Green Building Aesthetic and Naturalist Architecture

Do you remember when vegetarian foods tried to be meat? Tofurky anyone? There was this identity crisis. Now vegetarian food has its own identity. It isn’t trying to taste exactly like a beef hot dog any more. Veggie burgers taste nothing like hamburgers yet they taste great.

I think green building is going through the first stage still. We are still trying to make a green building look like a “normal” building. This is partly in shame of the green buildings of the past. Back in the ’70’s green buildings looked weird. Lots of them looked like a bad acid trip.

05_Flatbed_1 - JULY

Lets look at “normal” houses. Usually they are a cookie cutter mish-mash from several older styles. The outside might be a bastardized colonial look for example. Then the inside might attempt to be modern. All of it might have nothing to do with local climate or materials.

When they reference older styles they are “following tradition”. This gives an indication that there is continuity in the world I suppose. But in my oppinion the “following of tradition” is just a way to not have to think. Do it the way it was always done way back to the 1950’s and everything will be ok in life. Boring and not true.

The modernist style is a little more interesting to me since I think it is an attempt by humans to play god and reach perfection on earth. The clean lines, smooth surfaces and perfect lighting reminds me of heaven.

Like the perfect lines and absolute linear control in the image below, humans have destroyed the chaos of the world and become divine rulers of their environment. Notice the complete lack of anything “earthy”. It is all divine white light.

burke-house-stairs-portrait

I actually like modernism. But, and the but is big, I think it is more a reflection of our desperate need to control a chaotic world where we feel far from divine than a natural place to live in. Modernist architecture is more a reflection of our desperation than any great place to live.

The moment you unwind and start to feel comfortable in your life I think is when you will start to find modernist architecture sterile and harsh.

Which brings me to “Naturalism Architecture”. Not sure if anyone coined that but there you go, I just did. Naturalism architecture is of course green building with all that it entails. But it is also a reflection of the people living in the building.

People attracted to Naturalism Building are not threatened by the chaos and dirt of life. In fact they don’t see it as dirty at all. Earth, the dark stuff that fills the treads of your shoes when you walk in a field, is a wonderful thing to these people. It is definitely not something to purge from the house like an unwanted intruder.

Earth and everything that comes from it is the juice of life. And this can be seen in Naturalism Building. This style of building relishes the power of nature. It is quite common for a Naturalist home to appear overwhelmed by nature, either by the plants growing all over it or by the mere organic nature of the walls and floors.

My girlfriend (who loves modernism and yes who often does feel overwhelmed by life) when she first saw a finished floor of the green show house exclaimed in disgust, “My god, this place looks like a barn!”

Uh, yea, is that a problem?! Considering the materials were from a dumpster I thought we were doing pretty well.

The Green Show House unabashedly looks like a Naturalist Building. Like vegetarian food and meat, green houses and “normal” houses are not the same. Nor should they try to mimic each other.

When you build with natural, salvaged and local materials you are going to get a very different looking house than if you use chemical, off the shelf and international materials.

Natural materials are, like nature imperfect in their perfection. They are all unique but not always fitting into the exact need you have. So you work with them a bit. Likewise for salvaged. We never planned for wide plank maple in the show house but that is what we found so we went with it. The very process acknowledges that we are far from in control of the process.

And then you have local. Unless you have an Ipe forest next door or you salvage some Ipe from an old deck then you should NOT have an Ipe wood deck. Period. If the only local decking material is salvaged crates, then you either find a way to make it look fabulous or you rethink the deck idea.

If this feels like creative play then great. If it feels depressing then you need to do some more reading on how Ipe is harvested. THAT is depressing.

Once you build with the whole world in mind the aesthetic immediately changes and you don’t mind at all. And you see it right away in a green building.

You SMELL it  right away. I never imagined how different a green brownstone smells! As a real estate broker I have seen hundreds of Brooklyn brownstones. And compared to a green brownstone they all smell the same. If you have never smelled a green brownstone you might argue that normal ones smell different. But now that I have smelled a green one I argue that normal ones just vary in how toxic they smell.

But that is a tangent. The main point is that green buildings are still finding their own image and it is not about looking like a normal house. Naturalist Architecture looks a lot more like a Hobbit house than a “normal” house.

hobbit house

The green part of green building takes the forefront. It is almost like you create a structure so that nature can have another place to be. You are inviting nature back. Like the bones of a corral reef you make the backbone for nature to come alive again.

This is very unlike a “normal” building where you displace nature and create a place where nature can not enter.

We have not gotten to the perfect green building yet, at least not in our green building practice in Brooklyn. Like crappy tasting vegetarian food of the past, we have done some crappy green building. The Brooklyn green show house is a work in progress. Did the salvaged sub floors look like crap on our first attempt to fix them naturally? Sort of. Did we fix them? Yes.

But we are Brooklyn green builders dedicated to bringing nature back to Brooklyn. We want every brownstone to be the bones for nature to hang her meat onto.

Unlike modernists who try to BE god, Naturalist Builders try to SERVE god. And god for us is Nature. In every Brooklyn brownstone we try to create a place of nature worship. A place where nature can live and we can be her guest.

Yes! Her guest. We are not even lords of our own home. We are mere house keepers for nature.

For those of you who think this means letting more cockroaches into the house, you’ve got a long way to go. Maybe just start with low VOC paint. But there are those of us who get supremely excited by the idea of a house overwhelmed and in harmony with nature.

In such a house nature is no longer a well cut hedge but a full fledged house mate. Nature is on all the exterior walls, in the front yard, back yard and roof. The systems of the house – water, electric, energy – are intricately connected with the outside via gray water, solar PV and thermal. The wind and sun enters the house and the sounds of the gardens flow freely into the rooms.

Will you get ants? Maybe. Mice even. So what. That is what cats are for. Will you be alive? YES!

About the author: Gennaro Brooks-Church

3 comments to “Green Building Aesthetic and Naturalist Architecture”

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  1. Dwayne Humphrey - September 16, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    WOW! You’re talking about a “Revolution”. I can dig it. By the way great post on “craftsmanship” I’m looking into a carpenter’s apprenticeship myself, but it was really great read.

  2. Gennaro Brooks-Church - September 16, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    I agree Dwell has stuff they say is naturalist but I’m talking way beyond that. Dwell houses still use almost all off the shelf materials. They might be creative with it. But I have yet to see houses with mostly recycled or salvaged stuff. Dwell for me is pretty far from green building. They are consumer green building and none of it is going to improve the state of construction much. What I’m talking about is really reversing the flow of destruction that current building creates for the world.

  3. Dwayne Humphrey - September 15, 2009 at 2:37 am

    Another awesome post by you guys! DWELL magazine always have homes/structures that I think would be defined as “Naturalist Architecture” There’s this great home by Ken Meffan (it’s his home) in their October issue. He built it in Rough and Ready California. Great home, embodies everything about respecting the surrounding environment and a home having a character that reflects the people who live in it.

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