The big idea in the tiny Foraged Boathouse

Article and artwork by Andy Sturdevant

No matter how sincerely held your beliefs are, it’s so easy, in conversations about environmental values, to slip into vague, buzzy language.

In a recent conversation I had with architect Kara Hill, AIA, about her Foraged Boathouse, a small storage building she designed and built with her husband, Loren Ahles, FAIA, in Togo, Minnesota, I found myself slipping into just this sort of language. The project, which recently won a 2019 AIA Minnesota Honor Award, is composed of a shipping-container shell, cedar-stump flares, scrap steel, and square architectural glass samples; the little gem of a structure sits on boulders on a wetland on Hill and Ahles’ property.

“Where,” I asked carefully, “did you source the shipping container?” Maybe I thought there was an antiques dealer specializing in secondhand vintage shipping containers with a showroom in Ely—you know, the sort of place whose clients all come through word of mouth and expect to see certificates of authenticity with their purchases. I might as well have asked where the shipping container was artisanally harvested.

Hill considered my question for a moment, and then gave me a funny look. “They’re everywhere,” she said. “Everyone has them.”

Oh. Right. Of course they are! Northern Minnesota is a land of shipping containers and skid-steer loaders, paper mills and open-pit mines, heavy industry and summer resorts. The remainders of two centuries of forestry, mining, and shipping are embedded in every part of the landscape.

Action verbs like source and harvest are often used in these contexts, but the tiny scale and intimacy of Hill’s project resists that sort of precious language. A self-directed project, the boathouse is a bit of a sketch, a way for Hill to try out ideas and impose some limitations on her practice. Most important, it’s built using what’s immediately on hand, materials one doesn’t have to travel far to find. Sourcing the materials is as simple as looking across some neighboring properties and asking a neighbor with a Bobcat to help transport them.

“People with large equipment are your best friends,” says Hill. That sentiment echoes one voiced by rural writer Avery Alder about living in the country: “You need a lot of guys. You need a wood guy, and a plow guy, and if you don’t have a big enough truck you’re probably going to need a truck guy.”

The shipping container did indeed come from a nearby property, relatively untouched by the passage of time. “Shipping containers are an amazing product,” says Hill. “You can stack them four up; they’re structured, waterproof, and weather-resistant.”

Once Hill and Ahles had, ahem, sourced the container, they took it to a local automotive detailing garage to have it sandblasted and cut into a tube, which serves as the basis of the boathouse’s shape and structure. “Steel is the story,” says Hill, both of the Northwoods and of the boathouse as a microcosm of the region’s material and economic relationships.

The weathering steel that containers are made from is itself made from ore mined within a hundred miles of Togo. The ore is shipped by the ton out of Lake Superior harbors and made into steel. From there, it can be shaped into a variety of metal goods, including shipping containers, which then carry cargo across the world, from Duluth to Dubai and Dalian, Superior to Shenzhen and Singapore. The shipping container the boathouse is built from may have made the journey to and from Duluth dozens and perhaps hundreds of times, beginning as raw ore. Who knows how many ports it traveled to and from?

Like the container, the cedar flares that line the interior walls and ends of the boathouse will also be familiar to anyone who’s spent time considering the Northwoods landscape. The flare is the bottom portion of the tree near the roots, also known as a root collar. It’s the part of the tree that transitions from trunk to roots, left over once the trunk has been cut into lumber. Like shipping containers, you can find cast-off piles of them all over Northern Minnesota. Here, Hill has assembled them in such a way that gives them a topographical quality, like slot canyons or desert islands viewed from above, an archipelago of blobby organic forms separated by sinuous valleys or water features. They also call to mind the wood collages of Ojibwe artist George Morrison, who spent much of his career working in Northern Minnesota.

The flares are beautiful, uniquely shaped objects, but they don’t often serve any practical purposes once they’ve been cast off. If they do get recycled, they’re most commonly found in Northwoods cabins, gift shops, and family restaurants as tabletops or wall clocks lacquered to a high gloss. Hill’s flares came from a pile in a neighbor’s yard, beginning to rot from the center out but still structurally sound. The trees they came from were over two centuries old—“We’re not growing cedars like that anymore,” Hill’s neighbor noted ruefully when she picked them up from him. Hill calls the sliced cross-sections of the flares “cookies” or “biscuits,” and there is a light, playful quality to them that manages to coexist with a sort of ghostly, ancient character, emphasized by the rot in the center of many of them. Taken together, the cookies make up the cross-section of a ghost forest.

The panes of glass used in the windows are also harvested, in a less literal but no less significant way. Every architecture firm in the world, Hill explains, has piles of 12-inch-square samples of glass—“bajillions,” in Hill’s estimation—sent by eager manufacturers hoping to have their products used in projects, and most of them end up in the trash. These types of demonstration glass panes make up the windows of the boathouse, assembled into a grid, each one with a subtly different tinting or surface through which the light passes in a slightly different way. Who knows where their counterparts wound up? They could be mounted in high-rises all over the world, anonymous little pieces of global capital tethered at one end to towering glass cities and at the other end embedded in a boathouse in the woods of Togo.

In this way, the boathouse acts as a kind of inversion of the global supply chain. Every piece, down to the scrap steel from nearby mines used in the welding, is a result of some industrial process that began in Northern Minnesota. The castoffs ended up back there, somehow returned to the Northwoods. The future of sustainable architecture doesn’t necessarily need to be artisanally sourced in a particularly precious way. It might be lying in your truck guy’s log field.

The boathouse is both a sketch and a proof of concept, a project with no expectations from a client, a private challenge for two architects to work with only materials on hand. “We’ve done $100 million buildings, but in this case, we had to figure it out ourselves,” says Hill. “The materiality of the project was in tune with that idea. If you mess up, it’s not a big deal. It’s a great way to experiment. You can use things like rotting logs.”