It was February, and Hugh Crawford, associate professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture, was looking for help moving a house—an unusual predicament, but not for the seemingly obvious reasons.
First, it wasn’t a very big house. It was a playhouse, actually, one modeled after the cabin built by German naturalist and author Bernd Heinrich, the setting of his 1994 book, A Year in the Maine Woods. Heinrich would be coming to campus in March to deliver the 2012 Karlovitz Lecture, and he would see the house, which Crawford’s students had constructed. This wasn’t the first time Crawford and his students had replicated the home of a famous naturalist, but it would be the first time they had the opportunity to show off their handiwork to the structure’s original designer, builder and occupant.
During the fall semester, Crawford tasked the upper-level building construction majors in his Environmentalism and Ecocriticism course with building three historic structures as a capstone project. One group took the Heinrich house, one reconstructed Henry David Thoreau’s famous cabin on Walden Pond, and another tackled the shack naturalist Henry Beston built on the sand dunes of Cape Cod in the 1920s. (In 2010, Crawford oversaw the construction of a scale replica of Thoreau’s cabin; the process was cataloged online at thoreauhouse.org.)
The teams studied the authors’ work within their original historical contexts (right down to the food and drink each man might have consumed while living in his home) and researched the construction techniques and supplies that would’ve been used in the original structures. The students then built their playhouses according to those specifications, sourcing materials and hammering out their own work schedules and safety guidelines.
Building construction isn’t the only lens through which Crawford’s students explore the connectedness of history and technology and culture. This spring, he taught an interdisciplinary honors seminar on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and his students plotted projects ranging from the construction of a life-sized whale skeleton laser-cut from plywood to the forging of a 19th century-style harpoon.
The Heinrich house was eventually lugged from its spot in front of the architecture building into the Clough Commons atrium, and on March 7, when Heinrich appeared for his lecture, Crawford and some students showed the 72-year-old writer their work. “He laughed, then inspected it, read the posters,” Crawford reports.
Later that month, the house was installed on the playground of the Atlanta Day Shelter for Women and Children.
Meanwhile, the Thoreau and Beston houses are taking on quite different roles. Tech architecture students, working in partnership with the Georgia Tech Research Institute, are employing the roofs in a project to design mounts and connections for residential solar panel installations, funded by a grant from the Department of Energy. The playhouses, still nestled on the lawn outside the architecture building, now feature one-kilowatt solar arrays.
“Now,” Crawford says, “they just have to figure out what Thoreau would have done if he had electricity.”