Simple Shelters

There is a little book called “Simple Shelters: Tents, Tipis, Yurts, Domes and other Ancient Homes” by Jonathan Horning. It is part of a group of books called Wooden Books that the NY publisher Walker & Company puts out.

From the web site, Wooden Books are Small Books with Big Ideas:
“Historically, in all known cultures on Earth, wise men and women studied the four great unchanging liberal arts —numbers, music, geometry and cosmology—and used them to inform the practical and decorative arts like medicine, pottery, agriculture and building. At one time, the metaphysical fields of the liberal arts were considered utterly universal, even placed above physics and religion. Today no one knows them.”

Along with Simple Shelters, their other books are the likes of:
“Sacred Number: The Secret Qualities of Quantities”
“Symmetry: The Ordering Principle”
“The Golden Section: Nature’s Greatest Secret”
“Sacred Geometry”

I think a green builder embodies these virtues. A green builder in Brooklyn views the Brooklyn brownstone as more than bricks structurally assembled to make a shape. It is a dwelling for emotionally complex and sentient beings. I’m sure most Brooklyn builders don’t see themselves as remotely spiritual in their work, but I think the good ones are. We create the vessel for beings to live in.

simple shelters

So, back to the book ‘Simple Shelters”. The author gives factual info on “Tents, Tipis, Yurts, Domes and other Ancient Homes”. A page is devoted to each home with a drawing of it and how to assemble it. If you are at all handy you could basically build the structures from this little book.

My interest however was in how building has been done since the beginning of time. Consider this: Tents, Tipis, Yurts, Domes and other Ancient Homes have been the basis of building for the past several thousand years. It is only over the past couple centuries that we have started to build differently.

For me that is a very insightful perspective. Coincidentally the change in building styles coincides with the accelerated destruction of our planet. So… logic tells me that maybe these Tents, Tipis, Yurts, Domes and other Ancient Homes have something to teach us.

Maybe we should be looking to them for ideas on how to do less harm to the world….

From his book, which looks at ancient building across the globe from igloos to bamboo huts, several universal themes emerge. The homes are:

– completely built from local materials (local as in within walking distance)
– all the same size; SMALL – less than a couple hundred square feet
– not built to last – they all eventually decompose naturally into the ground
– entirely utilitarian – i.e. every inch of the home is used
– modular – they can be replicated and added to each other to form small communities
– conform to universally harmonious shapes – squares, circles, triangles…- that are best at conserving energy

Hmmmm…..they are basically diametrically opposed to current buildings that are:

– never built exclusively from local materials
– at least ten times the size of the ancient homes
– not built to last – but they don’t decompose naturally into the ground
– not utilitarian – a lot of wasted space
– not modular – they tend to be isolationist and don’t fit well with neighboring homes
– don’t conform to universally harmonious shapes – they tend to be complex shapes with little harmony

Bottom line, we have things to learn from old building stiles. Or relearn better said.

This is not to say that old homes were all good. Most were mud floors. Or ice floors in the case of igloos! They were dark. The air quality could get pretty bad – lots of people in a small closed room mixed with smoke and cooking.

But this also is a reflection of the lifestyle. People didn’t spend that much time indoors. Most of their time was spent outside in the natural surroundings. This is a huge point.

Today people spend 90% of their time in buildings! Time with nature? Forget about it. What nature anyway? What IS nature? Most people have spent so little of their lives in nature that they wouldn’t know what it was if it bit them.

If you lived in a simple shelter believe me you would spend more time outdoors. And you would want the outdoors to be pleasant, which would probably mean more demand for nature….notice the impact of a simple shelter? It alters peoples’ behavior and this the environment.

Have you ever wondered why places like Paris are so lively in the streets? Because people live in shitty little apartments.

Now what does this mean for a green contractor? Obviously it does not mean we need to build shitty homes that nobody wants to be in. But it does mean we should understand that the green buildings we build not only effect the environment through the structure itself but also through the way the structure alters peoples’ behavior.

As a green contractor in Brooklyn I have it easier than most. The Brooklyn brownstone is actually pretty close to a simple shelter as far as new construction goes but without the more uncomfortable elements. Using the above list the Brooklyn brownstone is:

– completely built from local materials
– all the same size; comparatively small in relation to US homes
– built to last – but if they did eventually decompose they would naturally into the ground (bricks and wood)
– entirely utilitarian – i.e. pretty close to every inch of the home is used
– modular – they can be replicated and added to each other to form small communities: blocks
– conform to universally harmonious shapes – rectangles placed side by side each other and usually facing north-south – the most energy efficient configuration you could have.

At the same time a green Brooklyn brownstone is bright. It has great indoor air quality. Overall it is a very comfortable home with all the green qualities of a simple shelter.

Yes the Brooklyn brownstone is a green builders dream. They are relevant to today’s society like say a yurt isn’t yet they still have many of the age old sustainable qualities.

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