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The Hand-Built Environment // Daniel Johnson


Design + Make has embarked on a journey outside of the typical architecture student’s comfort zone. This journey involves limestone and a chisel, cedar and a forge, steel and a welder. Many architectural theorists have discussed the opportunities and benefits of a design-build concept; the involvement of the builder with the designer throughout the entire process. Christopher Alexander in particular is an advocate of this, and about bringing life and a personal touch into the built world through the re-integration of context from previous “living” parts and wholeness. His extreme view on how to build a living city are written in a way that discouts any other view, which could be taken harshly by some. But, it is this extreme desire to include the individual that allows for criticism and reiteration/revision through our studio work. He explains how “a building that is whole must always have the characters of nature.” (1)

We are evolving this concept with our own: The Hand-Built Environment 


Alexander goes on to discuss in Nature of Order the idea of structure-preserving transformations (2), which is the preservation, extension and enhancement of the wholeness of a system. “Architect” originated from the Old English word heahcræftiga which means high crafter. Following Alexander’s theories, we would build off of this idea of a crafter, or chief builder in certain situations. 


Building alongside the craftspeople as opposed to building with the contractor allows for us to be physically hands-on with the progression of the design. Design does not stop at the drafting board, nor is it simply handed off to the contractor to make theirown decisions. Being the designers, builders and craftspeople allow our studio to constantly make design decisions as the project grows and develops. There is a new found appreciation for the design and the craft once we became active in the build. We discovered the difficulty of what was once a simple line on paper, as well as a new idea of beauty. 

Photograph of the dry stack, limestone wall by AJ Henry

We began to feel how the design will truly influence the events of the space and the people of that place. Designing a project that challenges the individual’s view of the layers of the Tallgrass Prairie through distinct points is a nice concept, but does it hold any validity in reality? By being the builders, we can begin to see and react to scale and experience in a present way. We become better equipped to overcome obstacles throughout the construction process from our knowledge of the details and intent. 

Photograph of the shade structure foundation holes by Alex Martinez

Photograph of the dry stack wall being built by David Dowell

The Hand-Built Environment starts to take on a deeper sense of living, one that Alexander can only dream about. Taking on the craft of building creates a sense of pride and gratitude for the work, one that could not be understand without complete hands-on involvement. 

Photograph of the foundation stones being placed by David Dowell

(1)  Alexander, Christopher. The Timeless Way of Building. New York: Oxford UP, 1979. Print.  

(2)  Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building the Nature of the Universe. Berkeley, CA: Center for Environmental Structure, 2002. Print.  




Written by Daniel Johnson

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