By David Barrett, FAIA
Maybe it should be considered one of those bucket list experiences. However it is categorized, I was definitely honored to give the commencement address for the University of Colorado’s College of Environmental Design at the historic Macky Auditorium recently.
What does an archigeezer like me have to offer in the way of words of wisdom?
What to pass on to these enthusiastic designers as they take their next strides into an uncertain future?
My beginning reference was to go back to words even older than me to describe the condition that we find ourselves in today. In 1859, Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with…
It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness…
One doesn’t have to look far to see all of these conditions in all their glory. My encouragement to these young creatives was to pay attention and wake up to the larger world around them. Know that, as nature teaches us, nothing operates in isolation. Our lives are influenced by the times and the context that we are functioning in.
The challenges are being defined around us. As problem solvers, these environmental designers are going to be presented with problematic material on which to direct their brilliance. It is “the best of times” in that there is no lack of potential, possibility, or opportunities in what needs to be done. There is so much possibility in this exploding system of entrepreneurism and design thinking that encourages breaking the mold and creating new pathways and forms for living, working and playing.
A sustainable future must not only sustain our environment, but also retain and celebrate our humanness. It will be an age of re-creation, invention and integration. Not that this will be easy, but non-action, stagnation and old stale answers will lead nowhere. Be part of the wisdom and reject the foolishness coming from the mouths of fools. Design spaces, landscapes, cities and architecture that puts the human experience at the center. Balance technology with the “high touch”, as we encourage quality experience and interactions.
Again, I referenced the wisdom of a timeless past in the words of Charles and Ray Eames, the midcentury multi-disciplinary designers who taught, “See the big things in the little things, and the little things in the big things.” I suggest this can serve in two ways.
First, as a design perspective, think holistically. Observe this lesson in interrelationships in nature, and apply this lesson in design. On another level, never think the problems are too large that one can be effective and influence the big issues at hand. We can make a difference as our apparently small acts ripple into the world around us. Do good work and it will contribute positively to that context we are embedded in. Empathetic design is where our intentions and actions go beyond our egos to those we are designing for, and with. It is an act of community. My word of caution is to reject the tendency for isolation and detachment and the “look at me” impulse of the Selfie and technology addictions. Nature knows no Selfie. In the interactive nature of nature, there would only be “Wefies”! Look beyond yourself and act.
My conclusion was simply to be open to imperfection in design and in how we see ourselves and our work. Certainly rigor is a necessity in seeking design resolution, but don’t get stymied in one’s process by the fear of imperfection. As the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi teaches, there is a beauty in imperfection. Free yourself of the bonds of self-judgment. Lighten up. Take risks. The trap of perfection mentality is procrastination and creative paralysis. More important is to live, and design more from a place of improvisation since we are constantly being confronted by change–tinkering, side trips and spontaneous riffs that are more effective than rigid plans and fixed definitions. Surprise yourself! Live and design with conviction and vigor.
My only guiding light in all of this is the awareness that as we choose, we are always coming from a place of fear or love. Every breath, every design decision, is coming from a place in ourselves that is either contracted or expansive. Just observe your motives and your roadblocks.
Choose love and make beauty.
This is the full text of David’s Commencement address made on Saturday, May 7, 2016
“Thank you and first congratulations to the class of 2016. It’s a pretty exciting time and one of those benchmarks you will always remember. Share it with your parents and your family and as Hillary Clinton once said ‘it takes a village.’ I know I shouldn’t say something political so I guess I have to do something “huge” now to balance that. Really everyone contributes to this success and you contribute to one another. I think that is the nature of studio design programs. It is a rare form of education and we’ve heard from everyone speaking tonight that studio education gives you feedback loops and opportunities to co create and I can tell you that that is what the world of architecture is going to be like. That’s the fun of it. It is an ongoing process of learning and discovering new things.
As the ‘archi-geezer’ tonight; 40 years ago I was sitting in your seat. I was sitting here as a graduate of CU after being at Kent State University in Ohio where on May 4th, four of my fellow students were shot and killed for protesting an unjust war in Vietnam. Those are the kinds of things that shape a life and shape a practice and for me I’m going to challenge you to look at the world as it is today, and find what it is you can make a difference on. It seems like a simple thing but it’s not. I came to CU for graduate school. It was the last time we had an architecture graduate school in Boulder, in 1976. I studied solar energy at a time when we were just learning to talk about something that was not even called ‘green’ yet. It was an impulse to follow nature’s clues and that’s what we’re still trying to do and I hear that and see that in your work. To me, I am really proud of CU because there is something of a higher order that nature has a place here, it’s in your consciousness now and you’re going to take that forward and create from that place.
My senior thesis was a film called ‘ReGenesis’ and it was about bringing the city back and re-energizing it and that has been a movement now that has happened in this country. We now have livable cities again; we have an impulse to move together again instead of continuing to sprawl. Those kind of things that happen outside of yourself, pay attention. We can use Charles Dickens The Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was a time of wisdom and it was a time of foolishness.’ It doesn’t take much observation to see all of that happening before you right now in the world. I’m excited, I trust the future because of you. My son is 22 and a design student, so I live with your generation as well and I’m excited for the world because of you. This became my mantra; try to do things even if they’re little things because here I am in Boulder. I have a practice, we have been 7 people to 17 people; we have been relatively small but passionate like you are right now. Don’t lose that passion. The danger is, you get absorbed into the system and you lose the light you’re carrying right now, don’t let that light go out. Challenge authority and bring good ideas to those firms and those opportunities you’re going to be presented with but don’t back down and become something you are not. Often I go to nature for my wisdom. I guess I’m supposed to have wisdom at 68 but truthfully nature has always been my guide; so I was going to just give you a few patterns in nature, lessons in design but aimed at you and your careers.
This is your design problem right now; design a happy life, design a meaningful life. Let us use the process you learned and try to reframe things. Scale is one of them. Scale is a wonderful thing in nature and there is an elegant dance between the size of the parts and the aggregation of the whole. We see it all around, so keep hiking, keep sleeping on the ground, keep listening to nature for these clues. Human scale will tell you that little things do matter. I’ve confronted this over and over as ‘does anything I do matter’? Does it matter? We are little voice in this big world that we now inherit and we see daily on the devices in our hands. What you do does matter. Charles and Ray Eames had a wonderful quote that we lived by in my studio and that was ‘See the big things in the little things and the little things in the big things.’ That is certainly a design view but it is also a life view of realizing the little thing you do; It’s the interaction you have with another human being, a client you are listening to, be careful around the selfie mentality right now. Nature would only be ‘wefies’, self doesn’t exist in nature and so be careful with that. Love yourself, love your technology but I think you’re going to be the keepers of humanity. How do you keep humanness when you design? How is it in the devices? How is it in the buildings? How is it in the neighborhood? How do you support life as a human? Take that challenge on.
Homeostasis, a great word, is the ability to sustain balance in the face of inevitable change. As Kevin Krizek mentioned, change is all around us and it’s coming on so fast that you have to be careful that you don’t sink your heels in and get stuck in something that no longer has any relevance. Be flexible, be resilient. Learn about re-creation because it’s always going to be available to us. Never give up on learning. Again as the ‘archi-geezer’, the thing I loved about my career is that everyday is a new adventure in learning something. We never know it all, you can never know it all. It’s like climbing in the west. You climb a mountain and you have a false sense of an ascent of a peak and you realize there is a whole other bench beyond me before that peak. This is one of those benches but don’t take this as the peak. The joy is finding those places along the way.
Coopetition is another favorite pattern in nature in that we ride this edge between competition and cooperation. Nature does that all the time, it’s finding a balance. I feel we take coopetition mainly from the side of empathy, passion, community. Again it’s not the selfie it’s the ‘wefie’. There is so much work to do for others out there; the danger is that we only serve the rich, which has been a challenge in Boulder. The truth is there is a whole world out there in need of design. So be bold, go out there in the world, travel, sketch, meet people, try out other cultures in design and look for opportunities to make a difference.
In eastern philosophy ‘wabi-sabi’ is imperfection, the beauty of imperfection. I think that one of the great dangers in the world, it certainly amped up with the world of technology and the computer, is the computer in design. Imperfection is beautiful so don’t expect to have the perfect answer. That’s the fuel for paralysis by analysis. Lighten up, take risks, free yourself and lead by action.
Improvisation. The idea of improvisation is that what goes on in the world of design. We tinker things into existence. The beautiful things don’t happen by one grand brilliant moment. There are those moments but typically it’s tinkering and trying things out and getting the feedback loop. Taking side trips, spontaneous rifts that occur because you have gone out on a limb. Be open and allow yourself surprise, have a good time. I think it’s too easy to become overly serious in design. It’s hard work. It’s like baseball, you fail two out of three times and you’re in the hall of fame. Design is very much like that, we fail often but then the work eventually leads us to a solution.
Celebration is the last one I’ll talk about and that is what we are doing today. You see it all through nature, the celebration of the aspen grove and the colors that one sees. My sense is that we have to pay attention by actually listening to nature and now the selfie occurs. Go walk in nature, hike, lay on the ground, fall in love over and over. Biophilia is a good thing, very good thing. E. O. Wilson, the love of the living, it’s all about love.
One final thing as the ‘archi-geezer’ who has been in Boulder for 40 years, so I’m putting my cards on the table. That idea that every moment, every design decision is a nano second series of decisions where you’re choosing between love and fear. It’s true. Try it out, watch yourself in the decisions you’re making. Am I coming from fear or am I coming from love or we might call it trust. Have a good time, love a lot and I look forward to the world you’ll create.
By David Barrett
Do you hold images of heaven…those descriptions and utopian paintings fed to us in Catholic school and museums? I reflect on these while sitting in the morning light within our garden in Bali.
I realize for me, this place comes closest to satisfying the memories, or the gestalt of paradise. There is a clear sense that life is in total harmony in this place…the gentle climate, the lush vegetation, the plethora of fragrant flowers, the symphony of birds, the reflective shimmering of the pools of water, the architecture that weaves order in such sympathetic ways with the garden, and maybe most importantly, the relaxed, open smiles on the faces of the Balinese people. Happiness and gratitude are inextricably connected. Love is not just a romantic illusion, but a descriptor, synonymous with life. It radiates from the smiling faces and projects from the laughs that shake the body. It is the way it is…a natural state of being. It is heavenly.
Now this said, there are distinct signs of “the other”; of purgatory or even hell. It is seen in the impact of modernization on Bali. It is felt in the traffic jam of internal combustion engines clogging the narrow streets of Ubud. It is the noise of the motorcycles and scooters buzzing in and out of the jumbled mess. It is the choking burn of the fumes. It is technology, materialism, and tourism invading paradise.
So this is heaven and this might contain hell. I feel bad for a culture that, even under these pressures, still seems to hold paradise at their center. They coexist with the pressures that have distanced most of us in the modern, western world. We are split, they are still whole.
Is there any way to mend this fissure? If I can have any hope, it is to challenge the next generation to become the modern designer, or weaver, to figure out how to bring us back into connectivity. We should have programs, grants, career paths, and global challenges to recreate heaven on earth.
The merger of spirit and material must always be the first criteria for progress. If it is to be in the past, we will be left only with nostalgic replications and we will be forever lost.
From a hopelessly in love with Bali traveler.
By David Barrett, FAIA
As architects we are usually in a relationship with our clients from the get go to make their dreams come true. Seldom do we design, build the dream, and then hope that the dream attracts the dreamer.
In the case of Zoomerhouse – a concept home aimed at the active baby boomer – or what is called a Zoomer – we did just that. Putting form to ideas around a home to celebrate life and age gracefully in, we went out on a limb and brought to market our vision as a product.
The experience is a good one for designers, as we were coaxed into the role of developer with all the risks and hard financial decisions that are often the territory of our clients. When one’s own money is on the line, if nothing else, it is an education that makes us walk in someone else’s shoes, on a tightrope between aesthetics and budget. Will people value, or even perceive, quality upgrades, energy efficiencies, and custom details?
As it turned out, we learned some good lessons:
- Though we valued flexibility and wanted to give the buyers choice in how to use different spaces of the home, people viewing the home didn’t really want more choices and decisions, they wanted something defined. Many people don’t visualize things easily, so in the end we enclosed one of the “open concept” bedrooms and fenced the courtyard to give definition to those spaces.
- Location does matter. Even in a fantastic neighborhood, a baby boomer who has already done the kid thing may think twice about living across the street from an elementary school.
Many young families toured the house, but in the end the ecstatic new homeowners are quintessential Zoomers. Pictured above, Fred is in his late 50’s, and Lark is in her 40’s. At the closing, they had both just returned from a 50K race in New England. Now that’s zooming. And to top it off, he is a bona fide rocket scientist! The house will be perfect for them – it maximizes contact with nature and gives ease of access for outdoor gear.
After just a few weeks in their new house, Fred commented: “We both especially love the light, the sense of open space, and the flow within the house. The large windows located high in the walls bring in wonderful natural light throughout the day while maintaining a nice sense of privacy, even on a busy corner across from a school. We also appreciate the care given to environmental efficiency. The high quality of the workmanship is apparent throughout the house, as are the many thoughtful design features. All said, we love it!”
With my wife Betzi as listing agent for the house, and both of us being architects, we think the Zoomerhouse model of architecture will be desperately needed as the U.S. population ages. There is great success to be had in this venture. We joked with Fred and Lark that “it’s not rocket science,” but the truth is, Betzi and I have 65+ years experience between us, and that partnership makes for strong planning, design and marketing. Boy, the years zoom by.
As Betzi and I enjoy the fruits of our labor by taking off the month of July to travel the world, we will be thinking about the next iteration of Zoomerhouse. Maybe even Zoomerville? We already know that in our next design/build venture, we would like to enjoy the ride with some willing partners! Stay tuned.
Bluebell Home: Light and transparency interact in a light filled in-town living space.
By David Barrett, FAIA
On many mornings I sit in a café where daylight surrounds the lives that come and go. Caffeine serves as a temporary agent of our awakening; we are warmed inside by a quiet moment, conversations, a new day. I watch as the light dances beautifully across faces, subtle expressions revealing an inner response that might have been missed sitting in a darker corner.
I am hopelessly smitten with light. As an architect, I am the privileged manipulator of light space. Daylight in particular informs our moods, our sense of connection to the cycles of the day, and touches the “awe button”. Doesn’t it take your breath away?
Aside from daylight being naturally energy conserving, I was struck by some current health care research that crossed my desk.
Are you in favor of these?
- Better sleep quality
- Reduced agitation
- Better pain management
- A shorter hospital stay
Research shows these are all benefits of increased access to daylight in the health care environment.
Architectural space comes to life in natural daylight, and apparently so do we.
Examples of day lighting in Barrett Studio projects
Artists Home and Studios: East Hampton, N.Y. artists create in day lit studios that speak to their individual desires for light, color and going inward. Translucent Polygal clearstory windows invite the light of creativity.
Phoenix Home: Sweeping mountain views are brought into visual balance by way of soft daylight introduced from above.
Abbey of St. Walburga: The light of heaven and earth speaks of transcendence for monastic prayer in the chapel of the Abbey of St. Walburga. Mystical light illuminates the incense to create a sense of mystery and spirit.
Uncompahgre Retreat: Quality of daylight gives visual clarity and sense of time and place.
Home on the Range: The rhythm of daylight directs one’s path while giving context for art as well as passage.
Little Ship House: Layers of structure and light suggest the protection of the archetypal cabin, while lifting our sense of connection to the light and time of day, the seasons, and climate. Natural light provides a sense of well-being.
Wee Ski Chalet: Sitting in the snowy woods in the warmth of direct sunshine, passive solar provides illumination to the ochre interiors in a warming glow.
Healthcare Benefits Research
Sundolier, Inc. gathered this current research on daylight in the health care environment:
“Female patients in a cardiac ICU exhibited shorter length of stay in sunny rooms.”
Source: Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine
“Hospital patients with access to daylight have better sleep quality, reduced agitation and better pain management.”
Source: Architectural Engineering Design Group, Inc.
“Insufficient or inappropriate light exposure can disrupt normal circadian rhythms which may result in adverse consequences for human performance, health and safety.”
Source: LEUKOS – The Journal of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, vol 5 (1), pp. 1-26, July 2008.
“Patients residing in a hospital exposed to 46% higher intensity sunlight on average took 22% less analgesic medicine than counter parts with similar medical conditions on the darker side of the hospital – resulting in a 21% cost differential.”
Source: Psychosomatic Medicine
By David Barrett, Architect
Last Spring I told you about Zoomerhouse, the “aging gracefully” home prototype in Boulder, Colorado that my wife Betzi and I were building. We are so proud to say our baby has been born. She’s a beauty.
More than beauty, she has a reason for being: to help some lucky inhabitants age gracefully. Her new owner might be a Zoomer – someone over 45 years old who plans on being culturally and socially engaged for quite a while – a baby boomer with zip as they are described.
Zoomerhouse was designed to anticipate the needs of aging minds and bodies without cutting back on style or sustainability. Here’s what we had in mind:
- Zoomers expect the home to be an activity center, where they can continue to be involved with consulting, hobbies, meditation, yoga, creativity, exercise, and entertaining.
- Zoomers need smaller, more compact homes, with essential living on one level, lots of counter space, convenient storage, easier access to bath and shower, and less lawn to mow. Domestic needs can be tended to effectively as kitchen, laundry, and closets are open for easy access and proximity for multi-tasking.
- The Zoomerhouse flexes. It adapts, and morphs to respond to changing needs and evolving interests. What starts as a personal wellness space in the second story loft can reconfigure to house a Boomerang family member or a foreign exchange student, can transform into a social and financial outlet via Airbnb.com, or later in the aging process can accommodate a live-in health care giver.
- Zoomerhouse has minimized physical obstacles to one’s freedom of movement. From garage, to inside-outside flows, Zoomerhouse provides a seamless surface. The primary living level has generous clearances from doorways to pathways. The open plan is organized around the idea of continuous flows, loops, and freedom of choice: living large without boundaries!
- Zoomers live life around an outdoor courtyard. This outside room is open to the winter sun and shaded by deciduous trees for summer comfort.
- Zoomerhouse supports “next stage years” as a return to right livelihood; where living, working, and playing are supported in one home environment. An in-home studio/office with abundant daylight allows for continued work, consulting, activities and hobbies to bring balance to the active mind and body.
To visit Zoomerhouse, contact Betzi Barrett at Four Star Realty
by David Barrett, AIA
The idea that design can be a part of the healing process has been termed “restorative” or “regenerative” design. The cycle of life, death, and rebirth is one that nature models for us in homeostasis, and cultures celebrate in seasonal rituals that remind us of the spiritual message found in impermanence and even of death itself. When the Four Mile Fire raged through the foothills west of Boulder last Labor Day, 6,000 acres of mountain landscape were suddenly and drastically transformed. In its wake, 169 homes were destroyed and those who had lived in them were left with the challenge of reconstructing their lives, their dreams, their homes, and the precious landscapes they had inhabited.
Over this past year, as Architects, we have been invited into four projects that are engaged in this process. With each, we have the opportunity to touch the essence of restorative design in both human and ecological terms. This is Part Two of a four-part series, wherein we’ll be sharing the story of each of these homes, families, and individuals: their experience, the co-creative process, and the unfolding of the built form as a tool for creating positive energy, opportunity, and with it, a quality of healing.
We live in a culture geared to immediate gratification and short-term thinking. Sudden change, and even loss, can bring about opportunity for us to challenge our value systems, our sense of beauty, and our trust in the perfect unfolding of life itself.
These clients live in Wisconsin, and are deeply connected to their community, their work, and their roots. They also have a long-term love affair with the Rocky Mountains. Like many of us boomers, they were looking at their dreams and were determined to act upon them. In this case, that dream is the building of a family retreat in the foothills west of Boulder. This retreat will act as a place of coming together for them and their grown children, who are scattered around the country and are often off on world adventures.
The site they found spoke to them in its relative ease of access, while being a part of the ponderosa forest that weaves its way through lichen covered rock outcroppings. However, what most struck them was the broad view wrapping around them from east to west, taking in the plains, the city lights of both Boulder and Denver, the undulating foothills, and glimpses of the Divide to the west. Our client stood on the place in the site that we all sensed as “home” and asked for an architecture that would “drink in the views.”
This desired sense of reach led to a formal approach that both found fit from an allusion to the rolling landscape’s folded forms, and to the skyscape molded by our spectacular lenticular clouds. Stretching a long, thin house on an east-west axis invited sun penetration and acted as a lens to frame the dynamic views. Following our client’s esoteric cues for an interconnected geometry, we developed a design that was akin to a vessel for connections. Upon completing the Site Plan Review Process with Boulder County and submitting for a building permit, the winds of change drove the Four Mile Fire up the western slope below the building site, consuming the four acre site in an inferno that blackened every tree in the mature ponderosa forest, and with it made opaque the dream they had been actively pursuing for years.
by David Barrett, AIA
The idea that design can be a part of the healing process has been termed “restorative” or “regenerative” design. The cycle of life, death, and rebirth is one that nature models for us in homeostasis, and cultures celebrate in seasonal rituals that remind us of the spiritual message found in impermanence and even of death itself. When the Four Mile Fire raged through the foothills west of Boulder last Labor Day, 6,000 acres of mountain landscape were suddenly and drastically transformed. In its wake, 169 homes were destroyed and those who had lived in them were left with the challenge of reconstructing their lives, their dreams, their homes, and the precious landscapes they had inhabited. Each individual has a unique experience of loss. Each has a story that includes, in one way or another, the states of processing death: shock, anger, moments of fear & despair, glimmers of hope, tough decisions & setbacks, and then in its own time, acceptance and rebirth.
Over this past year, as Architects, we have been invited into four projects that are engaged in this process. With each, we have the opportunity to touch the essence of restorative design in both human and ecological terms. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be sharing the story of each of these homes, families, and individuals: their experience, the co-creative process, and the unfolding of the built form as a tool for creating positive energy, opportunity, and with it, a quality of healing.
Rod Moraga is a man who knows fire. His professional expertise is in the analysis of fire potential in our urban/wild interface. His work as co-founder of Anchor Point Group establishes and executes fire mitigation strategies. His wife Shari has a long standing love for modernist architecture, and Barrett Studio was hired to design a new home for their family in Boulder proper; one that would be a model of fire resistance, efficiency and climatic delight. The family planned to sell their home in Four Mile Canyon and relocate to the new home in North Boulder. With construction having just begun, Rod, a volunteer firefighter in the Four Mile Fire Department, answered a call to respond to a fire west of Wall Street. From his nearby home in Four Mile Canyon, Rod became the first responder to a fire the soon exploded, being fed by mounting winds. During the battle against this blaze, Rod’s own home was consumed by the inferno. That construction was underway on his family’s new home in Boulder, using a material system & specifically designed for fire resistance was ironic at best.
Now, seven months later, Rod & his family have moved into their new home, built by Renove Construction using Aerated Autoclaved Concrete (AAC). Nicole Delmage, an Associate at Barrett Studio, worked with me, Rod & Shari, to maximize the inherent potentials of this thick wall, high mass, highly insulative building system while expressing a decidedly modernist aesthetic. More about the how the design was informed by the material’s unique properties can be found on the Barrett Studio website.