Palm's skins

by Peter Malaise

Hubert Palm was a German physician who around 1960 was confronted in his practice in southern Germany with patients who apparently fell ill from their home or, as it was sometimes formulated, lived in a “sick home”. He began to study the phenomenon and discovered a number of patterns that formed the basis for what would later become building biology: the discipline of healthy building and living.

You can discuss whether a house can be sick in itself. I prefer not to use the terms sick and healthy for a building; it is not a living thing. You should then also know exactly what a healthy home should be, you can’t have the one without the other. A house can be conceived in such a way that it has a pathogenic effect on who lives in it, anyway, that is not due to that house, but to the person who designed and built it.

Dr. Palm in his book ‘The Healthy House’, ‘Das gesunde Haus’, Ordo Verlag 1972 (to my knowledge no English translation available), described how you can, with the human organism as a starting point, conceive everything that surrounds people in daily life in such a way that it does not have a pathogenic effect. He distinguishes a number of envelopes wrapping man, starting with his own body skin. You could also speak of a cover, a wrap or a cloak; in his original German text he uses the word “Haut”, skin. To be clear: Palm talks primarily about the material, physical stature of man and that is how we should understand those “skins”.

Our body skin forms the “first skin”, the primary and most essential boundary of our shape, which we can perceive with our senses. The “second skin” is our clothing. The “third skin” is our home and its interior. The “fourth skin” is the nearby area of our home.

If we try to perceive uninhibitedly, there are still parts of our being in front of the first, as well as behind the fourth skin that are no longer material and also not perceptible to the senses. Our thoughts, feelings and will impulses take place inside of our own body skin. They express themselves in the material, sensible perception, but they are not a material part of it. Already at the “fourth skin” we have to establish that it is no longer a real, bounding skin, that we enter an open space when we look at the apparent seclusion of our garden, our street. Beyond that we have our relationships with neighbours and family, our bonding with the social fabric; these are no longer about material skin or covering. If we take all of the former together, we get an overall picture, which is called a gestalt in psychology.

By means of these first four “skins” we can also characterise our relationship with the material world and influence it for the good or the bad. As human beings we are independent, thinking beings, not minerals, plants or animals; nevertheless we carry the natural reigns within us, even in the form of materials. Because of this intimate connection with them, they are pre-eminently the resources from which we can source our raw materials to convert them into consumer goods. If we want to stay healthy – in the sense of “balanced” – then our “skins” must be as well balanced as possible.

You can have a thought and express it or write it down, and you can have a feeling and express it or write it down, but you cannot show it to anyone. You cannot put a will impulse on the table either. All three of them take place inside of our first skin, our body skin – although we can mostly indicate where they are reflected in us: when we think we will often grab our heads, when we have feelings, our hearts can beat faster and when we act our muscles can contract themselves in the act. These are expressions of what is going on inside of us, but they are not the thoughts, feelings and will impulses themselves. How can we ensure that those too, remain healthy and balanced? We can strive for a form of inner hygiene: clarity in our thinking, warmth in our feelings and control in our drive for action. We can strive to experience our thoughts before putting them into action. We have no other options for influencing, but if our body skin, our clothing, our home and its immediate environment are in a certain balance with each other, that provides us with support for inner hygiene.Palm calls our own body skin the “first skin”. It envelopes our individual body shape with its systems of skeleton, muscles and tendons, blood circulation and metabolism, but at the same time it is, with its surface of about 1.8 m2, our main respiratory organ next to the lungs. We absorb light through our skin and we excrete sweat, sebum and salts. These metabolic processes are so important that you can make a person sick, even make them die by blocking these processes on the skin level. An illustration of the latter are the aluminium salts that are used in many deodorants and that block the action of the sweat glands; these salts are suspected of causing certain breast cancers. All kinds of cosmetics are applied to the outside of our own skin, sometimes also medicines for external use. The recently used nano-raw materials, artificially produced particles that can be a million times smaller than micro particles, can penetrate our skin barrier. Apparently we are not so strictly separated from our environment as we think …

For Palm, the “second skin” is formed by our clothing, including headwear and footwear. It is the type of “skin” that makes the most intimate contact with our body skin and interacts strongly with it, each layer in its own way. People have subtly expressed this in sayings such as “the shirt is closer than the jacket”. Clothing helps us regulate our body temperature, it protects us against rain and wind but also against too much sunshine, it absorbs our body fluids and makes us feel safe and comfortable among others as the attention is diverted from our nakedness, and details of our body shape are emphasized or concealed. Some people prefer close-fitting clothing, others prefer wide-ranging clothes. This intimate contact can also have a negative effect when clothing does not allow us to breathe sufficiently, causes excessive sweating, is unable to absorb bodily fluids in a sufficient way, irritates due to friction or when it hangs like a bag from our shoulders. Chemicals used in production or washing can also deposit on our body skin or even penetrate the skin barrier.

For Palm, the “third skin” is the home in which we live and its entire interior, including upholstery and furniture. Unlike clothing, which closely follows our body shape, the home and furniture are more distant. Walls and ceilings limit rooms, they must have doors in our body measurements to allow us to move from room to room. We need windows to let in light and air. Bolts and locks in the right place and height allow us to close the house securely. Chairs and tables, seats and beds take our body sizes and shapes into account, otherwise we could not sit or lie properly. But generally speaking, the relationship with our body shapes and functions in the “third skin” is much less explicit. We also move freely in the home and between furniture, in a way we could never do in our clothing. In spite of this, there are people who suffer from claustrophobia or a fear of being enclosed when they experience a space, that is considered normal by most people, as too small. Interior and furniture are further away from us, without being less necessary. There is a clear interaction between our body, our clothing, the furniture and the interior of our home.

Then there is the “fourth skin”, the immediate vicinity of our home: the garden, the street, the neighbourhood. That fourth skin is hardly a boundary, is open to all sides, we can walk in and out freely. In spite of this, most people who experience the “fourth skin” will feel familiar with it and also call it “at home”. We can broaden that ‘skin’ in our mind to a municipality or district, or even more, if we want so: another city, another country. That here too there is strong interaction can be seen in phenomena such as agoraphobia or fear for emptiness, which attacks some people when they enter an open space whose relative emptiness is threatening to them. There are also people who are so bound and devoted to the local “fourth skin” that it is difficult for them to leave it. A well-known story from the media is that of a middle-aged lady who had never left the 16th arrondissement of Paris, France in her entire life.

Beyond the “fourth skin” it becomes difficult to imagine something that looks like a “skin”; and yet it is there. The social fabric in which we participate – if only to fight it – means that we are once again enveloped in a certain way. We have relationships with other people, with institutions and organisations, with groups of people from all walks of life. We go our life’s journey with these fellow human beings, for the good or the bad, in varying settings, and we develop ourselves together with them – partly also thanks to them. With this “skin” there is occasionally a physical exchange or commitment, but in essence this is an immaterial skin. Where we still have physical limitations and boundaries at the fourth skin (street, neighbourhood, district), this is no longer the case beyond that fourth skin. A working group or circle of friends in which we participate can have members from very different districts, or even from other cities and countries.

It is essential to nurture the idea that man is not just a physical appearance but that inside of that physical form there is a world of thoughts, feelings and will impulses that we cannot perceive with our senses; and that on the opposite side of the spectrum we know of a world of connections, relationships, and dependencies that is also not within the reach of our senses. In both cases we can think about these things, try to experience them. Perhaps we can form an image of how spacious a human being is and how he interacts, exchanges with the substances and living things in his environment in a much more profound way.

That is also the reason why it is not without importance with which materials and with what forms we surround ourselves. Before the first industrial revolution and for a long time thereafter, clothing, utensils and houses were mainly made of materials from living nature. The interaction between humans and the vegetable, animal and a limited number of mineral resources was like a natural, rhythmic inhalation and exhalation. We carry these substances in our organism, we have a physical relationship with them. This has been systematically lost with the advancing social and technical developments. We had to lose this relationship, otherwise we would never have had the opportunity to re-enter it out of our free will. Now that we are bumping into the boundaries of what is ethically viable, achievable and healthy with artificially manufactured substances as we know them today, and those from dead substances such as petroleum and coal, more and more people experience the lack of such a relationship with living nature as a loss. They are often unknowingly looking for a new, satisfying and meaningful way to deal with nature, with the plant and animal life. Even if they cannot realise that in their personal lives, they strive towards it for their children and grandchildren.

Such an attitude goes beyond the romantic “natural is good, synthetic is bad” stance. If we take into account the changes in recent decades – population growth and climate change at the forefront – we will have to recognise that we will not survive without plastics (in the sense of man-made materials): there is simply not enough agricultural land to generate vegetable and animal resources for everything. A new generation of plastics will have to emerge that do not deplete sources when they are created, that are produced with green chemistry, that do what is expected of them and that do not cause enormous pollution after their use. That do not cost an arm and a leg and are available to everyone.

This whole of elements seems to me to be intimately connected with the task of man on this planet. Palm has given an important impetus to this with his approach to “skins” that can inspire us and make us think for years to come. Moreover, this approach is suitable to serve as an inspiration for the design and production of all kinds of consumer goods. Consumer goods are objects that can fulfil a certain function for a longer period of time, such as houses, furniture or cooking tools – if they are of a good quality. With a little care, such products can last for a generation, or even longer. Consumables, on the other hand, are products that by definition are transformed during use in such a way that they cannot be reused, such as detergents, cosmetics or paint. Once they have fulfilled their function, you cannot return them to their original state for reuse. With consumer goods, recycling is almost always possible, with consumables recycling is mostly not possible.

That does not mean that consumables are necessarily a less good choice. Japanese culture used for many centuries, prior to the industrial revolution, a high percentage of consumables, mostly made of bamboo and paper. They were composted or burned without problems after one or more uses. When the plastic made its appearance there, it caused serious problems, because the users dealt with the plastic in the same way as they had done with bamboo and paper. There was no relationship and no bond with the goods and the plastic as it had been with bamboo and paper. We can prevent such situations by taking into account what I have mentioned above on the gestalt, the physiological, psychological and physical-technical interactions between the skins themselves and with the user and his environment.

We can consider the skins of Palm as a touchstone when we conceive or manufacture products – whatever their nature may be. If we succeed in working towards an associative economy – an economy in which all parties involved in the flow of goods are equally participating – then the skins of Palm are a benchmark that can be acceptable to everyone. They are not abstract, theoretical preconceptions, but a practical pattern, read from the human being, that can continue to develop towards the future.