Swedish Shack Attack

Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, the Unabomber, the bloggers over at Ramshackle Solid and Homegrown Evolution all have one thing in common. We’re all proud owners of shacks. We’ve posted before about the wonderful Tiny House Company and the virtues of actually living in your shack. Today we share a photo of a lovely Swedish shack we spotted in the arctic town of Kiruna. A family of five used to live in it in the early 20th century and it can’t be much more than a hundred square feet. No doubt, “shacking up” meant fewer trips to the woodpile during those cold winters (“winter” being nine months out of the year in this place). Its current location is in the parking lot of an old folks home. Looks like it’s now used for storage.

A special thanks to the folks at Dinosaurs and Robots for the term “shackitecture” and their many shacktacular posts.

Make a Garden Work Table from a Pallet

Pallets are a ubiquitous building material, your free lumber yard in tough times. Homegrown Evolution patched together the garden work table above for use with seedlings and storing pots and watering cans. Hopefully the picture is all you need to put one together yourself.

Some tips for working with pallets:

1. We prefer projects that don’t involve disassembling the pallet. The nails in pallets aren’t meant to be removed. Trying to take one apart with a crowbar will, in most cases, result in a lot of split, useless wood. A Sawzall reciprocating saw would work better if you must take one apart. For the table above we simply cut the pallet in half with a circular saw and handsaw.

2. Use screws not nails and predrill all holes. Pallet wood is very brittle and splits easily.

For some other design ideas check out:

This nice coffee table. Note that you simply use the whole pallet.

And this cool idea: an art/architecture collective Municipal Workshop has a nice way of avoiding the problem of pulling pallets nails. They cut pallets apart and use all the small pieces of wood like tiles. Here’s some more info on their “Autotron Unit”, pictured above.

A Tensegrity Table

Tensegrities are an attractive structure that can be built with rods and string or wire. The term is Buckminster Fuller’s combination of “tension” and “integrity”, though Fuller probably did not invent the concept. Having seen a coffee table that used a tensegrity as a base, I decided to see if I could make a similar table, only out of scavenged materials (scavenging seems appropriate in these crummy economic times!).

To make your own tensegrity table, molecular biomechanics professor Dr. William H. Guilford has some very nice step-by-step instructions here. My version is slightly different, but frankly Guilford’s design is probably more stable. I used some electrical conduit tubing left over from remodeling the house, some rope and a stop sign that I found laying in a driveway (note the “anarchy” graffiti – is that “stop anarchy” or a pro-anarchy statement?). Putting the tensegrity together was a bit more time consuming and frustrating than I expected, but once I got my head around the geometry of the concept and learned how to tug the rope, my slightly wonky scrap tensegrity miraculously seemed to assemble itself.

Tensegrities make a nice project for using up short scrap materials and can be stacked to form a tower. An example of a very tall tensegrity structure is sculptor Kenneth Snelson’s “Needle Tower”, installed at the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C. While more of a traditionalist when it comes to architectural forms, tensegrities make a nice addition to the Hoemgrown Evolution design vocabulary and I’m contemplating a tensegrity bean trellis for the backyard . . .

A Used Tire Hose Caddy

Here’s a cheap and easy way, using one of our favorite junk building materials–used tires, to keep that hose from trippin’ you up in the back yard.

Cut out the sidewall of one side of a tire using a sabre saw. You could use a sharp knife, but electricity makes this task a lot easier.

You’ll end up with the half cut out tire you see above. But your work is not yet complete.

Drill a bunch of drainage holes in the bottom of the tire, at least one hole every three inches. This is to keep water from pooling when it rains. Incidentally, used tires combined with water make the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes (more on the tragic global consequences caused by mosquitoes incubating in tires here). With a bunch of drainage holes you won’t have a problem.

Got more used tires? See our used tire composter here.

FEMA Plans for a Bar That Folds Into a Fallout Shelter

Sometime back in the early 1990s I signed up for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s free home study course in radiological emergency management. Along with the text book and quizzes came a couple of plans for home built fallout shelters. Most of these shelters were what you would expect, underground cinder block cubes accessed through a trap door on your back patio. But one plan really stood out for its cocktail era inventiveness, a basement “snack bar” that converts into the perfect place to ride out Armageddon.

“The principal feature of this shelter is a sturdy wood overhead canopy which serves as a part of a pre-built snack bar in a basement recreation room. Consisting of three units hinged to the back wall, the canopy can be lowered to rest on the snack bar in an emergency.

In basements where the level of the outside ground is above the top of the canopy, adequate shelter from fallout radiation is provided for 6 people when the canopy is filled with 8″ solid concrete block or brick.

The snack bar should not take more than 5 man-days to construct.”

Incoming missles? Just fold down the snack bar’s false roof, toss in those cinder blocks and hunker down for a few weeks of endless martinis and canned cocktail wieners with five of your best friends. To help you prepare for the possibility of Kim Jong Il interrupting your holiday party (assuming you’ve got “5 man-days”), I’ve posted a pdf of the plans for this bit of FEMA genius here.

Incidentally, despite the 1960s vibe of this publication, it’s dated 1980 and some of the other designs were kept up to date until at least 1990, proving that cold warriors kept up the fight late in the game. I wonder if FEMA had any nifty hurricane plans . . .

Make a Rain Barrel

There’s a lot of advice floating around the internets about how to make a rain barrel. Most barrel pundits suggest drilling a hole in the bottom of a barrel and installing a faucet, a kind of connection called a “bulkhead fitting”. Unfortunately such improvised fittings have a tendency to leak. My favorite way to make a rain barrel is to take a 55 gallon drum, use the preexisting fittings on the top and turn it upside down, a process explained nicely here (complete with a list of parts), by B. Chenkin who will also sell you a kit at Aquabarrel.com.

To get started, you get a ubiquitous 55 gallon drum with two threaded “bung” holes that look like this:

A good source for this kind of barrel is your local car wash. Just make sure that the barrel you scavenge didn’t have nasty chemicals in it. You punch out the center of one of the bungs, as shown, and insert a threaded PVC fitting. A few more PVC parts from the sprinkler section of your hardware store, a brass hose fitting with a valve, and you’ll have this:


Glue that up with some PVC cement, wrap the threads with teflon tape, and you’re almost ready to collect rainwater. But first, turn the barrel upside down, drill a hole for the down spout another hole to insert an overflow pipe made out of a threaded 3″ waste pipe fitting:

The last step is to prop the barrel up on some wood or concrete blocks to give some clearance for your hose connection and some extra elevation for a gravity assist to help push the water through a garden hose.

The overflow connection is another reason I like Chenkin’s design. It’s important to keep rainwater away from your foundation especially when, like us, you live on a hill. The picture at top shows our barrel installed with the overflow pipe connected to a pipe that runs down to the street. Los Angeles’ building code required us to run our rainwater out to the street, where it helps wash pollution into the LA River and the ocean (see creekfreak for more on LA’s pesky water issues). At least we’ll be channeling some of that water, via the barrel, to our new fruit trees. Those of you with flat yards could simply connect up an overflow pipe that would take the water at least ten feet from the foundation.

In Southern California, where rain never falls between May and October, a 55 gallon drum won’t meet much of our irrigation needs, though Chenkin’s design does allow you to chain multiple barrels together. What we really need is an enormous cistern, something with a capacity in the neighborhood of around 10,000 gallons. Ideally houses here, as in the ancient Roman world, would have been built with huge underground holding tanks. A small rain barrel like this makes more sense for those of you who live in places with rain throughout the year, where a small amount of collected rainwater could be used to bridge a gap in rainstorms. I put this rain barrel together as a test and because I was tired of looking a blue drum that sat in the backyard for a year giving our patio a methamphetamine lab vibe.

Again, for complete instructions and a list of parts visit Chenkin’s ehow page or, if you’re not adept at perusing the isles of the local hardware store, buy a kit from him through Aquabarrel.

[Editors note: due to spamming (are rain barrel enthusiasts really that excited about internet pharmaceuticals?) we've had to shut down comments for this post.]

Cooling with Beer . . . Cans

Root Simple dropped by Houston’s famous Beer Can House, created by John Milkovisch in the 1960s and 70s. We won’t plumb the messy depths of the meaning of “visionary art”, the academic art Mafia’s euphemism du jour for this stuff–we’ll leave that to our art bloggin’ amigo Doug Harvey.

So sidestepping the whole debate over the intentions of its creator, we’ll point out that all of Milkovisch’s house mods have both aesthetic and practical benefits. The beer can cladding that covers the entire exterior of the house means never having to paint the underlying wood. The concrete yard means never having to mow a lawn (we’d prefer vegetation but Milkovisch’s concrete work is, like the rest of the house, magical).

But on to our favorite detail. It’s damn hot in Houston most of the year, and to deal with the blazing sun on the south side of his humble bungalow, Milkovisch crafted this intricate, shimmering screen made of beer can tops and bottoms that hangs from the roof line like an aluminum grass skirt. Not only does it shade the windows and walls, producing a dramatic decrease in cooling bills, but it also functions as a pleasing wind chime.

We’ve been thinking of doing something similar on the hot south side of our house, except with deciduous vines. That way, we’ll let light in during the winter and have a living shade wall during the summer. Perhaps we’ll grow beans and become Los Angeles’ Bean House.

The Beer can house is located at 222 Malone Street in Houston, Texas and is lovingly cared for by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art.

Dome Building

Drop City Chicken Coop

Whenever the entwined notions of sustainability, green building, environmentalism and the lingering remains of the 60s counterculture address architecture and the places we live in, inevitably Buckminster Fuller influenced forms seem to just spring from the landscape like mushrooms after a particularly wet winter. Perhaps the idealism of folks interested in saving the world, especially do-it-yourself types, lends itself to visionary solutions. But these same dome building visionaries are also known for leaky, impractical, expensive and ugly geodesic domes draped in ill-fitting brown asphalt roofing material.

There are some basic problems with domes. The primary one is that, like it or not, building materials tend to come in 4 by 8 foot dimensions or some even numbered and square shaped variation. This makes Buckminster Fuller’s complex geodesic shapes very impractical to build, at least if you care about cost and wasted materials. The other problem is that people, especially Westerners are square. We sit, stand and lay down–for the most part all 90º activities. Our square and vertical beds, chairs and tables reflect this reality. Square people with their square furniture tend not to fit well in the round shape of your typical hippie dome. This is not to mention all those complex angles involved in building the damn things, and the fact that all of these intersecting angles will someday leak. And we can’t also forget the embarrassing possibilities of the whispering dome effect, where the shape of the dome acts as a sound reflector, bouncing intimate sounds from one end of your domed domicile to the other.

The Integratron

But domes have an undeniable beauty, a pureness of form and it’s no coincidence that domes are often used for religions temples and governmental buildings. Homegrown Revolution was lucky to be able to visit one of the more eccentric domes in the world, UFO contactee George Van Tassel’s enigmatic Integratron, located in Landers California. The Integratron, originally built as a sort of cosmic healing device or perhaps as a time machine, is a startling dome build entirely out of wood without a single nail.

So having spent a delightful hour in the Integratron, we thought we’d do a quick roundup of domes for all the DIY visionaries out there.

First off, Homegrown Revolution reader andrewed tipped us off to C.E. Henderson’s Conic Shelterâ„¢. Henderson has devised an attractive not-really-a-dome form that works with, rather than against the ubiquitous 4 x 8′ sheet of plywood.

The Zome dome is a geometrical form that also works better with standard building materials. It’s most popular in rural France, but there are numerous examples in North America, as well as a children’s toy that looks like fun. Passive solar guru Steve Baer is responsible both for the Zome as architecture and toy.

For those who want to get busy in the backyard and construct a simple dome out of scavenged materials, here’s a great resource.

And on also on the simpler end of the visionary spectrum we have this humble geodesic chicken coop.