Sunday, October 6, 2013

A pattern language

I just wanted to give a quick update on the progress of one of the many projects we have going on here. The kitchen/dining room door is just about complete. The fresh plaster around the door frame still needs to be painted, obviously. 

We chose to make a door that has a top half and a lower half--kind of a barnyard inspired door. Ideally, this kind of a door would be best to have between the inside of the house and the outside. The top half could be opened and used as an additional window. Why did we put such a door between two interior rooms? Because we wanted to, of course! To be honest, we just like the way that these doors look.

My favorite part of the door is the window. To make it we inserted a pane of glass in cob--a mixture of sand, clay, and straw. 

As our unique door suggests, we are doing our best to avoid using standardized building materials in our house. Rather, we want to be careful that the many features of our house create an interconnected ensemble. We want each part to work in relation to the whole. 

Take our door, for example. Everything was done for a reason. The window is there to let in light from the south facing kitchen even when the door is closed. This will help brighten the dark dining room. It will also help prevent anyone who is cooking in the kitchen from being hit by the door. The stove is right on the other side. Additionally, we wanted an arched window to help soften the rigid right angles of the lumber. Since rectangular panes of glass are all that we had to work with, we decided to embed the glass in cob. Cob is a material that lets one sculpt in many different forms. We could have made the window rectilinear, square, triangular, round, ovular, or star shaped. In short, it could be sculpted in virtually any way you want. Cob allows the architect (us!) to use their imagination--and you know we are all about that! Plus, cob is cheap. We paid nothing for the sand, clay, and straw. We used scrap wood from the workshop here on our property. The glass is from an old window that we found in the garage. In fact, we only had to buy screws and hinges to make this door. Since we are trying to save money in any way we can, this is a big help. 

As I said, we like this door. But we wouldn't like it so much if it were placed somewhere else. For example, it wouldn't be such a good thing if we were to transplant this door and make it the main entrance to the house. First of all, it has a hand made, wooden doorknob.

The door when opened

The door when closed

The doorknob is, admittedly, a little clumsy. But it serves its purpose. Basically, it is just meant to keep the cats out of the kitchen and to insulate any foul smells that may result from one of my failed attempts at cooking. An entryway to the house, on the other hand, requires a much more presentable doorknob and lock. It should be standardized because many different people will be using it. An immediately intelligible door knob is probably a good thing to have so that our guests will not have to figure out how to use an idiosyncratic doorknob. There is much less of a chance that visitors will have to use the kitchen door. Also, an exterior door needs to be sealed much better than this door is. It needs to be sealed so that rain, snow, and cold air do not blow through the cracks and into the house. That is why we will be sinking some money into purchasing a proper door and doorknob for the entrance.

Would this door be suitable to our bedroom? Probably not. Again, the cracks would let in too much sound from the adjoining room. Also, the window would let in light. This would probably unwelcome to somebody trying to get some shuteye on the other side.

I have been inspired by A Pattern Language, a book about architecture and the built environment. A Pattern Language is a book written by architects and urban planners that describes a model for building. It starts on the scale of towns and regions and gradually moves down to the smaller details of individual rooms. What guides the authors of the book is a concern that each aspect or "pattern" of the built environment relates to everything else around it. I think that our door is a good example of a pattern that the authors recommend. In fact, one of their recommendations is to build thick doors with windows (Some of their other patterns include making outdoor rooms. I described some of our outdoor rooms in an earlier post.).

There must be something deep down in our psychology that draws us to building in these patterns. I could understand what the authors of A Pattern Language were getting at right from the start. Yulia, without any prior knowledge of the book, once told me about her dissatisfaction with certain buildings during our first trip to Chicago, Illinois. She told me that aesthetically pleasing buildings seem to "match" the environment around them. The worst ones seem like they are just plopped onto the ground and have no relationship with anything around them.

We plan to continue building in this way in the future. We'd like to eventually build a one room cob hut farther back on our property. Although there are no buildings back there for our hut to "match," we still want it relate to the environment around it in some way. Since there will be natural things all around this hut, it makes sense for the building to be made out of natural, non-standardized things. We expect to use local materials--clay from the ground beneath us and straw from the nearby wheat fields, for example. It'll also have to relate to us in some way. Which has to reflect me and Yulia! So expect extreme creativity and playfulness!

Yulia in front of a cob house situated in the temperate rain forest of Oregon, USA. What do you think? Does it match with the environment around it?

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