I wrote the following article for a local magazine, Business Monadnock. I’m republishing here.
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Winston Churchill
Many years ago, when we pulled our company associates together to try to draft a collective mission statement for our homebuilding company, we came to an unexpected conclusion. As we kept asking questions about why we do what we do, and why clients engage us for what is usually the biggest investment of their lives, we came to understand there’s an important ideal beyond the simple execution of our craft for the straight-forward purpose of building good quality homes. We realized that everyone undertaking the effort and expense of building a new home is doing so to improve the quality of their lives, and so that bigger objective became the core principle of our mission: “Through process and products, to improve the quality of lives.”
Why else would people from all over the country find us in this quiet corner of New Hampshire? And isn’t a focus on making a difference in peoples’ lives more worthy of the total investment of our own life’s energy?
We’ve tried to remain on that higher path since, and that nobler focus has made an incalculable difference in how we think, act and what we build. It raises the stakes, and has raised us in the process, but it has also been humbling. There’s no clear pinnacle of achievement for such a mission. There’s only, “try harder, get better.” With peoples’ lives as our focus, there’s no such thing as “good enough;” there’s always something that we can improve.
Luckily, the physical aspects of every building are like truth mirrors, and give us immediate feedback about how we did. The quality of the work is mostly an evident, objective reality, and its attributes (and of course the flaws) easily determined. When we can see it and touch it, we can measure our work in a variety of ways, and know with some certainty what to improve. In a sense, that’s the easy side of continual improvement.
But the “improving the quality of lives” objective is intangible, subjective, and offers no easy evaluation of success or failure. Building homes that are plumb, level, square, strong and energy-efficient is relatively easy, but making deeper impacts in the occupants’ lives is a high, elusive and difficult goal.
Is all that striving for lofty ideals and a life of “healthy discontent” worth it for the simple task of homebuilding? I think so, and here’s why. We all know that homes matter immensely. Along with food, shelter is elemental to the human condition. No society advances without a broad provision of healthy food and secure shelter. Food is an obvious daily requirement for life, and gets daily attention. But the importance of quality housing in our lives is more nuanced, yet anthropologists and historians have often pointed out that stable, durable dwellings that offer some respite from life’s struggles are practically the root and stalk of civilization. Societies seem to develop in direct relation to advancements in the general quality of domestic life.
For all of its obvious value, we can’t analyze the life-improving attributes of our homes by measuring the equivalent of proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins in food, and so if it passes the basic shelter-against-the-elements test, most people accept housing as it is, decorate to taste, and get on with life. People today tend to know about cars, food and clothes rather intimately, and can even discern how the subtle distinctions—that added spice in the meal; the car’s suspension in turns; those perfectly fitted shoes—make them feel, but the fundamental qualities of homes are too often just a bland canvas for the amenities, paint and furniture. We literally live with homes as they are, and then their impacts live in us, and subtly affect our character, as Churchill so famously suggested.
Most of the hours of our lives are spent at home. The environment we live in works on us and our closest relationships constantly, and we are better or worse for it. Without a safe and secure personal sanctuary, there’s no opportunity for dreams to flourish; there’s no place for the imagination to soar beyond the moment, and hope itself is dulled.
And that’s why it’s worth striving for homes to rise above their basic physical sheltering requirements and do more. We need to do our best to make housing worthy of its inhabitants’ lives, a therefore long-term asset for our society. I know from so many personal stories, including my own, that a home can become a sacred personal place, and a family’s special haven for the bonds of our most intimate relationships; a safe harbor in life’s storms. At best, housing and the functional act of dwelling it supports can provide its own kind of daily bread, and feed a higher sense of well being.
These high ideals for home have been the subject of builders, poets, philosophers and architects (not to mention common people with dreams) for hundreds or even thousands of years. It is also the theme of local author, Howard Mansfield’s important new book: Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter. To make his point that homes should do more for people than provide mere protection from the elements, he quotes the famed social architect, Samuel Mockbee: “Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.” Mansfield goes on to say:
We have shelter from the rain and snow and sun, but our houses aren’t sheltering our souls. They aren’t nourishing. We treat houses as investments or as social policy problems, as in the statistical Sahara of ‘the housing problem.’ The soul starves—we’re in our house, but not at home. Our dream houses lack room for us to dream. … We build thousands of houses, but only a few homes. With the world’s population projected to double, we will have to build this world all over again. How can we do that and shelter the soul?
And later he adds: “The housing we are building today is starving our imagination, and without a well-fed imagination, it may be impossible to build a better world….If the house is diminished, we are diminished.”
Homes are not commodities, even if housing tries to be. Life happens there, and peoples’ lives can’t be defined by the “widget” they inhabit. No matter what we homebuilders intend or achieve in building “the product,” people will do their best to make more of it. There’s no dull real estate for the occupants, who always want their home to be special and meaningful. Howard Mansfield quotes geographer/philosopher, J.B. Jackson: “The dwelling is the primary effort of man to create heaven on earth.”
Mansfield also profiles and quotes the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, whose book The Poetics of Space is one of the seminal writings about the higher values we can find in house and home: “They give us the shelter to enlarge ourselves. They are the vessel in which we go forth into the universe. A good house is a good daydreaming space. It is the universe.”
Over the years, we’ve had enough feedback from our clients to give us an indication that sometimes we succeed in our higher mission. So we know it’s possible, even if how and why add up to a simple, daunting notion: Everything Matters.
The belief in the idea that buildings can also serve higher emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of people is the first requirement of the commitment to try, as Howard Mansfield admits: “To build soulful places, first we need to believe that it is possible.”
And he answers that question with a quote from famed architect Christopher Alexander, whose book, The Pattern Language, is the basically an instructional manual for how we can design and build homes that also touch the human spirit. Alexander therefore deserves the last word: “But it is possible. If we try our best to make all the places in our contemporary world with a vivid depth of feeling, surely then something will happen that changes our lives.”