Creating the Poetry House - Fine Homebuilding Article
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Creating the Poetry House

Salvaged materials and unorthodox building methods are used to create a small, sacred structure

For more than two decades I had the urge to build a sculpture/building that would be a space for reflection, simplicity and spirit. Years ago, while working on the small nondenomination chapel at Sea Ranch, Calif., construction coordinator Thamby Kumaran told me his dream of building a small temple when he could find time and resources. The idea electrified me and never left. Twenty years later, after selling several large sculptures and coming across some fabulous materials, I gave myself the commission to build a small sacred building.

I've used the word teahouse for years to refer to this project because to me, teahouse connotes essential, everyday simplicity in harmony with nature. But it took a new form when I came upon an eloquent poem by Sonoma State University professor Elizabeth Herron at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. It struck me that I was building a "poetry house" rather than a teahouse, even though I had no idea what a "poetry house" would be. Elizabeth agreed to participate on the project, and she wrote a long poem, The Poet's House, which we transcribed under layers of roof and the body of the structure to imbue this small sacred space with verse.

So what is a poetry house? It is a strange hybrid of a building, somewhat larger and more extravagant than a teahouse, but smaller and more humble than a temple; not as practical as a storage shed or as useless as an abandoned truck. Whatever the interpretation, this is how it came together. 

Despite its impressive size, this salvaged redwood log had been left in the woods for good reason: It was rotten in the middle. All my work on it produced no more than two ridge beams and a king post. To quartersaw this 7-ft.-dia. log, I made crosscuts on top, then nailed 16-ft. 1x4s down the sides to guide me on four downhill cuts.
Other discarded materials yielded better results. I paid a ridiculously low price for three truckloads of discarded glulams-leftovers and shorts that had accumulated in the yard of a distributor. Several 7x21 beams were resawn on a Wood-Mizer to 7x10s for the foundation. Since then, I've used the remaining glulams for all kinds of projects.
The foundation is made in three separate sections: a rectangle in the center with two side sections designed as mirror images of each other. To waterproof the beams, I wrapped them in Grace Ultra roofing underlayment and then clad the entire foundation with copper sheets secured with ring-shank silicone bronze boat nails. I chose Ultra because it seals around nails and is highly heat-resistant; copper, in direct sun, gets quite warm.
The copper-clad foundation was then textured with large rounding hammer and given a dark-brown patina. You can see the overall footprint of the building in the assembled foundation sections, which bolt together. The foundation has the structural integrity to allow the building to be moved; its smooth bottom allows the building to be reassembled in a museum or other temporary site. The dark-textured copper is also a strong visual base for the structure.
Here, my daughter Tori bolts in a lower hip rafter. The lower rafters are notched to fit over the top plate and secured to the top plate with 1/2-in.-dia. carriage bolts. The roof assembly is reinforced with blocking installed between rafters and steel bar stock that's bolted into a dado in the top surface of the top plate. I designed the five lower roof panels that rest on the lower rafters so that they could be completed on the ground and then hoisted into place. Each panel is framed, sheathed, and clad with copper shingles before we call in the crane.
The copper roof is also salvaged material. It's made from interlocking copper shingles that were removed from a home when it was found that they couldn't stand up to the horizontal rain along the coast. We sheared off all the interlocking edges and made both wide and narrow shingles, then hemmed each shingle on three edges and crimped in the center.  This center crimp was to make the shingle stiffer, but it was perfect for maintaining alignment and creating a great shadowline. The roof fascia is also a textured copper element.
In all, I ended up with six roof sections: five lower panels and an upper roof. The hip rafters are independent of the removable panels, although the jack rafters butt against the hips and the purlins rest on top of the hips. It is the stiff copper hip cap bolting through to the hip rafter that holds the roof corners together. 
Finally, the center roof section, which weighs about 3000 lb., is lifted into place. The central finial on the roof is also the rigging point for the roof.  There is a 3/4-in. threaded-metal rod from the bronze ornament through the ridge and king post and cypress crossbeam.  You can also see the welded and painted steel angle-iron frame that defines the base of the upper roof.
The exterior copper-wall panels were embossed over the industrial grating of a small salvaged loading dock.  I was fortunate to have found the grating already welded to a rigid frame; it is essential to have a well-anchored worksurface when embossing large panels. Using soft 16-oz. copper sheet clamped to the loading dock, I did the initial embossing with a 2-lb. rounded rubber mallet. Once the copper was well cinched over the grating, I used a pneumatic needle scaler to enhance detail and add a dense, pecked surface that I compare to slaked granite.

For additional photos of the Poetry House, see the back cover of Fine Homebuilding issue #196 (June/July 2008).

And for even more information about scultpor Bruce Johnson, including images of his work and additional views of the Poetry House, visit his Web site:

From Fine Homebuilding196
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