Honors class replicates Thoreau timber-frame house

A Tech Honors Program class, self-named the Thoreau Housing Collective, assembled a timber frame replica of the cabin Henry David Thoreau lived in and described in his book Walden. The class objective was to build the cabin as Thoreau built his, with a borrowed axe and a lot of self-reliance.

Hugh Crawford, professor of the class and CEO of the Thoreau Housing Collective said, “I had to turn it into something like problem-based learning. I walked in the first day of class and I said, by the end of this class you will have timber framed a house with 19th-century tools, you will have made a documentary film and we will have learned a whole bunch of stuff along the way that you will present in lots of different venues but, I wasn’t quite sure what the stuff that we were going to learn was.”

Initial difficulties included the lack of instructions provided. Thoreau left little detailed explanation of the building of his cabin out of his otherwise descriptive work. The class had to seek out the knowledge of felling trees and squaring timber in a completely authentic, 19th century style.

“In Crawford’s classes you tend to get out what you put in,” Victor Lesniewski third-year BME said, and building the house was only a part of the class and the experience. “It’s layered; it’s dense,” Lesniewski said about the grand theme of the class.

“On the surface you want to find out what type of experience Thoreau had building this…on the other side we were trying to make the case for embodied knowledge rather than representational knowledge,” said Lesniewski.

On his practical path to this embodied knowledge, Lesniewski had an accident with an adze that resulted in a trip to the hospital.

“It’s a sharp blade attached to a handle. You swing it between your legs so it self-regulates to a flat plane so essentially you’re shaving off pieces of the wood and squaring it to that flat plane. I thought that I was getting the feel of the adze a bit more…and on a follow through I barely tapped my leg. I keep on going, adze-ing away, and I realize that there’s a pool of blood around my ankle,” Lesniewski said.

Four stitches later he was back to squaring the planks.

The timber frame took around five months to complete. The class has 12 students, but by the time of the raising of the frame, over 30 people had joined in with the project.

Now that the frame is up, Crawford said that he wanted to pursue the communication part of the initial class objective.

“This [was] a course about making things public. Everything that we did we are going to find a way to talk about it,” Crawford said.

The class has already presented the project in various venues, including the library, the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) convention, and the Octane coffee shop.

“This was a course where I didn’t stand up and lecture about much of anything. We spent most of our time figuring out what we needed to know,” said Professor Crawford.

Nobody in the class had any extensive knowledge of carpentry or construction. “The learning curve was tremendous,” said Lesniewski.

Only Professor Crawford had experience with this type of project. Two years ago, he started the Mad Houser project in which he and his English Composition class constructed homeless housing in front of the architecture building.

The future of the Thoreau house is at this point uncertain. Professor Crawford has plans to perhaps place the house in Fernbank Forest where it can be used as a learning experience for anybody interested in the project.

The Tech Honors program is an undergraduate program that aims to bring together students and faculty to create a more intense and creative learning experience for those involved.

Professor Crawford, on the subject of honors classes said, “with honors classes, I always feel you can push them in a slight way because they’re volunteering.”