by Ethan Jones-Walker, Confluence Fabrication
Our feet welcomed the dirt floor beneath. Our chisels parted the centuries-old Douglas Fir grain with uncommon ease. Three towering, pungent cedars observe our reverent labor through open barn doors with seeming approval. And this day, again, would likely end with the ocean sky awash in a full spectrum of color.
Answering the call from Port Townsend Preservation Alliance (PTPA) in the late spring of 2019, we found it refreshing to imagine ourselves returning to that tranquil place, set among dense Douglas fir stands and flanking the Puget Sound, in the rainshadow of the Olympic Range. In the two years that had passed since our last project in Washington, our returning client had acquired additional land.
The late locally-loved and -lauded Japanese-American scientist and activist Carl Nomura (1922- 2015) purchased seven acres within the city limits to carry out his post-retirement gardening and writing career. The property became well-known within the town for its uniquely scattered granite boulders that Mr. Nomura had unearthed after repeatedly hitting them with his tractor. In 2008, the quiet boulders looked on as 1,000 volunteers from the community planted flowers in the shape of a 100-foot diameter peace sign on a prominent hillside. Facilitated by Mr. Nomura, a United States citizen interned in the Japanese relocation camps of WWII, this was a lasting and deliberate gesture of peace and solidarity to protest the US invasion of Iraq. From that point forward, the community often referred to the land as “the peace property.”
In 2017, the coveted hillside estate was sold to the PTPA with the agreement that it was to be further cultivated as an intentional community, aiding in the creation of much-needed affordable housing and contributing to the production of local agricultural products: vegetables, grain, lavender, and fruit. Understandably, the neighborhood was initially skeptical of plans to expand infrastructure on the largely undeveloped acreage.
A grassroots, hands-in-the dirt approach was taken to gain the community’s blessing. The establishment of Shy Acre Farm served this end while jumpstarting the agricultural component of the proposed community. Advertised public events for the planting and harvesting of rye, rather than grass, were organized and led by a reunited force of twinkly-eyed,
leather-skinned farmers, much pleased by the attendance of younger generations. However, it became obvious that these and future events’ attendees would need a meeting place and shelter from the Pacific Northwest rains.
We were charged with designing an open timber frame structure to meet this need, capture the attention of yet-uninvolved residents, embody the values of the townspeople and proposed community, utilize local talent and skill during all phases of construction, serve as a produce stand to generate revenue, and be the hub or “knuckle” for two future additions, thus expanding its usefulness. Given its geographic context and requiring more varied criteria than a typical private structure, the frame was slated to be anything but typical.
During the few short months between the project’s inception and our westward travel, a number of details, let alone the design, had to be finalized. Aiding in the successful execution of this project was the rare but fortuitous acceptance of our first design concept. The open form of the structure created natural points for expansion and varied use. With just under 200 square feet under roof, the review of a permitting process was not required.
Community involvement and outreach were threefold: the PTPA hosted a community raising event; our partnership with CedarRoot Craft School facilitated an 80-hour timber frame clinic that aimed to cut two of the frame’s simpler assemblies; and two local craftspeople were hired to expedite the cutting of the remaining frame. The raising date followed the rye harvest since the timber structure shared a corner of its field. Through the combined factors of budget and our available time, the project needed to be completed in just 21 days.
Though the clock quickened, our new local craftspeople companions remained steadfast and steady with their craft. A luthier and lime plasterer, their practiced hands took adeptly to sculpting each timber with expert attention. Their own experience, the material, and tools sped the lessons and the work.
We had left the industrialized demands of our eastern city and were silently asked to forget their memory through the focused work on this quiet western island. We traded urgency for pace, isolation for community, and power tools for more hands. Over the course of the three weeks, our standard fabrication team of two expanded to four and the raising crew to fifteen.
Three days in, coinciding with our cutting comrades’ rapidly increasing timber skill and near independence, a severe respiratory illness struck all four of us, plaguing each working moment. When the timber framing clinic started a few days later, Alex and I were barely able to hide our illness during instruction. Thankfully, our two prized craftspeople ignored their daily 5-hour class commitment and consistently worked alongside our crew through the evenings and weekends. As the whirr of circular saws and rhythms of the mallets echoed from the tractor barn where our impromptu shop was housed, volunteers trickled in to labor for a few hours with us. Through our illness and those clouds of dust, we accomplished all the cutting and the timber framing clinic.
The rain had begun a few days before, heralding the end of the Pacific Northwest summer just as we completed the frame’s fabrication. Unfortunately, cutting joinery in a small shop often requires that large assemblies be test fitted outdoors. This, and an impending crane day, led us to relocate our lights from the barn and illuminate the building site on one particularity damp evening. The primary truss was pegged and stood upright a few inches off the saturated ground by our passionate volunteers, much to our soggy delight.
Next, the gable trusses were set, and finally the purlins to span each truss’s top chords. The night wore on. Our excited, disembodied voices and the under-lit hill that was steadily amassing pale, wooden bones brought curious neighbors to silently observe from outside the glow.
Lights extinguished and crew sent to bed, I walked back across the darkened lavender fields to sit on the tie beam underneath the ramshackle tent of used lumber wrap and tattered tarps (placed in hopes of keeping the open joinery from swelling). After sitting quietly for some time, the timber’s journey and captured energy began to speak. It had had a long journey, from old-growth forests, to logging camps, to a bustling mill, then its long structural career in Seattle, and now to rest again upon the glacial till but to serve as shelter, as inspiration, as a message of peace.
Raising day began under the characteristic slow drizzle of early maritime autumn, while celebratory folding tables creaked beneath savory smelling crock pots and mounds of covered baking sheets. Bicycles and cars slowly rolled past the recently harvested rye field bringing neighbors, participants, stray onlookers, and promised hands. A designated crew, proportional
to the number of hard hats present, was assembled for a safety meeting. With assigned roles and the intended order of operations stated, we readied ourselves with barely contained glee and a distinct undercurrent of (mostly unfounded) skepticism. Will it stay together? Will it actually fit?
An undeniable lump formed in my healing throat as an answer to the former doubt. The crane’s fourth pick slowly and successfully floated the well-braced roof system, in its entirety, thirty feet above the site from its pre-assembly area to just above the now-assembled post and plate system. In that moment of flight, as I considered all the hands and minds that had come together to raise this community space, I realized this was the most remarkable raising of any I’ve experienced.
The lower unit, the tripod, was comprised of three stout posts, three equal-length connecting girts, and six knee braces. With the crane’s load at rest, we, the raising crew, clambered up our assigned scaffolds and ladders to guide it home. There were eight connection points that had to be engaged within just inches of each other. One after the next smoothly connected. Malcolm, our great mentor, advocate, and host, gave the perfectly-timed sledgehammer blow to settle the last joint into place, demarcating the union of the frame’s once distinct assemblies. The equilateral triangle was now below and the international sign of peace above, creating a beautiful space and honoring Carl Nomura’s vision on his “property of peace.”