Tiny Structure

by Mathieu

Almost a year ago I had a conversation with a client (friend is a better word) about a small structure I could build for him. He envisioned a small Japanese style frame, nothing fancy but with the characteristic proportions, high quality joinery and finished with a hand plane. After the initial conversation we shelved the idea concluding that such a project would be beyond the available budget. Nonetheless we kept on dreaming and said that one day we would build this nice little shed we had in mind. Instead we were going to build a cheap, quick and dirty carport-sized small timber frame with whatever wood we could find to accommodate his needs. Well, things turned out quite differently…

A short while later I encountered a bunch of pretty nice timber. Thirty years ago someone bought a pile of perfectly clear super fine grained Oregon Pine, some of it he used but about 3m³ of it had been stored in his attic cleanly stacked waiting for me to find it. Together we bought the lot, some of the lumber became mine but most of it was reserved for the little shed we where still thinking about. Amazingly just a short while later the same thing happened. More fine Oregon Pine that had been stacked in a pile for  twenty years was found so again we acquired more wood. Historically homebuilders bought timber long before they were able to build themselves their house. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

Forget about risking your savings on the stock market. Buy some trees, have them resawn by the carpenter who will build you your house. Stack the wood carefully and allow it to air dry for at least five years and you have just earned more money than you could make on any savings account.

lumber stack

Please keep in mind that for us living in Europe this quality of lumber is extremely rare. This stuff doesn’t grow here anymore, we have been extremely efficient in destroying our forests and making sure that the market is flooded with cheap, fast-grown, low quality wood. So you can imagine when I was working in California and one of my colleagues complained about a micro knot in an otherwise clear stick of wood my eyes rolled and I walked away without making a comment.

fine grained oregon pine

Some months later I was designing the quick and dirty timberframe we had set our minds to. I found it difficult to come up with a drawing for a cheap structure, one that would both be visually pleasing and well built. I tried really hard but couldn’t stop myself from thinking that instead of a cheap knock-off we could draw an interesting design for which we already had nice wood.

After making a detailed cost estimate I figured that it could all work out if I could just find some cheap labour to help me for a week. So I asked my friend/client if he could come and help me build his little building. We had worked together before so I felt confident that his help would be useful and because of his interest in this type of work he would be able to learn something at the same time. He would invest some of his time to work on his own project and therefore I could lower the overall price. Suddenly the project that was out of the budget fell into the budget.

Since we were now building a high quality structure another aspect became important. The structure had to be movable because it will eventually be relocated. This aspect affected the choice of joinery and how it was to be executed. Joints should never be loose but keeping in mind we want to take this building apart some day to relocate it they shouldn’t be overly tight either. The fit needs to be just right and the joints made so that they can be taken apart without damaging them.

cad tiny structure

I came up with this simple asymmetric design loosely inspired on a machiai. These are small shelters often found in Japanese gardens. Guests can wait there until the host is ready to receive them. They often overlook a specific type of scenery which creates a certain atmosphere before they enter the tearoom.

This structure is not intended as a waiting shelter for guests instead it’s function is not yet fully determined and the design and proportions are largely dictated by the available materials.

Eventually I hope to place the posts on natural round river rocks. Put a nice roof on top of it, cedar shingles and copper perhaps. Add roof trim pieces like komai and hirogomai but all this will have to wait  for now.

Stay tuned to witness the building process.