Creating Space for Alchemy

Reader Contribution by Elizabeth Richardson
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Elizabeth “Neko” Richardson is a licensed counselor in the State of Texas, a veteran, and holds a degree in Environmental Science. She currently lives in Hunstville, Texas, where she is building and designing her own home and studio using reclaimed and salvaged materials on a budget of $16,000 or less. She also works as a carpenter’s apprentice under the mentorship of Dan Phillips. Follow her building progress living experiment in design on her blog, Salvaged Homes

Alchemy, as defined by Webster’s, is “a power or process of turning something common into something special; An inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.”

There is a quality in the small homes that owner-builders create from salvaged materials that cannot be recreated by mass production. That quality, in my opinion, is alchemy. It is the magic that happens when creativity meets inspiration, and something unexpected pops out of the cosmos. This “something” is both in the material and in the emotional connection we feel when we see a handmade home.

Conversely, we are taught that only quantity matters. Values of quantity over quality have given birth to mass production, multi-tasking and bottom-line thinking, which has produced housing uniformity, so that homes can be built quickly. Sometimes a building needs to be built quickly and efficiently, and yet we as a culture are craving something else, something beyond efficiency.

Something has been lost in the process of this “quantity only” thinking. That “something” is what turns a building into a home that nurtures us.

The longing for this missing quality is what draws many people to this type of design and building practice. It is the same longing for a home-cooked meal, for the creak in the old wooden front porch as we walk on it, for the smell of cut grass, the feel of the Earth on our hands as we plant seeds. We are longing for a reconnection to our roots and heritage, to the voices of grandparents, and yet it is more than nostalgia. It is the wisdom of our relatives, the connection to that Earth, soil, grass and wood. When we begin to try to get that back, we often feel lost, like we are trying to remember a language we have not used for a very long time in which we were once fluent.

There is an exercise that I find myself in with some routine that is nessarary if you are going to try to build your own handmade home, or for that matter, if you are going to try to make anything that is handmade or different.

The exercise is creating space for alchemy.

You have to give yourself time to discover, time to play with object, time to try and fail and improve, time to flounder in the unknown until a burst of knowing inspiration comes, and you surprise yourself by creating something remarkable from a found object that was just junk a moment before. Give yourself the time to create something of quality, of beauty, and most importantly, something of you.

Most of us have a long “to do” list and this seems impossible, but I argue that giving ourselves the time to create beauty in our everyday environment is perhaps the most important gift we can give ourselves and to our friends and family, because it touches the quality of our daily lives.

These houses are about more than how fast they can be put up, or how cheaply they can be built. More than a show place, they are a slow place. They are a co-creation between you and the mystery of muse and inspiration. This is not for everyone, but for those that this is for, it is bliss.