water/shed

I was woken the other night by a steady drip, drip, plip, plop of water from the bedroom ceiling. The heavens had opened up, and so, it seemed, had our roof. An inspection the next morning revealed that the wind had flipped our slate tiles about like beermats in a pub trick. But at the height of the storm, as we scrabbled about nightblind, it was all we could do to locate the nearest available receptacle. The bedside potty proved a little percussive, so we settled on a folded towel.

Amid the fitful sleep that followed, I had a fanciful notion that I might slide the water glass beside my bed across the wooden floor with a flourish – like a tankard down a polished bar – to the precise location a mere metre away where water was on tap. Yes, I thought, with smug middle-of-the-night conviction, here was the inconvenience of having to walk downstairs in the wee hours to fill my glass effortlessly solved.

In the lucidity of the morning, I reflected on this.

I’ve recently finished reading a chapter called ‘The Roof’ in Michael Pollan’s, A Place of my Own. It weaves the author’s own novice experience of building a roof together with historical precedents from the vernacular tradition, Thoreau’s reflections on shelter, and an overview of the vicissitudes of architectural thought, from Laugier’s primitive hut through Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater to Venturi’s decorated shed. Food for thought for architects and non-architects alike… and especially for those who might assume that a roof is an uncontentious building element. As Pollan explains, our glorified sheds, despite their name, are not always designed with shedding water, or even providing shelter, as highest priority…

Pollan is exceptionally even-handed in his writing, but it is this kind of revelation that can, in other hands, give architects a bad name. Yet a key part of an architectural training is to challenge assumptions about the built environment… roofs included. One of the most valuable things I was taught in architecture school, by the pioneering Jonathan Hill, was to design ‘with’ weather, the immaterial, rather than ‘against’ or ‘for’ it. So water, for example, becomes a fundamental building element, rather than something the ‘building’ seeks to control. Examples of this, such as Diller and Scofidio’s Blur Building might seem spectacularly extreme, but they also include projects which blend pragmatism and poetry such as Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals, and smaller projects within my own humble field of experience – I once worked on the design of a building in the grounds of an East London pumping station which was designed to be flooded on occasion to the depth of around an inch: ‘water as floor covering’ – the ultimate ‘wet floor’. While none of these projects purport to be ‘ecological’, they all suggest that buildings might commune with the elements, resonate with them and celebrate them, rather than seek to be fortresses against them. This notion has always appealed to me – how uplifting to accept that a building might be ‘of’ the wind, the rain, be an instrument of the storm, be animated by the weather? To my mind, buildings that achieve this empathy are far more convincingly ‘ecological’ than many of their so-labelled counterparts. What is ecology after all, if it can’t be joyful, transforming… if it is purely functional? Such notions need not involve romantic impracticality, in fact quite the opposite. The most enjoyable ‘ecological’ buildings, spaces… are idiosyncratic, yes, but precisely because they are so deeply attuned to specifics of use, function, environment, habitation…

Empathy is a particular practice.

But a drip from the ceiling in your own home? Heavens above! Surely the inside of a house is no place for water. Oh, except litres of the stuff snakes around our dwellings in pipes, ready to fill specially designed indoor pools and puddles on demand. There are special showerheads too, that imitate rain. So even in our homes, these assumptions we have about water, roofing, buildings… are no more than a matter of attitude and design. We go to such pains to shed rainwater, as if we were terrified of this stuff that gives us life, only to process, purify, and pump it miles and miles back into puddles within our own homes. There’s a strange sort of fear that precludes us from taking that small shift in perception to imagine a more specific, playful, local, natural relationship between our homes, our water, ourselves. How else to explain the terror induced by a drop of water, a leak? …when it might actually be useful.

This might sound provocative, but I’m not being facetious – The ‘Living Water’ approach to water management, even simple ‘grey water recycling systems’, and ‘green roofs’ make moves to address this predicament. But I am not generally comfortable with bandying about labels and acronyms. (In fact I might write a post about this). They make ‘eco’ exclusive and undermine the crucial possibility of particularity, eccentricity, poetry. No, for leaky roofs, ecological bricolage is where it’s at. So here my thoughts turn to that water-lover and deep ecologist Roger Deakin, author of ‘Waterlog’, who famously had a home that worked perfectly for him, but failed beautifully to bend to accepted norms of practicality. It was surrounded by a moat that he swum in daily, and he gleefully recorded the sounds it made in a storm, and its cranky water system… for broadcast on Radio 4 several years ago. He would have celebrated a leak, I suspect, at least for a while, explored its possibilities.

It seems my water glass is already half full…

 

  • pien

    You are maybe lucky just to have the drip drip.
    When Bob and I came back from our holiday 38 years ago our basement apartment had been flooded. Ter had been a freak rain storm in NW6 London.
    Luckily our friends who lived a mile away and had no rain came to the rescue and the following day started to take our swollen books out of the bookshelves with the help of passers by.
    To make a long story short. We still have things pre-flood, flood damaged and flood lost.
    I like your philosophical approach to the “drip drip” but in the long run living in a damp house does not do much good to your long term health.
    I hope this time my comment will get to you. I do not think my last one did.
    Till soon.
    love,
    Pien

    • zoequick

      yes… rest assured, the moisture in our house will be gently encouraged to leave…
      and I never knew about all those swollen books! history indeed

      looking forward to seeing you both soon x

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