hygienic darkroom retreat

profound rest for the self‑healing psyche

by andrew durham

7 - design

Nature works. Occasionally, disaster strikes and chaos ensues. We must restore order. We need a plan. So we design.


Hygiene uses only normal conditions. A darkroom is merely what all shelter should be: easily darkened. With the advent of street lamps and large unshuttered windows, darkening bedrooms has become critical to survival. Everyone’s bedroom should be a darkroom, at least for nightly sleep. It is normal, just rare…for now.

How is total darkness normal for sleep and healing? The original human habitat is tropical forest, whose dense canopy makes the forest floor pitch black at night. While we can sleep in light if necessary, it compromises the quality of sleep. No biological adaptation to it has occurred, only vital accommodation (development of tolerance) at the expense of overall function.

We also have darkness at any time by covering eyes with hands. When traumatized, we do this reflexively along with seeking safety, shelter, and solitude. Construction is an intensified form of the sheltering instinct. It is activated by our still extreme internal condition.

The civilized obsession with building expresses the impulse to self-healing on a social scale. Knowing this, we can voluntarize the activity. We can direct it explicitly toward its implicit goal: to provide the conditions of profound rest. We can define and meet its specifications.


Start in your own bedroom. You already know you can sleep there, what problems need mitigation, where things are and how they work. You already paid for it. You need access to darkness every night anyway. It makes sense to begin darkening it.

If it is truly not worth darkening or unsuitable for short retreats, it is unsuitable for living. I strongly suggest you make arrangements to move.

If, for whatever reason, you wish to darken a room elsewhere, then sleep there three nights beforehand. See if anything about it might disturb you which you cannot practically change: noise, odors or poor ventilation, atmosphere. Mind your senses, feelings, and state of mind. Will you be comfortable there? Do you actually sleep? Will darkening and ventilating it be a reasonable effort? If so, proceed. If not, conserve your initiative and keep looking.


There are private and public darkrooms.

A private darkroom is built to basic specifications in your bedroom. It is for nightly use and short retreats up to 4 days. Basic specifications are: security, reasonable quietness, perfect darkness, ample ventilation, and comfort, plus any others in the list below that you can manage. See basic comments for clarification. For budget building tips, see format and the make chapters, make, air, darkness, and water, or write me after reading them.

A public dedicated darkroom is built to full specifications below in a small house in a quiet location. It is for all kinds of people for retreats of any length, short (up to 8 days), medium (up to two months), and long (up to a year). It requires all the specifications below. If it is your first darkroom, start with a fully functional house. This means it has automated heating, running hot water, mechanical ventilation, and electricity. Later, when you know more, you can build something new.


Most of my retreats succeeded or failed because of how well the darkroom itself worked. Do not tolerate stale air, frequent or extended noise, light leaks, dangers, discomforts, poor food, etc. Poor conditions cause stress. If stress becomes distress, it ruins a retreat. So handle problems ahead of time rather than thinking you can endure them. Listen to your body and soul.

You should be able to turn off the light and let go of external concerns as much as materially possible. The stress of healing is enough to bear. A retreat is not an imposition. You naturally want to do it because you are rationally convinced it is good. It is not for disciplines or practices, but rest and recuperation. It is not effort, but relief; not penance or strife, but sanctuary from the punishment and strife of our lifeway.

A successful retreat depends on several factors including facility, attitude, preparation, protocol, and support. The facility is usually the biggest piece of the puzzle. Good design builds many conditions of success into the room, making retreats practically foolproof. The better the darkroom, the more effective your retreat will be. There is no penalty for doing things correctly.

But probably you cannot do everything correctly the first time. Certainly, you will do your best. You can improve upon it later. If we could already do everything correctly, we would have no need of darkrooms. Just be honest with yourself about whether your best is good enough for now. This is a real chance to decrease suffering. Don’t cut corners if you can help it. This principle applies to everything in the list below.

A darkroom functions perfectly. It has a minimalist aesthetic for ease and safety in use. It is non-toxic. It is comfortable. Myself, I prefer economy in construction and operation. But the world likely needs 5-star darkrooms as well. If that is your inclination, go for it.

I welcome everyone’s improvements to these specifications judged by the objective standards of reason, good (life-supporting) design, and hygiene.


  • exterior
    • secure
      • safe location
      • keys only with retreatant and supporter
      • supporter on call 24/7 with cellphone, intercom, or bell
    • quiet
      • on a low-traffic street
      • away from running machines, particularly those producing a low-frequency hum and vibration. Specialized detection equipment and a lawsuit may be required to stop it. Standard silencing techniques cannot.
      • sound-insulated to a normal degree
      • silent machines inside (free of vibration and harmonics)
      • short, occasional noise is ok
      • basic: quiet enough for your comfort without earplugs
    • solitudinous
      • separate, unoccupied building for dedicated darkrooms (see noise section below)
      • small: 0-4 bedrooms, 12-70m2
      • basic:
        • 6m2 minimum
        • be alone in the apartment or house during retreat
    • electromagnetically neutral
      • natural materials: earth, wood, stone; no metal structure
      • grounded wiring
      • single outlet where power enters room or building, opposite bed
      • earthing bedsheet
      • basic: unplug and turn off as much electricity in and around the room as possible at the breaker, switch, and appliance. For example, if a heater is needed, turn off power to the darkroom and run an extension cord from another room. This gets power out of the walls and brings it into the room at only one point, away from the bed.
  • interior
    • safe
      • no unpadded or uncovered protrusions, sharp corners, or edges
      • no low ceilings or doorways
      • for long retreats: small and round (see roundness section below):
        • 3-6m inside diameter, 8-28m2
        • minimum wall height: 195cm
        • ceiling peak: 240+cm
    • dark
      • perfectly dark: not a haze, glimmer, or pinprick of light anywhere
      • easily darkened windows
      • lightlock
        • lightproof double doors
        • enough space between them for a person and food delveries
        • for communication, a lightproof vent in inner door, small and closable
      • lightproof bag for cellphone. It can have a red window made of the translucent plastic used in stage lighting (“gels”)
      • candles and lighter for before the retreat and transition days
      • basic: perfectly dark bedroom, bathroom, and blindfold and mostly dark hallways and kitchen
    • well-ventilated
      • fresh
        • it is unpolluted, possibly filtered/purified
        • no bad smells or toxic fumes inside the building from mold or modern building materials
      • sufficient
        • fan maintains continuous airflow (passive systems require excessive engineering; intermittent ventilation is insufficient and causes mold)
        • manually adjustable airflow, possibly with smart controls
      • silent: fan is dampened and silenced
      • basic: somehow, get plenty of fresh air into the room without cold drafts or too much noise; see air > warmth
    • warm
      • automatic heating from gas, oil, electricity, pellets, wood, etc
        • thermostat inside room
        • any fueling occurs outside room
        • non-electric if possible, otherwise, low-intensity, centralized, EM-shielded electric heat
      • if possible
        • Heat Recovery Ventilator, either with fiwihex core (Fresh-R) or Mitsubishi Lossnay core (Renewaire) (or other high-tech paper core). Fans require silencers and/or acoustic ducting.
        • building is super-insulated and sealed to Passive House standards to eliminate heating
      • basic: somehow, be warm in and out of bed
    • comfortable
      • bed
        • size: double or long single
        • mattress: layers of new foam padding, flame-retardant free, of varying firmness for adjustable softness, aired out regularly
        • polyester/non-toxic mattress cover, long comforter, and pillow
        • 100% natural fiber bottom sheet and duvet
        • especially with a single bed, a mechanism to prevent loss of covers during sleep. A cord or elastic tied over them to the bed frame at the knee area works.
      • sofa
      • padded chair
      • hammock
      • inversion swing
      • rugs
      • hard, warm floor
      • dining table and chair
      • basic: at least a bed, rug, padded chair, and table
    • bathroom
      • regular bathroom
      • or portable fixtures in water chapter:
        • composting toilet
        • shower
        • sink
        • greywater drainage
      • basic: For 8-day retreats and longer, a darkened bathroom is necessary. En suite is best. Walking to it outside the darkroom is fine with a blindfold, dark clothes, and extra curtains on windows. Bathing is as important for emotional and intellectual reasons as physical ones. But for a 4-day retreat, a bathroom is not critical. Minimum requirements in primitive conditions are: bottled water (for both washing and drinking), a washcloth or sponge for a sponge bath, a towel, and a composting bucket toilet.
    • cold food storage
      • silent (unmotorized or isolated)
      • unmotorized uses cold from the ground, block ice, ventilation, or electronic circuit
      • private: cooler with block ice or blindfold to get to refrigerator in kitchen
    • shelf for personal storage
    • space for simple exercise


Silence is critical to retreating. I was in denial about this for years. It is even more difficult than ventilation. An unacceptable noise level is more common than air pollution and less controllable.

Regarding shared buildings: others inevitably make noise. Even if not, you will know someone is there, able to hear you. Like me, you may need to scream and cry in darkness. It’s nobody’s business. The process is strictly for oneself. A darkroom minimizes the influence of others and consideration needed for and from them. This gives the autonomic self the maximum support to perform its awesome task. Contact with people during a retreat should be brief and intentional, not incidental.

A clear exception is if you are a parent of a child. The child can be with you in darkness as long as you both like. I have never facilitated such a retreat, but I definitely would. Nothing is more important to sanity, happiness, and avoidance of retraumatization of new generations than filial attachment. If you find your capacity for attachment wanting, you will likely begin to recover it.

The weirdest thing that happened to me with regards to noise from other people was in an apartment building in December 2011. I kept waking up exhausted from hundreds of short, meaningless dreams. After days of this, I realized in a fury that I was dreaming the mind chatter of others in the building. I stopped the retreat. I’m rarely “psychic”; this never happened to me before. But I am a canary in a coalmine. When something goes wrong, I notice.

Yet two years later, in December, 2013, I successfully retreated in another apartment building. I believe this was due to three factors: The building was fairly quiet. I was less fragile than before. And my sympathetic, wise, older host had a strong, benevolent presence and stayed in the apartment like a guardian while I retreated. I was very lucky.

As always, I had the darkroom to myself. I had tested my comfort in the apartment beforehand, finding I could sleep and dream easily enough. During my retreat, I could feel others’ presence in the building, but their thoughts did not invade my dreams like before. I got the deep rest I needed. I would not have done a long retreat there, but the short one I did nearly saved my life. It bought me two more months of internal stability to work on this book. And it revealed a widely available setting for short retreats.

The worst noise comes from the relentless grinding of machines: stereos, traffic, ventilation and refrigeration equipment on buildings, and construction. It seems fine at first but soon becomes intolerable, like a drill to the skull. Fortunately, a silencer is amazingly effective at neutralizing external noise.

Then, the larger the building and the more electrical wiring and steel framing and reinforcement it has, the more it disturbs electromagnetically. Finally, there is high-frequency wireless radiation, that planet-size microwave oven we now live inside of. Fortunately, it exponentially decreases in intensity with distance from the source. At least you can turn off all wireless devices under your power. Long term, you can move or install shielding.

One can become so vulnerable in profound rest that the wrong setting can become harmful. Make sure you feel comfortable in a large or occupied building and confident you will be ok when retreating there. If the influence of the building undermines the restfulness of the retreat too much, stop the retreat and try again elsewhere. Make extra preparations to doubly protect yourself from distress on your transition days: no shopping, visitors, media, or travel. Following my weird retreat in 2011, I was not thinking straight. I moved to an even less restful location a day after exiting the darkroom. This proved even more harmful than the poor location. Post-retreat planning is critical. See protocol > post-retreat.


Note: roundness is not important for short retreats. Plan a round darkroom for the future, both for shelter and for medium and long retreats.

An experiment: go into a round building and observe how you feel. Compare it to how you feel in square ones.

Born to designers and craftspeople, I’ve run this sort of experiment since childhood, using myself as my instrument. Here are my conclusions.

Round buildings feel sheltering. They shield occupants from subtle energy, physical and psychical. Energy flows around or through them because their roundness does not resist or trap it. Small round spaces feel cozy, not suffocating. One can easily relax inside. One has just what one needs.

Human consciousness expects roundness in its environment. Nature is a symphony of curves: circles, ellipses, parabolas, catenaries, spirals, cones, and spheres. Curvature arises from and gives rise to innumerable straight-edged shapes at visible and microscopic scales: mostly triangles, pentagons, and hexagons; tetrahedrons, octahedrons, dodecahedrons and icosahedrons; and their stellations and combinations. As Buckminster Fuller demonstrated in his Synergetics (see
A Fuller Explanation), nature’s coordinate system is tetrahedronal, not cubic (Cartesian). It is four-dimensional, not three. All these shapes are inherently compelling, familiar, and alive to us.

By contrast, a square building feels imprisoning. By nature, the right angle stops movement: of things, people, and energy. This stagnation saps and poisons occupants over the long term. Even turning at right angles while walking is militaristic and jarring. We compensate by making square (rectilinear or orthogonal) buildings larger than necessary to push corners away. We soften and round them out by filling their corners with stuff. Ever dissatisfied, we remodel. When that fails, we move, perhaps destroying a family or business in the process. Eventually, the only thing to do about such a toxic building is demolish it, or unconsciously arrange for it to burn down or even get bombed. Behind the apparent irrationality of war, crime, and carelessness lies a biological imperative to break free.

Due to gravity, single right angles of linear structures, like trees and stalactites, abound in nature. But not squares and cubes. Squares are inherently weak and inefficient. They collapse without diagonal support (triangulation) and require more edge for the same amount of area as circles. They mate poorly with the curved universe. A few minerals have cubic crystals, like salt. Not much else.

Orthogonal construction breeds decadence, disease, and violence. Rectilinearity is the geometry of slavery: Romans built on grids because they are easily policed. It is a military-economic strategy widely copied to the current day. Black Elk, a Plains Indian accustomed to tipis, observed the demoralizing effect of log cabins on his people on reservations. He decided, “It is a bad way to live, for there can be no power in a square.”

How tiresome to find we live in voluntary prisons. What is to be done?

The problem solves itself. We simply turn our prisons into escape pods. After all, we do need to stop moving around. We are sick. We are slaves. We need to rest, to recover ourselves, to reset our relationship to the world. Conscious of the immobilizing influence of these boxes, these cells, we can turn it to our advantage. We use it to stop. But not halfway, like beasts pacing restlessly in a cage. We stop fully, more and faster than anyone expected, without the slightest concession to the demand to constantly be busy. We can even say this is what our buildings were always for.

So rectilinear buildings are not just acceptable, but perfectly suitable for short retreats. We begin to remedy them by an art of placement: feng shui, vastuveda, wabi sabi, or ordo. This may render them suitable for medium-length retreats. If not, and certainly for long retreats and public darkrooms, we replace, vacate, and dismantle them. We burn or bury their materials or purify them through re-use in round buildings.

A good building for the long-term is curved, round, or has five or more sides of equal length joined at equal angles. Rectangular walls are fine. So are right angles where floors meet walls. But not where walls meet ceilings or each other, as in orthogonal floor plans.

Happily, a handful of elegant, cheap, quick, round shelter designs are available for new buildings. It turns out that orthogonal construction is not simpler or easier. It’s merely a frame of mind.


Now, let’s learn to actually make escape vehicles out of prison cells. The next chapter gives detailed instructions and computer-drawn plans for your very own darkroom.

<   ^   >