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SPRING MUSINGS: Design for the seasons puts nature at the center

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by Rick

When I set my clock forward, I also set my mind forward, in the spirit of anticipation. For me, Spring is a season full of promise. The branches are still naked and only the most precocious plants dare to emerge from the earth. But the sun shines and the temperature climbs. We return home from work with daylight still stretched out ahead of us. In the race for more facetime in the sky, the sun pulls ahead of the moon as we cross the equinox.

My friends are fortunate to live in a house that seizes this moment, and delivers it to them.  Their indoor spaces unfold onto a protected, south-oriented outdoor terrace that gathers up and stores the strengthening rays of sun.  They can sit comfortably in the sunshine on a 50-degree day, protected from the wind.  Warm rays massage their scalp and kiss the nape of their neck.   They bask in sunlight, stretching out before it with an indulgence akin to cold-blooded reptilian solar ecstasy.

That opportunity to indulge is no accident; it’s the result of design. After all, just look at their neighbor’s home – plucked from the plan books and placed with the front door facing the road. It has a cold outdoor patio on the north, where frost lingers late into the day.  Without that equinox-friendly outdoor room, their opportunities for March and April (also October/November) outdoor communion are diminished. For them, spring hasn’t even started.

**

Signs of change start subtly. Then seemingly overnight around the first of May (earlier this year, it seems), buds become leaflets. Leaflets unfurl into pale green banners and start to deepen in hue. Long vistas become short, blocked by seasonal screens. For buildings in the vegetated landscape, exposure becomes enclosure.

This free annual performance – its timing, its magnificence, and the degree to which the soul longs to experience it – is predictable. How indoor spaces relate to this panoply of life is a matter of design, not a matter of luck.

The windows of my friends’ house are carefully considered apertures, placed, sized, angled and arrayed to selectively admit– or omit – scenes from the world around them. Those emergent leaves bring shade to south-facing windows just in time for the season’s first heat wave.

Their home is built around a south-facing green space, effectively creating an inexpensive outdoor room that is usable nine months of the year. Throughout these months its thoughtful plantings provide a rich tapestry enjoyed from inside the house as well as outside it. At year’s end when the show is over, a blanket of whiteness covers the courtyard garden’s surface. It bounces precious January light up into the living room. The vivid hues of Spring that saturate the adjacent rooms –  like the clean, snow-reflected light of a low-angled, winter-solstice sun that brightens the ceilings –  are no accident. Design for nature is an intentional act.

**

In Spring, after the leaves are unfurled the gardens emerge. May and June explode in bombastic displays of color, urgent invitations to birds, bees and people. My friends spend increasing time in their gardens – flowers are cultivated, vegetable seeds are planted.

Their gardens are part of their routine. They see them out the windows. They pass them on their way to and from their car. They sit amidst their bounty during late spring dinners, on a patio that is protected from the strong, low-angled, late-day western sun by the orientation of the house on the property.

Because of this constant interface with their garden, they enjoy it – and maintain it – without conscious effort. Outdoor living is incorporated into their daily routine. That integration of indoors and outdoors is no lucky break.

Their neighbors planted a vegetable garden, too. It is far from the house, because that’s where the sun is. By midsummer the garden has been forgotten and become overgrown – out of sight, out of mind.

**

My proverbial friends’ house is sited on the edge of a field, with its back against a delightful small forest, filled with wonder and animal activity. In spring, their children can explore the forest’s “secret” places and “magical” creatures just out the backdoor, and all within sight of the kitchen window.

By now, I’ll bet you can guess where their neighbor’s house is located! That’s right, it’s in the middle of the field, perched on the highest spot. It overlooks everything. It relates to nothing. That their children play Wii on sunny Spring Saturdays is pre-ordained. They don’t make it to the woods because it’s too far away for supervision or spontaneity.

In all these ways and more, my friends’ – my clients’ –  lives are enriched, while their neighbors’ is impoverished.

Spring offers us hope in change. It begs us to become more aware – and more appreciative – of our environment. Architecture can help or hinder. Winston Churchill observed that “we shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” Design for life – for all the seasons – starts with a mandate to put Nature at the Center. After all, our buildings can bring us closer to the natural world by amplifying our experience of place and raising our awareness of the environment. Or they can push us away.

Rick Hauser