Tag Archives: Connection & Contribution

Serving Ourselves / Serving the Whole


When building a wall to buffer their house from the public sidewalk, these owners incorporated a bench for passersby to sit on.

I had an engaging conversation recently with Sally Fox, a podcaster and leadership consultant, covering a range of big ideas. We talked about zugenruhe moments of restlessness, finding our passion and right work, navigating cultural shifts, the Beauty Mind and our antenna for sweet spots, the makeup of thriving communities, Christopher Alexander’s theories about wholeness, and more.

As it emerged, the theme came to be about the paradox between serving ourselves while serving the larger whole. It’s a both/and proposition. As we feather our own nest (or as designers, serve our client’s needs and desires), how is it that we connect and contribute to making the surrounding neighborhood better/richer/more alive? It’s tempting to take a position of hunkering into a view that says, “I’ve got property rights. I can do whatever is allowed by law.” That may be so, but then we’re left with disconnected patchworks of personal compounds.


The principle of Site Repair urges us to leave the most beautiful places alone and to build on the ugliest, thereby “mending a rend in the existing cloth”.

As I write this, I’m reminded of Pattern 104 Site Repair, from Alexander’s A Pattern Language. When choosing a site for a house, or any building for that matter, it seems natural to locate it in the most beautiful spot, with the best view, the healthiest trees and easiest slope to work with. From an individual perspective, this is the most obvious and sensible thing to do. But from a wider view, this site has a condition of ecological health and wholeness. Building in this location will diminish this health, while leaving other not-so-nice parts of the site unchanged. Will there be money and energy available to clean up the corner where old building materials are buried, or cultivate the stony slope where no plants are growing? And what about the small beautiful things that don’t register on a site survey—trillium flowers covering the forest understory in spring, the favorite path meandering across the meadow, the weathered paint on the old barn? These precious details are expressions of the wholeness of a place that take many seasons to mature, and that are easily lost in the shuffle of building. Alexander urges us to leave the most healthy places alone, and to “treat every act of building as an opportunity to mend some rend in the existing cloth, (thereby making) the ugliest and least healthy parts of the environment more healthy.” This is the principle of site repair.

In the context of our conversation, efforts to make something better for ourselves can be opportunities to make the larger world a better place.Ross:Sally Conversation

The conversation is in two parts. Enjoy a listen!

—Ross Chapin


Outside the Box

What is lovable—or not— about the street you're on?

What is lovable—or not— about the street you’re on?

Whether designing a single house or a pocket neighborhood of homes, we always begin outside the box. What is the larger environment that surrounds us? What is lovable —in particular— about the street we’re on, or the houses to either side? Is it the massing and proportion of the neighboring buildings, their pleasing palate of related colors, or the detail of a roof bracket?

What is not lovable? What is missing? Do the houses seem to stand alone rather than being in conversation? Does the street feel too wide and vacant? Are there are trees missing in a rhythm?

And then we ask, how might we make the larger better with our smaller action? As we arrange the car connection, building positions and layout of the gardens and major trees, how can we add to the qualities we love and repair the broken patterns or missing elements?

These initial questions are the most important efforts we do to ensure a successful project.

A courtyard cluster focusing in on itself, while its buildings and the parking lot shun all who pass by.

A courtyard cluster focusing in on itself, while its buildings and the parking lot shun all who pass by.

I’ll risk illustrating this with a bad example. Here’s a classic cottage courtyard with a central commons. The homes are relatively affordable. Yet a parking lot hangs out in front like an afterthought. The ends of the buildings are blank and landscaping almost non-existent. Clearly, no attention was given to how this project connects and contributes to the fabric of the surrounding houses and streetscape. It does not add to the walkability of the neighborhood, the engagement of the community, nor the prevailing home values.

The street face of Danielson Grove makes a gesture to the surrounding neighborhood and passersby.

The street face of Danielson Grove makes a gesture to the surrounding neighborhood and passersby.

This counter example is a bit unfair. It had a much larger budget, but I want you to notice the core patterns.

Danielson Grove is also a classic cottage courtyard nested within an existing neighborhood of single-family homes. While the front of the homes face onto the courtyard, the buildings on the street offer a friendly gesture: the Common House has an entry porch and garden, and the End House has a gabled dormer and trellis. Large conifer trees along the street were preserved, helping the new development feel settled in on Opening Day. Parking is out of view completely, in a cluster located off of a lane on the backside of the court.

To say this in another way, outside-the-box thinking leads to “both/and” solutions, where our own needs and desires are met in ways that enrich and enhance the surrounding neighborhood. Have your cake and eat it, too.

~Ross Chapin