Human-Nature: Some Thoughts on Comfort and Connection

nature |ˈnā ch ər|
The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.

OK, I'll admit it: I'm an armchair ecologist. You are much more likely to find me reading a book on the natural history of Arizona or watching a National Geographic documentary about Africa, than actually strapping a pack on my back and lacing up some sturdy boots so I can 'get out there'. 

Courtesy photo- Home Sweet Nest
Nature fascinates me, but my hikes don't generally take me farther than a quarter-mile radius of my front door. That being said, my Skull Valley property west of Prescott offers me something akin to wilderness. I'm not sidewalk-bound. There aren't even any trails, except to follow the lightly worn tracks made by javelina and elk. And I'm afraid of snakes, so I go slowly. I sit down and watch things up close. I put my face near the entrance to ant hills, or I spend some time collecting particularly beautiful seed pods or small stones – if just to touch the world more closely.

For someone like me, a homebody who has studied the importance of ecosystem health, who has been introduced to the idea that there is a false dichotomy in separating 'people' from 'nature'; the built environment (of houses and electric grids and waste water treatment and drinking water supplies) becomes the medium through which I affirm my place in an interconnected web of life. This physical connection of human with ecosystem is the precise nexus addressed by sustainable design and 'green' architecture. It fascinates me, and I think it is well-worth your attention, too.

Let's face it. Recycling is boring. Low toxicity paint is boring. Compact fluorescent light bulbs are not just boring, they're downright dangerous and produce really poor light quality to boot. And this whole issue of how we interact with the world around us has become politicized in terribly unproductive ways. So, how does so-called 'environmentally-friendly' architecture figure into this conversation?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a functional model is worth a thousand pictures. To actually see one of these buildings--a beautiful building to look at, a comfortable building to live or work in--to see it integrated with the surrounding landscape, powered by the sun or wind, fitted with low-water-use fixtures, harvesting the rainwater that falls on its roof, and cleverly designed to function passively where possible without the addition of mechanical systems for heating, cooling and see this and to really understand what has been gained by both people and environment, this is truly inspiring. 

A famous energy consultant, Amory Lovins, once quipped that the environmentally-responsible design of our homes and cities is "Not about warm beer and cold showers." A teacher of mine once discussed the possibility of "sustainable hedonism" in the form of clean water, fresh air, fruit ripe for the picking, and a home warmed by the sun. Absolutely NONE of this requires a sacrifice in the form of physical or economic discomfort and it offers myriad benefits, not least of which is our continued presence on a habitable planet.

Here at the Catalyst Architecture office, we often talk about Common Sense Energy Efficiency, as a way to emphasize our goals while circumventing the sometimes emotional and often political discussion surrounding all things 'green'. Because common sense is exactly what we're after. Doesn't it just make sense to heat the air in your building only as much as necessary? Doesn't it sound a little insane when you hear that most office buildings have to run two HVAC systems simultaneously in order to keep the rooms near the exterior walls warm while cooling the offices that would otherwise overheat at the center of the building?

The Yavapai County Administration Building, a Catalyst Architecture project, models an innovative solution to this 'common' problem. I have to say I was shocked to discover that this design concept isn't common practice; and relieved to hear that our design team was responsible for developing an alternative to the status quo. Perhaps this model of practicality will serve as a 'catalyst' to make that innovation commonplace.

As we continue to work for these kinds of common sense solutions, I come back to my short but meaningful nature walks. I love the 'coming back' part of being away from home, the contrast of cold winter air to the warm interior of my living room. It thrills me to see an owl or an elk going about their daily business; and to remember that I too am going about a daily business of work and play, inside and outside, driving and walking, typing and simply watching. I'm a human animal, but my burrow is made from more than mud and sticks. I have no desire to live without electricity, without a buffer to the whims of weather and wildlife. To know that I can enjoy these civilized comforts in ways that don't damage the nature around me is both a relief and an inspiration.

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