By Mike Trentacosti
As architects/designers, we are trained and trusted with designing, drawing, and supervising the construction of our projects. Very rarely do we find ourselves on a job site rolling up our sleeves and picking up a hammer. This is a dichotomy in our profession that I have often questioned. How, as architects and designers, are we expected to know how to properly draw our buildings if we have never built one ourselves? How are we to detail properly if we do not know the construction sequencing that must take place in order to build that detail correctly and for it to function? Rarely do we as architects get to design, draw, and construct our projects ourselves. So when the opportunity arose recently for me to go help a fellow architect and close friend build his own project, it was an experience I could not pass up.
It all started with a phone call a little over two years ago, from one of my closest friends I had met while studying environmental design at the University of Colorado. During that call, we discussed his plans to purchase a piece of land just off of Highway 1 somewhere between Port Orford and Golden Beach, on the iconic Pacific Northwest coast of Oregon. At the time I had no idea where this was, but judging from the photos he had sent me, the land looked like something out of a movie. Towering redwoods intermixed with that famous Pacific Northwest rain forest. Fog in the mornings and crystal clear blue skies in the afternoon. It was truly magnificent. At the time of the call, I had just returned from a design-build studio praxis where we built a tiny structure, and I was yearning for another opportunity to get my hands dirty and pick up a hammer. As the months passed though, I didn’t hear anything from him and began to wonder if he had followed through on his plans to purchase the property after all.
Finally, a few months ago, I got the call. “Hey buddy, I purchased the land! I’m going to start designing an accessory structure soon, stay tuned.” At that point, I had no idea when the project was finally going to get started, but I knew it was an opportunity I’d wait for. After that phone call, we started having monthly design charrettes over the phone or through face-time, and as they went on the project began to come to life. Next thing I knew, May was rolling around and the dates had been set. My buddy Cam was going to be taking off from his job from late July into early August, with the bulk of the work coming sometime during the final week of the build. So with that information I began to plan my trip. Over another phone call we discussed options of where I should fly into; the land being so remote that there are only a few realistic options for getting to it. Portland was 5 hours north, so that was out. Eugene was three hours northeast, so that was also out. Which left me with my only option. I was to fly into a small remote airport just south of the Oregon/ California border. I reluctantly booked my flight, unsure of what I was getting myself into, and set my plans to travel to Oregon.
As the trip rapidly approached, I began to dive deeper into the project. Phone calls became more and more frequent. We began to construct a list of materials, tools, and a building schedule. The site was still in flux but would be chalked out later. Itineraries were set and the team was rapidly coming together. The build team was to consist of three friends from architecture school, one artist, and myself. A dream team, if you will. Some of us had building experience while others had little to no experience. So right from the get go, I knew it was going to be a learning opportunity for all of us.
Before any of us knew it, it was time to get the project going. I made one last phone call to Cam to wish him the best of luck and let him know that I would be seeing him very soon. As the weeks leading up to my departure approached and passed I began to wonder what was going on with the build. I had reached out to Cam a few times during the weeks leading up, but I was often left in the dark on the build. After our brief conversations, I was frequently left to ponder whether the build was actually even happening or if everything on site was okay. But really, he was keeping me in the dark to ensure that he got the most out of my reaction when I first saw the project. Finally the day came for me to leave. As I sat at my gate about to board a small 20 seat “puddle jumper”, the thought crossed my mind one more time, “What the heck have I gotten myself into?” I gave Cam one last call, confirmed he was going to be there when I landed, and boarded my flight.
My plane ride was only about 45 minutes, so I found myself in this small remote airport in Crescent City California before I knew it. Of course Cam wasn’t there when I landed, so there was a brief moment of concern, but I found a small picnic table out front of the airport and plopped myself down and waited. After about ten minutes of waiting, I finally saw Cam rapidly approaching. I threw my bag in the back and jumped in. The first thing I noticed was how dirty he was. He was sitting there in the driver’s seat covered in a thick coat of dirt, carpenter pencil behind his ear and a smile on his face. “What’s up buddy… you ready?”
I thought I was ready, but boy was I in for a treat. We departed on our hour and half trip up the coast to the property and for the entirety of the journey I was left in awe of the pure beauty, power, and surrealism that the Pacific Northwest coast has to offer. Once we finally got to his property, it was dark out, so unfortunately I wasn’t fully able to take in full view of the land just yet. I jumped out of the car, greeted my buddies, grabbed a beer and demanded that Cam show me the site. Until this point I had only seen a couple pictures of the project, so I had no idea what state the build was at, nor did I have any real clue as to what the project looked like. With some convincing, we finally began our short but strenuous hike down to the site. As we approached the bottom of the hill he made me stop and slowly turn my light on to what was the building. At first glance I was astounded. But this was still when it was dark out. Therefore I was only able to take in what my headlamp could shed its light on. But there it was, tall sleek V columns protruding up out of the structural framing, with the roof sloping upwards, gently returning back to the hills beyond. I turned back to Cam, and with a smile on his face he said “wait till the morning bud”. We hung around the site for a couple more minutes then climbed back up the hill and hung out around camp, catching up with some old friends for the remainder of the night.
The next morning I was the first one up and eagerly unzipped my tent, only to find one of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever witnessed. For an hour or so, I was the only one up, and I just sat there and took in the view. After some coffee, a few stories, and laughs, we all slowly made our way down to the site. As I climbed down the hill, this time with a handful of lumber and my tool belt strapped to my back, I began to get the full experience of the site.
Little by little, step by step, the building started to unveil itself to me, only to be finally framed by the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. The building was perfectly sited on the corner of a hill gently touching back to the land. I sat there for a few moments in absolute awe. I practically dropped all the lumber. I turned back to Cam, who just smiled back at me. Not a word was said between us in that interaction but somehow we both knew what the other was thinking.
Finally, I collected myself and got down to it. I discussed with Cam my role on the build and we got right to it. I was in charge of hanging all of the slatted 2×2 members that were to wrap the entirety of the building. Cam and I sat there for a few minutes discussing and drawing out the sequencing of the design and detailing of the rain screen. Then, piece by piece, we assembled the slatted wall. As we went along, we experienced ups and we experienced downs. Mistakes were made and lessons were learned. That’s the beauty of building. It’s never perfect but it’s what you take out of the process that stays with you longer than the successes of the build. I think those are some of the most important lessons that I was able to take out of this project. Every build is different, each offering its own hardships and lessons, but it’s overcoming those challenges that ultimately helps you progress as a designer and builder.
Over the few days I was on site, we experienced quite a few of these challenging moments. We would work from sunup till past sundown. We worked until we weren’t able to see in front of our faces and we were only able to build what was lit by our headlamps or lanterns. It was as true of a learning experience that I have ever had.
Then as quickly as it started, it ended. The last day of the build was upon us. There was a lot left to do. When we woke up that morning, there was an unspoken determination amongst us that the goal of the day was to progress the project as far as we could before we had to wrap up to shoot the project with whatever light remained. When the day finally wrapped up, we rushed to clean up the site. Then we all of took one collective moment before the shoot to sit on the deck as a group, enjoy a cold beer and soak in everything that had led up to this moment. It was in that moment that I turned around and caught Cam in a moment of reflection. It’s moments like that as an architect that you strive for. He sat back and soaked in what he was able to not only design but create with his own two hands. This as an architect is the moment in which you realize you were able to take a drawing, consisting of only lines, and turn it into something real. That moment where you see your true potential, where you realize you took a pile of raw lumber, pieced it together, and turned it into a true sculpture; when you see the idea you imagined finally come to fruition. That night, we wrapped up the photo shoot, cleaned up the site some more, and just sat on the deck and enjoyed our last moments with the structure*
The next morning, we all woke up at the crack of dawn, grabbed a couple more pictures of the project, packed up our belongings, and said our goodbyes. As we left the land and drove up the coast, I spent those moments reflecting on what I had learned from this trip. It was at that time that I reflected on the power of building. I think as architects, we often take building for granted as we only get to experience it from a one sided perspective. When we get the rare opportunity to experience the other side, it is the lessons that we draw from those success and failures that ultimately make us better designers and architects.
*This project is still ongoing as it is planned to evolve over time with its program
Designed By: Cameron LeBleu
Photography By: Maxwell Justman