It's probably more Little House on the Prairie than the slightly unsettling modern survivalist culture that has me generally pre-occupied with designs for off-the-grid living, untethered to hydro heating and water, sewer or gas-powered systems. My video porn serves up ways to create refrigeration through vacuum using two terra cotta pots (pant! pant!) or water-heating that involves a load of decomposing wood chips (yeah, baby!)
Despite the innovation boom in solar-cel technology and wind-harnassing gizmos, my interest is in the very basic of off-the-grid technology that might pop up on great websites like instructables.com. and Mother Earth News. I like the old ways that are not just another consumer market category, but involves easily located materials and uncomplicated DIY methods.
But it often takes weeding through all the newest technology to get to that simple design solution. For example, a while back I was rolling around one particular design challenge in my head: how to keep a supply of juice for a couple of weeks, without the aid of refrigeration and without fear of spoilage. Also, the juice should be packaged in single-serving, durable and recyclable containers for easy transport. After rejecting various ideas that involved TetraPaks and vacuum processes I realized I was talking about an orange.
The best designs are the ones that have been served up by Mother Nature that fit not coincidentally with our particular needs or have stood the test of time — a long time. The orange lesson came back to me over the last couple of weeks as I was banging cedar shingles into the side of a cabin in the traditional method, using only a hammer, knife and a block plane. The "field" is composed of randomly staggered shingles laid out in courses with quarter-inch gaps to account for shrinkage and expansion from severe elements. The water naturally follows the vertical grain of the shingles, which are traditionally fairly easy to cut with a wedge from a cedar log. The courses overlap like fish scales, sloughing water away from the structure and the bottom double course creates an attractive flange that further directs water outwards. The additive fabrication process is not unlike other fibre-based work like knitting and quilting, requiring only the ability to measure and keep count and some stick-to-it-ness. It's relaxing, almost meditative work that doesn't require brawn or big machines. It's one of the cheapest cladding materials but the most expensive option due to labour costs, so it fits with my personal sensibility that is very much about the often hidden value of meditative labour.
Great design is not only a perfect marriage of form and function but is also about the body-friendly process, the longevity of that design, the ease of maintenance and repair, and the upcycling potential of those materials after they have fulfilled their use. And that's why wood shingling has been around since the 17th Century, but probably has been used on roofs and walls in very early dwellings, and why it's considered an art form.