Let All Rise Up and Build: Building for Beauty, Durability — and Love

COMMENTARY: The time has come. Our homes and families deserve and need intentional living.

‘Old Cottages at Pinner,’ 1885-1895 by Helen Allingham
‘Old Cottages at Pinner,’ 1885-1895 by Helen Allingham (photo: Birmingham Museums Trust)

Homes are a part of the physical world that we come into constant contact with. As such, they have a unique power to teach us about our identity as humans: our origins, tasks and ultimate end. Ugly and utilitarian houses join in the cacophony of modernity that hinders virtue and loveliness from taking root in the heart. Although environment is not the only factor, the harmonious atmosphere of a house to nurture a family has a powerful potential to form us for good. Saintly families, like those of Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin or Blessed Karl and Venerable Zita Habsburg, prove that familial sanctity can thrive in a multitude of conditions — in poverty, middle-class comfort or royal palaces. 

Joseph Shaw has written of this environment:

“An environment in which parents and children can truly feel at home is not built exclusively on prayer and the sacraments. The family needs culture. It needs a tradition of cooking, of clothing, of architecture, of home decoration; it needs Christmas carols and fairy stories. … Catholic culture is a natural culture as well as a supernatural one, and it is the family’s task to maintain it, develop it, and pass it on.”

Drab or garish synthetic materials do little to enshrine the cosmic significance of the children nursed or dandled by an electric stove. On the other hand, a timber-frame structure centered around a great hearth, augmented by brick or stone, capable of enduring hundreds of years of elemental weathering, pays tribute by the natural permanence of its materials to the indissoluble bonds of marriage that can be lived, generation after generation, within its walls. The children who bless such unions will grow up beneath rafters handwrought by men who knew the importance of an immortal soul, who desired that their dignity be respected by the very walls that saw their birth.

But even a simple, dignified home can profoundly affect what it means to be a parent or child because it changes the meaning of home. Domestic traditions cannot but have long-term effects on the formation of senses and imagination, rooting our concepts in natural materials. What milk, bread, cloth, fireplace, window or doorway taste, feel, smell or look like have lifelong repercussions in the memory. These natural goods should complement the supernatural goods of a rich spiritual life.

If higher-quality and sustainable building techniques are not much discussed these days, perhaps they should be. Many contemporary houses under construction are not being made to last more than a lifetime, let alone being built beautifully. Neither cheap materials nor ugliness is sustainable: Could both issues be addressed in domestic buildings? 

One alternative technique that has been gaining ground recently is “timber framing.” Already practiced in ancient Rome, it involves using large timbers to create a load-bearing structure, with carved beam joints that fit together with no nails. Used prolifically throughout the Middle Ages in many structures, timber framing fell out of use as modern building techniques were developed. Ironically, ecologically-minded hippies looking to get off the grid 60 years ago gave impetus to a revival of this age-old European craft.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to work with a couple of friends at their timber-framing business in Michigan. Highland Timber Framing is a small, family-owned company. I discovered that, through their work, they hope to play their own small part in restoring beauty to architecture. I collaborated with Highland in creating several architectural renderings and am very grateful for the knowledge I had to acquire in order to accurately render the proposed structures.

Tedd Benson, a pioneer of timber framing in modern America, commented on the transformative quality of such craftsmanship: “Computers and assembly lines can create with abundance, but only men and women with their hands and tools and love can create with feeling. We fail in so many ways if we refuse to allow the workmen attributes like romance and vision and wisdom. In their own vernacular, through their chosen element, sensitive people might well become poets, prophets or philosophers.”

Highland’s philosophy is one of “down-to-earth building for high ideals.” They value every aspect of their work, including the process that creates it: “We put wood, sweat and expertise into our projects. We value quality and authenticity in the way we build.” What is the result? Lasting structures full of comeliness and strength, built by men pursuing virtues in honest labor.

Beautifying homes is close to the heart of their mission. Family is the foundation of society and the place where such a restoration starts. Since transcendence-oriented leisure ought to be valued over work (as Josef Pieper discusses), a desire naturally follows to create houses where such leisure can blossom. To elevate and enrich homes through the creation of natural timber spaces for recreation, study and worship is a worthy craft.

The magic of timber framing is hard to convey until you have stood beneath the rough-hewn beams of a barn or porch and felt the honey-colored wood with your hand. For many people, the value brought to a home by its elegance and permanence justifies the investment. It is important for families to recognize that when they seek beautiful housing for themselves, they are seeking spiritual nourishment and not just physical protection from the elements. Because virtue and loveliness should be at the heart of a family’s life together, we should seek to create spaces where the very walls imbue the children with a sense of the reality and elegance of God’s creation.

The witness of a Catholic family or community is empowered when such a group invests in living in handsome simplicity. Such magnanimous buildings offer hope to others who long for culture’s restoration, providing wonderful settings for Christian worship and hospitality. Such commitment to the way daily life unfolds can become, in the words of Hilaire Belloc, “part of a large business which may lead to Beatitude.” 

Once upon a time, “hearthscapes” were upheld for protecting the “heartscapes” of their inhabitants. This is not to say that environment and morality are exactly parallel: Corruption and flawed moral compasses have inhabited castles, cathedrals and baroque palaces as comfortably as the modern high-rise or resort. The quaint cottage, as much as the modern flat, has been the stage for both heroic virtue and depravity. Many holy and flourishing families blossom in less-than-ideal circumstances. Nonetheless, a well-ordered society tends to harmony as much as a depraved one to ugliness: Architectural fruits are one of the fruits by which cultures are known, and if not always an accurate measure individually, taken as a whole indicative of the spiritual health of a time.

The time has come. Our homes and families deserve and need something different — an intentional living that encompasses both liturgical living, domestic aesthetics and schooling. Now is the time, because it is always time for life. Now is the time, because it is always time for beauty in our homes. As the stirring poem by Jeremy Holmes, which my father set to music a few years ago (do listen to all three verses!), puts it:

In the time of strangled darkness,

When the world is left unmanned,

With the millions in the city

And a blight upon the land,

Not a soul can find Polaris

Nor indeed the starry sky,

And the ruins so long forgotten 

Are the homes of time gone by.

But a voice calls in the mountains

And a wind blows off the hills,

“The time has come of promise 

And prophecy fulfilled:

Rise up, take sword and shovel,

Let all rise up and build!”


Yes, we can, must and will “dare to dream of glory” despite “the anger and advances of the people of the land”: Let all rise up and build!