The Architecture of Life: November 2007

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Emotional Architecture III

(Third post is a series of three.)

The first post is here.

Here are some facts about how your brain works that illustrate what I am saying.

Modern Neuropsychology suggests that less than five per cent of human actions are determined by planned, conscious thought.

The remaining 95% of human behavior is strongly impacted by emotion, feeling (sensory and somatic), and other unconscious influences.

Decisions about homes are particularly vulnerable to these types of "irrational" decisions as homes serve an ancient and instinctive role in human life, one that has substantial unconscious cultural and instinctive underpinnings.

In real practice, though consumers give lip service to rationality when changing their living space, their decisions are often highly influenced by factors that are beyond their conscious awareness. They are motivated by developmental or instinctive environmental cues in memory associated with past experiences. Those memories and instincts elicit neurotransmitter and/or hormone stimulated emotional response.

In other words, they make most of their decisions based largely on how they feel, while being reasonably certain they are making thoughtful, rational, conscious choices.

Evidence of this fact is that the home improvement industry in the U. S. is perennially the largest source of consumer complaints by industry sector.

Real estate agents - despite their central role in the largest sector of the U. S. economy outside of government - are consistently rated amongst the "least trusted" professionals in the nation.

According to a May 2006 Harris Poll survey, only 7% of those polled trust real estate agents completely, while 20% trust them not at all. Among 13 types of professionals, only stockbroker advice was trusted less than that of real estate agents.

The custom home building and home improvement sectors are enormously fragmented and inefficient given the vast scope of their activities. Building a single home typically involves as many a twenty or more distinct installation and service businesses - all with separate management, employees, policies and procedures - involved directly in the manufacture on a single small building. Hundreds and even thousands of products are involved, most with an enormous overlap in their functions.

No other industry of that stature has escaped what is typically an inevitable centralization of providers in the marketplace, despite the obvious economic advantages involved.

Most consumers now assume there is no holistic way to approach altering their living space and for the most part, they are right.

On the home front, interpersonal issues between co-habitants during the planning and construction of home improvement projects are so common as to reach the threshold of legendary.

Everyone on the street knows someone, or has heard of someone, who had a traumatic or at least highly-stressful experience with building or home improvement.

Couples are often unaware of the impact that architectural issues have on small incompatibilities in their relationship.

I sometimes tell a story about a couple for whom I designed a project a while back. It was an addition that included a master suite. As I usually do when designing a master bath for a couple, I had drawn a vanity with "his and her" sinks. They liked the design but the wife assured me they did not need to go to the expense of having an extra sink installed in their bath. She said they were used to a single sink and that was all they would need. I played devil's advocate and began to ask them about their habits in the mornings.

After a while, I discovered they had an argument almost every day while preparing for work. However - the wife explained - their conflict had nothing to do with the sink.

It was her husband's fault. He always left his whiskers in the basin when he shaved!

Neither of them had been able to see that it is much easier to add a sink to a bath than to change the habits of a spouse! That may seem obvious, but I have found that such oversights are common.

Almost all of us find it hard to separate the forest from the trees when it comes to our immediate surroundings.

In this same vein, I had a customer who refused to design in appropriate storage because his wife would "stack things everywhere anyway." That's what's called a "self-fulfilling prophecy.

All of this tumult, inefficiency and disorganization is caused in large part by a misunderstanding about the true nature of a home.

A home is not a building. It is an emotional experience. The old saying "a house does not make a home" illustrates this fact.

Intuitively, people are aware of this reality, but in general business practice, this fact is largely ignored.

For years we offered the methods we learned in our firm to solve this problem in a manual workshop, but now we have created an automated web-based software product. My partner and I were on the brink on offering consumers and professionals the fruits of almost a decade of work.

We are now able to predict for each individual and family, what features in the architecture, location and style of a house will actually produce for them the emotional experience of "home."

That experience is close to the heart, inextricably intertwined with safety and comfort and family. Complicated emotions come into play when the issue of home is on the table. Decisions about the design and cost of our homes are often the single most significant financial choices of our lives.

The pressure is on when you take on a major project. The emotional fire is hot. Building and remodeling our homes can lead to considerable stress. But the story can have a happy ending. Sometimes dreams do come true...and dream homes.

In our hearts is a special place. Surrounded by the memories, special attachments and fond impressions that create our emotional a warm and comfortable sanctuary just waiting to be discovered.

It's called "home."

Emotional Architecture II

(This is post two in a series of posts)

The first post in this series is here:

When I was a young child, I spent a lot of time on my great-grandfather's porch. I cannot remember a time in my life when I felt more loved or appreciated. He and my great-grandmother lived in a pier and beam farmhouse in Milam County, Texas. It had a wood plank porch which wrapped around three sides.

Years later, the architectural features of a similar porch in Round Top brought back unconscious memories of that cherished time. I had discovered a key feature of my emotional architecture!

Suddenly I understood why I kept returning to historic restoration work even though, truth be told, it was less profitable than my other building ventures. I realized then that we all view the world through a broad set of internal associations most, but not all, from our childhood. This internal landscape determines how we respond emotionally to the architecture in our surroundings.

Eight years later, I lived in another old farmhouse. I felt happy and very much at home. Built in the 1840's, the restoration was never really complete. The downstairs was cold in the winter and the upstairs a hothouse in the summer. Bugs find it easy to get in and the AC finds it easy to get out. The old place required constant maintenance.

You would think these things would have been annoying, but I sat on my porch in the evenings and think about how lucky I am. You see, it wasn't just an old German farmhouse to me. It was the place I raised my two youngest children. Those old walls held the accomplishment I felt at having been able to leave the big city and make a new home in the country. My best girl slept there in a bed I made with my own hands.

It was a place filled with memories of all the good times I'd had with the people I love. I came to realize that these emotional associations are the actual bricks and mortar of my experience of "home."

It's obvious if you think about it. A robin takes great care to build a nest and guards it jealously until her chicks have flown away. Then, that cherished nest is just another pile of sticks. We humans are not that much different.

A house is a material object. A "home" is of the heart.When people are looking for a new living space, they are really looking for how that new space "feels," and how well it fits the day to day reality of their lives, and the values that are important to them.

With this key realization guiding the way, I began to seek a technology to uncover the features of my clients' emotional architecture. It seemed to me, that if a designer could uncover the emotional associations of his client, he would discover powerful clues to a design that would create that illusive and individual experience we call "home."

Now, years after I had that first realization, I am finally approaching my goal. The human mind is complex, and my skills and training are limited, but after years of research and working with clients, I have developed a systematic process that combined psychological testing and architectural programming in a way that actually identifies what specific features of a house inspire an individual or a family to "feel at home."

But before I brag about my accomplishment, let's consider a critical question.

What exactly is the advantage of knowing for yourself what features of a building or a location will inspire you to feel at home?

In his book, The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander says "The specific patterns out of which a building or a town is made may be alive or dead. To the extent they are alive, they let our inner forces loose, and set us free; but when they are dead they keep us locked in inner conflict."

Mr. Alexander's theory says that architecture gains aliveness by reflecting the patterns of behavior of those who inhabit it. In other words, the day to day repetitive actions, events and activities of human beings, naturally organize space in a way that is healing and nurturing.

When those patterns are ignored, he suggests, we have the type of architecture that now fills our cities...dead, mechanical boxes, impersonal and cold.

If is possible, as Mr. Alexander believes, to bring humanity to architecture�then it seems to me that the unconscious world of emotion that lives within us must be a primary source for much of our design criteria.

In our firm, we make it clear to our clients that a successful design is the result of a good partnership between the designer and the client. My partner and I may know a lot more about architecture and construction than our customers, but our clients are the experts on their own values, tastes, lifestyle and budget.

Time and again however, we find that clients approach us with a broad set of assumptions about cost and design, assumptions that are often poorly grounded in fact. These misconceptions tend to color their requests, often causing them to misrepresent their needs and desires.

In other words, people think they know what they want, but are often wrong about significant parts of it.

Over time we have found it important to serve as a "devil's advocate" and challenge our clients' preconceived ideas if we were to truly discover their most basic priorities. It soon became obvious to us that if we were sincere about trying to get at these deeper issues within our customers, and not just impose our own design ideas on them, we would have to take them on a journey of discovery.

Each person has a unique relationship with the aesthetics of space and form based on a number of factors, most of which are unconscious and purely emotional. If these items can be identified, and included in their design, they feel psychologically more at home in their new space.

The reason we believe this is that modern neuroscience has effectively proven it to be true.

Continued here.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Emotional Architecture I

This article was published years ago and can be found floating around various places on the Internet so just for convenience sake, I posted it here. The first post in a series of three.

What is it that makes a house a home? Do bricks and boards create a room that is comfortable and inviting? Is relaxation a result of finding the right paint color? Does that feeling of being safe and protected come from the choice of wall covering or is it a result of the finish hardware?

These questions seem frivolous on the surface, but after twenty-five years of helping people design, build and remodel their homes, I’ve become convinced that understanding the “emotional architecture” a client brings to a project is a critical part of designing a house that feels like a “home.”

In the architecture firm with which I am associated, we are trying to develop a technology that tailors our projects to the true natures of our clients, but it’s not easy.

The issue of “home” is a highly emotional one. Logic seldom comes into it.

The fact is, when most people decided to remodel their home or build a new house...they lose their minds!

It’s true. Stable marriages topple like palm trees in the hurricane of home improvement. Pleasant, cooperative homemakers turn into Machiavellian harpies, combating husbands who vow to fight to the death on the ramparts of their own financial Alamos.

Practical, down-to-earth CPA’s suddenly realize they are the reincarnation of Frank Lloyd Wright. Customers lie about their budgets, trying to bargain with the designer as though they were buying their house from a Tijuana sombrero salesman.

Perfectly reasonable people, who would never dream of telling their doctor how to treat a disease or their lawyer how to draft their will, think nothing of telling a professional architect how to design their home.

Worst of all, when people begin the process of designing a new home, they forget the basic laws of economics. I long ago discovered that when customers who were over budget came to my office to “trim the fat,” they were actually going to add a Jacuzzi, upgrade the ceramic tile, change the plastic laminate counter tops to granite, and then expect the price to drop.

It set me to wondering.

One day I experienced an epiphany. I was converting a group of historic buildings in Round Top into a country inn.

The Queen and my kids were still in Houston. Every Monday morning I drove up to Round Top and then drove home to Houston every Friday night. In between, I slept on an air mattress on the second floor of an old pier and beam house, one of several we were restoring.

Alone all week, I had plenty of time to think. In the evenings I would sit in an old rocking chair on the wood plank porch. I found myself inexplicably happy. Everything seemed right with the world as I rocked on that porch. I began to ask myself why...and before long I uncovered the source of my unexplained peace of mind.

I remembered a place from my childhood..., my great grandfather’s porch. I called him “Nandaddy.” I can still see him dressed in overalls, bending down to pick me up, a broad smile on his face. “Come hug my neck,” he would say.

Continued here.

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If you want to know more about Nandaddy...go here.

Jimmie Dale's Reading List

Here we have living proof that one of the finest singer-songwriters in America was a fan of the Round Top Register back in its early days. This online interview is from the early days of chat, back when my youngest son - whose now the technology genius behind my Internet start-up - was building "bots" on IRC.

Braver Newer World - one of Jimmie Dale Gilmore's many fine albums - which was produced by the great T. Bone Burnett, was close to its release date. So this was actually a pretty historic interview; historic in terms of Jimmie Dale's music and the early days of the Internet in Texas.

And of course historic in terms of outing Jimmie Dale's impeccable taste in literature.

By a freak accident, my oldest son, who now runs the home building company I used to own, was the roommate of Jimmie Dale's son in their freshman year at what was then Southwest Texas University a few years later. (Now it's Texas State University)

Again, you never know what will happen. Also notice that Jimmie Dale was into physics, harmonics and other "non-musical" ideas. Just goes to show the diversity of his gifts.

I wonder what he would think about Truehome?


Transcript of a Live Web Chat from August 8, 1996

Moderator: Recording artist Jimmie Dale Gilmore is here with us tonight.

Moderator: Hey everyone. We've got Jimmie Dale here. Feel free to send questions and we'll start answering them shortly! Thanks for joining us!

JimmieDale: Hi everyone! We already have questions coming and I'm still learning how it works. This looks like fun!

jstawav: Greetings from the wet 'n' windy west coast of Ireland, Jimmy Dale!

sk11244: hi, from the gulf coast

JimmieDale: I'll bet it's cooler in Ireland than it is here right now.

jstawav: It's 3am and kinda sultry

j: hi from the most eastern point in Canada

Gian: hi from soon to be stormy Long Island!

hipbone: Hello there from Los Angeles, too hot to be cool...

JimmieDale: I see a bunch of questions happening at once, so give me a little while to sort out the order. We are sitting in sweltering Austin at the Monsterbit Media studios. Janet and I had a picnic on the floor a little while ago. Lot's of garlic! (Good that's not online.)

Gian: You've got your own web site, as I saw from clicking on the banner -- do you think these will become the liner notes of the future?

JimmieDale: I think they will be even more so than they are already.

nottwtr: how did the mudhoney collaboration come about ?

Moderator: jimmie's typing a bit slow ;)

JimmieDale: We actually had mutual friends from very different corners of the world. Faith Henschel (from Seattle) and Peter Blackstock (from Austin) were I think, the original instigators of that interesting trip.

Vashon: What do you do when you want to write a song and it's not flowing...the inspiration's not there?

Moderator: now introducing JANET...jimmie's wife..she types quickly!

JimmieDale: Sometimes inspiration is automatic and sometimes it is nowhere to be found

jstawav: Hi: Has Jimmie any plans to return to Ireland in the near future?

JimmieDale: I have a great desire to return to Ireland at any time, but I don't think there are any firm bookings there right now. We have a lot to do in the US right now.

JimmieDale: Back to the inspiration question -- Isn't that the question almost everybody is almost always trying to find the answer to ?

nottwtr: I remember seeing a tv program with you, Butch Hancock and Kinky Friedman sitting on a porch exchanging stories and songs ? What was this and is it available ?

Moderator:'ve got it right

JimmieDale: This was done by the BBC and I actually never saw the finished product -- it aired over here on Bravo or something and was recorded on Mike Crowley (my manager's) back porch.

Vashon: Jimmie, Joy here on Vashon. Last time you were here you sang a really beautiful song about someone named RosaMaria. What was the name of it and who wrote it? I really loved it.

JimmieDale: That's a song by Steve Young called Silver Lake.

Meff: if you could play with anyone in a live setting, who would you most likely be?

JimmieDale: Living or dead?

Meff: doesn't matter!

JimmieDale: Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and John Lennon would be great!

Moderator: Now there is a show. Jimmie, I have a question.

Meff: all at the same time?

JimmieDale: Of course!

Moderator: Who are these bands opening the Braver Newer World tour?

JimmieDale: Scud Mountain Boys, Dale Watson and the Old '97's will be opening various dates.

Moderator: I know you are leaving tomorrow for the first dates of your tour. where are you headed?

JimmieDale: We'll be at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA on Monday, July 15th opening or Willie Nelson.

RonT: Will you play NYC? Fisch: From Casey, "When is the next river trip!".

JimmieDale: Yes, on August 21st -- see the web site for details. I'll also be doing a songwriting workshop at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, NY July 22 - 26.

Moderator: Tell us about the river trips!

JimmieDale: Hi Casey! I think we need a lot more rain before we have anymore river trips.

Moderator: I know a lot of the imagery from your last record was west Texas imagery. that seems to be a theme, eh? who are the photogs?

JimmieDale: The river trips we're talking about are in the canyons of the Rio Grande in the Big Bend of West Texas. The river is slow right now because of the drought.

RonT: Oh, my God, I was in Rhinebeck Sunday, visiting a friend who lives a mile away from the Omega institute (I passed it). Is this a public show?

JimmieDale: The current album, Braver Newer World has highway photos by Weyman Meinzer and Spinning Around the Sun had photos by Keith Carter.

JimmieDale: No. The Omega Institute is sold out.

Vashon: Jimmie, we all like to know what music you listen to when you're not singin' your own songs. Who's on your stereo at the moment?

JimmieDale: Son Volt has had the most recent play at our house.

j: What about a current "living" artist , who would you want to play with.

JimmieDale: I've been wanting to work with Phillip Glass.

Foil: Are you still working with Butch Hancock?

JimmieDale: Not as much as I'd like to. We seem to running in different circles.

jstawav: Who would you cite as your main influences

JimmieDale: Probably Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and John Lennon.

Vashon: Who's Son Volt??

JimmieDale: Their debut album "Traces" is available at the record store -- go get it! I particularly like the song "Tear-stained Eyes"

jstawav: Can Butch Hancock really dance like the dickens to the West Texas Waltz?

JimmieDale: Yes, I have seen him!

Meff: When you write a song, do compose the music first, or the lyrics or both at the same time?

JimmieDale: They usually come together.

Gian: Which performer would you most like to have open for you?

JimmieDale: Wow that's a hard one to answer.

Moderator: (pausing....we really stumped him :)

Fisch: I heard Son Volt got their name from the two (old) record companies (actually, Sun). They figured this was a sure fire contract! True? (at least, its a good story!)

Moderator: yeah, that's what i heard. they really are quite good.

JimmieDale: I don't know if that's true, though.

Vashon: From Richard - Any chance of a Flatlanders tour (without the saw)?

JimmieDale: A chance, but the same small chance it's always been.

JimmieDale: We all want to do it but the organization and scheduling is virtually impossible.

jstawav: If you had to choose one song that best defines your ethos, what would it be?

JimmieDale: Every Grain of Sand (by Bob Dylan).

Fisch: How is touring Europe different from US? When I was there, a lot of good names were doing small clubs. Oh, and we LOVE the saw :)

JimmieDale: The trains are much better in Europe.

JimmieDale: Also, almost everyone speaks good English.

Moderator: ahhh. but the biscuits!

davemc: How was it working with T-Bone Burnett?

JimmieDale: T-Bone is fun to work with. His mind operates in a totally different manner from mine.

Moderator: i know it has been quite a while since your last record. what have you been doing?

JimmieDale: Lots of touring, then lots of recording.

Moderator: do you prefer the live setting or the studio?

JimmieDale: At different times, they both can be wonderful or frustrating.

Moderator: now, being the creator of your web site....i know you LOVE to take digital pictures. let's talk about how technology has influenced your music!

JimmieDale: An earlier form of technology called the guitar has defined my music. But the digital camera is allowing me into a new world.

davemc: Who is in your band?

JimmieDale: Mary Cutrufello, Rob Hooper, Rob Gjersoe, Brad Fordham.

Meff: What led you to kind of "revamp" the players in the band?

JimmieDale: The old band evaporated and the new one coalesced.

Moderator: what's it like playing with a bunch of generation X'ers?

JimmieDale: I think musicians have always been weird -- in every generation.

Moderator: what was your earliest memory!

JimmieDale: I remember the song "Harbor Lights", which still has a strange power over me.

Moderator: um, who did that?

JimmieDale: I think the first version I heard was, no not the Platters, an even earlier group.

Fisch: The new band is an interesting mix of Generation X and Jimmie's Generation WHY!

JimmieDale: How can I answer that -- the earlier answer still goes.

Moderator: hey Jimmie....i think i just got a message from a long lost friend!.

hipbone: My wife tells me it's unfair of me to hide behind "hipbone". Charles Cameron here, Jimmie. Glad you're on the planet.

JimmieDale: Hi Charles! The feeling is mutual. Send me your address.

Moderator: planets.....what do you think about astrology? western? eastern?

JimmieDale: The study of harmonics will one day influence all of psychology and physics, to boot!

Moderator: physics and psychology? elaborate

JimmieDale: You can't have one without the other.

Gian: Are you a big believer in synchronicity?

Moderator: physics...that's pretty heavy. do you study it much?

JimmieDale: I notice it happening all the time. I like to read about modern physics, but I don't like to study it.

Moderator: What do you think about the fact that western culture often denies synchronicity?

Joy: What's Harmonics, Jimmie? Enlighten us, please

JimmieDale: It's a more mathematical approach to determining the commingling influences of the heavens.

Moderator: > FROM hipbone: Archbishop Temple said, "when I pray, coincidences happen, when I don't, they don't."

JimmieDale: Isn't it strange how people will say "There's no such thing as coincidence"?

davemc: Who is Al Strehli Jr.

JimmieDale: Al is a friend of mine from Lubbock, TX who writes some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard. I've recorded several of his songs. By the way, the real dog days start on July 23rd.

Moderator: speaking of dog days....why did you name these chats dog days?

JimmieDale: It seemed like good timing.

Moderator: it's hotter than a pancake on a griddle too!

Moderator: Does he perform in Texas?

JimmieDale: Are you talking about Al? He doesn't perform at all that I know of.

jstawav: Did you ever get any reaction from Townes Van Zandt to the Mudhoney "Buckskin Stallion"?

JimmieDale: Yes, he told me he liked it.

Moderator: ok...just a few more questions y'all.

davemc: What are some of your favorite websites?

JimmieDale: I like the Round Top Register. And Robert Anton Wilson's home page, and the related Principia Discordia.

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Despite the various connections, I never got to meet Jimmie Dale. For our anniversary, my wife bought me a ticket for one of his musical river trips - but for lack of water - the trip was canceled.

The Queen and I paddled Boquillas Canyon a couple of years later. It was awesome, but not the same as it would have been if I could have jammed with Jimmie Dale.

I would have pitched him one of my songs.

Yahoo Picks My Newspaper

This is great! I had forgotten all about this. Not long after I started my gonzo little rural quarterly back in 1995, I put it up on the Internet.

My half fact, half fiction little newspaper was the third Texas newspaper on the Internet back in those early days, ahead of the Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio dailies.

After this little promo from Yahoo, it got the attention of the New York Times, Editor & Publisher Magazine, PBS and the BBC. I don't think they realized the Register wasn't a "real newspaper", as I was interviewing Santa Claus and Bigfoot back in those days.

It was my "10 seconds of fame" and a lot of fun.

I ended up with a big part in a two hour PBS documentary called Digital Nation, and got a rave review from the Arts at Large reporter from the New York Times who called the Register the "...Prairie Home Companion of the Long Star State...".

I never saved the little Yahoo link that started it all, but I found it live on the Internet last week by accident. Life is funny! The link goes to the old server where the Register started, and the story that is linked is in tough shape 11 years later, but it's still there?

Who woulda thought? All from Round Top, a town with a population of 81. (It's only 77 now according to the 2,000 census, but the Mayor thinks they got it wrong!)

Yahoo Banner

Yahoo's Picks of the Week (3-11-96)

For various reasons - timely, informative, wacky, you name it - the following sites are listed here because we think they are good. If you know of any others, please send us a note about them. Also send any general thoughts or comments about Picks and the new format. Click here if you only want to view this week's list. Or, try our new feature, Yahoo! for a Day, a selection from our daily additions that stand out as noteworthy.

Yahoo World Tour

Presented each week with a new focus, the tour highlights some of the great stuff found in our regional categories. This week's theme: local news.

What can we expect from tomorrow's weather in St. Petersburg? What's new in New Zealand? How will South Africa celebrate it's second year anniversary of democracy? What happened in Israel today? For that matter, what happened in Round Top, Texas, today? Such questions are easily answered, thanks to the growing number of online, regional news sites, a handful of which make up this week's tour.

The Jerusalem Post, an English-language Israeli newspaper, includes daily coverage of events unfolding in the region, as well as columns, music, film, people and places features. We dug up an interesting article in Nature & World titled "Use pets to achieve better parenting."

For more local news, try the Round Top Register, from the biggest little town in Texas. Round Top, with a population of 81, is the smallest incorporated town in Texas. But when you catch a ride at Uncle Sack's Internet Depot, or read about art and architecture in Henkel Square, it quickly becomes clear that you don't need to be big to be the center of the universe. There's even a map, if you're not convinced.

Main Street South Africa a newsletter created by two South African journalists living in Washington, D.C., offers business and political analysis of the country, as well as travel and personality features, soundbites, a collection of useful links and more. Main Street's collection of Vital Statistics is a fairly comprehensive gathering of interesting facts about South Africa, and includes a map of the country's new regions. For more news from this part of the world, try Yahoo!'s collection of links to South African English and Afrikaans newspapers.

From Africa to Russia and the St. Petersburg Press, the first Russian newspaper to venture online, in July of 1993. The site includes an archive of back issues, a culture and lifestyle guide, and their current 149th issue. In the latest news is Garry Kasparov and coverage of St. Petersburg mayoral elections, to be held June 16 of this year.

From Cambodia's national newspaper comes The Cambodia Times. Updated weekly, the site offers comprehensive coverage of this and neighboring countries and includes in one of its latest installments news on actor Haing S. Ngor's death, in Los Angeles. Finally, the Christchurch Press Online, New Zealand's second largest newspaper, offers, amongst other things, a weekly press briefing, which is where we learned that popcorn was used to secretly bring into the country a painting by Flemish artist Rubens, on loan from the Australian government. The site offers a wide range of news on all matters: sports, business, computers, motoring, real estate and more. Take your pick(s).

Friday, November 16, 2007

Designing Dream Homes for Apes

By Frank Lloyd Doolittle, A.I.A

Termite architect, Frank Lloyd Doolittle is one of the world’s leading designers of up-scale homes for animals. His projects include award winning designs as diverse as Serengeti Macrotermes termite mounds, nests for Macgregor's bower birds, and coral formations in the Great Barrier reef. In this article he suggests that young design professionals consider entering the primate home design market.

If you are employed to design a habitat for any group of animals - and you wish (as any good home designer does) - to design a structure that will serve their needs - it becomes necessary to understand the behavior of that particular species.

As they say, "form follows function." You cannot do a good job of designing a container if you do not understand the nature and dimensions of the contents it will hold. A wren's nest would ill-suit a mole's taste in architecture, and a mole hill would be a considered a less-than-cozy mountain by a group of bacteria.

Every organism has a natural home, and a designer who works with animals must keep each species’ unique criteria in mind.

If the animals who have paid your retainer happen to be a family of quick-witted, highly social apes who use symbolic language to express their design expectations, then observation of their actions becomes critical.

Apes are well known to be less than forthcoming when they describe their priorities and social behavior.

Working for an organism that portrays itself as one kind of animal, and is in fact another, puts the designer at risk of creating a design not for who the client truly is, but who it claims to be. This could lead to the design and construction of a habitat that fails to meet the needs of the animal involved.

And when this happens with apes, as any design professional who works with primates knows, a great deal of hooting and flailing of tree limbs can result.

Just as a tailor must measure your body in order to produce a suit that fits, and a carpenter must use his tape measure when he builds a house, a designer requires accurate criteria in order to create a good design.

A home is viable only to the degree that it serves, shelters, empowers, and functions appropriately for the animals who inhabit it. When dealing with roving bands of apes, it has been my experience that each family clan has its own unique culture, and therefore the detection of valid design criteria for each individual troupe is a must.

As noted above - and for reasons that we will consider later - when certain species of apes describe their behavior, they are often less than accurate in their descriptions. They embellish, deny, avoid, deflect, misdirect and flat-out lie in order to accomplish what appears to them as critical social goals.

These goals include such ambitions as improving their status in the social hierarchy; gaining advantage in terms of access to sex, food or other resources; asserting dominance and/or territoriality; gaining approval from other members of the band; or occasionally, just for the heck of it.

Apes are so driven to utilize such social devices, and their culture is so rife with such mechanisms, that they are often completely unaware their communication is full of fabrications.

These facts are problematic for the design professional who works with apes, but there are ways around the problems.

Despite the complexities of ape society, in many ways their behavior is predictable. Primates have been studied extensively by bright and inquisitive minds, and though much is still in doubt about their nature and motivations, emergent science is beginning to discover much about what makes these extraordinary apes act the way they do.

Perhaps the most lucrative market for the professional who specializes in designing homes for animals is the species of ape known as “homo sapiens.”

These unique primates are what is known as a "weed" species. They are ubiquitous and can survive in a greater variety of habitats and conditions than any other advanced organism on the planet. Invasive and very numerous, the complexity of their social organization is orders of magnitude greater than that of any other higher animal.

They form elaborate social habitats, which can contain millions of individual animals. These groups construct complex artifacts much like those of social insects, which they call "cities" and from within these highly complex hives they issue forth each day to gather the food necessary for their survival.

Like my own species - termites - and similar species like bees and ants, specialized individuals within ape society perform various functions such as food gathering, hive maintenance, defense, and waste management.

Also like social insects, their societies are emergent in nature. That is, no single individual or group within the society actually runs the system.

Human ape cities seem to find stasis without any real leadership. The overall social structure is much too complex to be managed by the limited skills of any individual ape.

Despite the existence of a tacit hierarchy within human ape society - and a somewhat diffuse specialized class structure - the overall management of the society appears to be built into the system.

It seems to happen, much like in social insect super-organisms, without anyone running the show.

Despite this fact, ape societies are highly structured and regimented. Predictability is a central concern to each individual simian in its every day life.

These apes get up each morning and go through a "predictable" routine. They awaken at a regular time, eat on a predictable schedule, and go about their work each day in a routine manner. They seek to maintain steady, predictable social relationships.

Individual apes - particularly homo sapiens - tend to see themselves as superior and independent animals.

Despite their obvious deference to the requirements of their overall social systems, and the degree to which their behavior is dominated by their family and work groups, they cling to the idea that they are "free" individuals - no matter how often they are proven wrong - and persistently claim that they can predict and control their environment.

Though the delusion inherent in this position will be obvious to any design professional who works with a variety of animal clients in the complex and interdependent web of the global econ-system, it is not a good idea to confront apes with this information.

“Human” apes don't like surprises. A designer who makes a habit of pointing out to his clients that their behavior is dominated by genetic and social imperatives is asking for trouble.

The fact that life is not really foreseeable, that the universe is complex beyond their comprehension and filled with all sorts of threats and capriciousness, seems to make little difference to their acute insistence on predictability.

Despite the evidence provided by their own primate scientists - and even their individual personal experiences - they remain committed to versions of “reality” that provide a comforting sense of order and regularity.

The wise designer should know that most apes have little interest in being told their “reality” is largely ficticious. Though apes may muse about the workings of their world, and even notice that events do not always turn out as they plan, their rational understanding is almost always overwhelmed by the demands of their fear of the unknown.

If these unique primates experience a loss of predictability, they suffer a great deal of anxiety, and this anxiety can lead to a variety of negative survival outcomes including sickness, domestic violence, depression, social upheaval, and even mass group disorders such as war.

Nature and nurture has made these interesting animals the way they are. The basic instinct to seek order in their surroundings, and predictable relationships in their lives, is a deep and ancestral concern they share with all higher animals.

It pre-dates the evolution of homo sapiens.

All living things with the ability to perceive the world around them innately understand that they are vulnerable to the slings and arrows of a dangerous environment, and seek to minimize their exposure to those risks.

All biological organisms who are capable of it, seek shelter. This explains why animal home design is a growth industry with good long-term potential, despite many species' fondness for "do-it-yourself" construction.

A prudent design professional who is considering entering the ape home design market must be cognizant of certain aspects of their behavior. When a designer is retained by a homo sapiens, or for that matter by any mammal, it is important to realize how important social bonding is to your clients.

Not only primates - but all mammals - begin life with a passionate desire to "attach" to their mothers. Since the infants of homo sapiens apes remain helpless and vulnerable longer than the offspring of any other species on the planet, this need is particularly profound for them.

At birth, every ape newborn desperately seeks this profound connection. When it first enters the world, this requirement preoccupies the infant's entire being. The newborn ape experiences the need to attach as a "life and death" concern.

This fear is not a typical ape fabrication. It is a real circumstance. In their early lives, if baby apes do not form predictable nurturing relationships with their mothers or other reliable care-givers…they die.

Deep within their muddled primate minds, every ape innately understands this fact from the moment of its birth. Forming and maintaining these connections are their first passion - and as they grow older - serve as the "glue" that holds together their complex social organization. The need for acceptance within the nurturing group, and its tie to their individual survival, remain active in the back of their unconscious minds throughout their lives, driving a powerful desire for acceptance and approval.

Apes employ a variety of strategies to fulfill these needs. When working with a family of primates, these techniques often surface in their interpersonal relationships, and their relationship with the designer.

One successful strategy for making life more predictable - is dominance. Organisms use it throughout the animal kingdom to increase their control over their environments and to enhance their chances of survival.

It could be said that the creation of a home is an attempt to achieve dominance over a small personal territory.

In a world filled with ferocious predators with big teeth and sharp claws, it is very useful to have dominion, and apes have gone to quite a lot of trouble over the last million years or so to put themselves in the top spot in the global pecking order.

Male apes especially enjoy their domination over the rest of the animal kingdom and continually engage in dominance struggles within their own troupe.

A home designer must take great care to respect all territorial boundaries with an ape client who is male, or be subject to considerable baring of teeth, faux charges, and breaking of bamboo.

Such things can make client meetings very uncomfortable, and should be avoided.

When territorial issues arise between a male ape and his mate during such a meeting, the male can become particularly belligerent, but female apes have become quite adept at managing these aggressive displays.

By feigning subservience - or in extreme situations, by threatening to withhold sex - they typically gain the upper hand in such contests without great effort.

Statistically, female apes tend to be dominant in discussions that relate to ape home design.

Not surprisingly, human apes see the supreme being as one of their own species.

Like most animals, their culture and folklore serves to justify their behavior, and grants them authority to dominate the eco-system.

According to their sacred documents, the human ape god made them in his image, gave them dominion over the "fish of the sea…the fowl of the air…" and over "…every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."

Since they dominate the eco-systems that they inhabit, no other organism on the planet has the power to reject their claim.

The fact that their own science tells them that this anthropocentric point of view is most likely flawed makes no difference.

In the natural world, might makes right, and they are intuitively aware of this fact.

According to one of their greatest ape scientists, Charles Darwin, dominant organisms can claim anything they want - no matter how bogus - until evolutionary circumstances arise that prove them wrong and they go extinct.

Apes have a clever saying. "…a 900 pound gorilla can sit anywhere it wants."

Historically, human apes have justified this self-serving position by pointing to a continuing series of characteristics "unique" to their species - the opposable thumb, the use of language, the use of tools - but one by one, these claims to their special position in the universe have fallen to the field work of their own primatologists, and others within ape society who study animal behavior.

Under assault from the inconvenience of empirical fact, the human ape now finds itself defending one lone remaining minaret on the Tower of Babel of ape exclusivity. They rally their rationalizations around the flag of "self-consciousness."

Most human apes believe the experience of "self-awareness," which they claim to share with others of their own kind, is unique to their species. They see themselves as exclusively capable of this coveted awareness and justify their actions, both private and public, by touting this elite form of perception.

But in recent times, many of their own kind have begun to question the validity of the claim that human primate "consciousness" is unique. They point to studies of social behavior in other species - especially other primates - that suggest the existence of skills and behaviors that appear to be passed down by example from one generation to the next.

They suggest that these well-documented behaviors imply the existence of a form of language and culture in many higher animals. These nay-sayers point to the existence of organized societies in other species which have evolved through a form of "social evolution."

Others suggest that the fact that human apes appear to be the only animal on the planet to have created a word for "self" does not mean they are the only animals that see themselves as having one.

Some ape naysayers have even gone so far as to question the value of "self-consciousness" and point out that any evolutionary trait which appears in only one species is unlikely to have a long-term impact on the biosphere as a whole.

They even dare to suggest the heretical opinion (at least among homo sapiens apes) that other animals might also experience self-awareness.

Whatever the designer's personal opinions, it is generally considered poor form to question your client's capacity for self-consciousness.

Even in the case of apes - when such a lack might appear patently obvious - I recommend skirting the issue. No animal likes to be accused of being dominated by instinct, no matter how true it might be.

A safer tact would be to attribute self-consciousness to as many life forms as possible. Most apes are much more willing to attribute self-awareness to other animals than to accept the possibility that they lack it themselves.

Down through the ages, many within ape society have felt a profound empathy with other animal species. Many share a sense that the human ape and other animals share more in common than many primates realize. This basic intuition has long been a central theme within their religious and aesthetic expression.

Artifacts that merge the experience of ape and animal appear in the mythology, art and architecture of every society in ape history. Half-ape/half-animal icons have been found by ape archeologists at sites associated with the earliest ape societies.

Today, such representations remain dominant in the animation of the latest digital video games played by ape children in their urban habitats.

Immature apes sleep with ape/animal hybrid dolls, and are entertained by animals that speak primate languages on ape television.

Though their profound connection to a shared "animal" experience continues to bubble up from the collective ape unconscious each day, almost all human apes still believe that they consciously choose their actions, and that only their species is capable of conscious self awareness.

Whatever their individual moral, political and social views about the role ape kind currently plays - and "should" play in relation to the other organisms on the planet - in their day to day lives apes act as though they stand alone.

Apes experience their lives as "individuals." They see themselves as distinct not only from other species, but also as profoundly independent from each other.

The problem for those who seek a credible view of ape behavior, including the design professional who is working with an ape client, is that these basic assumptions are highly suspect and yet underlie almost all of human ape experience.

Any experienced designer who works with animals knows that the social lives of many other animals on the planet are incredibly complex and diverse, and that the relationships they share with various other organisms in the planet's myriad eco-systems are equally complex.

At the same time, the various disciplines that study the functioning of the ape brain, and ape social systems, are discovering that the degree to which apes consciously "choose" their individual behavior as they live day to day is very limited.

Even primate scientists, who have been known to slant their findings towards conclusions that favor their ape-centric point of view, point to the long period of time in their ancestral past when all apes lived in small hunter-gatherer bands and suggest that genetic traits forged during that period of ape development still have a profound impact on ape behavior.

Others assert that the profound drive within each ape individual to "fit in" to the group also explains much about ape social conduct.

For all these reasons, the gap between the actual and the "self-described," behavior of individual and collective apes is quite wide.

The process of residential design is further complicated by the fact that it is a highly personal endeavor and tends to bring these discrepancies to the forefront.

Apes always experience strong emotional reactions to the process of remodeling or designing a home. The process incites the female's nesting behaviors and the male's territorial imperatives.

Apes going through the process often exhibit highly irrational behaviors. They often appear driven by deep-seated psychological imperatives over which they have little control. The experienced home designer who works with primates will often see little difference between ape behavior and that of other animal clients.

Whether or not the ape's claim of a special place in creation is valid, a designer is wise to remember the old axiom, "the customer is always right." Human ape "self-consciousness" may not be all it is cracked up to be. Their vaunted sense of individuality may appear a bit suspect, but it is still important to be respectful.

Apes are the most common species on the planet with disposable income, and therefore will always be a big part of any professional animal home designer's marketplace.

Even if their claim to being the top dog amongst the recently evolved higher animals is no big deal in the long run, there is no need to point it out. Despite the fact that every thoughtful animal knows the planet is now, and has always been, dominated by microbes, there is no need to rub the fact in their funny ape faces.

The successful design professional will keep his eye on the ball.

Apes may be prone to putting on airs, but many of them pay with cash, something that can't be said about much of the animal kingdom.

Letting Go of Home

(Reprinted from the Summer 2004 Round Top Register)

Near one corner of the garage, scratched into the concrete by little hands, are the names of our children. The boys scribed their own, but our daughter had already flown from our arms to Austin and the University of Texas, so a heart in her memory was pressed into the masonry while it was still wet.

Even that bit of ourselves will pass away. A jackhammer or bulldozer will one day raze our futile attempt at permanence, and all sign of our years in that home will be rubble in some landfill.

Such is life for the human mayfly.

All that we care about – all our dreams, all our loves and losses, all our triumphs and failures – in the end come to naught. The best and worst of our lives are passed down in stories from one generation to the next.

Most of those tales fade to nothing in a generation or two, and those lucky few that live on change over time until they no longer resemble any part of the real years that were lived.

That is one of many lessons I learned from that old house by Possum Gully. I could not wail about the fading of my own fleeting legend, when the faint voices of so many past lives echoed like faint zephyrs through its dim breezeway almost nightly.

In the heart of that house is a sturdy log cabin built in 1844 by a man who had come to the Texas frontier from far away Germany.

His name was Winkelmann, and as felled that stand of Texas walnut and raised it into a home to shelter his young family, I am sure his 0dyssey from his homeland and his hard first days in that virgin country loomed large in his imagination.

It must have seemed a story like the legends of old. He must have assumed it would trail down through time in great detail, an oral tradition told by his children and neighbors that would live forever.

But had it not been for the dusty pastime of some latter day village historian, his name, like the life he lived, would have disappeared like a long forgotten storm – full of thunder and roiling winds at the time – but a lost irrelevancy soon after.

In later years, those great fallen logs sheltered my dining room table and as I sat in my robe sipping my morning coffee I was glad I did not have to tell him how it turned out.

The cabin had been built near the hamlet of Frelsburg, and in the 1880’s what history remains claims the Winkelmann family built a farmhouse around it. Civilization had come to the Texas frontier and those still living in cabins were considered provincial. It was important to keep up appearances. Wood lathing was applied over those rustic walls, and beaded siding was nailed to it. For over a hundred years, the cabin’s voice was silenced.

Time passed, and so did the ownership of the farm. Another room was added to the front of the house around the time of the First World War. The war brought hard times. Those of German lineage had their loyalty questioned by their Anglo-American neighbors – despite a generation working side by side – and German-American communities turned inward and cautious. They became clannish and distrusted strangers.

Through the first half of the century, the house survived in that remote backwater, the home of subsistence farmers who were some of the most productive in the world. It survived the depression, hurricanes, and another war with their homeland that further estranged them from mainstream America. The community intermarried and developed strong bonds. The old ways persisted but were hidden from strangers.

But times remained difficult. The children began to leave home for the big city and better jobs, and with no strong sons and daughters to carry on their traditions, those close-knit communities began to fade and die.

By the end of the 1950’s, the cities began to invade the countryside. Strangers with strange ways began buying up the land, and one day a wealthy preservationist bought the old house.

A swarthy crew of roughnecks wrested it from its wildwood home, loaded its weathered frame on cold steel and carried it off to foreign soil.

To those men and the wealthy dame who directed their work it was but one more empty old house to be bought and sold like a pie safe abandoned in a farmer’s barn. She collected them from all across the countryside and for many years, wretched old farmhouses could be seen creaking down the narrow country lanes towards her farm in Round Top.

She dreamed of building a preservationist’s empire, perhaps her own attempt at fighting back the tide of time. I imagine she too dreamed of building a legacy that would live beyond her own fleeting life.

But those houses were not empty, though they might have been abandoned.

In my mind’s eye I see them crawling down the highway, bits of the lives that had filled them flying out their windows and doors like debris from a the back of some irresponsible contractor’s pick-up…littering the highway…laughter and tears, joy and pain, caught in weeds and wrapped around tree limbs, flapping in the wind and forgotten.

I also imagine those old bungalows crying out in silent pain when they were wrested from the site upon which they were built. Houses are not like furniture, designed to be carried from place to place on a whim. Houses are rooted to the ground. They are watered and nourished by the lives of their inhabitants and grow into the soil beneath them. They become part of the countryside.

Winklemann’s old house was set on concrete blocks in a “temporary” site atop a hill in Round Top…and sat untouched for many years.

Its new owner had so many…and others interested her more. Buzzards moved into the attic. Mice and other varmints found it a cozy accommodation. The house bided its time, acquainting itself with its new inhabitants.

Then one day an itinerant carpenter who was fascinated by old buildings pried open the door and walked in the half-light across the littered antique pine floors. Truthfully he was trespassing, although he had rationalized his actions in his own mind, for he knew the wealthy preservationist. He had asked the aging real estate agent who represented her and lived next door to where the old house had been waiting, if he could “check it out.”

As he walked through those old rooms, wiping spider webs out of his way, he began to feel that the old house would be his salvation.

And he was right.

In 1991, I came to Round Top with nothing except the love of my wife and children. A high-flying career in Houston had fallen into ruin with a downturn in the economy in the 1980’s.

One year, I had over sixty employees and business that was growing so fast it made the front cover of the Sunday business section of the Houston Post. The next I was bankrupt and building a deck in a friend’s backyard just to keep my bills paid. It was the hardest time of my life, and since we had to start over from scratch, my wife and I decided we would move out of the big city and build a new life in the country.

Since I had no credit and was living from paycheck to paycheck, it would take a series of miracles to make it happen.

The first miracle came along right on schedule. My wife’s sister, who was a successful real estate professional, had become enamored of a small compound of historic buildings in a tiny hamlet called Round Top. She needed a restoration builder to fulfill her dream, and we needed a way to make a living in the country. It was a marriage made in heaven.

I came to Round Top with my carpentry tools in hand to supervise the restoration of what is now known as the Round Top Inn. We rented a little house in town, and our two boys moved from big Houston schools to a district with less than two hundred children at all grade levels.

We saw no way to buy a home until one day another miracle appeared. A close friend from Houston approached me and said that she was interested in finding a home in the area. She offered to finance the land and a modest home for my family if I would find a place big enough for both of us.

I trespassed on property all around that tiny town until one day I jumped a fence and discovered a big wooded gully that led down into Cummins Creek in the far western corner of the town limits. Where it crossed Round Top Road, the locals had used the gully as a dump, and old bottles and other strange objects peeked from the banks on both sides. For reasons I still cannot fathom, I fell in love. Beyond the gully was a small hay meadow that led down to the creek, where tall water oaks reached for the sky.

It was eleven overgrown acres of bramble, litter and flood plain…but to me, it looked like the Promised Land.

I found out the man who owned it was an eccentric old school teacher and blacksmith named Joe Knutzen. I had already met “Old Joe” and found him charming. He lived just of the town square and was a storyteller of grand proportions. He loved to enrapture city folk visiting the tiny town with his tales, some true and some fictional.

The truth is that I adopted his style of storytelling in later years when I accidentally began publishing a small quarterly magazine in the area. Like Joe, the Round Top Register merged fiction and the facts, and was never particularly truthful about which was which.

Joe had been the fifth grade teacher at the elementary school and a solid citizen until his wife had died a few year before. After that, he seemed to grow more eccentric.

He wore threadbare clothes, though he could well afford better. He often hunted raccoons and coyotes at night and hung their ears and pelts in random locations. He kept a pack of ragged dogs on his front porch and refused to mow the grass on his acre by the square, which made him the butt of considerable gossip.

He was a source of constant consternation to the buttoned-down German housewives in town.

He seemed to relish his role as an eccentric and I loved his rebellious attitude. Joe was also very kind to children and had befriended my youngest son who was just entering the fifth grade. Joe would tour him through his old blacksmith shop, tell him wild stories and make him think about things, as I imagined he must have done when he had been a teacher.

When I told a few of the locals I had met that I had fallen in love with old Joe’s land, they said there was no chance he would ever part with it. He had owned it for seventy years and still grew hay on the meadow at its heart. Besides, they said, he didn’t like city people…they informed me with a knowing glare.

When my friend offered to finance the purchase, I worked up the courage to ask him and to my surprise, he said he would be willing to sell. The only problem was that he had already given a half interest in the land to his son, and would have to get his son’s permission to sell. “Don’t pay a nickel over $2,500 an acre for that land,” he said. “It’s just not worth it!”

Douglas was willing to agree to his father’s wish to sell, but had a different opinion about the value of the land.As I was convinced the eleven acres was my stairway to heaven, and had no money of my own to pay for it anyway, the negotiations were short. Joe’s son got his price.

A month later, before the land purchase was closed, Joe died suddenly. His son completed the sale, despite my fears that he would not, for it had been his father’s wish. Joe made such an impression on me that his ghost appeared for years in my little newspaper as the wild “spirit of old Round Top.”

The old house from Frelsburg was rolled down the hill and into the clearing I had made in the trees. My Houston friend kept eight acres and the three that remained became a symbol of my dream of a better life.

We had little money to do the extensive improvements that were required to make the house habitable. Every weekend for two years I worked on that house. I would restore other old homes during the week. Slowly, the house slowly began to come to life.

The original front room of the house - the one that had been added after the turn of the century - was now a wash house for the aging restorationist who had sold it to me. I decided to add a bigger room where it had been.

During its construction, I fell off the roof while framing the roof and was forced to have my fourteen-year-old son and a friend of the same age put the tin roof on the house while I screamed in frustration from below, my arm in a sling and my blood pressure soaring.

Over the years, we added to the house several times, but perhaps the greatest improvement we made to the house was filling it with laughter and life.

My two sons were raised in their attic room, the loft of the log cabin. The oldest was married there.

It was there that my wife and I became “Paw Paw” and “Grandma” when my daughter bore our first grandchild.

It was there - after I had broken my leg badly in a head-on collision with an 18-wheeler - that scribbled out the first Round Top Register, which gave this “closet” writer who never before had the courage to submit his work, the gift of readers.

In that old house I designed the homes that led to the architecture and design firms which support me today. My unruly extended family of relatives and friends spent untold hours on that porch swapping stories of “Round Top Magic” and building bonds that will never break.

It was that "experience of home" that was the source of what later became the Truehome Workshop and my Internet startup.

It was there that my wife and I first envisioned and founded what has now become the Round Top Family Library.

It was there that our family rose like a phoenix from the fire, and built a successful life after we had lost everything. All that magic, all that love, all those dreams fulfilled, leeched into the walls and floors, and brought old Winklemann’s cabin back to life.

We rebuilt links in a chain that had been forged in the fires of pioneer Texas and had held lives in place for over a century and a half. While we were doing it, we healed our own hurts and refilled our hearts with hope.

Everything changes. It is the way of the world. Not just human lives, but in the life of every living thing this hard truth must be faced. The very substance of the universe is constantly changing, building up into mountains and then wearing down and rushing to the sea...

All life on our planet lives on the light produced by the slow death of the sun. Only change is eternal.

A day came when we knew it was time to sell our wonderful house. It took years to make the decision and will take years to overcome its result. One day, a nice lady walked across the little footbridge I had built to the front yard. When she saw the house, she stopped…and just knew.

Her husband was wise and had learned to trust the intuitions of the woman he loved.

Just as every step in our relationship with that old house had been magic, so was its parting. There was none of the cagey jockeying for position that so often goes with real estate transactions. They made no attempt to hide their desire for the home and we made no attempt to hide its idiosyncrasies.

We spent a wonderful night drinking wine together and sharing our dream - before the sale was completed - without any concern that it would derail the process. Both buyer and seller had a sense that it was meant to be. Like many things that happened in that house, the events seemed to be orchestrated by higher forces.

When we got the offer and realized it was a fair one, my wife cried.

Later, as we were moving out, a deliver man drove up to the house and after walking around a minute asked her “How can you sell this house? It’s so beautiful?” I found her in the house a few minutes later sobbing.

It was not that we wanted to sell, any more than we wanted our children leave home and make their own lives. It was simply that we knew the time had come.

Both experiences were frightfully hard. It was difficult when our children “left the nest” and it was almost as difficult to leave the nest itself behind.

Ultimately, we could not really leave that house. It lives on in our hearts and memories. Warm images of Christmases past, cats and dogs on the front porch, the joyous hearts and laughing eyes of friends. The walnut and pine, tin and antique glass are not really what made it so special anyway.

It was that time in our lives that was so intimate and profound, not just the building itself.

I can see now that we were but a link in chain that connects the past to the future, one of many. Old Winkelmann is long dead and one day I will be gone too…but if the gods keep it safe from fire and flood, the old house will remain. As it has for more than a century and a half, it will nurture the lives of all who live within its walls.

Perhaps the details of the lives of its inhabitants will fade into the ocean of time, but those who lived within it left their mark. Their lives are etched into its wooden walls as though worn by wind and rain...

Maybe my family’s ship will have passed over the horizon and no sign of its proud sails will be visible to those who pass through those warm and gentle waters in days ahead, but I like to think we will have left tiny ripples in our wake that will lead later sojourners - like us - to new and better lands.

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Nandaddy's House

(Reprinted from the Summer 2003 issue of the Round Top Register.)

In my minds eye, I was back again playing on that patterned linoleum floor, the walls of the kitchen towering around me. The smell of something baking in the oven filled the room with welcome. My great-grandmother stood over the sink, the gentle clinking and clanking of the dishes gently protesting as she scoured the day's dishes.

I heard the front door open and Nandaddy lumbered into the front parlor. He saw me playing, my eyes lit with joy at his sudden appearance and his voice boomed out. "Come over here and hug my neck!" I jumped up and ran to him. He grabbed me under the arms and I flew high into the sky, laughing deliriously.

Trains would pass by and we would count the cars. In the mornings the rooster would cry and Nandaddy would let me sit on his lap and bounce me on his knee. We would eat grape nuts or shredded wheat with peaches grown in the side yard or other fruit grandmother had put up in the pantry. He would show me the mysteries of the intricate wooden puzzles he kept on the shelf with the cereal.

He would sing a simple song for me and though I did not know it then, it would echo through my mind for the rest of my life.

Ever time I go to town

the boys keep a’ kickin’

my dog around.

Makes no difference

if he is a hound.

They oughta quit kickin’

my dog around

For whatever reason, the power of those memories of my great-grandfather's house still live in my heart with a profundity that is unmatched in my childhood experience. Years spent in other childhood homes left dim images, frail by comparison. In mid life they are ghosts, but Nandaddy’s house is still alive.

There was something about that house...the porch that wrapped around three sides, the forbidding formality of the living room where I had to mind my manners, the Victrola in the middle bedroom it was such an honor to crank, the big, smooth rock, patterned like a turtle shell that propped open the front door, a rock Nandaddy had found with his foot in a pond when he was young.

The peach trees where wasps raised whelps on my forehead, the armadillos staggering into pipes under the house, the pungent smells of outhouse and chicken house, the metallic taste of rain water collected in a cistern, the century plant and its rare towering bloom, the hanging cloth that covered the pantry, hiding jars full of multi-colored buttons.

It was a house of wonder. In later years when I began to wonder about how we are all marked by deep emotional connections to our childhood surroundings, a sudden memory of that house was the key to that awareness. Nandaddy's house still lived in my memory, a house I somehow still inhabited within, a home where I felt loved and accepted. One day on a similar porch in Round Top, it came flooding back into my mind.

I visited many times, but I lived there only about six months, starting in the winter of 1952 when I was less than two years old. It was a difficult time for my mother and me. She was pregnant with her second child and without a husband.

I don't know why I have such powerful memories of that time, and of later summer visits, but every room in that house still lives inside me.

In my work I try to help my design clients come to understand how their own connections to past dwellings influence their experience of "home." I do this in order to guide them towards architecture that they will experience as nurturing and comfortable. I work with them to design external surroundings that consider what I call their "emotional architecture," their internal landscape.

For me, Nandaddy's house is the central artifact of that internal landscape...and for many years, as far as I was concerned, it no longer existed in the real world.

The house, built in 1912 near Cameron, Texas in Milam County had been sold to a neighbor after my great grandfather's death in 1960. We were told the house had been cut in two pieces and moved away. Like my nandaddy, I never saw the old farmhouse again.

My grandmother, Sinia (she would never let anyone call her grandmother), inherited her father's ready smile and determined optimism. Like my great grandfather, she was always a magical person in my life, bigger than life.

Sinia is one of those rare people who make you feel special and important whenever you are in their presence, a skill she developed in her civil service career to the point that she retired as the head of civilian personnel at a major air force base. A woman who succeed in a man's world when few could, she told me the secret to her success was that she refused to learn how to type.

She left a bitter marriage before World War II when my mother was a pre-teen, married the man I always thought of as my grandfather, and made a better life for herself.

That divorce marked my mother in many ways, and through her - me. I never lived with my father. My mother left him before I was born. My sister's father was similarly absent. The men who raised me when I was young were my step grandfather, and nandaddy... my great-grandfather.

I have often thought that perhaps the reason the short time I lived with nandaddy and grandmother so marked me was that it was one of the few times when I was a child that my mother was happy.

But she, like Sinia, was a strong woman. She survived her hard times and became a successful person, a teacher, an author, a historian and a community leader.

One day not long ago, I got an excited e-mail from my mom. She had been talking to an acquaintance who had known her grandparents. He gave her a lead on what had happened to the house. It turned out that it was owned by a black family named Wheeler. My mother had visited with a member of that family who was an aide in the very nursing home where Sinia, now ninety-four year old, faces the last hard days of her life.

All three of us became very excited. My mother and I arranged to see the old house, which sat empty on the Wheeler homestead. It turned out that the Wheeler's grandmother, Ardangia, who actually owned the house, and who everyone called "Dana," was also a resident in the rest home.

The Wheelers were kind. They welcomed our visit, and why not. We had a lot in common. The grandson who would inherit the house, like me, had spent a special part of his childhood in nandaddy's house, and grandparents we both loved faced their final days but a few rooms apart.

We drove far back in the country on dirt roads to a small settlement consisting of five or six modest houses around an old frame church. A long, narrow gravel drive wove through the Wheeler's seven acres to where the old house sat.

Ardangia's daughter-in-law met us there, unlocked the door, and I stepped into my past.

The wrap-around porches were much shallower that I remembered. They had seemed vast and deep in my mind's eye, but I immediately recognized the interior of the house. The Wheeler's furnishings and decor were different, but they had done very little to change the house. A picture window had replaced on window in a front bedroom, and the house was in need of a new roof and considerable repair...but for the most part it was the house I remembered.

I roamed through the rooms, filled with the detritus of Ardangia's Wheelers life...a collage of family pictures tacked to the wall in the front parlor, sons in uniform, family gatherings...a framed portrait of a beautiful African-American woman, all the simple clutter that is left at the end of a life.

I realized that the house had more than one story to tell. It had been central to our family, an important part of our historical story, but after it left us, it had been central to another.

Their lives had been different than ours, different people, different circumstances, different background and culture, but their memories filled the house just as mine and my mother's did.

The echoes of their past, their laughter and tears, their soft conversations and tense moments whispered like gentle breezes through those worn and cluttered rooms.

It was a house filled with voices. They leaked through the sashes of the ill-fitting windows and wafted under the doors like summer dust. They fluttered in the air, muting the light splashing through the dirty windows, and murmured in the cracks between the planks on the walls. Forgotten sounds and smells and images that lived in forgotten memories spoke from my imagination - but felt palpable and intimate and real.

I am going to try to buy that house from the Wheelers and bring it to my land in Round Top.

I may not succeed, but even if I do not, I will always have it in my heart. It is not just a house of wood after all, but a home of spirit, and memory, and dreams.