As I simultaneously plan my move from Santa Barbara to Pittsburgh and get ready to build a retreat house with my sister in northern California, the notion of dwelling has been on my mind. What does it mean to dwell, to call a place “home”?
In a late essay, “Building, Dwelling,Thinking,” Martin Heidegger links dwelling to thought and building. To build, or to think, one must first dwell, which is to say inhabit a particular relationship with space:
“The nature of building is letting dwell. Building accomplishes its nature in the raising of locations by the joining of their spaces. Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build.” (Poetry, Language, Thought 157) Similarly, thought belongs to dwelling as an ordering of space.
I think this is right. To dwell is to inhabit a place, in body and mind: to be sheltered by it, to be sure, but also to mend it, modify it, shape it, explore it, contemplate it, meld with it. As Virginia Woolf famously proclaimed, every woman needs “a room of one’s own” to properly develop as a thinker and creator. Such a dwelling place affords privacy, or relative protection from the tumult of the world and the thoughts and demands of others. Shelter, in this sense, fosters independence and creativity by providing a break in the affective, material, and ideational flows of our culture, introducing stoppages that allow for mutations. Creativity.
This is not to say that thought develops in a vacuum; to dwell is to engage one’s surroundings and thus also to give up some forms of agency. Dwelling is a being-with. What all should be included in this circle of cohabitation? Physical structures, ideas, affects, animals of many sizes and types (including other humans), plants, pollen, textures, surfaces…
Near the build site.
There are many different possible relationships that one can form to one’s dwelling, and social relationships that can form within and around it. Nomadic peoples trace patterns on a landscape by moving through it; not the individual place or structure, but rather this larger map of habitation, constitutes the home. Nomadic living is also nomadic thinking. Likewise, farmers dwell in part by rethinking the land around them, narrowly circumscribing their resources and range to produce something new.
In the US, at least since the 1930s, the average home has grown steadily in size even as it has housed fewer people. In the 1940s it became a stagnant site of middle class consumption (occupied by a nuclear family, the basic Keynesian consumptive unit in Postwar America) which is being partially restructured today as a neoliberal site of self-improvement and flexible workspace (the home office).
How houses are conceived, built, and dwelled in is determined in large part by the relative availability of energy. The postwar nuclear family dwelling was made possible not only by a particular ideology and economic system, but by the availability of inexpensive (for the consumer) energy. See John Perlin’s Let it Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy for a history of innovative solar programs, technologies, and building materials for the home that were more or less scrapped in the postwar period when vast housing tracks made with cheap, mass-produced, energy efficient materials became the norm. For developers, it made more sense to build large and cheap, and then make up the difference in energy requirements by slapping on complex HVAC equipment to heat and cool the homes in perpetuity. Dwelling in this mode meant being plugged in to a vast system of petroleum extraction, refinement, and burning, ensuring the necessary supply of gas and electricity in exchange for the perpetual flow of money back into utilities. This more or less remains the equation in the US today, despite dawning awareness of our global ecological crisis, economic hardship, and the increasingly high cost of burning post-peak oil, dirty coal, and dangerously difficult to capture natural gas.
Given these conditions, it may seem shocking that the majority of new houses are built for yesterday, not tomorrow. There is something conservative about dwelling, as if our large, empty houses and always-on temperature control will somehow stave off the destruction of the planet, ongoing outside. This is building and thinking cut off from dwelling.
One view from the build site.
With this in mind, my sister and I set out, a little over two years ago, to conceive of a house for the future. One that wouldn’t take energy for granted. One that would serve as a dwelling place in the fullest sense: a place to live in, live with, and think among. Our basic guidelines were that it must serve the future needs of others, at least 250 years into the future, must not rely upon petroleum-based energy, and must be a dwelling place that inspires creativity, not utilitarian grimness or hermetically sealed escapism. With these constraints in mind, we were forced to design far beyond our own needs, and our own lifetimes. Such a dwelling place must be tough to last so long, but it must also be supple, flexible in use, to remain capable of meeting the unknown.
In the end, after a long collaboration, we chose to build two half domes, constructed out of a shell of concrete (dome structures are the strongest possible from an engineering standpoint, and thus require far fewer materials than equivalent rectilinear structures) and mostly buried in the earth. Not wooden boards and siding and shingles to keep the elements out and the heat in, but soil and wild grasses. Building out of wood ensures horrifically poor energy efficiency. What you save (in environmental as well as monetary cost) in the production of materials you lose many times over during the lifetime of the building to petroleum energy production in order to keep it warm and cool. Our structure will require far less energy to maintain, as it will heat and cool itself. One large retaining wall, facing south, will gather through many windows the heat of the sun in the winter. In the summer, the house’s under-soil condition will keep it cool without air conditioning. When additional heat is needed, it will be generated from solar thermal collectors that will turn sunlight (even pale winter sunlight) into hot water, stored in a tank inside and distributed throughout a radiant floor to keep the structure warm. When there is no sun, a powerful electric water heater will make up the difference. A solar photovoltaic system will generate the electricity for such needs. Will all of these advanced techniques cost a fortune. No; this house will cost significantly less to build than a traditional structure.
Most importantly, this will be a space unlike any other. One half dome will have no “walls” at all; it will be a large Great Room for meeting, working, cooking, relaxing, and viewing the beautiful valley below our building site in the mountains of Mendocino County. A short passageway will connect to the second dome, which will provide the “room with a view”: private rooms to sleep, work, contemplate. Fewer flat walls, and almost no conventional ceilings, will provide a new sort of space to think in and with. What sort of thoughts will such a space generate? We cannot yet know.
We are building this as a retreat house, because it only seemed right to share this with a collective of individuals who want to partake in its construction and maintenance. No one person, at least for the foreseeable future, will monopolize this space. It will see a constant infusion of new dwellers, new purposes, and new ideas.
I will always maintain a dedicated page on this site to the house, which can be accessed here. I will also continue to blog about it as we build it (we start on the foundation next week, but the extended process will continue for at least another year) and learn to dwell within it. If you wish, you can join us.