Saturday, March 27, 2010


As I was driving home from a meeting with the building inspector who will review my house (he gave me the go-ahead, and then added: "Well, should be fun!" after noticing all the atypical details) I passed yet another small tree with large purple blossoms that are up-turned, opening to the sky. These trees are in bloom now and I've been noticing them everywhere, though I don't recall noticing them last year. They are especially striking when some of the blossoms have fallen and the ground below the tree is strewn with white and violet. So I pulled into the driveway of the house where I saw this latest tree planted in the front yard, and asked the owner what kind it is. He then yelled back into the house to ask his wife. "Tulip tree," he repeated. That makes sense, I thought; the blossoms are shaped like tulips.

I'm already thinking about what plantings I will have around this house after it is built, even though it is unlikely I will have money enough left over for any. This could be fine, as I imagine the landscaping will have to be built up over time. Also there is plenty of pre-existing landscaping on this lot that I plan to keep. I purposely chose a fully wooded lot so that I could practice what I have been preaching for years: Don't clear-cut the site! If you have a wooded lot, survey the trees and design the house to work with them. Then only remove the trees that are within and immediately surrounding the building footprint. A site is not a blank slate. God has already been working there. If we can see a piece of "property" as God's creation, covered with God's designs that speak of his existence and nature, then walking through it we should feel as though we are walking through God's sculpture gallery, every living thing a work of art. How can this be blindly swept away? Some trees may have to go, but only for another God-given design. The people of Israel were commanded not to be cruel to their animals, but also to sacrifice them when necessary for atonement.

Here is the survey of my property showing the trees as small dots.

I love how it looks like a star chart. Which makes sense: God laid out the stars, and he laid out these trees. His laws of gravity, weather, and botany caused the trees to grow where they did. The image to the right of this page with the series of small windows in a stone wall is a portion of my front façade. The window locations exactly match a grouping of nine trees at the center of the lot. This window grouping is then perhaps the part of the house that is most directly designed by God.

And here is the site plan showing trees to be removed, marked with an X. Notice the four trees at the center of the X's to remain. They are where the courtyard will be. I'm building the house around them.

There is a great practical benefit to keeping mature trees also: energy efficiency. In the hot climate of southeastern NC we cannot speak highly enough of SHADE. Keeping trees around a building, especially on the south side, blocks the intense summer sun from imparting its energy to the roof and walls, reducing the cost of cooling.

But under the forest I'm keeping, around the new house, I have imagined smaller plantings. A pomegranate tree perhaps, which has a long biblical history, both as food and symbol. Images of pomegranates were carved into the walls of the temple and sewn into the fabric of the priest's garments. I read recently that the pomegranate is one of a very few foods we know of that fights cancer. Something special about that fruit.

I've also imagined planting a garden in front of the house, accessible to the public, welcoming the public, perhaps with a gate with a heavy lock - to hold it open. Then I'll throw away the key. A garden I passed once had a sign that said, "Thank you for enjoying this garden from the street." Contrast this with God's Garden-City of the future: "its gates will never be closed." (Rev. 21:25) I thought of designing this garden to reflect the shape of the camp of Israel, which God designed. When I sketched the camp as described in the Bible I was struck by how much it looks like a flower, complete with an inner circle and four outer petals. What God saw when he looked down on his wandering people is a flower in the desert.

You may have noticed that all these trees and plantings and gardens seem to leave no space for a "yard." Praise God for that. I've learned that grass is not "green." A lawn is typically maintained as a monoculture - just one type of plant is allowed to grow, despite the fact that in nature many types of plants would grow along with the grass - and all would benefit because of it. Then there are whatever chemicals are used to fertilize and weed the grass, which do damage to plants and animals (and humans) elsewhere. Then there is the money and energy spent to maintain the yard. How much use do we really get out of a yard anyway? So this practice of maintaining a surface of grass around a house seems to be a case where a rather arbitrary demand for a certain appearance has caused us to ignore what is actually good for us and for God's creation.

For a while recently I thought I would have to resist a similar temptation. I googled “tulip tree” and what came up is a poplar, with yellow blossoms. That’s not what I saw. The tree that’s been pulling my eyes is actually a Japanese magnolia. As the name implies, this tree is not native to North Carolina, or North America, or the western hemisphere. I was not far off when I joked to myself before researching it, “Watch this tree be native to, like, Thailand.” The name is slightly misleading; it’s actually native to China. Close enough.

Originally I planned to restrict my plantings to native vegetation, so that they are naturally drought tolerant, disease resistant – in short, made for this area. Of course this poses a problem for my dream of a pomegranate too, since it is endemic to Yemen. But the pomegranate came up in a list of plants that thrive in southeastern NC. I think I could feel comfortable using non-native species in this case. Maybe “native” is not the key issue, but rather how well the plant can live. By all the accounts I researched the Japanese magnolia thrives in this region, and in fact in most of the U.S. By all my visual accounts they are doing quite well too. Okay, one rule loosened.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Good Soil

Got a call from my geotech guy today saying that my lot has very good soil for building. He even said that, a few feet down, there is a beautiful white sand. You know something's special when a soil scientist starts talking about beauty. Good news.


One of the main functions I've imagined for this house is that a group of believers would inhabit it and live into the definition of "family" that Jesus gave us. Becoming a Christian means being adopted into God's family, a vast organism reaching through time and around the world. You have brothers and sisters in China. You have mothers and fathers in Iraq. You have sons and daughters in Somalia. This is not just a nice idea to talk about either, as Jesus demonstrated: his immediate family called for him while he was with his disciples, but he refused to come, saying that all those who love and obey him are his true family members.

I'm not sure where or when the phenomenon of the "nuclear family" came into being and asserted such dominance that a whole building type emerged to support it (the "single-family house"). But isolating a married couple and their children within their own building seems to elevate this group to a status beyond that given to it scripturally. It suggests that this unit is complete in and of itself. If for Christians true family is defined by relationship to Christ, what sense does it make for each single set of parents and their kids to live in a separate house?

A pastor shared with me recently that he went through a period of loneliness while he was (happily) married. His epiphany from that experience was that God did not mean for his wife to satisfy every relational need that he had. He needed to find friends outside of his "family." Or better - he had to befriend his true family members outside of his immediate family. The same could be said for the relationship between a parent and child (the generation gap tends to be a barrier) and between siblings. These relationships have their purpose, but only accidentally do they ever satisfy our deep and real longing for true family. By Jesus' example, family is not to be defined or limited by marriage or the walls of a house, but by each person's relationship with Him.

My house could be used as a "single-family house," but there are subtle hints in the plan that this is not my intention. One of the three bedrooms is large enough for a queen bed (so that a married couple could live here), but there is no "master bedroom" in the usual sense, nor a "master bath." Indeed a "single family" is meant to live here - the single family of God, or rather a small portion of it. Many combinations of family units could live here (a single mother with child plus a married couple plus a single, for instance) or it could just be four or five singles. The common denominator is not blood but spirit.


Often my worship experiences at the big contemporary church I attend each Sunday leave me wanting to sing some small, deep, poetic songs. Thank God I have some. I've been collecting these songs lately. One of the purposes I've dreamt for this "church house" is for it to be the setting for a Sunday worship service - and here you see part of the reason for the name of the house. Part of the service (which I will have to talk about more later) will be singing some of these songs each week, a cappella, or acoustically accompanied.

Take a song like "I Am A Pilgrim":

"I am a pilgrim and a stranger,
Travelin' through this worrisome land;
But I've got a home in that yonder city;
And it's not, Good Lord it's not made by hand.

I've got a mother, a sister and a brother,
Who have all gone on before;
And I am determined to go and meet them,
Good Lord, on that other shore.

I'm going down to the river of Jordan,
Just to cleanse my weary soul.
If I could touch the hem of His garments,
Lord, I do believe it would make me whole."

Or, "Blooming Vale," based on Psalm 55:

"O, were I like a feathered dove,
And innocence had wings,
I’d fly away and make a long remove,
From all these restless things.

Let me to some wild desert go,
And find a peaceful home;
Where storms of malice never blow,
Temptations never come.

By morning light I’ll seek his face,
At noon repeat my cry;
The night shall hear me ask his grace,
Nor will he long deny."

Here's a really well-known one that I often wonder why we never sing in church, "I'll Fly Away":

"Some bright morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away to that home on God's celestial shore.

When the shadows of this life have gone, I'll fly away;
Like a bird from these prison walls, I'll fly away.

Oh how glad and happy when we meet,
No more cold iron shackles on my feet.

Just a few more weary days and then
I'll fly away to a land where joys will never end.”

Contrary to most of the songs my church plays, these songs are poetically crafted, saturated with biblical imagery, and open to the realities of life, death, heaven and hell while imbued with joy. These are very different from "praise songs" that we're used to. Why should all the songs we sing in church be praise songs? Some Sundays I don't feel like saying, "God, you're so good to me." Some Sundays I feel like Naomi and want to name myself "Bitter." The biblical Psalms ("Songs") also alternate between highest praise and abysmal despair. The songs we sing as a congregation could do this too, and thereby give us the opportunity to be real with God about what is going on in our lives.

I'm not a "chronological snob," by the way. The songs don't have to be old. They just have to be good. The best, in fact, great, perfect - because God is. These are just the songs I've discovered so far. I would love to discover a slew of contemporary songs that are equally imaginative, biblical, beautiful, and true. Anyone know some?

Music is very important to this house. As I wrote in my sketchbook one day, I want this house to be worthy of having great music played in it. That is, I want the design, the architecture, to be composed as carefully and expressively as the greatest music. When I play music in my current apartment, the music is a pearl cast before swine.


“The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most.”
John Ruskin

I was chatting with someone at church the other day about my house design. I told her that there will be no paint in my house. And no carpet. And no sheetrock. When I've mentioned this to other people they get a look of incredulity and skepticism on their face and ask what then my house will be made of. As if these are the only materials available for a house! Oh, how our typical experiences shape our sense of possibility.

But this woman was mostly disturbed by the lack of paint. She responded, "Well, I like color." And proceeded to describe the different colors she used for a recent painting project at her house.

Well, I like color too. That's why my house will have red brick, blue slate, golden pine, and silvery cypress. Here color is integral to the material, and the material is God's. One of my favorite quotes is, "Whether he uses marble or sod, the builder is hand-in-hand with God." As much as possible in this house I wanted to use materials that are closest to the way they naturally occur, instead of those heavily manipulated or processed by people. This ensures that God's designs, and God's colors, are everywhere.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


I didn't want my first post here to be on a bit of a low note, but hey, this house is all about being real, authentic, honest, true, so this blog might as well be too. Don't cover up the real, good or bad, but express it; make it a special event. Also I like starting with something current, rather than a retrospective thought. There will be plenty of time for that. So here we go.

My builder called me today (I have a builder! - this is new this week also) to report that the county inspector will not approve my windows and doors. This is because I designed them myself, which means they would have to be tested by an independent company to be sure they would hold up under our high wind speed here at the NC coast (120 MPH, in my case). Standard window units, on the other hand, come with a sticker certifying that they have been tested and approved for this wind speed. Testing costs lots of money, so I can't have my custom windows tested. I am forced to toss my window and door designs and pick a design by some company.

What makes this about bureaucracy? I have a structural engineer who could calculate and certify that my windows meet the required wind load standards. But the inspector said he won't accept this; he has to see a sticker! I could build windows that withstand 350 MPH winds, but if they don't have a sticker they're no good as far as the County is concerned.

It says something about the state of construction regulation today when a man can't build his own windows. But here is part of the learning process I was looking for. From the beginning of this project I have thought that even if this house does nothing that I dream for it to do, is a complete failure in my eyes, at least I will have learned a lot along the way. This is the first opportunity I've had to build a design that emerged directly from a conversation - or better, dance - between me and God. I've seen other designs built, but they were mostly about the client I was working for. And of course the buildings I designed in school were not built. So some failure in this first is to be expected. But still of course I desire greater success than I have imagined. God can do it. That's the only way.

This window and door issue is a small hurdle, really. I actually prayed about this last night, because I knew we would find out something about it today. I asked that God would guide the whole process of bringing this house into being, particularly the things I have no control over, so that it is exactly what he wants it to be - not what I want it to be. So I see this as a response to that prayer. For some reason that I can't see yet, God doesn't want my custom windows in this (his) house.

Tomorrow a geotechnical specialist will test the soils on my lot to see if the foundations I've designed will be sufficient. Time to pray again.