Thursday, August 16, 2007

Wilderness Modernism

John and I are intrigued by the idea of modernism as it relates to cabin living. Don't misunderstand: we're anything but minimalists in our day-to-day life in the city. Clutter seems to be helplessly attracted to us. (Having a toddler, a dog, and two cats -- not to mention two adults who can't resist bringing home any weird objects they find during their day -- all in a ramshackle old house is probably a factor.)

But the more we talk about what we want out of island living, the more we seem to come to the same conclusion: that this is a place where we want less, not more. And this is where modernism comes in -- not in the fetishy, trendy, chrome-and-plastic way -- but in applying the classic modernism mantra to all our plans for creating our island environment:

First, is it necessary? And if it is necessary, is it beautiful?

We're reading a lot of books and magazines and websites to help us process these questions. One book that took a lot of chasing down is Cabins and Beach Houses (the link is to Amazon, though we found our copy on eBay), which was published by Sunset magazine fifty-five years ago, just when modernism had trickled down to the middle classes, at a time when regular folks were entering a period of affluence that allowed them to buy recreational property. The book contains 63 sets of plans for various cabins, and while some are still amazingly contemporary looking, there are quite a few that haven't aged quite so well.

In addition to building plans, the book contains chapters on practical matters such as how to find a building site, how to develop a spring, and how to close a cabin for the season. The book also has a section on building practices and specifications, as set out by the U.S. Forest Service to govern the construction of all its Forest Service cabins across the country. I find these specifications fascinating because they do a thorough, sensible job of explaining how to create harmony with the natural environment, while at the same time allowing a great deal of leeway for architects and designers:

Building Design: Generally, cabins fit the ground more readily when horizontal lines predominate and building outlines are low and sprawling.

Wall and Roof Materials: Cabins are fundamentally rustic vacation homes and should present that effect when completed. Rough wood and stone are considered the best basic materials. They harmonize easily with surroundings, and have a long life with minimum maintenance. Smooth-surfaced and thin materials, on the other hand, look manufactured and lack the strong, rugged appearance necessary in most mountain sites. Approved materials are: peeled logs, hewn logs, log siding, rough sawn lumber, wood shingles, shakes, single-tile, composition shingles, and stone. Concrete, masonry blocks, and brick may be used in portions of the exterior in combination with more natural and rustic materials, provinding overall design is rustic. Smooth or finished lumber may be used for trim and minor areas of the exterior when the basic exterior material is of rougher or more natural stuff. Sheet metal, stucco, cobblestones, flexible paper, or felt materials, composition wall materials, and mechanically laid masonry are classified "undesirable" because of unnatural colour, texture, or unsatisfactory performance against the rigors of mountain winters.

Roofs, too, are required to be of rough-textured materials. Exceptions are when a flat or low-pitched roof is used, little of which is visible from the surrounding ground. Built-up tar and gravel, painted sheet metal, and other similar materials may then be used.

Design Details: Foundation should be as low as possible consistent with good construction. Use of masonry, concrete, or concrete blocks is approved. Pier construction must include siding or heavy latticework which extends to ground level to enclose the underpinning.

Windows and doors should be of uniform size and shape. Top or head-level should be at uniform height above the floor. Window area must assure adequate indoor light.

Chimneys and fireplaces are required to be of safe, substantial construction with a solid masonry or concrete foundation. Flue lining is necessary.

Exterior Color: Colors generally found in the soil or the bark or the foliage of trees are recommended: subdued red, gray, gray-green, or warm brown. Stain or paint may be used, or exterior walls and roof can be left to weather naturally.

Doors and trim may be painted lighter or darker shades of basic colors. Bright colors may be used for small exterior areas, including doors.

Administration of Standards: Approval of plans and specifications is up to the individual Forest Supervisor. He may allow for architecture, materials and colors which are not generally approved. For example, sheet metal may be approved in a high fire hazard area and in heavy snow country to reduce snow damage.

When otherwise inappropriate materials are allowed, they must be painted an appropriate colour.

It's as if Miss Manners had written a book of design etiquette for the wilderness. In theory, I agree with most of these guidelines. I believe that a cabin should integrate with its environment. I've never understood people who buy a beautiful, pristine piece of wilderness and then erect either a faux-Colonial manor or one of those ultramodern monstrosities like the one in Beetlejuice.

But I also like the balance between rigorous, thoughtful standards and the flexibility to recognize when and how best to deviate from these standards. After our cabin is up, it'll be interesting to revisit these specifications and see how close we came to hitting the mark.


tuckova said...

Have you given thought to a hobbit house ?

Anonymous said...

hey, I'm so glad to see this blog! Only on Sunday Jon and I were driving up the sea to sky and wondering how you were getting on. Unfortunately we have no mad DIY skillz to offer, but I'm here to cheer you on!