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OPINION: Beauty, practicality can co-exist in architecture

Heidi Martilla-Losure, Dakotafire Media  We are a very practical people here in the Dakotas. That’s a good thing — as long as we don’t let it limit our thinking.

Consider, for example, the large barns that used to have a prominent place on every farmstead, shaping the view of the landscape with their presence. They were very practical buildings, working as part of a system of keeping livestock, but they were also beautiful.

Now think of the buildings that have replaced them on modern farms. Most of them are not beautiful. They weren’t intended to be — the focus was on filling the practical need of the farm.

Take a look at the built environment we are creating, on farms, in our business and industrial districts, and even in our neighborhoods, and it’s easy to see that utility and cost often dominate building decisions.

But think back to those big barns, and the farmhouses that were next to them: Previous generations did not see insurmountable trade-offs among practicality, affordability and beauty.

Architect Brad Ciavarella, of Mitchell, and his wife like to look at old farmhouses when they have a chance. Most of them feature fine craftsmanship, he said.

“You see all these fancy moldings over the entrances, and the columns aren’t just simple columns — they are shaped,” Ciavarella said. “And (the farm families) didn’t have anything. They probably had a sod house before they built these houses.”

Sarah Susanka, architect and author of the “Not So Big House” series of books, explains that older homes have character and craftsmanship that houses built after World War II typically do not. When the flood of GIs came home, the focus was on building quickly, and many of those details were lost. Susanka advocates adding back in those details.

We Dakotans have somehow become hesitant to aspire for beauty. Whatever the reason, it’s time to reconsider. With Susanka’s and Ciavarella’s assistance, here are five reasons to make buildings that are beautiful as well as practical.

1. Building beauty sends a message about what you value.

A building that is beautiful, well-built and designed to function well sends a message, Ciavarella said: “Hey, somebody really cared to think about this building.” It also shows that excellence is valued, which can reflect well on a business or the people in a home.

If instead a building is made with materials that are cheap but not durable, it sends a message that the builders aren’t thinking long-term.

“We need to be less of a throwaway, short-term-thinking society,” he said.

2. Building beautiful, well-designed spaces improves quality of life.

The young families that small towns want to lure back home are seeking amenities that will improve quality of life. Beauty is part of that, whether in buildings themselves or how they take advantage of natural beauty. Live in a house with a porch where you can take in the sunset, and you’ll go to bed in a different frame of mind than if you lived in a house with no sunset view — a small but definite quality-of-life improvement, Ciavarella said.

Susanka designs with natural materials, such as wood or stone, in mind because they do more to connect people to the natural world.

“Those kinds of things affect people deeply,” she said. Light is also a significant factor in a well-designed home: “Access to natural light hugely affects our sense of well-being,” she said, adding that she thinks seasonal affective disorder and sleep disorders may well be caused by people not getting enough natural light.

A business district built around a central square, as some small towns in Iowa have, gives a focus on community life and even improves business for those shops around the square because people are more likely to linger in that common space.

“People want to gather in places that are beautiful,” he said.

3. Beautiful buildings are more likely to be preserved.

Maintenance is more likely to happen if it comes from a sense of love than from a sense of obligation, and people are more likely to love what they find beautiful. “If you want something to last for a long time,” Susanka said, “the part that’s the most important is that human beings want to look after it. If something is not beautiful, we tend to, over time, discard it … You can have the most ‘green’ building in the world, but if it’s not beautiful, it’s not sustainable.”

The big old-style barns still on the landscape today are probably not practical for those who live on those farms, but they are cared for because they are cared about. Their appearance is a part of that.

4. Beauty and thoughtful design don’t have to cost more.

In fact, good design can cost less than building with only utility in mind, Ciavarella said. Part of good design is knowing how to use materials in innovative ways, which can lead to cost savings.

Designing well can also mean less space is required, which can save in materials in the building phase and in maintenance costs over the life of the building.

“We’ve tended to make houses bigger and bigger and bigger to compensate for lack of detail,” Susanka said. “So actually people are ending up spending more because they’re building more square footage, when if we would just put in some character, we could build about a third less space, make it all work and make it feel bigger.”

5. Beauty feeds the soul.

It sounds kind of New Age-y, doesn’t it? And yet, it’s actually a very old idea: Think of churches built during the Renaissance, which were designed to inspire awe.

“Beauty, something that appeals to the higher senses — we have a need for that. Absent that, we suffer somehow,” Ciavarella said.

He quoted Winston Churchill: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” How, then, do we want to be shaped?

The way to start adding beauty to our spaces is just to start. Susanka shared a story about a man in a rundown neighborhood who first fixed up his own garden, then decided he would plant a tree for one of his neighbors each year.

“It went viral,” she said. “People started to care about the houses because he had.”