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What Camping Teaches Us

by rick

If it comes as a surprise that an architect would find inspiration in camping, it shouldn’t.  When we pitch our tents –  and concentrate on the ritual of dwelling in its broadest sense – our needs are pared down, our distractions are left behind and our environmental awareness is amplified. The lessons we extract from these primal re-enactments should become touchstones for how we approach building:

  • Do More With Less. We minimize waste, we travel lightly, we re-assess our perceived “needs” and we think in a more focused way about our requirements for happiness. There is beauty in Economy with a capital E. That is perhaps the simplest lesson of camping, and it is one of the essential ingredients in an enduring architecture.
  • Stay Dry. Maybe you chose a low spot and woke up in a puddle. Or maybe you simply breathed on a cold night and the vapor from your own breathing condensed on the inside of the tent and dripped back down on you as rain. Camping exaggerates the importance of understanding water in all its forms, and the consequences of failure to do so.
  • Do No Harm. Camping encapsulates in a weekend an ethic about respect for place, and an appreciation for the beauty we find there, rather than indiscriminately imposing our own order. Such an ethic should drive all considerations of where and how we build.
  • Leave No Trace – There is such an elegance to the routine of breaking camp. Our temporary dwelling is lifted off the land and ported to another location. Our “hearth” stones are returned. Evidence of our occupation is erased. If we recognize there is no such thing as “permanent” architecture today, it helps us to imagine how future owners of our buildings will “break camp”. William McDonough has termed this a “Cradle to Cradle” ideology – if a building can be designed to be taken apart and re-made, then we can celebrate construction rather than feel guilty about it.
  • Insulate well – When it’s below freezing and the only heat source all night is your body, you don’t need an energy audit to know how to limit air infiltration inside your sleeping bag! The nightly “payback” from an expensive but toasty-warm sleeping bag is thus also a terrific demonstration of the importance of analyzing “life cycle costs” when choosing products and systems for a building.
  • Be Attuned to Site – Too high is windy. Too low is wet. Too shady and your tent will never dry out. And I’ll never forget what happens when you pitch the tent downwind from the fire circle. A week’s worth of camping and we begin to understand the fundamentals of site selection and design.
  • Live smaller – And as a result, live large. When camping, the outside inevitably becomes your living room. In such a space, the “vault” of heaven is your ceiling, and the clearing is your front porch. Site-attuned architecture should strive to “borrow” outdoor space and make such potent connections with the environment.
  • Embrace technology –the sleek, lightweight, aerodynamic form, the waterproof-yet-breathable fabric, and the cleverly collapsible carbon poles are beautiful symbols of authentic human occupation in a natural setting. The tent imitates nature’s attitude towards design, rather than mimicking its forms.
  • Value fuel – Gathering wood-fuel and building a campfire does warm you twice. And as you search in ever larger circles for those precious dry sticks of a certain size, you begin to appreciate the true cost of each BTU.
  • Support community – camping somehow manages to be a liberating experience of affirming individualism, and a setting in which we can connect to others. That may be one of the most challenging balancing acts to emulate, but one worth striving for.

Happy camping this season…and happy building.

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