Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Pod

Here is an update on my current building project. I wouldn't call it natural building, but instead "building with re-purposed materials," a different way to approach sustainability.

Given it's name in 2006, inspired by the success of Apple's iPod, "The Pod" is functioning as my winter home. There is a certain architectural sentimentality that I feel as I work on - and live in - this building, as it was my first construction project ever. Ashley and I designed and "unconventionally" framed it during our summer internship here at Stony Creek Farm (in Walton, NY) three years ago. The design brief for the project, suggested by Farmer Dan, went something like this: Construct a summer intern residence out of all salvaged/re-purposed materials.

Some photos from the 2006 archives:

The structure rests upon short piers of rock. We designed it this way so that it could theoretically be transportable, if needed (wheels could be attached, or a lift could easily get underneath it).

Scraps of plywood and OSB, saved from various other construction projects on the farm.

Ashley hammers a nail, attaching the sill plate to the decking. All of the upright posts are cedar, salvaged from a playground that had been deconstructed in New Jersey, transported here years ago, and stored in the barn. Almost all of the Pod framing lumber is cedar and oak - the cedar from the playground, and the oak from pallets, saved from going into the landfill.

Here is our cedar playground deconstruction & loading zone. We pulled platforms out of the barn, took them apart on the grass, and wheelbarrowed them up the hill to the site. These particular boards became the floor decking, on top of the plywood.

Here I am adding a diagonal brace for stiffness in the loft. Instead of using many more upright posts spaced closer together (like in a conventional stud-frame), we mostly just used posts at the corners, and created triangles with diagonal bracing. As you can see, we designed the loft to fit a full single size mattress perfectly (although with our very limited construction know-how, we didn't account for the thickness of interior sheathing. So even if this mattress hadn't become infested with bugs and covered in mouse poop over the past three years and then thrown away, it would no longer fit in the finished space).

Starting to add tar paper on the roof.

Ashley and I left the farm at the end of the summer, only having completed the frame for the pod. We returned for a weekend in the fall to install metal roofing, and that was the state in which the Pod survived its first winter - a skeleton with a roof. Over the next two years, things progressed on the project very slowly, and through the work of various people (only occasionally was it Ashley or I).

Here is the start of the pine clapboards.

The first window, in front of which I am currently sitting, as I type this post.

More clapboards on, and some framing for the door.

I spent another summer at the farm this year. When I arrived, I was happy to see that the Pod - although unfinished - was being lived in by my fellow interns Alice and Anya. They used scrap lumber to create temporary furniture: a bed, desk, bench, and storage areas. They also did some really good work starting to insulate the walls, using scraps of blue foam to fill the spaces between the framing members.

Now I am back at the farm again, for my first winter stay. I decided that it finally time to finish the Pod down to the last detail, and make it my winter home. I am now deep into this process, and just recently started to move some of my things in and sleep here some nights (although it is still very much a construction zone).

Here's a bit of the process, and current photos:

The Pod is rather small. It's about 80 square feet, plus a lofted bed. When I considered the action of entering into this tiny space with slushy boots, a snowy coat, and wet clothes, it seemed like it would get too messy. I was afraid that it would end up being a space in which people (myself included) would feel inclined to just keep their boots and shoes on while inside. I would much rather have it be a space in which people want to get cozy in a pair of slippers and spend some quality time. The solution? Adding on a transitional space. I started building a porch, and ended up (persuaded by the snowflakes and wind) with a fully-enclosed mudroom.

It's pretty easy to tell which part is the new mudroom in the photo, because the siding isn't weathered and gray, like on the original building. I put the three big windows in the mudroom because it's not a heated space (no worry about thermal loss through glass), and I didn't want it to feel claustrophobic and dark.

From the side.

I love the site that Ashley and I chose, especially looking up at it from down in the valley. From this vantage point, the Pod makes me think of a quiet human standing at the edge of the mountain, staring off into the distant topography and feeling small and humble.

Here is a view through the mudroom, when the inside was full of building scraps and tools.

The West end of the mudroom. The bench is a place to sit and take off boots. It also will have a second function as a "toilet," for those cold nights when I can't bear to trek through the great outdoors down to Pete's garage. Above the black bucket, there will be a trap door in the bench that can be removed, leaving a hole. I will keep a wooden toilet seat inside by the wood stove, so that I can bring it out to the toilet and use it without my bum freezing. When the bucket fills, I will dump it in the "humanure" compost pile and start over. Here's a link to a New York Times article on Humanure, if interested. The odd-looking insulation and spray-foam will eventually be covered up with nice interior sheathing.

The other side of the mudroom has built-in shelving, and hooks for coats. I might also put in a lower shelf on which to put a propane camping stove, to make tea or fry up some eggs on a cold morning. Don't be alarmed by the branch that appears to be growing into my mudroom; it is merely a Christmas decoration that Kate and the kids brought to hang on my door.

Here, you can get a sense of how the insulation has been installed. Blue foam scraps were cut into all sorts of shapes to fit into the spaces between the framing. Orange, expanding spray-foam was then applied to fill all the tiny seams between pieces. Even though Alice and Anya had finished about half of the insulating during the summer, this process still took me a LONG time because each piece is a custom cut and fit (again, Ashley and I had no construction knowledge, so we didn't pay much attention to the spacing between our framing members - if the spacing had been even, it would have been easier to install the insulation).

The pod has quite an elaborate electric layout for such a small building. There will be an overhead light in the mudroom, as well as one in the main room. There are 5 outlets on the main level, and one in the loft. There is also a three-way switch on the overhead light, so that I can turn it on when I enter the room, and off when I get up into the loft to sleep. Of course, none of this system is yet installed except for the wires.

On the ceilings, and in the small, short room (which is furthest away from the wood stove), I added a layer of reflective bubble insulation (similar to bubble wrap) to further reduce the potential for thermal loss. I found working in such a reflective environment to be visually overwhelming, and was glad to start covering it up.

As you may have guessed, not all the insulation is just scrap pieces - we decided to buy some new. Our thought was that all the costs associated with buying new materials were thermally justified in this case. Buying and installing insulation now will ensure that the building is thermally efficient over its entire lifetime.

The first tongue-and-groove board is up!

This woodstove, the "Dandy," was made in Ohio in 1928. It had been sitting in the barn for 20 years, waiting to be used. We shined it up, put a new coat of stove paint on it, and it works great! It is what has allowed me to continue working into the cold, New York winter. Below are some "before and after" photos centered around the wood stove.

The road signs are being used to soak up heat, and disperse it evenly, as a safety precaution. The signs are installed with an air-gap between them and the wood that they hang in front of. Without the metal, the walls get hot; I don't think they would ever get hot enough to combust, but why take a chance?

Here is the built-in bench in the small room. The boards that make up the seat are all oak, again from pallets. After deconstructing a whole bunch of pallets, I ran the best boards through the planer, then across the table saw, and ended up with a beautiful product! (detail below)

Keep in mind, all of this wood was headed for the landfill! Pete took me in the dumptruck to an area he had been scouting out behind an electric company, where the dumpsters were overflowing with pallets. We took about forty, and that only made a dent. It's an amazing shame how wasteful our industries (and society in general) are.

I decided that I would leave some of the original framing exposed inside. Here is one of the beams that supports the cantilevered loft. It was a long runner from an enormous pallet. I love the serial number, and the exposed carriage bolts.

I recently noticed the washer still living inside of this cedar post. This post was connected to some metal bars in its days as part of the playground set. It's nice to involve materials that already have a history into a new project.

Here's part of the ladder. On the ladder, I made an effort to combine all the different varieties of lumber used in the house in an elegant way. The leaning beam is oak, the upright post is cedar, and the step itself is a cutoff from a newly-milled pine stud, but with a particularly beautiful edge grain.

The ladder up to the loft.

The surface to the left of the desk will be the "kitchen." The counter-top will be tile, and there will be a sink in the end of the counter nearest the wood stove. I am going to make a sink out of a stainless steel mixing bowl, cutting out a hole in the bottom for a drain, and running the plumbing down through the floor. All the water on the farm is gravity-fed from a spring located up in the fields, and an existing line will be split to serve the Pod. Under the counter will be shelves for basic kitchen tools and ingredients, and up where the little crate is standing on edge will be a nice built-in shelf for mugs, bowls, tea, and a tea ball.

Here is my view, down to the valley of barns, from the desk.

Here's a view from the loft, out the East window. It will be especially beautiful in the summer, when the hill is an endless sea of green.

There is a skylight in the small room, added by Alice and Anya over the summer. It needs a lot of trim work, as well as a second layer of glass so that it's not such a thermal loser. But it adds a lot of really nice natural light into the space.

It's amazing what icicles will do to get a little attention. As shown here, there are still many exterior details that need to be completed, which is especially apparent in the above photo. In warmer weather, all these unfinished corners will be hidden with trim.

The gutter is a metal roofing cap piece flipped upside down. You can see that the East wall of the mudroom is just one big piece of red metal roofing.

Here are some photos of me posing, to give a sense of scale to the Pod:

As I continue to work on the Pod, I am very content taking it slowly. Fully considering every detail takes a lot of time, as does preparing and using salvaged materials. It's shaping up to be a wonderful space.


  1. Yay for pictures of the pod! I really had no idea what it was like until now. Other than the opening grammatical error (it's again, you're a shame on the family) and the fact that your beard is, in my opinion, entirely too long, it's lovely. I love the look of non-painted wood, and with the light coming in and the wood stove it looks like a really cozy and happy place to be.

  2. The "pod" is so beautiful, and I imagine it looks even more amazing in person! I really like your ladder, and the kitchen space.

    When you come back to NC, Stevie and I will give you another haircut...

  3. Hello, the cob house was very beautiful.
    To combat the cold I send them a tropical hug.