Building for the future, today – combining the best of historical wisdom and modern technology.
Imagine doing yoga in nature…a leveled forest floor is your earthen platform. The sun’s light diffused through the tree canopy creates the perfect ambient temperature. A subtle breeze kisses your skin. The air is fragrant and you drink it in. The song of nature serenades your ears and the hues and tones of earth, leaf, flower and bark feast your eyes. Subtle electrical pulsations flow through you from cosmos above and earth below. Your practice is enlivened. This wholeness need not be lost when you practice indoors.
I am a longtime yoga practitioner. I am also an architect. 20 years ago I became chemically sensitive and I was compelled to seek healthier ways to design and build. I discovered the principles of building with nature and it profoundly changed my work. I know now that we can create beautiful spaces that nurture us, embrace us and deepen our experience as we practice.
The natural laws concerning healthy building were re-discovered in Germany and formulated into a system called Bau-biologie or Building Biology in the early 60’s. This quest was precipitated by an alarming number of people who became sick from the new chemical laden building products that were used to rebuild Post WWII Europe. This was the beginnings of Sick Building Syndrome. Surrounded by historic earthen buildings that had served for hundreds of years Bau-biologists studied them in comparison to the new industrialized buildings and formulated 25 principles for healthy building. Although this body of knowledge is broad and complex in scope, the essence of it can be summed up into three simple statements:
• Nature is the gold standard for human health and is the environment against which all built environments should be evaluated.
• A built space will nurture us to the extent that it integrates the laws of nature into it.
• Built space that serves deep health will also exemplify deep ecology
Sound good so far? It makes sense. We can and should demand something better especially within the sacred walls of a yoga studio. Although it takes more effort to travel against the mainstream of conventional building most yoga practitioners have already made healthier and more conscious choices in other arenas of life in the quest for a more holistic sojourn on the planet. Leaving convention behind we choose organic food, organic clothing, conscious healing modalities. As with conventional food, medicine and fashion we live in a culture with particularly insane values around conventional building. Our man-made environments are uniquely insubstantial and denatured. They are for the most part assembled out of industrialized components, conceived with the same parameters as junk food; synthetic, chemical laden, mass produced, packaged and transported thousands of miles and assembled for convenient and low cost consumption. Longevity, health and ecology are either given scant lip service or disregarded entirely.
How does nature nurture? What can we do to improve our indoor environments? Our senses will give us valuable guidance if we open them to the language of nature. Here are just a few examples:
Mechanical forced air, the most common form of heating and cooling in North America, is noisy and uncomfortable. It works by convection warming the air and not the people or surfaces. The sun warms us silently with gentle radiant heat, evenly from head to toe. Radiant sources include in-floor/wall hydronic heat, wood fired heat, fluid filled radiators. These work more like the sun and create a higher level of comfort.
Natural finishes, oils and waxes feel good to the foot and hand and they contribute to good indoor air and electro-climate. Synthetic materials and finishes create a plastic barrier between surrounding surfaces and our skin. They don’t breath and they contribute to static electricity.
The sounds of nature… birds, the rustling of leaves, the gurgling brook…are melodious and they delight us. The sounds of technology; furnaces, refrigerator motors, air blowing through ducts are noise. We spend unconscious energy blocking them. Mass materials can absorb unwanted noise and enhance intentional sound. Clay is an abundant mass material. Build walls with it, plaster interiors with it, create a floor out of it and transform acoustical space.
In nature we are surrounded by endless variety of colors and hues, enlivened by the dance of light and shadow. Inside, electrical lighting, synthetic paints on flat gypsum walls, repetitive patterns on man-made surfaces are dulling, denatured, monotonous. Natural daylighting, plant and mineral-based pigments, clay plasters and natural wood, stone and plant fibers can transform the visual context of space.
Indoor air is almost always, at least 10x more polluted than outdoor air. Clean air, especially where we are breathing with intention,. is paramount. Eliminating toxics, and synthetics fragrances are a first important step but we also need to pay attention to subtleties. Outdoor air is rich in ions and oxygen. Ions are depleted when air is forced through ductwork and further depleted as it clings to synthetic building materials and furnishings. Studios become quickly filled with carbon dioxide during rigorous group practice and our bodies, crave oxygen.
Fresh air, natural finishes, plants, waterfalls are all sources for maintaining healthy ion balance in the air. Operable windows and cross ventilation will re-introduce and circulate vibrant air while exhausting spent air.
Beyond the senses: The Electro-Climate
Humankind evolved in resonance with the gentle radiation of the earth’s and cosmos. Humans once knew how to detect and avoid naturally occurring areas of elevated radiation known as geopathic zones. In just a fraction of the blink of the evolutionary eye we find ourselves surrounded by ever-increasing smog of man-made radiation. Some hypersensitive individuals can sense very subtle levels of radiation. Most of us cannot but just because we can’t sense it, it doesn’t mean we are not being affected. When building anew it is possible to choose a safer site and more easily shield occupants from ambient man-made electrical fields. Buildings can be properly wired and it is even possible to shut off the electricity to certain areas as desired. In an existing space instrumentation can measure the surrounding fields and causes of high radiation can be traced and fixed. We can also lessen the load by making the practice space cell-phone free, keeping motorized equipment out of the space, and hard-wiring computer terminals.
The earth is an infinite source of free electrons. Human beings are a complex and dynamic electrical circuitry that benefits from being grounded. In day-to-day life we are insulated from the earth by footwear and building materials. When building anew it is possible to tap into this beneficial earth coupling. Literally earth can be used to make a durable, cleanable surface so that we receive the full benefits of being bare foot…as we practice.
In summary: Every indoor environment can be enlivened by taking cues from nature. To the extent that we bring nature back into our indoor environment, we receive her life affirming gifts. If you are in the privileged position to build a new yoga studio then the opportunity to create vibrant and inspiring temple awaits. you! The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright advised us well when he said “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”
Case Study: Prajna Yoga Studio, Santa Fe, N.M.
Tias and Surya Little teach yoga and train teachers throughout the world. When it came time to build their yoga studio following the principles of building Biology was natural. We had already designed and built their home this way five years earlier and they understood the benefits to their health and well-being.
The walls of their studio are built of a mixture of clay and straw with a technique known as Light Clay Straw Construction, and finished inside and out with clay-based plasters. The yoga space has a hand crafted timber-frame and custom shoji screen sliding doors at entry and prop cabinet. Floors are naturally finished oiled cherry with slate in the entry and tatami mats in the meditation room. All finishes throughout are natural and non-toxic. Operable windows and skylights provide ample, well balanced natural lighting, and ventilation. Radiant in-floor heating keep bare foot yogis warm in the winter and the mass walls and large roof overhang keep the building cool throughout the summer, without the need for noisy and energy guzzling air conditioning.
The studio is L shaped and embraces a courtyard which is beautifully landscaped integrating nature and building seamlessly.
Paula Baker-Laporte, FAIA is an architect, healthy building consultant, instructor for the International Institute of Building Biology and Ecology and author. She is the principle of EcoNest Architecture. She is primary author of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of “Econest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber."
Photo credit: www.kimkurian.com; Paula Baker-Laporte
Architectural Credit: Paula Baker-Laporte FAIA
Builder: Econest Company