Monday, October 01, 2007

James Westwater - The Little House


Last month we posted about James Westwater's marvellous Plywood Chateau and it turns out that James is very much a shedworking afficianado, so he very kindly agreed to write a guest post about his experiences.
"We were overwhelmed by the conversion of our 5000 sq ft school gymnasium and drill hall, built in 1900, in the city of Beacon, 50 miles N of NYC, so, in the autumn of 2006 we built a shed to live in for the most disruptive 6 months of construction. The alternative would have been to rent an apartment nearby, but Naomi and I wanted to stay on site, partly so that the process wouldn't be so disruptive for us and our three dogs, and as I was overseeing the work (and needed to be onsite at the crack of dawn every day), my full-time job for the duration.

"I basically designed the shed around three principles: it couldn't be more than 1,000 cubic feet (interior), as this is the largest structure you can build in Beacon without a permit; it had to incorporate doors and windows that we found at Hudson Valley Materials Exchange, a nearby non-profit organization that takes donations of unwanted construction materials and then sells them to the public; and it had to be aesthetically pleasing.

"We also wanted the shed to be as green as possible, using easily sourced materials from local suppliers. We used FSC certified plywood (formaldehyde-free and from sustainable Canadian forests) and an ultra-low VOC urethane finish for the floor (we joked that it was so non-toxic you could drink it, and at $90/gallon I was tempted a couple of times!), low VOC paint on the interior, formaldehyde-free insulation and Galvalume metal roofing, the longest-lasting roof material available.

"The structure is clad in T111 siding, with an opaque water-based stain. T111 is cheap! The Ecuadorian crew who built the shed, painstakingly leveled the concrete block piers on gravel (in pits that I had painstakingly laid out, dug and leveled!), and away we went. Quite the meticulous crew, slow but sure. Stainless steel screws were used throughout and I designed a screw-pattern to be unobtrusively hidden in the grooves of the T111 and still functional. There was time for plenty of attention to detail like this, and also making subtle changes and designing on the fly.

"The final product is a bit of a jewel-box, with plasterboard walls, a built-in air conditioner, track lights, recessed insulated blinds phone, broadband and several electrical outlets. Suffice to say, we went waaay over budget! Our aim was to build something cheaper than an off-the-shelf modern modular shed. In the end it was about the same, but we got exactly what we wanted and were able to use those recycled doors and windows, etc. It's also better insulated than anything else out there, and as it's passive solar, barely needs any heating (a small plug-in heater does the job). The overhang helps with cooling in the summer and allows you to leave the windows and 8-foot sliding glass door wide open when it's raining.

"When construction on the main house was finished, it was a very difficult adjustment moving into the sleeping loft of an echoey building with 25 ft ceilings. The thing I miss the most about living in The Little House is waking up every morning to a picture window view of the garden. It was like being able to camp outside in the winter, watch the snow fall as if if you were out in it, but in complete comfort. It's sobering to realize that two adults and three dogs can happily sleep and work in a 10 x 12 foot space. It's really all you need, everything else is excess."

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