2024-07-01 5 min read


Reproofing leather shoes with wax, performed once leather is visibly dried out, to maintain waterproofness.

The built environment is a living network of relationships between humans and objects. Simply put, humans rely on objects, and objects rely on humans. Symbiotic relationships benefit both people and the environment, whereas faltering relationships cause both parties to suffer. 

I am in a human-object relationship with my walking shoes. I have worn these shoes close to daily for the past ten years. The shoes are Red Wing oxfords, bought on clearance from a mom-and-pop shop in Portland. A decade of walking has molded the tough leather soles to the shape of my feet. Over the course of our relationship, I have brushed dust and dirt from the crevices with brass bristles, smeared waxes and oils into the roughout leather grain, swapped out laces as they frayed, and replaced the soles as they wore out. I have even power washed the leather, discovering that it is possible to completely remove years of dirt and grime with the help of thousands of pounds per square inch of water pressure. 

I do not fuss over these shoes, as they are not built to be precious – but I have put in time, attention, and care to keep them happy. In this process, I have formed a relationship with these shoes, and understand their needs. In return for my care, I receive a trustworthy interface between my feet and the ground. At many points in our relationship I could have viewed the cost of repair as exorbitant and landfilled them. Or decided that they no longer were in fashion, and tossed them as old news. But, instead, I have decided to keep them going, grateful for the relationship.

I feel immense joy when I see people grant love, care, and attention to the physical world around them. Both parties benefit from the process. In the intersection between human psyche and built environment, how might we strive to live in reciprocity? And, to what end might improving these relationships help us build a more resilient, agentic, and grounded life?

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  • Brian Potter’s article on building a house to last a thousand years reasons that a building must not only be durable and serviceable, but also remain culturally relevant. In other words, people must care enough about a building to steward it through time. Examples he suggests are Fallingwater and Notre-Dame, both of which have garnered sufficient cultural capital to survive the tests of time. No matter how robust a building might be, disuse and disrepair threaten it more than any physical catastrophe.
  • During my short stint as a woodworking teacher, I taught my partner how to make an end grain cutting board from rock maple and black walnut. We spent three days in the shop making jigs, cutting, gluing, planing, and sanding, with the help of this online end grain cutting board design tool. We now use the cutting board every day. I absolutely relish the chance to apply mineral oil into the dried-out grain, watching it take on color and depth and knowing that in another six months, I’ll get to do it again. There is a deep existential comfort that comes with knowing how an object comes together, noticing how it decays, and understanding how to care for it to extend its lifespan.

    Related: A video of a vertically integrated end-grain cutting board operation in Nova Scotia, which goes from tree to board under one roof.


  • The human body is a system that can repair itself: our bones heal, our muscles mend, and our skin sheds. Most human-built systems are not inherently self-healing, though. They inevitably decay, degrade, rust, and rot. However, by incorporating the time, attention, and care of people into these systems, they can heal just like the body, lasting longer, performing better, and most importantly, remaining in relationship with the human psyche.

    Of course, even the most harmonious systems tend to break down over time. Few human-made systems last for more than a few centuries, and the introduction of moving parts and energy storage tend to make for fast failure. The Clock of the Long Now, for instance, is made to tell time for 10,000 years – a timespan over which it will need to be wound thousands of times. “It is humans that keep The Clock’s bells wound up, and humans who ask it the time,” the Long Now Foundation’s webpage says. “The Clock needs us.” To encourage future humans to rewind the clock, the winding action itself activates celebratory chimes, indicating that the gargantuan clock will continue ticking for the next few years. This video shows the team lowering clock assemblies into an impossibly deep mountain shaft.
  • At my local bakery in San Francisco, one is able to barter with the bakers for sourdough starter. My friends and I handed the baker a poem, and he handed us a dixie cup of starter. Sourdough starter is, in itself, a living system that needs to be fed, purged, warmed, and cooled in a perpetual cycle of attention. In reciprocity for your care and attention, you receive a continual supply of delicious sourdough yeast.
  • Beyond working with wild yeast in bakeries, our relationships with fungi bloom beyond food. Employing mycelium as a binder, artist and researcher Phillip Ross converts agricultural waste into building bricks, creating resilient, self-healing structures in a practice he coins as ‘mycotecture.’ Mycelium can also be leveraged in novel ways, including repairing notoriously challenging materials like concrete. In this study, researchers explore the potential of self-repairing concrete, laced with mycelium spores, that grow and heal cracks when exposed to water or air. 
  • To be human is more than flesh and bone: Our psyche, lived experience, and awareness extend into the tools we master, the buildings we inhabit, and the machines we work with. This study on tool embodiment describes how “tool use affects the plasticity of the body schema… people will perceive the tool as a part of their body, and thus feel like they have ‘longer limbs’ after using tools.” Like material proprioception, physical objects literally become extensions of ourselves.


I recently learned about the kangina, which is a traditional Afghan sealed clay vessel that keeps grapes fresh for up to six months. Here is a video of someone cracking a kangina open, revealing grapes that look remarkably fresh. Kanginas are specifically used with thick-skinned grape varietals, and the combination of humidity and gas permeability of the clay is suited to prevent fungal growth.

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks to TW Lim for the encouragement along the way, Karen Lin for taking pictures, and Nicole Mitchell for your loving support in editing. 


p.s. - I’m starting to search for my next design engineering role in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you have your paws in any interesting pies, I’d love to learn more!
p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.

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