I have long been skeptical of the current “alternative” building fads: mud walls, dirt-bag walls, straw walls, tire walls, compacted trash walls, ad infinitum. My standard rap, which falls on deaf ears because it is free advice, goes something like this: You are using techniques appropriate for a third-world village in an American (suburban) context. Walls constitute only 15 percent of the cost of most houses, and such alternatives do not save money, trees or concrete. Rather, the extra-thick walls add up to significant extra square footage, which results in bigger foundations and bigger roofs. And what do all these PC ramblers have for roof structure? Big, thick old-growth timbers and wood planks! For such reasons, I hope the now-fashionable eco-castles don’t become an enduring prototype.
I pray as fervently as the next hippy builder for the end of “balloon framing,” which is what modern wood framing was first called, because it looked so light and insubstantial that it might float away. It’s a ridiculous waste of trees, but persists because it’s a standard that can be estimated with accuracy and erected with moderately skilled labor. I have spent decades slicing wood — it’s the only construction trade for which I can claim master or journeyman status. But wood is subject to the ravages of fire, water, sun, mold and termites, and this old wood butcher thinks more and more about steel. I know I’m not alone — there’s a whole new generation of designers who scour the country for steel artifacts and industrial detritus that can be adapted to residential construction: shipping containers, grain silos, giant culverts. I myself had always wanted to erect a classic American form, the “Quonset” hut. Back in 1941 the U.S. Navy decided it needed a lightweight building that could be shipped anywhere. The now-familiar half pipes were first manufactured in Quonset Point, RI and have since, like the Airstream camper, become part of the vernacular. After World War II, they were mostly sold to farmers, as attested to by construction manuals that still advise you can “use your hay wagon” as a scaffold.
You’ve seen the commercials on TV — get a big steel barn and say goodbye to mini-storage rent! I thought about how sorry I was to see the old Quonset torn down in Telluride, after humbly hosting decades of basketball games, roller skaters and KOTO Halloween parties. But nostalgia aside, I began to see a nifty alternative to the suburban garage. What could be more ideal for an unheated outbuilding than a single skin that serves as structure, sheathing, waterproof membrane and finished, maintenance-free surface, topped off with an aluminum-alloy finish that will probably take centuries to rust out? Little did I know that this project would become a Christo-like exercise in process art, an absurdly simple plan requiring a gymnastic and sometimes frustrating execution.
So how do you buy one? I began by perusing the scores of websites selling steel buildings, many with testimonials like “Uh, me and Bill, we put up this thing in three days.” What I still didn’t know was that everyone’s selling the exact same steel arches, which are made in a handful of factories in the U.S. and Canada. But when I began calling the actual purveyors, you could see smoke coming out of the phone as I was hustled by a homogenous array of ex-carneys, ex-Amway sellers and ex-used-car dealers. Most employ a variation of the same pitch: “You want a 30-foot-by-40 foot-building? So happens I got this building that this guy in Florida didn’t pick up — we got it sitting on the dock here, and I’d love to get rid of it. I’d let you have it for say, $12,500, but you gotta buy it today.”
It took me weeks to sort through the hype and begin to understand the basics of steel arch buildings. The next hurdle was simpler but more mysterious. I had decided to erect my first Quonset in Taos, New Mexico, a town that in modern times has enforced a ruthless architectural conformity. Every last KFC is nothing more than a rectilinear, flat-roofed waferboard box sporting brown stucco and a few decorative timbers. However I could find no local code or covenant that forbade prefab or steel buildings, so I applied for a building permit and crossed my fingers, remembering how, many years ago in the Aspen valley, a snooty architectural control board had denied my request to erect a geodesic dome.
While salesmen continued to call me on an almost daily basis, I developed my shopping list: From the manufacturer, I would buy the steel arches, the steel base plates that attach the arches to the foundation, and a couple of curved, fiberglass skylights. I would construct my own end walls out of wood, with standard entry doors and sliding windows, and the splurge de resistance: two gorgeous, 8-ft.-by-8-ft. aluminum framed glass garage doors, aka service station or firehouse doors. This heavily glazed garage door wall would face southeast and gulp morning sun into the building.
After the slab was poured, we had to drill holes along the two long edges for expanding anchor bolts that would attach the steel base plates. This was a piece of cake with a big honkin’ rental store drill. The building parts came on a flatbed truck, all nestled together like long, steel Pringles. Next would be the fun, dramatic part: Like on the advertisements, we would construct each complete arch on the ground, and then raise it in place with a couple of ropes. We would use a two-level section of staging for the high work. Each arch is two feet wide and has six pieces that bolt together. In no time at all, a building would appear.
We set to work on the first arch, which was unexpectedly heavy when completed. Four of us strained and struggled to lift it up alongside the staging, at one point dropping it and denting a panel. This was my second glitch: when buying the arches, I had discovered that, for a relatively modest cost, I could upgrade to a heavier gauge of steel. Taos gets heavy snowfall, thus I reasoned this is no place to skimp. But the result was that it would take a crane to lift these monsters, and even then you would need a stout custom carriage to keep the arches from deforming under their own weight.
Our solution was to put up one panel at a time. It takes two people to work on each panel, especially up in the air. We used hand ratchet wrenches and cordless drivers. One person has to hold the nut on the inside to keep it from spinning, while the other person drives the bolt tight from the outside (sometimes hanging from a rope). The weather tightness of each arch depends on simple mechanical flashing: the bottom of each segment rests on TOP of the next segment down. We learned the hard way that you have to concentrate to remember this, or it takes tedious unbolting and rebolting if you get a panel flashed wrong. This process took, not “a weekend,” but a whole damned week. Not insignificant were the stoppages due to summer squalls blowing through, when nobody wanted to cling to a giant lightning rod.
Finally the big half pipe was done. It felt impressively solid when we walked on top. The immense, unobstructed and airy interior space became apparent. One surprise: with all that smooth concrete and steel, the acoustics inside are truly awful. They sell insulation kits for these babies — basically you just clip plastic-faced fiberglass bats to the arches. But then aesthetically you would be inside of a big, white bag instead of that clean, geometrically precise steel vault.
One day as we neared completion, an immediate neighbor walked over to tell me I had constructed an abomination that flouted local codes. This same neighbor’s own garage is a box troweled with tan stucco, and he was convinced I had brought his property values down. He seemed to back off a little when I responded that, yes, I had read the county codes calling for the preservation of rural character, and I could think of nothing with more rural character than a Quonset hut — in remote parts of New Mexico, I have come to regard distinctive Q-huts as mile markers. (And to tell the truth, I think outbuildings should be exempt from the style police and it should be okay for a garage to look like a garage.)
The first clue that I was part of a Quonset revival movement came when, on impulse, I sent a photo, with Taos peaks in the background, to my sales rep at SteelMaster Corporation. She informed me that she entered it in their new photo contest. Looking at rival pics on the contest web page, I was amazed by the creativity, intricacy, ingenuity and craftsmanship among the finalists. Ultimately, I finished 5th among Internet voters for cutest new Quonset in the land, and was awarded a nifty SteelMaster coffee cup and some pens that look like bolts with nuts. They are my most cherished professional awards.