Site Preparation

The week started on a high with the ground preparation works beginning on site.  As the excavator makes its way across the fragile platform of the bridge and clenches its sharp teeth into the dry crust of the topsoil, a fresh, clean layer of earth is uncovered. We all watch the process in silence, transfixed by the slow movements of the machinery ploughing back and forth across the surface. Large drops of warm rain sprinkle our faces, and I cannot help but feel this is nature’s way of taking part in the site’s cleansing process. As the heavy buckets of dirt are carefully unloaded to strengthen the river bank across the rear end of the site, I realize what a privilege it is to work alongside someone as George who knows the land so intimately, giving us the opportunity see it in a new light scoop by scoop…

Half an hour into the process I realize the the background murmur of children’s laughter is missing – instead, their tiny feet are glued to the ground, absorbing the movements of the ‘yellow monster’ with a puzzled gaze. For the first time, they feel change is starting to happen…

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Roma Faces

‘The importance of the present moment enables the Gypsy to forget, to avoid anticipating, and to leave behind difficulties created by others by distancing himself from them. This attitude between time and space has enabled Gypsies and Travelers to survive, immersed and scattered among hostile populations, developing elements of a culture all their own.’ (Liegeois J.-P., & Acton, T. A. (1994). Roma, gypsies, travellers. Strasbourg, Council of Europe)

Interestingly enough, the poverty and squalor surrounding the Roma do not seem to dampen their spirits or  their “cheerfully irresponsible” attitude to life, born out of a carefree upbringing and a staggering youthful age demographic. The families within the Gypsy community are big, with an average of twelve members, including the parents.  The large groups of children use the dusty streets as both school and playground, bringing a profoundly youthful dynamic to the society.

Whether through rainy or torrid weather, stamping through mud or dashing across the cracked, heated ground, the Roma children run barefoot, filling the yard with joyous laughter. The faces below are, without a doubt, those of the happiest children I have ever met…

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Stage 2 Completion – Interior Lining and Roof Structure

This week, not only did we manage to finalize the wall and ceiling OSB lining of the interior, but we also completed the works on the floor of the container room. By covering the existing floor boards with a rigid layer of extruded polystyrene, the risk of moisture and water vapor ingress has been significantly reduced. While the 50 mm boards are relatively safe and easy to space across the floor area, it is essential for us to take our time during this process – installing the insulation layer correctly will provide a reliable long term thermal performance over the lifetime of the building. Next, we begin staggering the linseed-treated wooden layer across the width of the container (and perpendicular to the direction of the existing wooden deck plane), in order to increase the load bearing capacity of the floor.

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With the demountable metal roof structure fitted, the works on the temporary construction site are coming to an end. Once the Roma site is cleared and the existing structure transported, the final works on the roof assemblage, handrail fittings and interior finishes will commence. Almost there…

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The Facade Treatment

With a few days of sunshine on board, the timber is now fully dry and ready for sanding. Once this stage is complete and the facade surfaces are clean, we begin the linseed application process. Linseed oil acts as a natural preservative with high water resistance, increasing the structure’s resistance to weathering and retarding the cracking and shrinking of the wood. We apply two coats to the ‘shingle’ facade and external structural frame and once the oil is absorbed by the wood, it then dries to seal, waterproof and protect.

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The Interior

Works on the interior of the container have finally started. A layer of glass insulation wool fixed behind a horizontal timber slats grid is lining the wall and the ceiling surfaces.  We agree to use OSB panels for the internal finishing of these areas as a durable, cost effective, thermal resistant material that would endure the transportation process successfully. With the door and window pieces all in, we find ourselves daydreaming about random, domestic scenarios that could unfold in the daily life of the Roma family. Little by little, we are getting there.

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The Storm

Although exceptionally hot, this was an unusually wet and stormy summer. It’s 4 a.m. and a deafening thunder noise shakes me out of my sleep. I can hear the rain lashing everything outside my room and I cannot stop thinking about how the Roma house is surviving the night. Pressing my hand and forehead against the window of my room I try to decipher a familiar shape outside. For a few seconds, everything is pitch black and soundless until an electric charge flashes the blocks of flats across the street alight. Since my arrival here, this has been the most violent storm yet and although I feel exhausted, falling back to sleep is a challenge. My thoughts are racing with the wind outside, wondering about how everything will fall into place by the end of this experience. There’s nothing to do but wait…

As we rush to the site the following morning, there was an unusual stillness in the air. Mihai and his team are already there, eager to start working on the balcony decking. For a few seconds, it felt as if last night’s ordeal had only happened in my head, with only a few scattered tools and timber pieces betraying the storm’s passing. Although the timber cladding is soaking wet and we will have to wait a few more days for it to dry before applying the weatherproof coating, I breathe a sigh of relief. Our little container house is there, proudly glimmering in the sunshine and having passed the biggest endurance test yet.

We quietly resume our work, finalizing the timber structure of the balcony as well as the connector pieces that will allow for it to be disassembled at a later stage.

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Design for Disassembly

Since the primary message of the project revolves around the idea of portable, domestic architecture, we have put a significant amount of thought into designing each component and type of connector joints that would allow for the dis-assembly and the re-building of the structure on a different location. This type of design process is driven by three important factors: the selection and use of materials, the design of components and the design, selection and use of fastners. Each component is designed for dis-assembly so that the it can be taken to pieces, packed into the container and shipped to a different location where conventional construction would be difficult.

One of the first pieces we develop is the timber decking connector system comprising of a metal plate welded to the primary structure of the container and a nail-type fastner. With the timber decking designed as three separate modules for dis-assemblage and transport ease, we aim to build as lightly, as movably as possible in order to increase the structure’s adaptability to the on-site conditions.

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The ‘Shingle’ Effect

Most of our work today revolved around testing a variety of pattern densities and corner joints that would create the facade’s shingle effect. The overlapping wooden pieces, each 25 mm thick, give a rough texture to the container’s exterior walls, while providing a reliable and watertight skin. The pinewood shingles are expected to gradually fade in time from a warm, golden beige to a soft grey, telling their time naturally and following within the narrative of the design concept as they get gradually replaced. This technique, referencing traditional residential and agricultural building typologies, was edited and simplified to allow for the speed, clarity and low maintenance of the construction process.

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The Wooden Wrap

The spirits are high this week as the construction of the external wooden facade begins. Sourced from a local pine tree factory, the fresh stacks of wood are unloaded in the construction yard. No time is wasted and we start cutting and aligning them across the base of the container into what is to form a 900 mm high wooden wrap that would be later coated with linseed oil and tinted to a darker color.

As soon as the donated the three bay window frames and main door arrive, we begin by removing the glass panels and continue scraping off the old paint with wire brushes. Next, a new coat of dark brown and white paint are applied to the exterior and interior of the frame.

With the entire building process unfolding within the immediate vicinity of the construction team’s depot, the efficiency and level of precision each activity involves is much higher. Most importantly, it is here where we are sourced with the appropriate amenities and resources the construction process requires in terms of electricity voltages, the acquisition of construction materials and most importantly tools and equipment.

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The First Cut

As we start tracing the first outlines for the window and door openings, it feels almost surreal. Watching the heavy metal structure getting punched with beams of light marks the beginning of its transformation into a home. Taking into account the internal spatial constraints, our plan envisages a subtle compartmentalisation of the container room into a small kitchen, living and sleeping area. It’s funny to see how such a simple gesture with a circular saw can perform such a dramatic shift in the perception and engagement with the bulky volume. We are strutting through the front door, poking our heads through the windows and taking in the views. And so it begins…

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