Saturday, December 4, 2010


By now I've written here about each of the major points mentioned in the very first comprehensive writing I did about this project - a "manifesto" I wrote over two years ago. It is abstract, perhaps to the point of being confusing in places (like any good manifesto!), so I wanted to wait to post it until after I explained most of the ideas. Some of the original observations that inspired the design are described here, and overall it's still probably the best summary of everything this place is about. This posting is also partially in celebration of recently reaching a milestone that is something of a miracle: I got a workable appraisal.

Church House

This is not just a place for people to meet each other, but a house for God to meet us. -King David, 2 Chronicles 29:1

Greet the church that is in their house. -Paul, Romans 16:5

Houses in our society are walls, blocking man from man, man from the universe, man from himself. -Bill Void, 1965

Architectural divisions have led to social and spiritual divisions. The distinction of a place of worship from a place of residence has led to the compartmentalization of worship. Living and worship are seen as separate realms. The home and the workplace have unconsciously become places that are not about holiness.

Further, typical housing contributes to the alienation of people and the atomization of the church. I observed this while growing up in single-family houses. Each nuclear family is isolated within its own building and buffered from the neighboring buildings by yard space. Every square inch is privately owned; no thing and no space is shared. Casualties include fundamental tenets of the Christian life, especially fellowship and accountability. Two hours a week meeting with other Christians in special environments like a church building or a coffee shop does not produce meaningful fellowship or life-changing accountability. Living spaces must be shared by members of the spiritual family, not just the nuclear family.

This is not about the present-day house church movement. There, people gather in a house instead of a church for Sunday service. But most of the attendees do not live in the house. And the house remains merely a house, despite containing a holy function.

This is not even about the early church practice of gathering in houses for teaching and communion. Though here the people lived closely in community and sharing, the buildings remained merely houses.

The Church House sits more in the tradition of monasteries, where ecclesiastical and residential architecture coexist in the same complex. The Church House is not about seclusion, however, but rather insertion into every social and physical context.

The Church House is about the power of place and design to affect our relationships with others and with God. A well-designed church building encourages and inspires the growth of both relationships. Today, however, few houses are well-designed churches; even most churches are not well-designed churches. What I want Christians to envision is the gradual extinction of both the house building and the church building. In their place comes the Church House, a combination of a holy place and a residence, a marriage of the ecclesiastical and the domestic. And the focus in the planning of a Church House is the family of God, rather than the nuclear family; the family of spirit takes precedence over the family of blood.

The church of the Church House bleeds into the house, and the house bleeds into the church. Holiness runs wild. Domesticity is redeemed.

The Church House, though like the ancient monasteries in some ways, is not a Gothic building, nor a Classical one. It has an architecture for the 21st century, an expression from God to our age, a new song to the Lord. The aesthetic of the Church House is ancient, modern, and eschatological.

The architecture of the Church House is born out of awareness that a building is not a mute backdrop, but rather a house of symbols, a chorus of voices that speaks without words or sound, like nature: “The heavens are declaring the glory of God… There is no speech, nor are there words.” (Psalm 19) Meaning is cast into our minds and hearts through our eyes and bodies. And with human compositions this expression is for good or ill, so we strive to design places that speak truth about God. The main question in Church House design is not, Does it attract people? or even, Does it move you? but rather, Is it true?

A Church House is not big, perhaps never will be, perhaps never should be. It could be in a suburban neighborhood, the size of a small house – a few bedrooms, a kitchen, and a holy place. The Church House is not a megachurch, but a nanochurch.

The rending of the veil did not signal the dissolution of the holy place, but rather the setting loose of holiness upon all places. It now stands knocking at the door of every house. Let every house have a holy place; let every church have a bedroom.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

This is NOT what I mean

This is a picture of a modern kitchen inside the apse of a church. A while back I googled the phrase "church house" just to see if anyone was having the same ideas as me (and posting them online). No, it appears not. But I did turn up some other projects that have been given the name "church house." I was most fascinated (and amused) by the church houses so called because they are actual historic churches that have been converted into houses. Of course this is not at all what my church house is about, but it’s revealing to compare the two. (I'm still waiting for an appraisal, so yes, I have time for some fun.)

Here is another church-turned-house. Notice that the kitchen has again been placed in the church's apse. As seen in the plan below, this "house" was inserted into a cross-shaped church. If you imagine Jesus' body on this cross, his head would be closest to the apse - the highest vertical portion of the cross (far right on the plan). And indeed this space of ancient churches was meant to symbolize the head of Christ. The congregation did not sit here. Here instead was the altar and the elements of Communion, where the priest blessed them before distribution. The apse typically faced east, as in this church - towards the sunrise, the symbol of Christ's resurrection. The largest windows were often placed in the walls of the apse. Often there was a step or steps up to the apse, as with this church too - another indication that this space is symbolically the loftiest in the building.

What does it mean that the new residents to both of these churches found it most natural to place their kitchen in the most holy space of the church? Is the kitchen the heart of our modern homes, the space around which all public activity in a house revolves?

But wait, there’s more. The transepts are the two small areas to either side of the main volume, representing the horizontal beam of the cross where Jesus' hands were nailed. The nave is the large central portion of the church, where the congregation would sit, and, on the cross, where the body of Christ lay. Together the nave and transepts represented the "body of Christ" - both literally as Christ's body on the cross and figuratively as the Church, the body of believers. So the Church, upon gathering for worship, took her place as the Body of Christ, facing the Head of Christ, her Guide, and through those immense windows looked towards his resurrection and the hope therein of his return.

Ancient church buildings articulated biblical ecclesiology better through architecture than most of us can today through words.

So in these "church houses," the place where the Holy Meal was blessed and eaten is now the place where a single family prepares and consumes breakfast, lunch and dinner. The transepts, Christ's arms, are a bedroom and a study. The nave, the body of Christ, is the "living area," complete with big-screen TV and treadmill. It’s fascinating how closely the functions of the new house parallel the old church plan symbols: meals are eaten where Communion was eaten; a place of rest and a place of work now occupy the spaces symbolizing the Carpenter's hands; the “living area” overlaps Christ's torso - the "living area" of the body with all its vital organs; and the master bedroom suite (below), the place of sleep, occupies the west end of the church, which is associated with the sunset and therefore death (the other sleep).

At first read these projects may seem similar to what my church house is about, in that there appears to be an overlapping of the domestic and the divine. Indeed this overlap is a goal for me: What happens when you start taking Communion on the same table where you eat breakfast? Doesn't that hint at the fact that whatever we do, whether eating or sleeping, is done in the presence of Christ? As Christians our homes are not places to just indulge our pleasures; they are places for God's glory. Our houses are not ours any more than our churches are. Every place is for God's work and worship.

But the typical story behind the “church houses” pictured here seems to be: a couple or family buys an old church building not in operation anymore, and renovates it to be their place of residence. The new house is not meant to function any longer as a church, and my (admittedly little) research didn't indicate that the new residents are believers. So the "house" and the "church" here do not reinforce each other. Instead the house functions have replaced the church functions. The church was bought to be used as an empty shell into which everything necessary for a house could be inserted. The house took the place of the church.

It's worth noting that the "shell" of the church is still powerfully there – still singing its songs, still pointing to the rising sun, still pulling our eyes upward through its vertical space, its windows still pointing to heaven, its plan still a cross. Try as they might, the kitchen and couches and beds and desks don't silence the expression of the architecture. So there's a clash between the old and the new, the church and the home, place of worship and place of living, house of God and house of man. The church is singing a hymn to God; the house is fixated on food and TV.

The “church house” I've designed, on the other hand, is meant to marry the functions of “church” and the functions of “house” so that both are ennobled. I designed the building to express the faith in all the ways the ancient churches did and more. The residents are meant to be Christians, so their lives and hearts will harmonize with the song of the structure. Both living and worshiping are meant to happen here, and to commune with one another. Midnight snacks and Holy Eucharist can be consumed from the same table, surrounded by the same people. The fullness of "house" and the fullness of "church" are meant to merge into one without the identity of either being lost.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Encouraged by Taizé

While I wait for someone else’s house to finish so I can get an appraisal, I can take a break from writing about money to write about something I’m actually interested in. I finally got around to reading up on the Taizé (“tah-ZAY”) Community in France. I mentioned in a previous post that I had been attending a service inspired by the liturgy of this community, and that I liked it. Above is a photo of Brother Roger, founder of the community, with, of course, Mother Teresa. But wait a second—have you ever seen kinder faces? Does God etch onto our faces, over the course of our lives, the condition of our hearts?

The story of the Taizé Community has encouraged me in several ways regarding my house project. First the beginning: Roger felt led to start a Christian community, and so in 1940, at the age of 25, he moved from his parents’ home in Switzerland to the village of Taizé, France. He got a modest loan to buy a few buildings that he planned to use for his community, and for receiving refugees from World War II. He was there two years with no one else but his sister. After those two years he left because the fighting from the war had escalated in the region. While hiding out in Geneva, Roger met a few men who decided to commit to his community. After two years in Geneva Roger and his new “brothers” moved back to Taizé. They housed and cared for refugees, and Roger’s sister cared for the orphans they adopted.

For the next five years the new Taizé community was composed only of these three or four members. Then in 1949, a full nine years after Roger first moved to Taizé, a few more men committed to the community, bringing the total to seven.

I also have wanted to start or join a community—a group of Christians that would live, work, and worship in this house I’ve designed. But I don’t currently know anyone else who wants to do this. Have I approached this project all wrong? Should I first build a community of people before investing in a physical building to house us? Brother Roger didn’t think so; he secured a place away from home before knowing anyone interested in joining him.

I’ve always thought I could, and likely would, live in my new house alone for a few months to a year before meeting other people interested in sharing the place. But what if it turns into two years? Ten years? Roger seemed especially patient living and working with only his sister, and his dream for a community, for two years before anyone else joined. That helps me push the mark of “failure” further out—perhaps infinitely so. God’s timetable for the community dream he’s placed in me may be very different from mine—and it may not even include me.

Seventy years after Roger moved to the village of Taizé, France, and bought a few buildings, he is gone. But his community of brothers numbers over a hundred, and thousands of people make regular pilgrimage to Taizé to worship with them each week.

This brings me to another way that I have been encouraged by the Taizé Community: their worship. Worship seems to be one of the most important functions of this community. Eugene Peterson, in his introduction to the book of Revelation in The Message, writes,

John of Patmos, a pastor of the late first century, has worship on his mind, is preeminently concerned with worship. The vision, which is The Revelation, comes while he is at worship on a certain Sunday on the Mediterranean island of Patmos. He is responsible for a circuit of churches on the mainland whose primary task is worship. Worship shapes the human community in response to the living God. If worship is neglected or perverted, our communities fall into chaos or under tyranny.

I’ve imagined worship being a (if not the) primary task of my church house also. And I’ve imagined this worship to be quite different from what we experience in most contemporary churches. What I see when I think of worship at this house is much closer to what is enacted at Taizé. The distinguishing mark of worship at Taizé seems to be that there is an extended period of communicating directly with God.

Five thousand mostly young people show up for the weekly services at Taizé. This gathering easily fits the definition of “megachurch.” But the worship at Taizé couldn’t be more unlike the typical American megachurch. Instead of amplified music there is the chorus of the people; instead of an electric light show there are candles; instead of padded stadium seating there is the floor. And there is an extended period of: silence. Five whole minutes. Gasp! You mean, dead air?? The people aren’t being stimulated by something?? At least a video loop, some background music! Nope, just silence. Five thousand teenagers and twenty-somethings journey to Taizé, sit on the floor, and be quiet—and they like it.

On Taizé’s website a typical service is detailed, in order: Songs of praise; Psalm reading; another Scripture reading; Gospel reading; song; silence (5-10 minutes); intercessory prayers; the Lord’s Prayer; concluding prayer; concluding songs. The prayers and readings are often responsive, too, so all the people gathered are constantly participating in the work of worship. Now notice the conspicuous absence of a primary element of most contemporary churches: a sermon.

In the prayers and songs we speak to God directly; in the readings of Scripture we hear directly from him. I was surprised that Communion was not listed as part of Taizé’s service, but in this act too our remembrance and gratitude ascend straight to Christ in heaven. It is a vertical road we travel in this kind of service. But in many contemporary-styled or seeker churches the focal point of the service is the sermon—which is one human being speaking to other human beings. God is being talked about, not to. Of course there are “vertical” experiences in contemporary services, most predominantly through the music, less frequently through prayers and Bible readings. But these times of relating directly to God are relatively minimal and fleeting, and often used merely as lead-ins to the sermon. Everything looks towards, and back to, the act of one person speaking to others.

Something I’ve noticed in researching ancient prayer services is that Communion was often celebrated about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the service—the standard point of “climax” in the ideal story. And there was only a small time, if any, set aside for a sermon. But in today’s churches Communion is seldom celebrated, and the sermon occurs at the climactic point in the service. Has the sermon taken the place of Communion?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with either type of service; mostly I feel that both are needed. But over the centuries one seems to have snuffed out the other. I’ve been sensing lately that sermon-centered services can’t fulfill the longing I have for communing directly with God—for an extended period of time, through a variety of activities—among a body of believers.

A final way I am encouraged in my project by the Taizé Community is their interest in “atmosphere.” Of course megachurches are also interested in atmosphere, but at Taizé it is not used to make people feel comfortable or to make them feel like they’re at a rock concert. Atmosphere for Taize is a worship aid; the mood created is meant to be conducive to worshiping and hearing God. The candles, the darkness, the silence—all is meant to help you hear a still, small voice. From Taizé’s website: “The voice of God is often heard only in a whisper, in a breath of silence. Remaining in silence in God’s presence, open to the Holy Spirit, is already prayer.”

The best thing I can do as an architect is provide a suitable environment for worship. My job is to make a building into a worship aid. I set the mood. I’m the table-setter for the Last Supper. I provide a setting that is conducive to worship, that makes it easy to worship, that perhaps even draws us into worship. I hope my house makes it hard for you not to worship. So I appreciate that Brother Roger and his community have paid attention to the spiritual effect of our physical surroundings.

But back to worship for a concluding thought. A sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., entitled “Guidelines for a Constructive Church,” reminded me of the special implications we should draw from the fact that the Church is Christ's body in the world. If Jesus is the head, the guide, for the vast organism of all the believers on the planet, if we are the physical expression of his heart and mind, then we should collectively do what he did. He healed, he fed, he listened, he taught, he loved. He did these things both for believers and the masses of people, for his friends and his enemies.

But also, every now and then, Jesus went off by himself to pray. If the church is to follow the lead of Christ, shouldn’t she also go off by herself to pray? This temporary leave-taking from the world, this shift from service to direct communication with God as a body, is what I have noticed is often missing from the activities of contemporary churches. The Sunday morning gathering is now often about inviting the world in. There seems to be a strain of thought among pastors today that a gathering of the church unto itself away from the world is unnecessary, or even a betrayal of her calling. This believers-only gathering, they say, is for heaven, not for earth where we have work to do.

But if even Jesus himself sometimes got away from the world—both by himself and with his disciples—to pray and sing to his Father, shouldn’t the church also? This would not hinder our service to the world; on the contrary, I suspect that regular times of prayer, Word, and song exclusively for the faithful would refresh us and thereby improve our work in the world.

Perhaps this lack of a time just for believers is what has been inspiring me to think of this church house as a place specifically tailored for such a gathering. Besides Taizé, I don’t know of any other Christian communities that provide their own in-house worship service. But now that I have become more familiar with ancient prayer services, I’m even more certain that this kind of worship is needed.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Way Out of No Way

Time to give an update on my quest for financing. (Never even thought this part of the project would be a “quest.”)

The glimmer of hope I left off with in the last post disappeared rather quickly. My bank thought another local bank could keep my loan in-house and not have to sell it on the secondary market, meaning the expected low appraisal may not matter. This turned out to be false. The contact at this other bank wondered where anyone would get this idea.

So then I called around to local credit unions—on the advice of a comment on my previous post. None of them even offer construction loans. Not now, anyway.

Then I looked into a couple of the major Christian credit unions. One of them apparently provided the construction loan for one of the largest churches in Wilmington. The phone conversations with these organizations proved to be amusing. I was never quite sure how to introduce my project—as a house or a church. I tried “house” first, in a call to the Evangelical Christian Credit Union:

Me: Hi, I’m looking for a construction loan for a house. And… I’m a Christian?
Employee: We only offer loans to churches.
Me: What if my house is also a church? A house-church? I plan to hold worship services in it.
Employee: Oh, ummm, well… uh, could you hold please?
Me: (holding)
Employee: We classify that as “mixed-use,” and we don’t offer loans for those right now. You should try the Christian Community Credit Union.

So I called the CCCU:
Me: Hi, I’m looking for a construction loan for a church.
Employee: Okay! We’ll need five years of financial records, tithing, attend—
Me: Oh, no, we don’t have all that; we’ve just been meeting for about six months.
Employee: Then we can’t do the loan yet, but keep your records and maybe—!
Me: But what if it’s basically a house? Do you offer loans to Christians for houses?
Employee: No, but you should try the Evangelical Christian Credit Union.

I read an article recently about hearing the Holy Spirit. In particular the author addressed the question of how to move forward on a decision or action when we are not sure it’s what God wants. Often we become paralyzed by uncertainty, vowing not to do anything until God makes his will absolutely clear. I was struck by the author’s suggestion to, instead, move on a decision just because we think it might be what the Spirit is asking us to do.

That seems to have potential to add grease to just about every decision-making process. Do you think there’s a good chance the Spirit is leading you to do X? Then go for it, jump in, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Even if you turn out to be wrong, the worst that can happen probably isn’t all that bad. A little embarrassment maybe, or an awkward situation. I think God would honor the decision to act on what we think is his will, even if we’re wrong, above the decision to sit back and demand him to give us a sure sign.

I like certainty too, and can be paralyzed without it. After running into all these financial dead ends I started to look up with a question mark on my forehead: I thought I was sure, but should I stop now? Did you or I lead me down this path? No sure answer came. Although I do keep getting encouraged by people. And into my head keep popping visions of the good things that this place could do and be and inspire. But if I try, I can also imagine bad things. So it helps to ask: Am I certain that God might be asking me to build this house? Yes! Yes I am.

So away I went. I sent a note to my contact at the bank saying the other bank didn’t work out, and asked for any other ideas. She emailed back saying that the only option she could see was to go ahead and order the appraisal and offer me a loan for that amount, however low—as long as I could come up with the remainder from another source.

I didn’t even think this was a possibility—that the bank would offer a loan for an amount significantly less than the cost of construction. How can they be sure I’ll finish the project? What would this mean for the bank’s sale of the loan, if the loan is less than the house’s value? I’m still not clear on all the answers, but the bank explained that my supplemental funding would be drawn first, and then the bank loan would fund the rest—so that the bank is sure its funding amount will be sufficient to complete the project.

The only question that remained was, Where O where will I find supplementary funding?—which, depending on the appraised amount, could be close to 100 grand. Well, it just so happened that a very generous couple had been following my blog, and offered to supplement the cost of the project with a private loan up to a very generous amount. I think the technical financial term for this funding is: “parental loan.”

I reluctantly but gratefully accepted. Is this how God wants to do it? Of course God could use any number of other ways, and I sent out an inquiry to a potential lead to other funding sources that I haven’t heard back from yet. But as of now this dual bank-parental loan is the only way forward. Other than pride and/or individualism I’m not sure why I’d be resistant to this way. Maybe that’s God’s point.

Still, for their sakes, I’d like the “parental” portion of the loan to be as small as possible, so it would be great if the appraisal comes back higher than expected. The problem, as I mentioned in the last post, is that appraisers can’t find properties in the area that are comparable to mine in terms of cost per square foot. But my bank recently found one that might come a lot closer than most—a house in Wilmington currently under construction that is unique, “green,” and contemporary in style. The square footage is also similar to mine. It appraised for about $160 a square foot—much higher than the typical $100 to $120. If my house appraises for $160 per foot, the bank loan would cover 4/5 of my construction costs. That would be good.

One little catch is that, before this house can be used as a comparison for my appraisal, it has to finish construction and close—slated for the end of September, but I know how construction goes. Well, this is a funny kind of waiting period, no? A house in Wilmington has to close before I can get an appraisal to get a portion of a loan for a church/house in Leland. Maybe I should call the owners of this house and inform them that God is waiting.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Another interesting roadblock has arisen, this time from the bank. The problem is that my house is impossible to appraise. The bank consulted with four different appraisers with the same response: "impossible to give value."

At 1380 square feet, this house is relatively small, but because of all the custom detailing and quality materials, the cost of construction was estimated by my builder at almost $200 per square foot. This was my strategy: limit the square footage in order to be able to afford good design. Apparently there is no house in the neighborhood where I plan to build that comes anywhere close to this cost per foot. It’s not that there aren’t bigger houses in the area that have the same overall cost as mine; it’s that the smaller area of my house doesn’t seem to support it’s cost.

I learned that appraisals are only about what the “market” has been paying recently, locally, and typically for a certain size of house. Appraisers don’t care about the design or materials, or what builders have said it will cost to construct. “Cost does not create value,” one appraiser wrote to me.

I made the point that the value of this house will be much higher than other houses of similar square footage precisely because of the unique design, the special features (skylights, courtyard, etc.), and environmentally friendly materials throughout. How often have we witnessed some product selling for way more than anyone would expect from its size—because of some unique, desirable features? I made use of Frank Lloyd Wright again, pointing out that every one of his houses is worth far more than anyone would expect by looking only at square footage—because of the special design. Good design has value! Aren’t unique houses exactly what banks should be focusing on in this financial climate? The bloated, cookie-cutter, suburban MacMansions make up the great majority of houses sitting empty right now. Why not try investing in something different?

Of course all this fell on deaf ears. The mighty “market” is all that matters. Their question is: How will the bank sell this loan on the secondary market if the house’s value is so much less than its cost? The market hasn’t been paying this much for houses of this size.

Then I tried to argue: “I am the market for this house.” I qualified for the loan; I will pay what it costs; I plan to live in the house as my primary residence; I have no plans to sell it.

Also spoken into the void. What if I lose my job? they asked. What if I die? they implied.

It seems like the entire mortgage loan machine allows people to only do what has been done before. Creativity is not recognized. Good design is worthless. Want to pay us tons of interest on a loan to build your dream home? Design a house that's just like all the others.

I have to admit I was a tad flattered by the response of the appraisers. Especially when they wrote, “no comps… impossible to give value,” I thought: Yeah, that’s the way I designed it: incomparable, unique, high quality, with no equal, like no other—like my God.

So, my bank referred me to another bank that apparently can keep the loan in house rather than having to sell it later—meaning the lack of an appraisal may not matter. I left a message with a contact at that bank a few days ago and have received no response. A banker friend of mine was skeptical that any bank in these times would process a loan without an appraisal.

What if no bank will give me a loan? Will I be the father of a stillborn child? Have I already learned all that God wanted to teach me through this process? Or does God want me pursue funding from a different source?

From the beginning of my quest for financing lots of options crossed my mind, from opening an account for receiving donations to applying for some sort of grant. None of them seemed viable for a project that basically looks like a house for myself. Could I convince anyone that it’s not really for me? And that it’s not really just a house? It’s also a church—for the world. The merging of these apparently disparate functions is part of what makes this place special. If I knew I was never going to live there, I would still build it. I echo the desire of Solomon: “Here is what I want to do: build a temple in honor of God.” (1 Kings 5:5) Now if only I could find a fraction of his resources.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bureaucracy, Part 2

didn’t expect this to be over, but I didn’t think it would be this bad.

I met with the building inspector several months ago to get his comments and see if I needed to provide anything else on the drawings for the permit to go through. As he flipped through the drawings and noticed all the unconventional details, he told me everything will go fine as long as I have the engineer’s seal on the structural drawings (the last five sheets in the set) – which I planned to have anyway.

So a few weeks ago I met with the engineer to get his seal, then dropped off the drawing set to the building inspector. The next day my engineer called me to say the building inspector asked for a seal to be on every sheet, not just the structurals. Of course the structural engineer will not seal the whole set.

So I called the building inspector:

Me: My engineer said you have some questions about the plans?
Inspector: You have to put your seal on the drawings.
Me: I don’t have a seal. I’m not licensed yet.
Inspector: Well, you’re gonna have to get that way.
Me: But this is a single residence, and I will live there. I’m not supposed to need a seal.
Inspector: You need a seal on these because there are lots of details that are not code-compliant.
Me: Like what?
Inspector: Like your roof slope; it has to be 3/12 minimum.
Me: It’s a standard low-sloped roof, ¼” per foot, with a membrane. This is done all the time.
Inspector: There’s nothing in the residential code that deals with that.
Me: So how do you permit all these buildings around here with low-sloped roofs?
Inspector: Under the commercial code.
Inspector: Can’t you get someone you know to stamp them?
Me: Generally architects won’t stamp drawings that aren’t theirs. Why didn’t you say anything about this when I showed you the drawings months ago? All you said was that I needed an engineer’s stamp for the structural details.
Inspector: Yeah, well, I’m just telling you what I need. Just get a stamp on all the drawings and we’ll be good.

I got off the phone and seethed. Really? The residential code doesn’t recognize a low-sloped roof? I wanted to call back and say, “I’m not a physicist but I’m pretty sure water has the same properties when running off of a house as when running off of Walmart. If it works for the commercial code it will work for a house! Use some common sense!”

Then I wanted to call back and ask, “You’ve heard of Frank Lloyd Wright, right? Good. Greatest American architect ever? Yeah. Tons of houses with low-sloped roofs. Would you withhold a permit from Frank Lloyd Wright?”

Below is an image of the most famous residence in the world, “Fallingwater,” by Wright. Many consider it the greatest building of the 20th century. Guess what: not a pitched roof in the place.

When I felt like I could speak without cussing (and I don’t even cuss), I told my boss about my permitting difficulties. He smiled and graciously agreed to review my drawings and put his seal on them.

From the beginning of this project I’ve had a vague desire to do everything with as little outside help as possible – outside of God’s, that is. But so far I’ve needed a licensed structural engineer, a licensed general contractor (required by the bank), and a licensed architect. Perhaps God is drawing some attention to the individualism that still infects me.

I returned my completely sealed plans to the inspector. So I feel pretty good about the building permit now. But soon I realized this was a small issue compared with what was coming. When I originally dropped off the drawings I was told that once the building inspector signs off on the house I will have to bring a form saying I’ve paid the fees for sewer and water at the site.

Besides these fees being inexplicably high (over $4,500) this task seemed straightforward enough. But the street along which the sewer and water lines run is a state road, so I was referred to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to be sure I could bore under the road to tap the sewer line. I called NCDOT and they said I would need a permit for that. Then they said, by the way, you also need a permit to tap the water line, even though it’s on the same side of the street as your property, because it’s in the Right of Way. Then they said, by the way, you’ll need yet another permit for your driveway.

I was not too aggravated by all this until I saw these permit applications. They asked me to do new drawings. They asked me to take out a “Performance and Indemnity Bond,” a special insurance policy for sewer and water taps. The checklist for completion of each permit went on for pages, and many of the items I either didn’t understand or didn’t know how to provide. Each application was a project in and of itself. All I could do is laugh. I threw the papers beside my chair and ignored them for several days.

I’ve had a recurring dream since childhood. The particulars of the dream vary, but the theme is the same: journeying towards some exciting destination and never getting there. The first one I recall was when I was a child. I was going with my family to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, and was very excited about it. We got to the park and the line was ridiculously long. We stood in it and inched closer to the park. I played with other kids in the line. We got close to the gate, but the line seemed to move even slower. I rode my bike with other kids through the woods along the edge of the park. Then I awoke. We never got into Busch Gardens.

Over the years this dream has continued to return in different forms. I’ve gone to the beach and never gotten in the water. I’ve gone to table tennis tournaments and never played. Last night I was practicing for a soccer tournament and awoke before the first game started. What happens? In each of these dreams it’s not just that I awake before I get there. The journey itself becomes so long and tedious that I run out of time. The journey devours the destination, unfolds into a labyrinth impossible to solve.

O God, let this not be the story of this house. Let this not be my life. I have prayed that this dream is an expression of fear in my own mind, rather than a prophesy.

I remembered these dreams as I sifted through requirements for three different permit applications, including several new drawings, two insurance bond forms to go with them, “in the amount stated above for the payment for which sum we bind ourselves… whereas the PRINCIPAL entered into a certain Encroachment Agreement with the DEPARTMENT hereinabove described and incorporated herein by reference… IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the above-bounded parties have executed this instrument…” Oh I did want to execute something! It felt like a labyrinth had sprung up between me and this house.

And then I got suspicious. Thank God for suspicion. Seriously? Did everyone in this development have to submit all this stuff before building their houses? It seems extreme. Or did they just not contact NCDOT before doing the work? Would I have been “wise as a serpent” to not make any phone calls? Or would that not be “as innocent as a dove”?

I called the company that owns the sewer and water lines. He acknowledged the permits that I was asked to provide and said he would sign off on them. But then I asked if this type of permit is typical for single houses. He said no, because his company has a “blanket agreement” with the DOT that allows them to approve line taps wherever they need to. I called NCDOT and told them this. They said, oh, a blanket agreement; that’ll work fine. I was a bit perturbed that they didn’t already know this. But hallelujah: two permits down.

I was also suspicious of the requirement for a driveway permit. So I downloaded the DOT’s own policy on driveways. As I browsed the introduction I came across this glorious line: “Permits will normally not be required for a single residence.” I emailed this to the DOT contact I had been speaking with and she said, oh, okay, nevermind the permit.

A three-dimensional labyrinth vanished before my eyes in a matter of hours. I can see my house again. Of course I know there will be more trouble along the way. There is already: the subcontractor who was going to do my clearing, grading, concrete, stone, and brick work dropped out, deciding the work was too complex for his crew. Anyone want a job? Or five? It is a new labyrinth (though thankfully not a bureaucratic one), but I have more confidence to begin walking through it because of how the others have been resolved. I just pray I can stay awake long enough.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Yesterday I submitted my plans to the County for a building permit. I've struggled to make this house pleasing to God. Now we'll see if it's pleasing to the building inspector.

So I have a little time again to write. I'll talk about the house plan as a whole. I think this will be the last post where I explain the design. Words fail. Included here are six images of plans from the drawing set.

Main Floor Plan

This house could be described as a “courtyard house" - the indoor spaces are grouped around an outdoor space. But the courtyard here is not completely enclosed; it opens to the street. This is a welcoming gesture. The building offers an embrace.

The courtyard is also an expression of humility: The core of the property and the house is not building but nature. The floor is earth, the ceiling is sky, the light is God’s.

The courtyard could more appropriately be called a cloister, since it was this element of monasteries that most inspired the design. This is a consistent feature of monasteries from ancient times through today. I learned this from an extras DVD that came with the film, “Into Great Silence.” I was amazed to find there a substantial section with photos and even architectural drawings of many monasteries built over the past two thousand years. (Was this just for me?) I made several pages of notes and sketches about this information. One feature I especially liked was the outdoor space enclosed by the living quarters of these monasteries. A covered porch typically wrapped around the edge of the open space too.

Floor Pattern Plan

The covered porch in my design also wraps around the entire courtyard. But the house itself wraps only around three sides of this porch. Here I’ve made a revision to the monastic tradition that I think is needed. This place is not about secluding ourselves from the world, but about building a place of light and love that everyone is welcomed into, and from which we go out to serve. It is a node of worship from which we go, and to which we invite others to come. The word “cloister” comes from the Latin meaning "bolt" or "lock." In my house this lock has been opened.

Besides the cloister there are two other major plan elements of this house - completing the trinitarian plan (of course!). One I’ve described some before: the Great Room. The other is the rest of the interior space, the part that wraps around the courtyard, and includes all the functional elements: kitchen and dining, bedrooms, bathrooms, utility, laundry and storage. We can call this the domestic space. This is the “house” of the “church house.” It has everything the house needs to function as such.

Reflected Ceiling Plan

The Great Room is a different kind of space entirely. It is the “church” of the “church house.” It is the holy place. It’s significant that the house doesn’t need the Great Room. It could function just fine without it. But on another level it is essential. If the domestic space is the body of this house, the Great Room is its soul. Everything practical can get done in the domestic space; the Great Room is about the spiritual – which gives the practical its meaning and reason for being.

Not that I imagine nothing practical happening in the holy place, or that nothing spiritual will happen in the domestic space. Quite the opposite. Church and house are joined here precisely so that they will bleed into one another, inspire and inform each other, so that the holy and the domestic, worship and life, become one.

In the ancient monasteries too church and house were married. The church often sat at the center of the monastery complex, near the cloister where the residences were. Architecturally the two places were quite distinct from each other, the church often a cathedral and the residences compartmentalized and small, like dormitories. Because of the church’s location in the middle of the other structures, it had few windows looking into the surrounding grounds; instead the windows were high, and the ceiling lofty. By contrast the residential cells open onto the courtyard on one side and out to gardens and the world beyond on the other. The church looks up, the house looks out.

I like this symbolism, so this is the case in my house too. Whereas the domestic space has a floor-to-ceiling glass wall looking onto the courtyard, the Great Room has, besides a few small windows in the walls, a 9 x 9 foot skylight looking straight up. So the largest window in this space is not actually the one in the east wall (at a "mere" 5 x 5 feet) but the one in the ceiling.

Framing Plan

In many ways the domestic space and the Great Room are exactly opposite architecturally. As the holy place, the Great Room is about perfection. The geometry is pure. It is a perfect square in plan, symmetrical around four axes. Its major proportions both in plan and section are governed by the “divine proportion.” By contrast the domestic space is organized much more loosely, deferring in large part to practical concerns. Whereas the Great Room is a single pure space, the domestic area is essentially a hallway connecting a series of rooms. The hall and rooms wrap the courtyard. The gesture here then is movement and passage, whereas the gesture of the Great Room is stasis and arrival. One is journey, the other is destination. Both work together to define the square of emptiness at the center.

Also in the contrast between these spaces there is a feeling that they are the same kind of space in different stages of development. The Great Room is what the domestic space wants to be. The one is becoming, the other is being. This is a nebula, that’s a star.

In fact their constructive DNA is the same: a 16-inch brick module determines the location of walls, columns, doors, rafters – every architectural element – in both areas. Also the huge single skylight over the Great Room seems to look back to its own formation in the three smaller skylights over the three bedrooms.

Furthering the stark contrast between the holy and domestic space is the type of construction of each. In the history of building there are two basic structural systems: post and beam, and bearing wall. The Great Room is made primarily of stone and brick bearing walls. This is the way the Temple of Solomon was built: exterior masonry bearing walls with wood beams for the roof and wood board finish on the inside. The domestic space on the other hand is structured of steel columns bolted to beams such that no bearing or shear walls are necessary.

Foundation Plan

These physical features of the house have spiritual parallels. And here is where I'm ever aware of the insufficiency of words. It's like the prophets in the Bible describing visions God gave them; the verbal descriptions almost don't make sense, pale in comparison to what was seen with the eyes. Nothing substitutes for being there. If words could capture it, there would be no need for visions.

So I'll just give some hints. Many parallels should be obvious. Others I have yet to discover myself - an experience I've come to expect if God is involved. I didn't consciously intend the three-part plan, and now I'm starting to see that the trinitarian reference goes further than that: The Great Room is like the Father, being perfect, secure, unchanging, everlasting. The domestic space is like the Son, since He "grew in wisdom and stature," and connects everything to the Father. And the courtyard, with its invisible yet present space is like the Holy Spirit. Though each element is distinct, they flow together into one.

In the contrast between the Great Room and the domestic space I see my and your stark contrast from where we are to where we should be or will be. The domestic space is the caterpillar (or better, worm), the Great Room is the butterfly - speaking both of the transition from sinner to saved and from this cursed life to the next where all things are new. Also I see the destination of a church, a body of believers, starting from nothing, formless and void, and growing in relationship with one another, loving and serving one another, confessing sins to one another, bearing one another's burdens, running towards the goal of unity, being of one mind, becoming the answer to Jesus' prayer.

Roof Plan

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Sunday evening I shared dinner with three friends at my apartment and then we drove out to my site and shared the Lord's Supper. We planned this, but Saturday night I became afraid. Never in my life have I taken Communion outside of a "church" and without a "minister" present. Is this okay? Are we allowed to do this? So I prayed, and reread the scripture about this meal, which said that those taking it ought to do so in "holy awe," taking to heart its purpose of calling to mind the death of Jesus. The focus is on the hearts of the people, not on where they are or who they are. There is no requirement for someone with special status in the church, or with a certain degree, or with a lofty spiritual track record, to be present before the Lord's Supper can be celebrated. The point is to remember Jesus' death for the forgiveness of sins. That is all.

From my apartment we carried four glasses, a jug of grape juice, a small plate with a slice of bread, a Bible, and a candle. We joked that it was a processional, and indeed it was. We called the girl who carried the candle the "light-bearer."

During the drive I realized I forgot the stool we would set the elements on and stand around for the meal. But soon I thought perhaps God made me forget, because our improvised alternative was much better. We parked on the side of the road in front of the site, continued our processional into the woods, and sat down in a circle on a carpet of pine straw. The candle was lit. It seemed appropriate to have a light at the center of us.

There were some logistical hiccups, like when to read which passage of scripture, who to pass the bread to whom, when exactly to pour the juice, etc. - all expected for a first time, and could be easily ironed out for the next. But the improvisation also brought out some beautiful elements that we will have to keep. Such as when one of us picked up the plate of bread, turned to the person to her left and said, "Christy, the body of Christ, broken for you." This continued around the circle, each person first being served and then serving, until the first person to serve was served last.

We had mentioned over dinner that we should think of a song to sing after we take Communion. Jesus and his disciples sang a song together after the Last Supper. But when we finished the bread and cup we still hadn't thought of a song that we all knew. We sat in silence for a minute. Then I said I knew the first stanza of Amazing Grace. One of the others said, "Done." We sang it twice, to a chorus of evening birdsong.

Later I marveled at the democracy of initiative as we stumbled our way through this sacrament. One person started the serving of the bread. After we took the bread and sat silently for a minute, I said, "The blood of Christ," and we all drank in unison. Another asked me to read the scripture a second time, which I gladly did. Yet another suggested we sing Amazing Grace again; joyfully we obliged.

This reminded me of the verse, "There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28) Two of the members of our group of four are married to each other, but you wouldn't have known it to watch our little gathering. The two didn't sit next to each other (though not purposely), and so didn't serve each other the elements. As joint heirs with Christ, the Son, children of the Father, we are all siblings. We will remain so even after death, when all marriages end. Marriage is temporary; spiritual brotherhood is eternal. As it happened by the "accidental" order in which we sat, marriage was deferred to the Beautiful Community.

One dream for this new house is to have regular services centering around the Lord's Supper, but I never imagined sharing this sacred meal in these woods before construction even begins. Now I feel that the place is ready.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


I thought I'd take a break for one post from talking about the architecture of the house to give an update on the push towards construction, especially regarding how money has been influencing this process.

I met with my builder last weekend to go over her new cost estimate, which was revised to reflect the more detailed drawing set I gave her. There was good news and bad news. The good news was that my first choice for window and door type is about the same cost as my second and third choices. So I get the windows I want. The bad news is that the total revised cost increased to an amount significantly beyond my financial ability. So we talked for a little while about ways to reduce this cost back to what I can get a loan for. Then my builder made a selfless, and ridiculous, suggestion: that I work as the general contractor for the project. With her fee out of the estimate, along with the cost reductions we talked about, the project would likely be back in my budget. She said that she just wants to see this house built, even if it means losing her paying job on the project.

That's encouraging on several levels, of course. I told her I appreciate the gesture... and that it's clear she has more confidence in me than I do. Though I've worked as an architect for over eight years, my experience on construction sites is limited, and my experience actually managing a construction project is nil. The idea of being my own general contractor for this house had crossed my mind before - and flew right back out because of this complete lack of experience. Not to mention the apparent impossibility of doing this while working a full-time job. At this point was thinking: the project's way over budget and the only way to change that is to do something I have no experience with and no time for.

So I left that meeting and immediately... rented a movie. To escape. To relax. To get my mind off this prospect of losing a project I've worked six years on and felt God leading me to do. The movie was "District 9." A fine film, by the way, with a surprisingly touching and hopeful ending. It hit the spot. I was in another world for a while.

But God has a tendency to inhabit even the fantasy worlds to which we escape and use them to teach us something. I finished the movie on one day and the next day started watching the "special features" included on the DVD. In a few statements by Neill Blomkamp, the film's director and co-writer, I heard my lesson. "District 9" was his first feature film, and by the looks of him he is my age at the most. He said that at the start of shooting, "I wondered what the hell I was doing. I was fairly stressed out... I was completely unprepared." Looking back on the whole experience, he said: "I'd do a lot differently. But that's what happens with your first film; you go through an insane learning curve. And you can only go through that curve by being thrown into the meat grinder and coming out on the other side."

I've tried to remind myself often that this is only my first house, and part of the point of the project is to learn and grow as a designer in ways I couldn't otherwise. I thought it would be enough learning for me to watch a design of mine get built, and then live in it. But to actually contract it myself would add a whole other level of learning to the process. That's one steep learning curve, which I would not give myself. Is God giving it to me?

The lesson continued: Blomkamp noted that for this first film of his he "picked something that wasn't conventional, which made things more difficult." Oh, I do know about that! There's not much in my house that IS conventional. And here is his concluding statement: "This was not an easy process. There were lots of stressful moments for me, for sure. You can go through that level of pressure and that level of stress only because you're asking yourself, Is this good? Am I making something worthwhile?" I recognize this question; it has haunted the back of my mind ever since the first ideas for this house entered the front of my mind, and no doubt will only increase in volume as I proceed. But I have been diligent over the years to dig it out, lay it on my desk and stare it down. The answer has always been "Yes." And I don't think I spoke it.

I like to break apart the word "encourage" to make it "en-courage," because it suggests a process by which courage is inserted into something. Hearing the words from this young director on the other side of his first film filled me with courage. I had prayed for this, for God to give me courage to do this work, whatever it takes to do what he considers good, worthwhile. He's answered this prayer in several ways; the movie was one. Recently while driving to work I felt a sense of courage to get started with this house as the contractor - as if courage was just dropped into me. I haven't felt that before. Suddenly I'm just ready to go.

It is significant that all these potential changes I have to be en-couraged about were brought on by the limits of my budget. If I contract the house myself it will only be because I can't afford to pay a contractor to do it. But as I look back it seems that God has already used the limitations of my budget to guide the project in a number of other ways.

The first time this happened was over a year ago. I finished the design and felt quite strongly that it was what God wanted. Then I got the estimate back, and it was about twice as much as I could afford. That was too much of a difference to just change some materials or details; the whole design had to change. After a period of discouragement, I started to work again, and over the next few months redesigned the house to be almost 900 square feet less than the original, from 2,250 to 1,380. But here's the best part: the new design is better. It is simpler. It is more unified. It is more sensible. It even feels humble. I had to admit that the limits of my budget led to not just a smaller and cheaper house, but to a better house overall.

Another way this project seems to be turning out better because of budget limitations is its location. The site I ended up purchasing for this house was not my first choice. My first choice was in downtown Wilmington. I made an offer on a property there but the owner refused to budge on the listed price, which was too expensive for me. So I started looking again and found a property in a smaller nearby town, a 10-minute drive from downtown Wilmington, in an older suburban neighborhood. I don't like the suburbs. But I could afford it.

Since purchasing this lot I've learned some interesting things about the suburbs. Just in the last few years America's population crossed a major threshold: more people now live in cities than in the suburbs. For several decades prior to this, the majority of the population lived in suburbs. Something else I learned, which comes with this population shift, is that the suburbs appear to be on a path towards becoming the new slums. The population shift to cities is raising prices there and driving poorer populations to the suburbs. This got me thinking about this location I have been forced upon by my lack of funds - where I want to build a house of worship and life. Perhaps God is building lanterns in places where the sun is setting.

As often as I've wished I had more money to spend to build the ideas I fall in love with first, I have to remember that God has been faithful to take what I have and guide the project - and not merely to be a smaller version of my idea, but to be a better version entirely. This is humbling. According to the examples I've shared here, it appears that if I had more money this house would be less about the Kingdom and more about me. And even with my intentions at their best, I can't decide for God which exact design and location will do his work best, especially regarding the future. So, through a glass darkly, and with way too little experience, onward I go.