Welcome home, Mother Nature

Tuning in to the environment is the latest architectural and interior- design trend.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Every day the Cedarquist family lives out on a limb. Several limbs, actually. In the woods of Vermont, their two-story house is suspended in the trees.

During winter winds, the home creaks and sways. When buds burst in spring, branches inside the house grow green too, because the black-cherry and maple trees that hold up the house also grow through it.

"We're very outdoor people, and wanted to raise the kids close

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Not many families have befriended nature as closely as the Cedarquists have, but others, too, are finding ways to blur the boundary between inside and outside.

Both architecture and interior design are developing more in tune with the natural environment. People are becoming less rigid about what they consider indoor vs. outdoor furniture and materials, and gardening is becoming a domestic art.

"People are becoming more attuned to bringing the outdoors in and the indoors out, so there's more of a flow," says Mara Seibert, co-owner of Seibert & Rice, a New Jersey company that imports fine terra-cotta pots that customers are cozying up to inside their homes as well as out.

As soon as John Danzer, founder of outdoor furniture company Munder-Skiles in New York, started making wooden garden furniture based on updated historical designs, people started putting the pieces indoors. "It gives you a sense of calm," Mr. Danzer says. "I think everyone has memories of running around outside in summer, and this reminds them of that, so they bring it inside."

Plants and color schemes are being used to blend a den or a bedroom out into a garden or onto a deck. "I'm getting more requests for things like outdoor showers, transition rooms such as a covered patio with removable canvas walls, and private rooms where people can do their living outdoors," says Jacqueline Leeba, an interior designer in La Jolla, Calif. Floor coverings made of rough woven fibers like coconut roll right from inside to out. "People feel comfortable enough to kick off their shoes and go in or out," Ms. Leeba says.

Even before eco-architecture was in vogue, architects Frank Lloyd Wright and the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (see story below) tried to harmonize their designs with the environment. A striking example is the house Falling Water, built by Wright in 1936 over a waterfall in Pennsylvania. "Frank Lloyd Wright used a lot of wood and was close to nature," Leeba says. "He would go walk in the field where he was going to build and would pick up dirt and plants and flowers from the property and incorporate those colors and textures into his designs."

Eli Goldstein and his wife, Risa Perlmutter, both of whom are architects, designed their house to drape between existing trees on a steep hillside in New Jersey. Glass walls on one side of the house give the illusion of teetering in the treetops while letting in plenty of light for houseplants.

"At different times of the year, we feel like we live in a completely different house," Mr. Goldstein says, since the interior is affected by the change of seasons. "It's an inspirational setting; it doesn't let us forget about the importance of nature and the environment to our work."

For other residences he has designed, Goldstein has constructed windows to frame the view of a tree or a distant mountain and has integrated planters into the interior, such as along staircases.

Keith and Nancy Cedarquist - coincidentally their name means "limb of tree" in Swedish - were inspired to build their house off the ground after reading "Treehouses," a how-to book by Peter Nelson. Mr. Nelson is finding increasing demand for the $30,000 to $70,000 tree retreats that he designs as home offices, guest rooms, or weekend homes.

Eleven trees support the Cedarquists' 900-square-foot abode, which is heated by a wood stove, has a self-contained plumbing system, and uses electricity from solar panels.

Having trees as roommates does cause occasional problems. "The first year, they leafed out so bad I couldn't get into the cabinets for the dishes," Mrs. Cedarquist says. Occasionally the rain does sneak in down a tree trunk, and " 'high wind warning' on the radio always catches my attention," her husband adds.

Their four children, ages 1 to 8, love boasting that they live in a treehouse and are never bothered by it moving in the wind. Then again, "We never sing that lullaby 'Rockabye baby, in the treetop...' " Mr. Cedarquist says. "That wouldn't be a good idea."

Although at first the couple wasn't sure how the trees would react to being partially indoors, now Mr. Cedarquist says, "They're like big houseplants."

Many would envy such sturdy indoor specimens. Americans are no strangers to houseplants, but what is taking root are movements like green design and feng shui. The former uses environmentally friendly materials and integrates the natural world into both interior and exterior designs. Feng shui also advocates inviting nature indoors. "It doesn't have to be huge," Ms. Leeba says. "It can be any little touch of bringing nature in, like a bowl of water with a flower floating in it."

Scott Appell, a horticulturalist in New York City, tried to garden on his apartment's fire escape in downtown Manhattan before the fire department caught up to him and made him clear the plants away. Now Mr. Appell devotes one end of his loft apartment and an hour and a half of every morning to an extensive indoor garden. A rubber tree reaches for the ceiling, fig branches fixate on a window, and containers of philodendrons congregate around a waterfall trickling into a goldfish pond.

"When people come over it flips them out how great it is," Appell says. "They love being in the space."

Since the loft building was built for machinery and has no weight restrictions, he is even considering putting soil right on the floor and starting a true indoor crop. "I have no outdoor space, and I need to garden," he says. "It's integral to me being happy."

Others, like Mr. Appell, who are soothed by flowing water but don't have ready access to a blade of grass, let alone a stream or falls, are turning to indoor fountains - from 8-inch desktop models to floor-height waterfalls - to pinch-hit for Mother Nature.

"We've had customers send us pictures and say, 'I spent two weeks on vacation by this waterfall. I want something that sounds and looks like this for my sunroom,' " says Ramsey Bowen, owner of Down to Earth in Dallas, which sells more than 150 models of fountains.

Customers are very particular about the sound that their fountains make, according to Mr. Bowen, and the range of requests mirrors nature, whether that means a babbling brook or a cascading falls. To make fountains as lifelike as possible, he explains, "some of the artists [who design the fountains] go out and listen to creeks and other water in their area and try to mimic those sounds."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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