104 - Bower Retreat

Carmine D'Alessandro & Kate Brown
Massachusetts, USA


I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. - Henry David Thoreau

In the century and a half since the publication of Walden, the industrial context from which Thoreau was retreating has been radically extended. The idea of nature as an immutable force, once assumed, has now been eroded. Bower Retreat aims to reinforce and reframe our connections to nature and to encourage the reclamation of our place in its systems, not as destructive interlopers, but as participants. The shelter is not merely an exercise in energy reduction, it is an invitation to live deliberately.

The massing of Bower Retreat is driven by a desire to achieve the absolute minimum interior width needed for sleeping. The resulting shape, a long narrow bar, has a footprint of only 133 square feet (about 12.4 square meters). The cabin is oriented with its roof and long side to the South, maximizing solar exposure while visually minimizing its presence when approached from the East. The cabin is lifted off of the ground so as not to disrupt the flow of water downhill to the brook.

Bower Retreat is composed of sustainable and locally sourced materials in order to avoid synthetic products that are energy intensive to produce and difficult to dispose of at the end of their life. The primary material used is wood in several forms- the structure is framed and sheathed with sawn softwood lumber and plywood. The outer layer of the structure, a rainscreen of spruce or cedar boards, is finished with pine pitch, which is also a wood product and adds water and insect resistance to the cladding. This rainscreen will protect and extend the life of the structure while also creating a gap of still air that adds to the insulating capacity of the exterior wall assembly.

The interior space of Bower Retreat is a 4’-6”x 13’-6”x 14’ room with a loft. In order to adhere to the established minimum interior width while retaining functionality, the north wall of the cabin is thickened into a ‘utility wall’ containing a built-in desk, bookshelves, wood stove, and firewood storage accessed from the exterior. Embedding these functions in the wall provides several benefits; the interior living area is comfortable yet remains minimal for efficient heating, the thickened wall has a higher insulation capacity, and the placement of the wood stove allows heat leaving through the stovepipe to radiate into the loft area. The experience of the interior space is defined most prominently by the windows, which offer restrained glimpses of the forest that surrounds the cabin. Tall slot windows and narrow clerestories frame slivers of the forest, reinforcing the senses of both verticality and extensiveness that are inherent to the experience of being among the trees.

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