Connecting people, culture and nature

Designing a Beautiful Home

What makes a house beautiful? Is it complexity of design, square footage, or money spent? Is it the prominence of a “view-obsessed” starter castle on top of the hill? Or the prestige of having an architect’s “showcase”? Perhaps beauty orginates somewhere beyond all that, in elements more internal and more related to the human heart. Isn’t beauty closer to the fullness you feel when sitting in a cozy corner? Or the feeling you have after working hard all day, then standing back to look at your work with a childlike pride? Beauty is more easily found in that which has been touched with love and care than in polished details and lavish furnishings.
For us, the most memorable houses have been small and simple, and those with which the owners have played an integral part. Many of these are not finely finished, nor are they examples of superb craftsmanship, but they are rich with character and ingenuity. All too often, homeowners relinquish to the architect and builder the opportunity to be personally involved in the creation of their home. From a distance, they monitor the building and the shaping of spaces they will one day inhabit. Someone else designs it, another person builds it, and in the end they are left with a house for which they did little else than pay. Most modern houses are not much more than purchased commodities that tell of our increasing dependence on specialists and our loss of ability to craft our own lives. Most of such houses are impersonal and empty of feeling. This is not to say that architects and builders don’t have a place in the process of making homes, but simply that there is a tendency to over-rely on them.

Speed and efficiency dominate conventional building. The builder is expected to build as fast as possible for the least amount of money. Under those stressed circumstances, there is very little time or space for intimate creativity. To stay on schedule and within budget, it is presumed necessary to rely primarily on mass-produced industrial materials that don’t encourage deviation from their intended use and that require the extensive use of power tools. The best-intentioned designers and builders find themselves confined to a narrow range of possibilities, and not surprisingly the results are often boring and predictable.

On the other hand, we have discovered in our own work that using natural and local materials encourages a very different way of building. These materials often have an inherent beauty that stands out without the need for complex forms and shapes. Lacking uniformity, rigidity, and angularity, they naturally lend themselves to soft, organic curves. They resonate with the textures and colors of their natural context, reminding us that the building belongs where it is placed. They are forgiving, and beg to be sculpted by hand or worked with simple tools, opening the door for more people to be involved in the process.

Although many houses built from natural materials are beautiful, the use of such materials does not guarantee that a house will be beautiful. We have seen many straw bale houses that feel no different than any other building. When incorporated into conventional construction, natrual materials become subjugated to the same stresses and patterns. Straw bale walls can rapidly become a very insignificant part of the whole house. We once asked a friend how she liked her new house, and she responded, “I really wanted a straw bale home, but what I got was a house with straw bales in the walls.” Her house was beautiful in the typical meaning of the word. It was well built and nicely finished. And yet it lacked the texture of her presence. Its abstract perfection kept everyone at a distance, including her.

The walls surrounding us day in and day out need to embrace us, our dreams and passions woven into their very fabric. They need to sing the story of who we are. Otherwise our houses will never become our homes. And it is in the depths of this magical transformation where genuine beauty lies.