and a few of the faculty felt it was important to change "education". What did I have? Classes to teach. Money? Grants? Curriculum? No, but I could give academic credit! In one class, I "paid" advanced students with academic credits to help teach things that weren't in the curriculum. In another, I was assigned to teach a history course in "Renaissance Architecture. I had said when I was hired that I didn't like Renaissance architecture and didn't want to teach it. A creative reading of the course description revealed that it didn't mention anything about having to stick to European Renaissance Architecture. And of course the school taught virtually nothing about the architectural history of other cultures. So the first day of that class, I announced that we would be looking at the exciting renaissance of architecture that had occurred in Japan, Persia, China, and India at the same time as in Europe!

All this may seem a long way from designing and building homes, but it explains in part what designing and/or building a home is to me. If building my own home is what is on my plate, then my question to myself is, "OK, what can be achieved through this? What resources, what opportunities do I have, and what might I be able to achieve with them?" When our house burned down the day we finished building it, then that was what was on my plate, and my question to myself was, "OK, what can be achieved through this? What resources, what opportunities do I have, and what might I be able to achieve with them?"

By the time I did get to building a house, it was part of many strands of a new web that was building in and through my life. Using what resources I had (students, academic credits) we had built one of the first regionally self-reliant demonstration houses ­ the Ouroboros Project in Minnesota. Using some university land that was somehow exempt from building codes, utilizing student labor and skills, recycled and begged materials, we built a pioneering house that demonstrated the viability of renewable energy and energy efficiency. At the same time it also demonstrated a new ecological economics that

Reducing our energy use by an order of magnitude was one of the things I felt we needed to do to achieve sustainability. What could I do? Show it was possible on paper. What resources did I have? An old typewriter. Out of it came "Living Lightly: Energy Conservation in Housing", a path-breaking monograph which showed that we could reverse accepted trends and achieve order of magnitude improvements in how we do things. Ouroboros showed that the theory worked. This seed, a couple of decades later, became today's new "Factor-10 Economics" which is applying the process developed in Living Lightly to transform all sectors of our economy.

This was followed by articles ­ self-published, then reprinted in New Age, Utne Reader, East-West Journal and other publications ­ that introduced first my students and then our culture to the chi energy based Chinese practice of feng shui and its geophysical basis, and to the concepts later termed "sustainability". Another door opened and I was suddenly doing energy research and writing energy policy in Governor Tom McCall's office in Oregon. Nobody else, it seemed, had figured out both that we could reduce our energy use greatly, and that life might be better, not worse, in the process!

After that, some friends were doing an environmental education newsletter, called RAIN. Its grant was running out, and the university center it was in was closing. What could we do with this resource? Outside of academia, it became a resource networking publication spearheading the development of more appropriate technologies, resource efficiency, recycling, organic agriculture, and community economics.

It was time again to put words into action, and our feet where our mouths were. So we built a house. Today, thank goodness, many aspects of its design have become common practice and no longer seem innovative. But for the mid-seventies, it did okay. One of its goals was to make ourselves self-reliant for our housing needs, avoiding mortgage costs through sweat-equity, so we could live simply and free our time to do interesting things. The things that I was interested in were, of course, unfundable because nobody understood them yet. Wasting time searching for funding didn't seem worthwhile. People rarely fund the early stages of new developments. This part of the house isn't really visible in its design. Another goal was to demonstrate and experience simpler living patterns ­ no-commuting working at home; compact, innovative use of space; simpler and more earth-friendly technologies; more direct ties with the rest of nature. A third goal was learning construction skills. A fourth, applying in our own lives, testing, and developing resource efficient ways of building.

It hardly seems radical now, but local people had never seen 2x6 advanced framing wood construction. They refused to put insulation into walls underneath windows, because those areas seemed prone to rot in our very wet climate (from condensation on the glass of single-glazed windows, it turned out). Our house must have seemed odd to some ­ more than twice the insulation normally used; wood heat from one of the first air-tight Defiant woodstoves (made from recycled automobile engine blocks); an owner-built squat compost toilet and graywater system (built as part of a state testing program which legalized their use); a solar hot water system made with recycled printing plates; an outside-vented "cool box" instead of a refrigerator; insulating shutters for the windows; passive solar heating; water- and energy-conserving foot-pedal faucets; recycled wood walls, window glass, plumbing fixtures, stove, etc.; whole walls of the house sliding away to open to the outside; floor sitting on carpets, futons, and cushions; earth cement entry floor; h

This house, and those that followed, were learning laboratories for what focussed attention can do in the process of design and building as well as in other work. Attention is a Zen practice of not letting our minds wander from what we're trying to do, keeping our intention clear, and listening to what comes out in the process of work that suggests one thing or another is right, or wrong, or inessential. I wasn't a Zennie, but was trying hard to learn what touched my heart or didn't ­ and why. I've written a lot about what I've learned ­ in The Heart of Place; Silence, Song & Shadows; Building with the Breath of Life and elsewhere. Before building this house, I'd wondered how to know whether a particular design detail or idea was right or not. I learned the obvious, of course. Build it, and it will tell you. The results will bother you, and you rip out what you've done; you love it, and your heart skips a beat every time you come into the room; or you forget about it and learn that it didn't matter! The learning with all three options goes beyond just doing it.

I knew I was going as deep as I could to find soul when I built this house. In the process, of course, I learned that we can't go deeper than we are. I would keep trying to add some richness to a design, then it wouldn't feel right and I'd remove it. I couldn't do it right until I was right. Eventually, as I did deepen, so did my work. Each job was a teacher, with both expected and unexpected lessons, both of which opened new doors and deepened the harmony.

I did achieve something in this house that I wasn't consciously trying to do. It was probably the most important thing accomplished in the project, though I wouldn't learn it for almost twenty years. It had nothing to do with the techie-toys, though they were probably necessary elements. It had little to do directly with any of my conscious goals. Intuitively, I had somehow managed to actively work on an energetic level as well as the material one, and to create a place filled with healing and sacred energy; a place filled with the peace and wholeness that I had been seeking.

It was probably a dozen years later before I was able to achieve the same thing consistently in projects for other people, using other builders, and dealing with other people's dreams. What was happening to me on the conscious level at the same time was that I was discovering that the vehicle for all the things I was trying to achieve was chi or life-force energy. It was the basis of the Chinese feng shui I had incorporated in my work years ago. Walking around in circles, I'd tripped over something for the second time ­ but this time finally understood its value!

One of the most powerful tools for working with chi energy is intention. And it was the clarity and strength of my intention in how I designed and built which gave power to the place. By this point, I didn't have to do any conscious energy work on the site or the building. I didn't even have to see or visit the site, or do anything special in the design. The design itself was empowered in some way to bring focus and power to the energy that emerged in the process of the building becoming materialized during construction. Amazing . . . and more amazing the more I learned about life-force energy, how other cultures worked with it in their building, and how it affects our lives and health. It's reacknowledgement in our culture today is triggering what is probably the most powerful positive transformation our culture has ever known. (See Building with the Breath of Life for details.)

I kept my mouth shut about this new development, and listened to people's reactions to the places I helped bring into being. People started to say, "Wow, the energy is incredible in this house." I'd respond, "Yes, it has a wonderful view; it's a lovely spot . . ." "No," they'd reply, "I mean the energy of the house is wonderful!" At a local workshop I was teaching on feng shui, I started to say something about the energy of our own house. At that point, a woman put up her hand and said, "I'd like to say something about the energy of Tom's house." Okay. "Well," she said, "the first time I went into his house I almost threw up." "Oh, great!" I replied, "Can I use that as a jacket blurb on my next book?"

A marvelous and sensitive yoga teacher, she had just moved to our area. In the process, she had put up protective barriers around her energy to buffer the disruption of moving. When she walked into our house, the barriers tumbled away because the house felt so safe, and it was that which had disoriented her.

Over the years, I have found many things that help put the soul back in our surroundings. Once understood, almost all of them turn out to be connected with life-force energy. It is the telephone line through which we communicate with all of the rest of nature and become a connected part of its community. It is what breathes life into what we make, surrounding us with places filled with love and joy, rather than the deadness out of which I was taught to design buildings. It is what connects us with the spirit world; what energizes the things that manifest into the material world; and what nurtures and heals our lives and our communities. And learning its theory after how to do it was important. By the time I understood it, I had already forged new ways for our own culture to successfully apply it in our conditions rather than copying something without understanding from another culture.

So building a home for me now is an opportunity for each of us to help heal our culture, our communities, our selves, and our relationships with other life. It is an opportunity to affirm wholeness, the sacred, the wonderful cosmic dance of which we are again part.

It was an odd search, not knowing what we were looking for. And we couldn't know, because we were lacking it so totally. The only way possible to find it was to discard what we knew wasn't it, and hold on to each little piece that seemed like it might be a piece of what we were lacking. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the answer came together piece by piece, until suddenly we saw the connections that gave us wholeness again.


38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© May 2001