Shelters, 1 through 5.

So, the structures are done.

It has been an involved process, for sure, and at times physically exhausting. Before I could begin work there was research, preparation, site selection, and the gathering of materials. Actual construction was interwoven with documentation, as I took pictures at all stages of the process. Afterward there was further documentation, including experiencing the structures in the dark. Some of them required maintenance after the fact; just yesterday I went back to the earth shelter and filled it with supple pine branches, bent to create pressure on the ceiling and hopefully hold it up in the rains.

Some materials, like snow and earth, were ready and waiting for me. Those structures were created through subtraction of materials, rather than addition. Wood and thatch both needed to be gathered and woven together. The felt structure was unique: making the felt required many more steps- getting the wool, washing it, drying it, stretching it, and working for hours to felt it.

Despite the differences in working with these materials, I found they had a similar, almost hypnotic quality to them. The repetitive work of digging, gathering, combing, washing, carrying, agitating, left me with a kind of blankness in my mind. This was especially true during the wool preparation; I would go the same motions until I was completely glazed over.

For all of the structures I had this idea in my head that I could work 8 hour days on them. This wasn’t the case. Usually after about 3 or 4 hours of work I had to stop because my body told me to quit while I was ahead. I often spent these hours in strange positions or small spaces, lifting heavy things, sometimes all three things at once. At other times, the materials need a break; thatch needed to dry, etc.

The other common experience I had among all of them was that I found it really hard to leave them. I always had this urge to do a little more, carve out a little more, add a little more to the outside. I always had to tear myself way, never feeling quite done.

I’ve estimated the hours spent creating each shelter:
Snow: 6 hours (1 person)
Wood: 7-8 hours (1 person, 2 for the outer layer)
Wool: 22 hours (1 person for prep, 2 for felting)
Thatch: 6 hours (1 person)
Earth: 8 hours (1 person)

As with any project, I can’t help thinking about what I would have done if I’d had unlimited time. I would have liked to make a woven hut and a thicker felt that could stand on its own. I would have liked to hollow out many chambers in the earth structure. Part of the challenge of this project was narrowing it to a reasonable size for the time available. Last semester I had given up on the idea of actually making structures because I felt I didn’t have enough time. Instead I had come up with another idea for building sculptures out of natural materials based on environmental themes in folk lore. I went to see one of my advisers, who said to me “Wait a minute. What would you do if you had more time?”
“I’d do a hands-on natural building project.”
“Then that’s what you should do. You should take that project and scale it down to the size you could complete in one semester.”
“Scale it down?”
“Yes. I don’t know how, exactly, that’s up to you. You could make, I don’t know, little houses instead of big houses.”
Little houses, projects scaled down. The project took a new shape then, and grew from there. How could I create these shelters in the simplest way possibly, with available materials? How could I have the experience I was seeking, scaled down to a manageable size? Like this:


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