Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why Build?

In this calm before the storm of framing that is set for this week, I like to remember the philosophical basics. So here is one of the shorter chapters of my master's thesis, "Towards a New Christian Architecture," where I asked what the whole point of building for church gatherings is anyway, and enlisted the help of some of my favorite theologians - Maritain, van der Leeuw, Wolterstorff, the Apostle Paul. (I left the footnotes so you'd know it was official. Ha.)

Why do we need buildings at all? If nature is fully incarnate with God’s truth, as directly designed by him, why not always worship in a completely natural environment and never build? The Bible does not command us to build buildings for worship. Recall that our first-century brothers and sisters gathered in houses. And Scripture does not record that these Christians had any desire to build structures specifically for worship. God commanded the tabernacle of Moses and the temple of Solomon to be built, and even designed them himself; but we after Christ have no such command, nor design, from God. As mentioned earlier, we now have no need for a temple as a place to meet God; he resides in each believing heart, and we have direct access to him there. Our body now takes the place of the temple. Where in the Kingdom does this leave architecture?

Architecture can still be made to express God’s truth in the same way the temple did—for all we need is analogy. And these days in America the conditions are usually favorable for the design and construction of church buildings that express and instill Christian values, that glorify God. But again, nature does this already, and further is not compromised in its expression of God’s truth by the sin that so often enters into human endeavors. Why should we not make nature our place of worship?

The answer is obvious, but profound: nature is too often inhospitable. If we were to worship in a completely natural environment, wherever on earth we choose, we would soon become uncomfortable: we would be too cold or too hot, or it would be too windy, or rain would fall on us, or flies would pester us and mosquitoes would bite us, or it would be to dark or too bright. Of course we could find some times and places where we would be comfortable for the length of a church service. But such times and places are much too few and far between to satisfy the demand for regular gatherings, which we surely need.

What is profound about this inadequacy of nature is that it bears witness to our expulsion from the Garden and the curse on creation. Nature’s inhospitable character bears witness to human sin. It is significant that Adam and Eve did not build in Eden: nature was sufficient. But their sin expelled them from this condition; nature as a true home was taken away. All of nature from then on would be affected by the curse. Paul communicates this point where he speaks of the transformation of nature that will accompany Christ’s second coming:

For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. (Rom. 8:22)

The verse following this reveals that even our bodies are under the curse:

even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. (Rom. 8:23b)

As Scofield explains in a footnote to these verses, “Adam brought down into his ruin the old creation, of which he was lord and head. Christ will bring into moral unity with God, and into eternal life, all of the new creation of which He is Lord and Head (Eph. 1:22-23). Even the animal and material creation, cursed for man’s sake (Gen. 3:17), will be delivered by Christ.”[1]

One of the more obvious consequences of the curse is that nature now exhibits many aspects and qualities that war against us humans. No longer can we be fully at home in nature. Hence architecture. The need for architecture arose out of human sin.

Building is the provision, the supplement to nature, that is necessary during this time between the Fall and Christ’s return. “The City of God, the New Jerusalem, needs no temple, ‘for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb’ (Revelation 21:22). But in the old Jerusalem, building must go on; God’s house as well as ours.”[2]

Thus it is revealing that Christians in the first century worshipped in houses rather than in some hidden spot in nature. Our regular gathering for worship, for Sunday services, requires a building. And when our God-given conditions and resources allow for the construction of a structure specifically for these services, as they most often do in America today, we have the opportunity to make a building that expresses God’s truth, that bears fittingness with Christian faith and life.

From earlier discussions it should be clear that to build anything is already to reveal a worldview. When we build we make a grand gesture that relates in some particular way to the materials we use, to the natural and built surroundings, and to the human occupants. These physical relationships inevitably reveal or express a spiritual orientation, an ideological perspective, with respect to the world and to human beings. As Berthold Lubetkin said, “All works of art and all philosophical systems reflect a particular cosmology, an idea of the physical universe and of man’s nature in it. Architecture, probably more than any other form of art, should be considered as three-dimensional philosophy.”[3] Merely to build is to reveal some perspective on the meaning of the world and our place in it. Even if our intent in the design of a building is to prevent such expression, we will fail: “forms have significance and content even if that content itself is a refusal of meaning.”[4]

So it makes sense to say that if some particular worldview, a belief about humanity and the cosmos, is inevitably revealed when a building is erected, the worldview expressed by a building for Christian worship should be that of Christianity. In Wolterstorff’s terminology: it would be profoundly fitting for our places of worship to express our faith. We can say that the church building, as a whole, should express the character of Christianity, where “character” here refers to overall expressive content—which is also a quality of art, music, and nature. The character of the weeping willow tree is sadness; the character here is an emotion. The "seeker-sensitive" church buildings presented earlier express a secular character; here character refers to a worldview, which perhaps brings with it particular emotional responses. For a building to express the character of Christianity means that the physical composition of the building and its relationship to its surroundings and to humans share a significant similarity to the overall spiritual disposition and worldview exemplified by Christ as revealed in Scripture.

The philosopher Jacques Maritain argued that Christian art is defined by its character: “By the words ‘Christian art’ I do not mean Church art…. I mean Christian art in the sense of art which bears within it the character of Christianity.”[5] The theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw made the same point regarding architecture where he argued that a building that expresses a character that doesn’t match its function is inherently false: “There is a laboratory in Groningen that looks like a church…. We feel that this is false. A laboratory is, and remains, a laboratory and should not give the impression of something else; a factory is, and remains, a factory and should not give the impression of being a church.”[6] Van der Leeuw meant by this to critique the popular trend in church design—even in his time, during the mid-twentieth century—that conceived of the church building as a mute backdrop, a mere shelter for worship. He argued that, instead, “In God’s house God must reign; his thoughts must find expression in the building…”[7]

Two significant but neglected spiritual benefits would result from this fittingness between the character of our faith and the character of our buildings: 1) God would be glorified through yet another medium - the Gospel would go forth through our architecture, in addition to our service, teaching, etc.; 2) our own Christian faith would be clarified and instilled in us by the building - God’s truth would influence us not only verbally, by sermons and prayers and songs, but nonverbally through metaphors, like those in Scripture and in nature.

[1] C.I. Scofield, The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 1430, n. 1.
[2] Gerardus van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, trans. David E. Green (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963) 205.
[3] Quoted in William J. R. Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900 (London: Phaidon Press, 1996) 657.
[4] John Dixon Hunt, Gardens and the Picturesque: Studies in the History of Landscape Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992) 13, 16.
[5] Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, trans. Joseph W. Evans (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962) 64.
[6] Van der Leeuw, 201.
[7] Ibid., 202.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


This is part of a section drawing through the wall and floor of the Great Room. All wood construction for this house is scheduled to begin next week, so I've been revisiting my original wood details. (A long meeting with my framer revealed that I still had a lot of drawing to do to show how exactly everything will go together.)

This exercise reminded me of a detailing strategy that I'm glad I chose for this house: the "reveal." This is a standard feature in design, especially woodwork. It's where a linear gap is left in the surface material so that the lower material is seen. But typically the lower material is another finish wood too, or even the same wood painted a different color. The purpose of these reveals is not so much to reveal anything as it is to create a certain appearance, a shadow-line or accent. Here's a modern front desk with multiple horizontal reveals of this kind:

This is fine, but in the way I've detailed my house, the reveals are actually about revealing what's below. In the drawing above, the "1x wd. board finish" stops just short of the brick floor, allowing a portion of the bottom 2x4 of the stud wall to be seen. That "line" of the bottom 2x4 wraps around the whole room. Contrast this with the typical practice of covering this gap with base trim, so that no structural material is seen - everything visible is "finish" material. I wanted instead to pull the finish back a little and let the construction be glimpsed. This is partly in the name of one of the "Seven Points of Church House Architecture": honesty in construction and detailing. The idea is to let the building show itself for what it is, to let it give hints of what it's made of and how it's put together.

Here's another example, in a plan view of a steel column where it connects to stud walls.

The wood finish boards pull away from the vertical studs, and the structural steel, to let them be seen.

Another word for "reveal" is "apocalypse" - a "lifting of the veil." I like to think of the reveals in this house as "little apocalypses," places where the surface is pulled back to make another reality visible.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Smelling Asphalt

For a whole week I've been trying to decide what material to use to waterproof my brick and stone walls. Brick and stone are porous, so at some point in the wall system there has to be a "moisture barrier" to prevent water from migrating through the masonry and into the house.

The first option, suggested by my consulting builder, was a product called Karnak 220. It's a black, asphalt based, liquid-applied coating. So I scheduled to meet with the guy who would apply it to go over exactly where I did and didn't want it. Then I texted my boss to let him know I would be a little late that day for a meeting about waterproofing my masonry. My boss texted back, "That's a big step. Watch the VOC's!"

For the uninitiated, that stands for "volatile organic compounds," which emit nasty little molecules that can be inhaled. The green-building revolution of the past decade has declared war on VOC's, and I think for good reason - they are not good for human lungs. Now you can find even big-name brands of paint offering "low-VOC" and "no-VOC" options. No-VOC paint is quite impressive - it goes up wet with no smell whatsoever.

It was just a plain oversight on my part to have not considered the VOC level of this waterproofing material. In my case it is especially important since this coating will be facing the interior of my house. This type of waterproofing is usually applied to the outside surface of a concrete block wall that will be later concealed with a brick veneer. VOC's are not so significant in that case since they are not emitted towards the interior spaces of the building. In my case the only things separating my Great Room from this potentially hazardous coating is some insulation and wood boards. My boss's little reminder sent me on a search for a low-VOC alternative.

I've always wanted this house to be a healing place, not just for the spirit but for the body. This is part of the reason I'm using all-natural materials as often as possible. It's like the architectural equivalent of organic food. The body God has designed for us should be respected and honored by not just how we eat and exercise but the materials we surround ourselves with day in and day out. The building industry, like the food industry, has come to rely heavily on the use of various chemicals that turn out to be harmful to people and nature in general. In recent years we have seen this begin to change, but there is a long way to go. Still most of our buildings are built with drywall, carpet and paint that contain adhesives, formaldehyde and other chemicals that emit gases not good for us to breathe. A Church House should be a respite from all that, a "breath of fresh air" in all kinds of ways, not least the physical.

Assuming that the asphalt in the Karnak material would send its VOC content soaring, I looked elsewhere immediately. I found a liquid-applied moisture barrier from Dupont that is advertised as low-VOC. I called about it and found out that the cost would be about three times that of the Karnak. A bit steep, but I was ready to use it if it meant better IAQ ("indoor air quality" - another buzz-phrase from green-building culture). While I waited to receive an exact price from the company for my project I looked up the VOC content of the material on their website: 25-30 g/L. I'm still not sure what those units are, but I learned that the lower the number the better.

So just out of curiosity I looked up the VOC content of Karnak. None listed on the website. Ahah! I thought - too high to even mention. Still curious, I called Karnak. I said I was interested in a low-VOC coating, half expecting them to say "Low WHAT?" They surprised me by offering the Karnak 100 or 220 - the latter being the one my builder suggested. I asked for the VOC level. He said "20 g/L, at the most." That's lower than the "low-VOC" Dupont product.

I called the Karnak applier I met on site that day to ask if he could put some of the product on a scrap brick for me to see and smell. I was thinking that even if the VOC level is low, I still didn't want to smell asphalt in my Great Room. Also Karnak seemed to give conflicting messages on their website, saying in one place that the product has no odors and no fumes, and in another place to be careful about inhaling the product in enclosed spaces. So today I smelled the asphalt.

I detected only a hint of tar in the brick he coated today, and not even a hint in a brick he coated yesterday. He had told me earlier that the product has a little odor when wet but not at all after it's dried. He also left a bucket of the stuff on site so I could read the info on the side. There I found its actual VOC content: 10 g/L.

So I think that issue is settled - Karnak is cheaper AND has less than half the VOC content of the Dupont product. Oh yeah, and also I got a call from Dupont just today saying that they cannot offer their product for the "residential market" at this point, but only for commercial projects. Again I'm amused and annoyed at the way the building industry seems to think the physical properties of water are different for "commercial" and "residential" buildings. I need moisture protection just as much as they do! Eventually I'll learn to just start calling this project a church - which is considered "commercial" in that it is not (supposed to be) "residential."

There is another issue though - vapor permeability - that I'm weighing out with a few other products, and I won't dare bore you with the specifics of THAT consideration. It's even more technical than this one was. Rest assured there will be some kind of coating on my brick and stone next week; and I think - probably, at this point - it will be Karnak 220.

It's been a few days since I wrote the above. Now the waterproofing for the brick walls is complete:

Notice it's not black. Because it's not Karnak. I had become more concerned about Karnak's lack of vapor permeability. This could cause condensation to form on the inside of my brick and stone walls, which over time could soak my insulation and rot the wood studs. I needed something that would stop liquid water but allow water vapor to pass through.

For a few hours I was excited about just using a low-VOC acrylic paint. Spray on several coats and it will keep out water, AND acrylic is vapor permeable. I ran it by my boss, who also thought it was a great idea - for a few hours. Then we both realized that in a few years it will crack and peal, and there will be no way to re-paint since it's inside the wall.

Then I happened upon "Perm-A-Barrier," a liquid waterproofing product specially formulated to be vapor permeable. It is also low-VOC. Then I saw the price tag. This would cost even more than Dupont's Tyvek, many times more than Karnak. But again, I was willing to sacrifice for the right product.

At some point in the midst of all this my boss suggested looking into a cement-based coating that we specified for the exterior of a Meineke Center a couple years ago: "Thoroseal." I was initially skeptical, but as I re-read the information we had on it the more right it seemed for my situation. What about VOC's? I called the company: ZERO VOC's. Well, except for the admixture; that has a whole 1 g/L. Done deal there. How about cost? And is it locally available? And can my guy apply it? I called him; he had never heard of Thoroseal. I called my consulting builder, who had also never heard of it. I started to worry. After all, this step has to be completed before framing starts, which is set for next week.

But to my surprise the company's website showed a distributer here in Wilmington. I called and found out that Thoroseal was the least expensive option yet, cheaper even than Karnak. And anyone can apply it. And they didn't even ask if I was using it for a commercial or a residential building! I like equal-opportunity building material distributors. So that gray stuff on my brick walls is Thoroseal.