A Short Study of Place
Recently on a trip to Denver, Colorado, I learned the meaning of place. It is so easy to get caught up in the day to day where we forget the realities of our environment.
This summer has been marked by drought with a lack of rainfall and dwindling water supply in New England. It is an extreme that I, at 28 years old, have not seen very much of in my lifetime. Our rain barrels, which we installed and had good luck with last year, went completely dry this summer.
So why is it that I had to go to an even more extreme environment in order to learn a lesson about place?
Colorado is home to the Rocky Mountain National Park, which I visited just 4 weeks ago. The mountains out there get to an elevation of 14,000 ft., and despite 75 degree temperatures at the base, the peaks were already receiving August snow.
The mountains work like this: for every 1000 ft. of elevation gain, the temperature typically drops 4-5 degrees. The plant life changes dramatically from lush forest with deciduous and evergreen trees and grass prairie, to huge stands of lodge-pole pines, Aspen, and ground cover.
Lodge pole pines (Pinus Contorta subspecies Latifolia) grow at elevations of 7,800 ft to 11,500 ft. They endure extreme winters seeing sustained snow pack of 15ft. Lodge pole pines grow very straight because if there is a crook where snow can settle, the tree is unbalanced, and over time will not survive. Therefore only the straightest trees are able to survive the extremes of this place.
Quaking Aspen Trees (Populus tremuloides) live at elevations between 5,600 ft. to 11,000ft. They grow in groves because they spread more by their roots then their seeds. This means that entire groves are connected through their root systems. Often the groves will grow not at an even elevation, but up and down a slope. The trees at the bottom of the slope have the most access to water and nutrient which they send, through their root system, up the slope to the trees with less access to these vital nutrients.
Above 11,500 ft, only the most well adapted plants can live. Most of it is ground cover which experiences a very short growing season after the snow recedes.
Architecturally speaking, there are a couple of gift shops at about 11,800 ft., well into the “tundra” elevations. There are no trees to act as windbreaks, and the snow literally buries these buildings in the winter. There are two buildings set about 50ft. apart. One of the buildings is outfitted with huge pine logs on the roof over the shingles. They are set in a grid pattern and as it turns out, there is a violent wind tunnel that runs right over the ridge and funnels directly over this building. Without the heavy logs to weight the roof down, the roof would blow off. 50 ft off to the left, the wind tunnel does not exist, and therefore a more traditional building is all that is needed.
Understanding place, natural and otherwise is so important to what we do as designers. The trees understand this. They grow straight or they do not survive. They grow in groups or they do not survive. We as designers must meet the individual challenges of our unique environments whether at sea level or up in the clouds. Every place has its “natural” laws that must be obeyed, and just as in nature, once we design for these laws, there is endless possibility for beauty, color, habitat, clean air, water and diversity of life.