Design for Life: This Imperfect House

article image

My family had been looking for a house for nine months–which our realtor kept reminding us was much longer than any of her other clients had taken. We’d gotten pretty good at it: We knew the neighborhoods we liked and disliked; we’d developed a list of must-haves, preferences and deal killers; we attended open houses every Sunday. We had the checking-out-a-house routine down to a science. We might have become too good at it, in fact; we could always find something wrong with a house.

Finally, we faced the best house we’d seen yet. It had the basics: all the rooms we wanted (without being too big), a pleasant neighborhood, no serious structural or moisture defects, no major noise or air pollution, walking distance to shopping. It had some big plusses: beautiful hill views, mature fruit trees, an open living room/dining room/kitchen.

So why was I holding back? Why was I having anxiety attacks about whether to commit to this house?

The problem was, I knew too much. I knew that the beautiful, old oak tree growing close to the house could drop a limb on the roof or crack the foundation. The floor plan had some lovely aspects (a great room overlooking the lush back yard) and some awkward features (long halls and bedrooms facing the street). I knew I wouldn’t feel comfortable until I’d replaced the hollow-sounding laminate flooring. I wasn’t delighted with the vinyl windows or the color scheme or a gazillion other little things.

Is this love?

Throughout our house search, I couldn’t escape the parallels with looking for a life partner. With each house visit (or first date), you wonder “Will this be the one?” You have a hard time just enjoying it (or him/her) in the present moment; you try to imagine yourself spending years, a lifetime in this house (with this person). You wonder if its (her/his) flaws will drive you crazy or cause you to grow in wonderful ways–or both. You wonder if something (someone) even better for you is right around the corner.

The analogy calls to mind a lecture on soul mates that I once attended. Someone in the audience asked, “How do I know if the person I’m with is my soul mate?” The speaker replied, “The person you are with now is your soul mate for now. You won’t get the lessons you need from that relationship if you’re always wondering if there’s a better one somewhere.”

When it comes to remodeling a house, imperfection can be the gateway to a deeper relationship with the place. Athena and Bill Steen, pioneers in the natural building world and coauthors of The Straw Bale House (Chelsea Green, 1994) and other books, live in an old adobe house they’ve remodeled in stages. Athena told me about her  ongoing relationship with an “imperfect” house when I interviewed her for my book, Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006). She’s found that remodeling has created a richer experience than starting from scratch.

In her youth, Athena etched intricate geometric designs on burnished pots for her grandmother, Santa Clara Pueblo potter Rose Naranjo. Sometimes, Athena’s tool went astray and marred the design. Not sure how to fix the problem, she’d set the pot aside and work on another one. A few days later, she’d be able to let go of her preconceived ideas and create a new pattern that incorporated the flaw. “These pots always became my favorites,” she recalls. “The flaw not only inspired a more beautiful, unique design, but also a deeper connection between the pot and myself.”

Athena helped me see that I needed a deeper relationship with this house we wanted to buy. I began to focus not on what made me uncomfortable about it, but on what I could do. I thought of simple ways to define some spaces better. New color schemes bloomed in my mind’s eye. I learned the laminate flooring easily could be removed and sold to someone who likes that kind of thing. And I pondered that oak tree.

Romancing the tree

After an arborist proclaimed the tree to be healthy–certainly not a deal killer–and an inspector said the foundation looked fine, I was relieved but still concerned. The tree just looked too close to the house. I asked friends and colleagues what they would do. One said, “Why not talk with the tree?” So I stood in that big tree’s presence and asked what it had to tell me. “Don’t fear me,” it said. “I’ve been standing here for 200 years. I know how to do this. Work with me; we can accommodate each other.”

I realized that the uncomfortable proximity of the tree and the house was a living metaphor of our time: Someone had been insensitive to the tree’s nature and plunked a house too close to it. But now here we are–human structure and native being, learning to live together. “I can protect you,” said the tree. And, indeed, those big limbs that extend over the roof will grow leaves to shade the house in summer. If we care for the tree, landscaping appropriately around it, pruning with care, we can stack the deck in favor of its protective effect and minimize the hazards of those same limbs. I began to feel better.

I walked inside the house and looked out the window. That huge trunk, so close to the window, had seemed almost menacing before. Now it felt friendly–like having a whale for a best friend. Sometimes there’s a razor edge between love and danger.

Home at last

Well, we’re buying that house, and I’m ready to engage it in a constructive relationship. This little journey reminds me of something a landscape horticulture teacher once said: “People imagine that plants grow under ideal circumstances in the wild, but that’s rarely true. Plants don’t grow because they receive perfect amounts of sun, water and nutrients; they grow because they can.”

Maybe we’ll all be more peaceful inside when we realize we’re a lot like those plants. Rarely do we find ourselves in perfect circumstances. But we keep on growing because we can.  

CAROL VENOLIA is an eco-architect who is passionate about reuniting humans with the rest of nature. She is the coauthor, with Kelly Lerner, of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006), and she codirects the EcoDwelling program at New College of California (