To Sara Sweeney, bricks, concrete, and glass are expressions of our soul. Each building, in the architect’s view, is a statement of us, our relationship to each other, and our connection, or disconnection, with the Earth.
A registered architect, Sweeney has had a 19-year career reflecting her passion and commitment to sustainable design, green building practices, and care for the Earth. She is the founder of Cherry Hill, N.J.-based EcoVision LLC, a research and consulting firm grounded in sustainable design practices, environmental stewardship, and building science. She is a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP), which indicates an advanced knowledge of green building standards and practices. Sweeney also is on the advisory board of Build2Sustain, which seeks to bring sustainable design to every organization.
Mindfulwalker.com interviewed Sweeney about what the architect sees as the interconnection of architecture and spirituality, her view that architecture is a calling and carries much responsibility, and how she is teaching the next generation of architects about sustainability and care for our planet.
Mindful Walker: You have written that “there is a spiritual link between the realm of built and natural environment,” basically between what we build and nature. What do you see as the link?
Sweeney: This link is just something that’s intrinsic. We as humans inhabit Earth and we build structures because that’s our shelter, that’s our places of work, that’s our commerce. We need these structures to support our lives. We both live on Earth and we build these structures that inhabit Earth, and so in a way I feel that there’s this triangle of human, structure, and Earth.
There’s a link between all of that because what we build is an expression of us. It’s an expression of us socially, it’s an expression of us culturally, and it’s an expression of who we are, how we feel, and how we view ourselves. That’s what I’m talking about overall. It’s the link between humanity and the built and natural environment.
It’s spiritual because I truly believe that, regardless of your religious leanings if you have that – religion is really just the way you choose to express spirituality. There are so many ways we can all express our spiritual selves. We are spiritual beings – the Earth is a very spiritual thing itself.
I’ve done some looking into Celtic Christianity and paganism. Celtic Christianity is this melding of pagan traditions and Christian traditions. Pagan traditions were very much focused on Earth, that connection that we all fall into these rhythms of the Earth, and they define us – the sun, the moon, the growing seasons, the seasons in general. All of these things are linked together.
There is a lot in the Bible that links Earth and humans and structure. There are passages about building, about the growing season, and about the connection between these things. The spiritual link is because buildings are where we live, where we work – and you can see those as also spiritual expressions of ourselves. Then they sit on earth and are grounded in earth. They have foundations that are a part of Earth, and so they are very spiritually linked as well.
Every time we start to build a building, whether it’s going into virgin ground or ground that’s been built on before, to me building is a very profound thing because if you’re going out there with a shovel or a backhoe, you are now digging into the Earth and putting that building into the Earth.
There’s a very deep connection between humans, Earth, and buildings, but I don’t think we connect that. I think we separate it: It’s like there’s humans and Earth, and then there are buildings. Buildings are just places we live in, or work at, but they don’t really mean anything. There’s something very strong that we’re missing. Overall, we’re missing that link.
Mindful Walker: In your schooling and training to become an architect, what had the biggest impact on you – became a turning point, if you will – in seeing architecture on a more spiritual level?
Sweeney: It was my senior year at Miami University in Ohio, from 1990 to 1991. Miami University of Ohio was part of a consortium with Virginia Tech, and it was a consortium of six schools. We could all send a few students from the class to study at Virginia Tech’s Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center for a semester. The semester that I spent there I ended up designing a Buddhist monastery for my project. We actually were able to choose our project. We could do whatever we wanted so I decided to do a Buddhist monastery.
I chose this site out in Rock Creek Park, a huge site that was a couple of acres of land. It was in a ravine. I started to look at Japanese architecture. I studied Buddhism. I wasn’t going to church at that point but I was still always very on to the ritual. There was something about the ritual, like how that connected you spiritually to God. I tried meditation and things like that. The project became this Buddhist monastery with a meditation path, and the monks lived in these cells that were off the meditation path.
The meditation path was very structured, where the monks’ cells were, where the eating area was, the refectory, places like that. Then this path was a loop that went around on the site, and it looped around the ravine. And it changed: The walkway was all out of concrete but that sort of dissolved into the earth, and then you were walking on bare earth. Then as you came back, it started to reconfigure till you were back on a concrete walkway, more the formal part of the monastery.
That really impacted me. Near the end of the semester it was clear that I was really thriving there much more than I was when I was at Miami. I ended up staying for the entire year. The professor I was working with most on this project at the time, a Virginia Tech professor named Greg Hunt, was the one who really pushed me to start thinking about things in a different way.
Mindful Walker: How did it become spiritual per se?
Sweeney: It became spiritual because I started to think differently about materials. How is it when you’re walking on a material? How does it feel under your feet? How does the experience feel of being on this path, and how it disintegrates into nothing and then reconfigures itself into something? But being “nothing,” it really isn’t “nothing” because you are on earth and you are of earth. And with the structures: How did you filter light in so that you are connected with light, and how did you use the shadows and the light to create experience for the person?
As I learned more about (architect) Louis Kahn, he talked about things like silence and light and materials – his whole thing about “I ask the brick what you want to be. Do you want to be an arch? Well, you know, I could span this opening with a concrete lintel. What do you think about that?” “Well, I like an arch.” It’s the honesty of the materials and things like that. That was definitely the turning point.
Mindful Walker: In your writings you’ve said that being an architect is a calling. How do you see being an architect as a calling?
Sweeney: I say that but I don’t know if I ever understood what a calling meant. I was listening to Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith on the way to church about two months ago, and there was a man on the air who was talking about a calling and what a calling is. It was something to the effect of: A calling is something that basically you could not see yourself doing anything else, and at the same time the world could not be without what you are doing. That is what a calling is.
That is exactly what it is. I could not see doing anything else. I think I am still in this eternal struggle to find out what is the true meaning of this calling that I say being an architect is because being an architect can also be very mundane. You get into the cost issues. “This is over budget. This is too much money. I don’t want to do this.” And you end up going through the motions of just getting the building built.
But it’s this deeper thing of the architect has a huge responsibility with respect to the creation of the built environment. We’re the ones who are manifesting what we as a society and a culture – what we’re feeling and thinking about architecture – into that final built form.
I don’t feel that as a whole we’re doing a very good job in terms of architecture. There is a lot of architecture that is absolute crap. There’s a lot of architecture where I don’t feel that [architects are] living up to their responsibility. I know that’s probably a very arrogant thing to say but that’s how I feel.
At the same time, it might be the same boat that I’m in, so I don’t want to pass judgment on any architect because I have to look at the body of my work, and it’s not like I am out there doing all these amazing things either. So we might all be in this struggle.
Mindful Walker: It’s very much seeking a balance, isn’t it? It’s that balance of ideal and reality. But if you look at the life of your work, hopefully you begin to see a theme emerging of having done that. Slowly, it’s true, but it’s lifelong.
Sweeney: That is part of what a calling is. It’s not like, “Here’s your calling!” And you’re like, “Got it.” And you’re 22 and you just go. You might be 80 and finally you’ve honed it.
Mindful Walker: You center your life’s work on sustainable building design and practices, and environmental stewardship, which is taking care of the Earth. Could you tell me about a particular day’s work and how it relates to your spiritual commitment to the Earth and to the built and natural environments?
Sweeney: There’s really no typical day, especially being a small-business owner. I’ll give you the idea of a typical day, and I have those every once in a while, where you’re meeting with a client or a potential client, and you give them the sustainable potential of their building. Yesterday, I was having lunch with somebody with respect to a project, working with this architecture firm. I brought in what are they doing about the storm management and what are they doing about light? It’s a lot of these other attributes. It’s not necessarily talking about the spiritual links directly. It’s very indirect.
It’s striving for that balance between understanding that there’s this budget but also wanting to push people to think about things in a different way. Later in the day I was meeting with somebody about another project. It was actually a LEED consulting job, and we were focusing on the LEED checklist. (Note: The LEED program defines benchmarks to rate the level of environmental sustainability in the design and construction of a building. It encompasses five areas of environmental and human health: energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, materials and resources selection, sustainable site development, and water savings.) We were going through the checklist and looking at the credits. Where are you with this credit? What else could you possibly be doing?
LEED isn’t the end-all, be-all of sustainability. It’s a good guide for helping in the transition from building conventionally, which is much more focused on first costs and not really building, to building with more attention in mind, more commitment.
Also, I love to learn. I probably spend at least an hour a day just researching something. Something pops into my head that I want to learn more about. There’s something building science-related, or something spiritual-related. I teach part-time, too, as an adjunct. I am always refining my lectures. I want to make them a little better and update them with new information.
Mindful Walker: How does your teaching and learning relate to your spiritual commitment?
Sweeney: The teaching helps me to formulate these thoughts and ideas. It’s allowing me to actually present it to a new generation of architects, that hopefully I can have them think mindfully about things. I’m very clear about when I am saying certain things. [For example], sand, water, and aggregate go into concrete. I mean that’s a fact. But when I talk about some of the other things I’m very mindful that this is my opinion but I want you all to think about this, to keep yourself open, do your own research, and form your own opinion.
I teach one class at Philadelphia University, a two-part required course, called Tech I and Tech 2. It’s a building systems and materials class. We bring in sustainability in the second semester, in terms of materials and sustainable sites, and being more mindful.
I like to be very careful about how I teach all of that. I do want them to form their own opinions. I don’t like to go in there and say “You guys have to do this because the climate is changing and we’re all doomed.” I can’t stand that. I’d rather go in there and say, “Some people think the climate is changing and it’s humans, and some people think it’s not. I would encourage you to do your research and don’t just listen to one person or one voice. Don’t just listen to Al Gore. Do your homework. Do the research on both sides of the coin and come up with your own opinion.”
But you should also figure out what does sustainability mean to you? What does it mean in terms of building?
Mindful Walker: To my way of thinking and others – and this is an opinion – humans construct many buildings with the short term in mind, not for the long term. You’ve written about longevity. Is this kind of building, with the thought of the short term in mind, part of the disconnection between buildings and the Earth? How does longevity matter with regard to the environment?
Sweeney: Definitely – because we’re so focused on costs and pro formas that “this is what the building is going to cost. I know what the building is going to cost so I can’t vary from this because this is what my bottom-line profit margin is going to be, and that’s it.” We’re definitely building with the more short term in mind and not the long term. I don’t think we’re building [that way]. Energy efficiency, durability of materials, and mindfulness of the site we’re building on – that’s sustainable building.
You go in and you say here’s this site. How can we be mindful? You don’t have to do really crazy things. You just need to be mindful of how you site the building, where you site the building, and of how you handle the stormwater. Trees – trees are really good. People like trees. It’s just simple things, like the materials that you choose.
It seems funny that we’re so focused on cutting cost and building to a certain amount per square foot that we’re building with crappy materials. Then the people who are constructing the buildings aren’t getting paid enough. The craftsmanship is gone. It gives you a sense of it not being a very good building.
The maintenance isn’t done on the building, and it just starts to deteriorate. Problems start to develop. Water leaks or air leaks start. All kinds of things happen that cause the building to be less efficient. Again, because we’re building with less efficiency in mind, the mindset is “why do I have to take the drywall to the other side of the deck? I’ll just take the drywall to above the drop ceiling and I’m done.” Well, now you’ve just decreased the efficiency of your building incredibly because you don’t have an effective air barrier throughout the building. The mechanical system now has to work harder to heat and cool that building.
It’s a threefold thing of mindfulness about the site, the materials, and the efficiency of the building. But you know we’re not thinking about that – we’re thinking about the bottom-line dollar.
Again, we’re not thinking of these buildings as being expressions of ourselves in terms of humans. They’re disconnected from us. It’s “I’m a spiritual being, but that’s just a building.” Think about your house. The house is the best place to think about the connection of a person to a building. Most people have very, very strong connections to their homes. That’s where you start to see that spiritual link.
Mindful Walker: Do you have a favorite example or two of great architecture that is both beautiful and reflects this kind of care of the Earth’s natural environment?
Sweeney: I can’t pull one or two things out. It’s more that it’s this overarching idea about buildings. Some people might disagree with me, but I think that (Louis) Kahn was one of the architects who was getting to the core of that spiritual connection. The Salk Institute in San Diego is beautiful.
I haven’t really been to Kahn’s buildings in India [and Bangladesh but I would cite] his buildings there, especially because of the way he used materials. He really expressed the brick and how the brick was used as a material. They are these incredibly durable buildings, and I think they are very adaptable buildings. You talk to people who have been there, they really love the buildings. There’s a feeling there, something about the place that’s just wonderful.
Carlo Scarpa is another architect. I can’t think of any specific building, but just the way that he thought about the experience people were going to have and the experience that the architecture was going to give you and vice versa.
Another one – I’m giving more architects that are hitting the experience – is Tadao Ando. He built a lot in concrete. There’s honesty in the materials. He used concrete and he just used concrete. It was “this is concrete, and I’m going to make it beautiful. And I can do what I want with it.”
There’s another, E. Fay Jones, who worked a lot in wood. One of his projects is this chapel, Thorncrown Chapel, built in the woods in Arkansas. It’s just absolutely magnificent. I’ve never seen it except in pictures, but it’s all of wood frame. He really understood the materials. There’s something to that – understanding of materials and this honesty of materials, and using them mindfully to create these beautiful spaces that impact us as humans.
Mindful Walker: You are a GreenFaith Fellow. Could you talk about what GreenFaith does and about your involvement as a GreenFaith Fellow?
Sweeney: GreenFaith works very hard to bring awareness of environmental concerns in relation to spiritual concerns from a Biblical perspective. Their whole thing is in being mindful. We were told in Genesis to be stewards of the Earth and we have responsibility over the Earth. God gave us dominion over the Earth, and people took dominion as being power. But dominion is really a word that carries a great responsibility with it.
GreenFaith does classes, programs, and curriculum for schools and for religious organizations. It’s all interfaith. They have this GreenFaith fellowship program through which they wanted to start to train people to be leaders in religious environmental leadership, to be able to go out and take this spiritual undercurrent into the world more, because they can’t do it all.
The crux of my fellowship was to continue to explore this spiritual link in architecture and try to bring the spiritual awareness into architecture. That can be really tough when you’re talking with people who say, “This is how much money we have. This is the construction budget. That’s it.” And you’re trying to get them to be aware of our building, that this is a comment on who we are.
Mindful Walker: What can the nonprofessional person who is mindful of the spiritual connection between our natural and our built environments do to support better stewardship of the environment?
Sweeney: In general you learn to be aware – first start with yourself and start to be aware. Start in your own home. What is it about your own home that you like about it or that you dislike about it? You can always learn things in what you dislike, too. What kind of connection do you feel with that land, that area, and that place? What is it about it? Try to become more mindful of it yourself first.
It goes back to everything about our lives. Our lives are very fast-paced, so having these big-box shopping centers makes everything very easy. But if there’s something about experiences with shopping in small towns that we like, are we missing something? Are we trying to be so fast-paced that we are going to start tripping over ourselves almost?
I’m not saying to radically change your habits but just to be mindful of things, and are there some things that you would like to do differently? If you are a spiritual person begin to understand the tenets in the Koran or in the Bible or in the Torah. If you are Buddhist, in these practices, in these religions, how do they talk about the environment? Are you called to be stewards in any way? Are you called to be caretakers? What can you do differently?
It’s becoming more mindful of that. Don’t just go out there and say, “I’m going to buy all compact fluorescent light bulbs, and I’m going to put in low-flow shower heads.” That’s great, but you’re just putting a Band-aid on everything. You have to be mindful first and understand what God is calling you to do. What are you being called to be? That goes back to you as a human.