Reconnecting to Nature

Low-cost design as an opportunity to experience the luxury of simplicity and Mother Nature

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The most typical definition of luxury is a “state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense.”  In a simpler world, an idea of luxury was quite easy: it was something that provided a temporary, possibly indulgent relief from “real” life. This might have meant a weekend away in an expensive hotel, where one might expect to be pampered. How sad this seems now; the sense that what we want or need is an escape from real life and that somehow real life is a poor imitation of a parallel escapist universe. Sadder, even, when most of these escapist “paradise” environments are not at all what people need to feed their soul on a daily basis, but instead, glitzy and gimmicky shrines to the worst kind of consumerism that remind us that our everyday life doesn’t quite cut it. Far better to invest in the everyday, and make our everyday environments feed us, so that we don’t need to escape.

Given my antipathy to the kind of mainstream “luxurious’”environments provided by expensive hotels, one of my friends once asked me why I was so suspicious of luxury and why I didn’t like it. On the contrary, I told her: my life and work is geared around luxury, but instead of an applied, cosmetic and nonessential luxury, my work is about harnessing the beauty of what is around us and using this to transport us to another world of rich experience. In essence, this means using elements such as the quality of light, space and atmosphere.

More and more, many of us crave to be connected to the natural world, and for me and in my work, this is the epitome of luxury. My own house was low-cost and self-built, and has no applied finishes. It is raw, and most surfaces are the exposed structural linings and or the cheapest and most widely available plywood. Often, the most basic finishes are often the most beautiful. However, the real investment is in the atmospheric quality: the way the spaces catch the light; the way the interior spaces feel connected to the landscape; the way the spaces open up to the outside world. The experience of going to bed is akin to camping in the treetops. It is a kind of sensory world a million miles away from a sanitised and expensive hotel room.

Office of Invisible Studio built in 2014 by the architects and neighbours using untreated timber grown in the surrounding woodland. Photo courtesy Invisible Studio
Office of Invisible Studio built in 2014 by the architects and neighbours using untreated timber grown in the surrounding woodland. Photo courtesy Invisible Studio

Equivalently, my studio is simultaneously the cheapest and most luxurious work environment I know. Built on a shoestring using scavenged materials, it is nonetheless an immersive world of shadow, light and texture. Raised on stilts and sitting amidst the treetops, it was built for a fraction of the cost of most buildings. The insulation was pieced together from reused pieces and exposed as the lining of the space, its reflective quality lending it a shimmer and luminescent beauty as it catches the sun rays shining in through the surrounding beech canopy. The floor is inexpensive chipboard painted with leftover floor paint from another project, yet looks beautifully warm as the dappled light hits it.

The structural timber came from trees grown, felled and milled on site, and is all exposed in its raw state. The luxury here is escaping a world of processed products, and being constantly reminded of the origin of things; much like picking ripe fruit off a tree, always far better than buying it prepackaged and shrink-wrapped from an air-conditioned supermarket.

Self-built prototype relocatable £20K house, constructed from materials sourced from construction waste and locally grown unseasoned timber. Photo © Jim Stephenson
Self-built prototype relocatable £20K house, constructed from materials sourced from construction waste and locally grown unseasoned timber. Photo © Jim Stephenson

Which brings us to one the greatest luxuries of all: an environment without air-conditioning that harnesses natural breezes for ventilation. While badly designed spaces can overheat, intelligent design not only allows us to cool spaces naturally, but also to feel a warm breeze on your skin—one of life’s greatest pleasures, yet one typically denied by sealed luxury hotels and apartments.

Neither my home nor my studio are accessible by car. Luxury for me isn’t arriving in a flashy SUV through an automated door into a garage, but arriving on the edge of the woodland in my battered, 50-year-old canvas-topped Land Rover, and walking through the woods down to the house and studio, experiencing weather and wildlife. Occasionally a buzzard will swoop down, and it is magical.

These kinds of experiences have largely disappeared from many of our daily lives, and yet I am increasingly convinced that they are exactly the kinds of experiences that we crave and need. Instead of escapist fantasies, the luxury of the everyday is what keeps us human and provides what we need to function as sentient beings.

Main image: Home of Piers Taylor near Bath, UK. Photo courtesy Invisible Studio

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