Every summer from 2011 to 2017, Keith Moskow and Robert Linn of Boston-based Moskow Linn Architects brought a group of seven-to-ten architecture students to Constable Farm, a 117-acre plot in the small riverside town of Norwich, Vermont, in order to build a new structure in just a week. The project was part of an intensive design-build studio they called Studio North.
Partner Keith Moskow said that for him, the project was a chance for the class to “get out of the office and get dirty building.” He went on to say, “For many students this was their first time holding a hammer, even though in studios, they might be designing very large buildings.” Architectural education focuses on the theories and studio practice of design, use, implementation, restoration, and other principles of the field, but rarely does it engage with what it is actually like to build the buildings that students design.
One of the interesting—and perhaps risky—aspects of the project was the lack of preplanning. Unlike the typical architecture project, builders have to “make decisions along the way” in a more old-school fashion. The building process itself was the design process. The Vermont projects were built from a standard kit of parts—2-by-4 planks, metal fasteners, fiberglass sheets, and timber collected on-site. However, each structure was surprisingly different, showing the wide range of projects made possible from relatively simple means.
When discussing the challenges and specificities of building in rural areas, Moskow noted that “the challenges aren’t different [from building in suburban or urban locales]; it’s about trying to adapt your structure to the specific environment it’s in.”
While building on this Vermont property may have run its course—lest these structures overrun it—Moskow and Linn hope that this isn’t the end of the project or working with students, both of which they deeply enjoy. Plans are in the works for the next iteration of Studio North to get started soon.
The inaugural 2011 project was the Chicken Chapel, a translucent fiberglass-wrapped chicken coop with maple sapling branches as cladding and an elegant, elliptical nesting box within.
Rolling Pig Pen
Students built a mobile pig pen with an expressive winged roof in the project’s second year. The rolling construction of the pen allows it to move across the property, permitting the cultivation and fertilization of different areas by the pigs, a very natural and old-school solution to farming and growing.
A birch pavilion was built in 2013, the program’s third year. The minimal structure is composed of a platform with walls of spaced birch trees, harvested on-site. The pavilion is set on a hill in the midst of a birch forest, offering expansive views of the surrounding landscape, including nearby Mount Ascutney. It has been used for family gatherings, memorial services, and even the occasional yoga class.
Participants constructed a self-cannibalizing sugar shack of sorts in 2014. The shack’s walls were built out of logs from timber felled on the property, which can be re-used as kindling and replaced with newly cut logs.
Moskow, Linn, and the students built a woodland retreat in 2015, a tripartite structure for “glamping.” There are two timber structures with fiberglass steeples. One is a multilevel sleeping structure, and the other is an open-air space with a specially constructed table and chairs. In between is a gathering area with a deck, firepit, and bench.
The group built one of their more visually audacious projects—a finned viewing structure—in 2016. The structure is essentially an inhabitable trailer-mounted camera, with a pinhole on one side and a more open space that serves as the entryway on the other. The spines of the structure were partly a happy accident of the design-build process. Initial strapping that was meant to come down was so striking that, rather than remove it, the Studio North participants opted to repeat it across the structure for visual effect.
The last project, completed in 2017, was a mobile sauna comprising two rooms: one a cedar box with a wood-fired boiler, the other a translucent fiberglass-wrapped cool-down space. The sauna is putting its wheels to use, roaming from location to location and providing much-needed relaxation.