Sacred Personal Cathedrals

I met with a couple (I’ll call them the Smiths) a few days ago who just a week earlier had lost their home in a fire. They were still very emotional about their loss, but as no one was home at the time, they were very thankful that they and their children were never endangered. They were also thankful their children only had to deal with the post-fire acceptance of loss, not the horrific event itself. It is interesting how tragedy begets a more nuanced and heightened sense of gratitude.

Speaking for myself, hard times and personal tragedies have also recalibrated my own under-utilized thankfulness meter and sorted out true priorities. In that same context, what I learned from the Smiths about their home was instructive. My purpose was to learn as much as I could about their house to help us get to a conversation about the time, logistics and the estimated cost of replacing it. But for a few minutes, we were somewhat disconnected. My questions were about how well the building functioned for their needs, and about finishes, equipment and features that were important to them. The Smiths’ answers, on the other hand, were about how it made them feel, and its deep effect on their family.

So my questions were superficial, but their answers were profound. I listened for a few minutes and was reminded again what a home often really means to people:

“It held us tight”

“There was plenty of space, but it still kept us close.”

“We were so secure there. It felt good to be there together.”

“It was well built, and made me happy and proud.”

“It was beautiful, simple and comfortable…just good place for living.”

“That home made us forget about the world’s problems and remember our family.”

“For the kids, it was a paradise…and so much fun.”

It isn’t a very big insight to realize that homes are not just about their boards, bricks, ducts and pipes; what mostly matters is their effect on improving the quality of lives. Yet we so easily forget, or perhaps we get sidetracked by the building basics, including technology, engineering, building science and all the attention that’s paid to style and stuff.

I’m happy to say the Smiths and I ultimately connected in the conversation and we were able to talk about the deeper aspects of the home they lost, but we also got into some of the physical details so that I could start thinking about what it might take to replace the building as soon as possible. Of course their comments also raised the ante about what needed to be replaced. I know we can build a very good quality building, but as designers and builders, how do we go about trying to build a home that will have that sense of deep meaning and purpose?

In my experience, I think the “sidetracked” perspective is the professional norm. At the center of our work are the mechanics and logistics of creating the physical environment, and we often give no thought to the emotional and psychological effects of the places we build. Even designers and architects often get more involved with the basics of form and function and aren’t typically openly aspirational about the deeper impacts on lives. At least they don’t talk about it much.

I don’t intend this as a criticism, because that higher bar is about the human interaction with the built environment, and we’re only involved with the context, not the daily living content. But as architects and builders, I think we could be much more tuned to the things that deeply matter in people’s lives, not just the built environment. How do our buildings affect how people feel? What impact does a living space have on relationships? One thing is certain: physical context and life content are not disconnected.

At least that’s how I’m thinking today as I contemplate how we can rebuild what obviously had become something really important in the Smiths’ lives. How do we go about trying to build a place that will “hold them tight?” What can we do to ensure that the house helps return them to a place in which they are “happy and proud” again? Though these things are fuzzy, elusive and intangible, can’t we still strive for them?

It’s an important question and challenge, which we accepted years ago, when our company was working on our “Shared Vision.” We engaged everyone in the company in a process to define our principles, values and actions. We wanted the former to guide the latter. What came out of that effort has been a living document that we’ve been able to use as a basis for our ongoing improvements and new initiatives ever since.

The core concepts haven’t changed, but functionally we’ve reconfigured ourselves substantially several times as we’ve pursued our higher goals.  We realized 20 years ago that our clients seek us out for something far more important than simply a good quality shelter, or a timberframe, or even something as functionally good as a zero net home or a Passive House. Those things may be in the conversation, but the real goal for most people is bigger still. Therefore, at the heart of our Shared Vision, it says:

“Through process and product, we will strive to improve the quality of lives.”

It’s a simple statement, but took some collective digging to uncover. Coming from a group of people who get a thrill out of making things, it was an acknowledgement that our constructions are secondary to the lives of those who inhabit them. Therefore, there’s necessarily a deeper purpose–as emotionally discussed with the Smiths–about what a home can and should mean to peoples’ lives.

For our company, that objective has been a guiding ideal for our constantly unfolding improvements. It’s not as if we can ever essentially achieve it because we don’t exactly know what success means for each individual. Still, pursuing that goal has changed us in fundamental ways. Now everything matters. We won’t impact lives deeply if we do only one kind of thing well. We have to do everything well. Cost and budgets matter immensely. So does the building experience itself; it shouldn’t be a trial of stress for the owners. Materials matter. And of course fit and finish. It also matters immensely that we try to create places that enhance life and living in ways big and small.

Tall order. But what does that mean exactly? I’m certainly not going to try to answer that question here, but I will say that just the realization that the ultimate value of our work goes way beyond the physical products we create is a critical beginning. Attitude impacts performance. We can either see ourselves as prosaic mechanics just plying our building trades day after day, or we can see ourselves as involved with a high calling that at its best results in the building of sacred personal cathedrals for common people.

Now I have some important work to do for the Smiths. They need their sacred cathedral restored.



9 thoughts on “Sacred Personal Cathedrals

  1. Without vision there can be no goals. Without a goal there can be no plans. Without plans there is no one to lead or follow. Put another way, leaders use open ended plans to guide their teams toward a common goal within the context of a shared vision.

    Still, you may be surprised to know that many organizations do not have a mission statement (or one that’s been buried long ago and forgotten). All too often, everything and everyone gets commoditized causing the equilibrium between production and production capacity to get shifted to the former. This can be very profitable in the short term but it’s unsustainable and too often elevates stockholders too far above stakeholders. I bet not three people in ten could paraphrase their company’s mission statement.

    Establishing and honoring your core values has a profound effect – not only on the employees of your company but everyone you come into contact with.

    1. Fred,
      Thanks for your thoughts.
      It might be interesting to put up a copy of our Shared Vision here. It’s an interesting approach and format that grew out of the way we worked on the ideas. Initially, they were scraps of paper pinned up on a big bulletin board. We sort of adopted that look, though now it appears in a more polished form.

  2. This brings to mine a story I told in my own blog some years ago. When I started my practice I found myself confronting these same questions. How do you bring meaning to creation of a house – in a way that is relevant for each given client? There is of course no easy answer, but rather its a fundamental question that you try to never forget.

    Oddly enough something that always helped me remember this is an old dictionary. A 1935 edition of Funk & Wagnalls that my dad gave me when I was a kid. I still have it, covers loose, end pages shedding. Its got thin onion skin pages and the best definitions, occasional precious illustrations, and even a little bit of prose when it helps explain a word. So many years ago while thinking about this question I looked up house and found:

    house, 1 haus; 2 hous, n. 1. A place of abode or shelter. 2. A building for human beings to live in; the building or part of a building occupied by one family or tenant; dwelling place. 3. Something regarded as a house; place that provides shelter, living space, etc. 4. Any place where something is thought of as living, resting, etc. See HOME.

    Home, of course, so I paged through to:

    home, 1 hom; 2 hom. n. 1. One’s fixed place of abode; family residence. 2. A congenial abiding place. 3. In games, a goal. Home, from the Anglo-Saxon, denoting originally a dwelling, came to mean an endeared dwelling as the scene of domestic love and happy and cherished family life, a sense to which there is an increasing tendency to restrict the word – desirably so, since we have other words to denote the mere dwelling-place.

    It then offered a verse from an old poem:

    Home’s not merely four square walls,
    Tho with pictures hung and gilded;
    Home is where affection calls
    Where its shrine the heart has builded.

    1. Greg,
      Thanks for the story.
      It occurs to me that the old dictionary might reflect a more traditional perspective about the value of house and home. The way things have gone, we might expect to see a contemporary dictionary define a home as temporary shelter used primarily as a primary financial investment scheme and cash reserve.

  3. Thank you for reminding us that when we succeed at what we do we build a home not just a house. We can’t do this until we listen to our clients, not to how many square feet they need or how many bathrooms. But to pick up on how space feels to them, how they relate to their built environment. If we don’t then we just keep building for ourselves over and over, we may like what we’re building but its not our house! This was a good topic, I was overdue updating my blog and you inspired me, were your ears ringing this morning?!


  4. Dear Tedd,
    Long time fan, first time blogger.
    Shouldn’t homes nurture us, so that we may in turn give our best to others?

    As an artist and teacher, I’m grateful to share with students how the aesthetics of their environment affect them. Homes are art. I think that most folks aren’t aware of this. Consider impact of the music we choose in order to fire us up and how it differs from the tunes that lull us off to sleep.

    I hope that the building industy begins to hold “living” in a building as the higher standard that defines the choice of materials, square footage and the layout. On Dec. 23, 1996 You wrote a statement entitled “Tangible Rewards”. I read it and I copied it down in a sketchbook. I revisit it because it imbues obligation to excellence and that inspires me. The “Smith’s” new home will surely help their healing process.

    After reading this post I couldn’t help but contribute the following link to a small build firm called Earth Alchemists. Their practice seems to put the manner in which we live and our expectations of a home at the forefront of their creative process.

    Please continue your pursuit of excellence. It is an example to others.
    I am passionate about homes. …even my tiny, mid century split-level. It’s where I have my family.
    Make it a great day.

  5. As a close friend of the “Smiths” I just want to say that their attitude about the fire that destroyed the house they loved has been an amazing inspiration to me, and all of the people around them who have seen so much grace and gratitude for what remained.

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