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WINTER MUSINGS: Happiness by design

By Rick

On a recent winter’s day, stretched parallelograms of sunshine track slowly across the bamboo floor of my renovated kitchen, marking time’s slow passage. When we put in the windows, I calculated how high they should go in order to assure that the light they admit would stretch deep into the heart of the formerly dark room. The shorter the days, the lower the sun in the southern sky. And the lower the sun, the longer and deeper its rays penetrate.

Now, whenever the sun shines in winter I’m there, moving my chair to keep the outstretched fingers of warmth firmly positioned on my neck. Sitting in the sun makes me happy about winter.

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We put in a small half bath some years back, interior to the kitchen with no direct wall to the outside.  So instead, we installed a vertical band of glass block over the toilet on a wall facing a hallway, opposite a south-facing exterior window. I calculated how low the glass block should go in order that the first ray of sun hit it exactly on the autumnal equinox.

On the winter solstice, the patterned block fractures the low-angled sun and projects thousands of tiny rainbows across the walls of the little room. Washing my hands in rainbows makes me happy about winter.

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"Sitting by the fire I welcome the snow I see swirling outside and the wind that whips against the windowpanes. It is that very juxtaposition which makes me happy."

These short days mean long, dark evenings.  I crave a wood fire. I have more reason than most as my father was a woodcutter – I’ve split and moved thousands of face cords,  and growing up, our house was heated with wood.  As a child I took great pride in building and maintaining the perfect fire, controlling the air intake, endlessly re-adjusting logs and coals, transitioning from easy-starting to long-burning species of wood. For me, the smell and sound – never mind the radiant heat and economy – of a wood fire provide a deep satisfaction saturated with primal, nostalgic and actual warmth.

When I moved into my 100-year old village home, it had a small internal fireplace with an old, clay-lined flue.  The flue ran inside the house, up 30’ through the attic where, inside its brick chimney, it staggered upwards at a gravity-defying angle so that it could penetrate the roof right at the ridge. I dared not light a fire given the likely gaps in the flue and all that 100-year old “kindling” from which my house is built. So for years that fireplace was a cold, dark hole in my spirits each winter.

Once I could afford it, I installed an efficient wood-burning fireplace insert with a flexible, stainless steel flue liner. Now, on dark days and darker nights I gather the kindling I saved from projects all year – and the wood I’ve let season –   and light a fire.

I place an armchair by the hearth so I can tend the coals, and absorb the warmth.  And when I’m at home from November to March – when the sun doesn’t shine and I’m not asleep – that is where you’ll find me, more or less. I may be playing a game with my son, reading the paper, writing a column about winter, or maybe listening to Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion describe how cold the winters are in Minnesota.

Sitting by the fire I welcome the snow I see swirling outside and the wind that whips against the windowpanes. It is that very juxtaposition which makes me happy.

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I choose to embrace winter in upstate New York. That choice made, I delight in the opportunities architecture affords me to help savor my experience of the season. Design is an intentional act. Sometimes one hundred artful, small, focused, delectable design decisions – more than any one “big idea” – make the difference.

Rick Hauser