The Watershed: A Writing Studio - Fine Homebuilding

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Fine Homebuilding: The Magazine

Fine Homebuilding: The Magazine


The Watershed: A Writing Studio

comments (0) April 29th, 2009 in Blogs
RDA Robyn Doyon-Aitken, producer

Sitting lightly on, and in, the landscapeNested inside a prefabricated steel framework, this diminutive writing studio overlooks a meadow.
Butterfly roof The studio’s butterfly roof directs runoff into a trough that serves as the local watering hole.
Room with a view The big window above the writing desk frames a riparian forest in the distance, while below the desk, awning-style hinged panels rise to welcome meadow breezes.
Sitting lightly on, and in, the landscapeNested inside a prefabricated steel framework, this diminutive writing studio overlooks a meadow.Click To Enlarge

Sitting lightly on, and in, the landscape
Nested inside a prefabricated steel framework, this diminutive writing studio overlooks a meadow.

Photo: Gary Tarleton

by Erin Moore

My family owns a small piece of former pasture-land in central Oregon. When my parents asked me to design a writing studio for the property, I worried that putting a building there would tarnish its ecological richness—that we would commit the age-old blunder of ruining a rare place by wanting to live right on it.

We talked over the question of building something for a couple of years. My family is a tough jury. My brother and my father are a research ecologist and a biologist, respectively; and my mother is an environmental philosopher and a nature writer. We all had a stake in the integrity of our tiny nature preserve, my mother needed a place to do her work, and I wanted to test out some new design ideas.

Our discussions unearthed two questions that became my design challenges: What kind of writing studio could we build without bringing a road or electricity to the site? And what could we build that would also disappear conveniently at the end of its useful life?

Before I finished the design, we took turns sitting in a chair on the hillside where the studio would be. We chose our favorite views, narrowed those down to just a handful, and then carefully measured where the openings should be to define them best.

The large window over the desk is the most traditional. It frames a moderately distant view of the field and the riparian forest. The high window at the rear frames a bit of sky in which there is often a raptor taking advantage of a local updraft.

Opposite the door is a very low window about 18 in. square that is meant to draw your eye to a patch of grass just outside—a view that is not extraordinary until you look closely and discover something like a new bloom or a cricket. It is easy to track seasonal changes in the color of the grasses through this window. It’s also my 2-year-old niece’s favorite.

Butterfly roof Room with a view
Butterfly roof. The studio’s butterfly roof directs runoff into a trough that serves as the local watering hole.   Room with a view. The big window above the writing desk frames a riparian forest in the distance, while below the desk, awning-style hinged panels rise to welcome meadow breezes.

Prefabricated for easy assembly on site

A quartet of concrete piers supports the studio. We cast the piers in place, with many hands making light work of it. We didn’t miss having an electric-powered concrete mixer; instead, we put the concrete on a tarp and mixed it by pulling up on the corners.

The second stage—the structure— is a single freestanding steel armature. We had it fabricated in a metal shop, and then moved it to our woodshop where we cut and dry-fit the cedar skin and the polycarbonate roof to the frame. Then we took it back to its bare bones and moved the frame to the site with a front-loader. It can be removed the same way when it is no longer needed.

Butterfly roof Room with a view
A cedar box inside a steel exoskeleton. The cedar posts are bolted to flanges welded to the steel frame. Tongueand- groove siding slips into grooves plowed in the sides of the cedar posts, making walls that can expand, contract, and breathe well in this damp climate. Photo: Frank Moore; Drawing: Erin Moore


We brought the rest of the parts to the site by foot, where we made final adjustments with battery-powered tools. The trail we blazed as we carried each piece is now the footpath to the studio, which we call the “watershed” for its rain-gathering roof and for the larger watershed that it inhabits, at least for now.

—Erin Moore is an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Oregon and principal of FLOAT (www.floatarch.com). Photos by J. Gary Tarleton, except where noted.

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posted in: Blogs, green building, architecture, water and moisture control, roofs

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