Change of Scene

by David Krebs

Sometimes you just need to change your space. While the daily routines we create can be fulfilling and inspiring, they can also become monotonous without us even realizing it. One of the best ways to break the monotony is to get away to a nature retreat.

Going to a retreat is a type of vacation but with a very specific personal intent. Vacations are often about seeing new landscapes, museums, restaurants or participating in activities like skiing, etc. Sometimes vacations can be so active that you feel the need for a vacation after you return home. Retreats, on the other hand, are generally places that are directly connected to nature and are pared down to the basics of shelter with some minor amenities, such as a cabin or a cottage. The goal is to remove yourself from your daily routine, connect with nature and intentionally focus on your personal wellness.

Purpose of retreats
There are many different reasons to go on a retreat. It may be time for thought-provoking personal introspection, which Henry David Thoreau did when he spent over two years at Walden Pond, writing Walden. While not everyone can get away for that long, stepping away for an introspective week or weekend—writing, reading, praying, meditating, painting—at a woodland cabin or cottage can be life-changing.

Retreats may focus on spending time with a spouse or partner. Eliminating the stress and distractions of daily life can build or rekindle relationships, taking time to reset priorities, discuss dreams and aspirations and chart a path for the future. Or it can be a time to bring the family together. With any luck, you may not have a cell phone connection and the time can be spent playing board games and talking around the campfire, setting family traditions that last through generations.

These days, it’s easy to lose touch with people throughout life and having dinner every six months might not be enough. Retreats can be a great way to catch up with old friends or build new relationships. You know they are good friends when you can spend time together living in close quarters!

The most important part is to set intentional goals of what you want to focus on while you are away while at the same time remaining flexible.

Types of nature retreats
Cabins and cottages are two of the most common types of nature retreats. Cabins are generally small shelters in remote woods with minimal amenities and utilities. They can conjure a romantic vision of the sound of an old wood screen door smacking shut behind you as you go out to sit on the front porch swing. Cottages are typically small houses near the beach or lake with running water and electricity. These may be in closer proximity to neighbors.

Being around other people can be a great opportunity for personal growth. It can be inspiring to hear about other people’s journeys and engage in discussions with like-minded people or people with different views that may challenge yours.

An example of a great choice for engaging with other people could be a Chautauqua. Chautauquas were established in the late 19th century to early 20th century with the focus on personal growth and enlightenment, based on the four pillars of arts, education, entertainment and religion. One the most famous is at Lake Chautauqua in New York, with a nine-week summer schedule of music, speakers, art classes, theater, etc.

Location and selection
Choosing the right location is extremely important based on your goals. Do you resonate more with woods or water, long views or confined spaces? Are you at peace remotely in the woods with nobody else around for miles or would you rather be in a community of other people on similar journeys?

The distance to the retreat is also important. The act of leaving and driving can be beneficial as it creates a gap that separates what is happening in daily life and provides an opportunity to prepare for what is coming. At the same time, if you are purchasing a retreat, it is important to have a realistic idea of how often it will be used and that will factor into the distance.

It is also possible to find a retreat very close to home. My architectural firm worked on a project that was a retreat cottage only two miles from the owners’ home. At first, the concept sounded odd but eventually it made a lot of sense. It was on the water in a small neighborhood in a completely different context than their home. The architecture was modern compared to their traditional home. It was very easy to get to and use as a retreat for themselves and to entertain family and friends. Being so close, if a member of the family had an unmovable appointment, they didn’t have to reschedule the entire weekend, rather, simply leave and
come back in no time.

A retreat can also be set on your own property, for example, a detached pool house or screened porch can achieve similar results if used intentionally. Packing up what is needed for the day or evening and leaving the main house without returning can be built into a weekly routine.

Value of nature retreats
Biophilia is the study of our innate connection to nature as humans. It shows that just because we live in houses, drive cars and have access to technology does not mean we have outgrown our need to connect with nature. Being on retreat can connect us to the natural environment that we need, helping to reduce stress and allowing our bodies to heal.

Retreats can set up habits or patterns of thought that can be brought back to daily lives when returning home. As architects, we often hear homeowners request that they want to feel like they are on vacation when they are at home, which may focus on aesthetics, physical attributes of the space including light, textures, etc. The values brought back from a retreat are different and can be more powerful in that they may focus on how we intentionally spend time to grow individually, as a couple or as a family.

Sometimes rest is the most important thing the body needs. Often, we are living at a pace that is not healthy. Retreats can provide time to sleep as much as we need and when we are awake do nothing more than sit in an Adirondack chair looking at the woods and listening to the birds.

Rest is not just about sleep but holistically it is the body, mind and soul recharging. Being in nature is proven to be one of the most impactful ways to achieve this.

David Krebs is a registered architect and member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). His company, AoDK Architecture, is based in Cleveland, Ohio.

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