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Modern Off-the-Grid Retreat in Oregon

Published as: 
Mother's Nature

The Watershed is an off-the-grid writer’s retreat that architect Erin Moore designed for her mother, nature writer Kathleen Dean Moore.

Though the retreat is clearly meant to afford the solitude writing so often requires, Kathleen reports that "it's very lively. Deer approach, birds bathe. The sun warms my desk and you can hear the rain."

 “A lot of times the work of an architect civilizes a place,” says Erin Moore of Tucson, Arizona–based FLOAT Architectural Research and Design. “In this case, the attempt was to have the building amplify its wildness.” The case she refers to is the Watershed,
a 70-square-foot writer’s retreat in Wren, Oregon, not far from her parents’ home. Erin’s mother is Kathleen Dean Moore, a professor of philosophy at nearby Oregon State University and a noted nature writer. She wanted a small studio in which to work and observe the delicate wetland ecosystem on the banks of the Marys River. Enlisting her daughter’s design expertise, her professor husband’s
carpentry savoir faire, the aid of friends, and a front loader, Kathleen and her crew erected a room of her own in September 2007.

To see the retreat, though, visitors must prepare for a romp. “We didn’t want to put in a road,” notes Kathleen. “We didn’t even put in a trail.” A short hike from the street, the small structure is accessible only by foot. Constructed using a prefabricated steel
frame, the materials—–a tongue-and-groove red cedar enclosure, glass, and concrete—–were carried out to the site by hand, while the frame came out in the bucket of a front loader.

“I had to figure out how to build on riparian areas, which are always changing,” says Erin. “I tried to make an architecture that responds to shifting ground, instead of stabilizing it.” Her figuring includes sinking concrete piers into the protean earth, affording the retreat both stability and a bit of give. Erin also worked to keep the contact between the steel frame and the cedar enclosure to a minimum. “It’s really damp out there,” she reports, “so we had to maximize fresh air to slow down wood deterioration.”

Totally off the grid—–Kathleen forgoes the computer and writes by hand when there—–the Watershed was designed to tread as lightly on the fragile ecosystem as the wild turkeys and Western pond turtles that live nearby. “The goal was to figure out how to live on the land without spoiling it,” says Kathleen, alluding to one of her literary idols, naturalist Aldo Leopold, who called that pursuit “the oldest task in human history.” By carrying in the building materials and erecting a structure that can be just as easily disassembled and fully
recycled, the Moores acted in accordance with the farsighted land ethic expressed in Kathleen’s writings. 

She describes the Watershed, which grew out of Erin’s architecture thesis at the University of California at Berkeley, as by turns a sanctuary, an escape, and a space she hopes to open to friends. 

The windows to the west permit a view of the trees where hawks make their nests, but the real coup is the water trough just outside. A chute from the roof lets rainwater trickle down into the steel basin, which acts as both a measure for precipitation and a favorite spot for deer to drink, birds to grab a quick bath, and, dazzlingly, for light to reflect back into the Watershed. “If you’re lying on your back on the floor around noon,” says Erin, “the surface of the water bath is projected up onto the ceiling.”

Though her mother’s folly is visually appealing, Erin claims that it is “not something to look at; it’s more about being there and looking out.” Kathleen agrees: “I find myself writing more and more about silence out here,” she says. “I find myself wanting to tell stories about how wild places can comfort us.” Gleefully, she adds: “This weekend my husband and I are going out with our sleeping bags. When the storms come in and the rain beats down on the roof, it’s like a musical instrument.”

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