Most of us are familiar with the economic and environmental benefits of “buy local”: contributing to our local economy, minimizing the energy spent transporting our purchases, and supporting organizations capable of responding to the unique needs or desires of our community. If we expand this approach to building a home or small business space, it is clear that the same strategies apply – from obtaining materials from local and regional sources, to working with nearby designers who understand the local climate and lifestyle. The “build local” approach is also essential to accomplishing a more ephemeral feat: what architects often term a “sense of place.”
Place is a challenging term to define – what makes a location an authentic “place,” rather than just coordinates on a map? What makes some cities, towns and homes memorable and others forgettable? What impact does “place” have on our community and individual identities? And how do we uncover a location’s sense of place? Building professionals and scholars have long debated these questions amidst ongoing explorations of what makes a space a “place,” and how this sense of place varies from region to region.
We often think of particular historical styles of building when thinking of different regions – Craftsman in Seattle, Ranch Style in Los Angeles, and Victorian in San Francisco for example. But the true character of a place is not a particular style or product. Place is not static, but something that is continuously evolving through the interaction of people and their environment. As a region’s people and culture evolve, so can its architecture.
In most cities and towns, it is easy to find buildings that don’t tell us much about our communities. Fast-food chains and big-box stores are two common examples of buildings that owe their appearance to processes far removed from their site and the community they serve. They are uniformly prescriptive, rather than uniquely perceptive. These buildings detract from a sense of place not because they lack a specific style, but because regardless of where they are built, their appearance and relationship to their surroundings is the same.
It is the process required to build locally – collaborating with suppliers and practitioners in your community and building in response to local features and constraints—that brings the character of a place into focus. Place-making requires discovery, participation and interaction, not only from building professionals, but from home owners and community members as well. This process can shape architecture in a variety of ways: a building may respond to the history of a region, highlight local cultural or natural resources, showcase the craft and innovation of local artisans and builders, or celebrate local materials. In the Pacific Northwest we are lucky to have a variety of local materials and manufacturers to support an equally varied palette for local architecture. Stylistically, local architecture may blend in or stand out—either way, if it communicates something specific about its context, it tells a unique story about a place.
The built environment – the sum of our buildings, outdoor spaces, and infrastructure—occupies the space between us and the raw landscape. When we enclose spaces in buildings we shouldn’t think of them as separate from the land, but rather places that can heighten our awareness of our surroundings. The forms we build embody choices and values pertaining both to the inhabitants and to the land upon which they sit. Architecture provides shelter, enables interaction, and provides retreat and privacy. It is an essential tool for living in the world. Successful places not only function well as a collection of tools, but they express a dynamic connection between the land and the people who live there.
There is ecological and spiritual value in forging connections with the places we live. When we actively engage in the “build local” process as home owners, community members, and designers, then we can better understand our relationships to each other and our impact on the world around us. Building locally is not about shutting out the world, but negotiating local and global tensions. With the wealth of inspiring imagery available online with the click of a mouse, it can be tempting to seek out design trends from all over in hopes of creating something unique. While there is much to be learned from the diversity of materials and methods in various locales, the act of engaging with the local community and environment is essential to discovering what is unique about your place in the world and contributing to a sustainable future.
Photo credits: Historic mill photo from UW Libraries; Map of Washington from Visit Seattle; Downtown and ferry boat from Department of Transportation; Craftsman home from HistoryLink, Victorian home by Hypersite on Creative Commons, Ranch home by Visitor7 on Creative Commons.