Asked to design a retirement home for Michael's parents on a heavily wooded site in northeast Georgia, this project has developed into a critique of contemporary cultural and spatial responses to aging. The program- a single family house with all major functions located on the ground floor for potential handicap accessibility- prompted my initial fear of, and subsequent fascination with, retirement in terms of repression and mortality. In a traditional, macro view of life retirement can be, paradoxically, both the goal and culmination; by definition a time to literally and/or figuratively go away.
The term Retirement Home conjures frighteningly benign images of contemporary, geriatric architecture in which insipid hours are spent playing bridge in "tastefully decorated activity rooms" beneath a "warm, light-filled atrium". Banality camoflages the aging body much the way the vulgarity of a satin lined casket draws our attention away from the reality of death; so plainly exhibited yet desperately repressed beneath the layers of formality, opulence, and flowers. In comfortable surroundings life passes easily. Formally this withdrawl into the Georgia woods represents a tacit denial of spatial repression in favor of confrontation. Here the allegory of aging is expressed through an ambiguous relationship between architecture and ground. The story, as told by this building, attempts to provoke a recognition of death, and more specifically, a conscious action in response. Is it, as an indication of the bodies within, rising from or sinking into the ground? Is retirement rebirth or reinterment?
The subtle curves of the major roof form were modeled/drawn by hand, dimensioned on the computer and then produced using conventional wood framing techniques. The form is composed of 57 site built 2x10 trusses on 16" centers, then clad in standing seam galvalume over plywood.
Lacking sophisticated modeling software and CNC technology the subtle curves of the major roof form were modeled by hand, translated to dimensioned drawings in CAD, and then fabricated on-site using conventional wood framing techniques and hand tools. Comprised of 57 unique, site-built trusses consisting of 2x8 and 2x10 lumber on 16” centers. The pitch of each truss changes incrementally, moving from East to West, and rests on supporting 2x4 and 2x6 walls that curve in both plan and elevation. Full-scale plans of these walls were plotted and used as a template to cut curved sill and top plates from laminated panels of ¾” plywood. Dimensioned shop drawings established the initial lumber sizes and simple, plywood gusset plates allowed for easy adjustments and ‘fine tuning’ based visual evidence in the field. In other words, if the curve didn’t look quite right it was easy to adjust using on eyeball measurements and a skilsaw. Three, unskilled people completed framing the trusses for the twisted form in twelve days with the remainder of framing occurring over seven months. Due to the relatively minor distortion between any two trusses, ½” plywood could conform to the curve and nailed in place, although at least two edges on each 4’x8’ sheet had to be trimmed to fit.
These low-tech methods were necessary due to a limited budget and a novice construction crew. The project designer along with his father and uncle did the actual construction on this project; none of them had any previous construction experience.
As with all aspects of The Home, the custom stairs, bridge, and built-in cabinetry were designed and fabricated by the architect. The configuration and tectonics of the interior components were developed within constraints marked by a limited knowledge and facility with metal working and a lack of exotic equipment. The staircase, railings, and bridge incorporate standard, widely available steel sections cut to size with a metal bandsaw and fastened with tapped and screwed connections, thus limiting the need for the specialized skills and material associated with welding. The cherry hardwood risers and treads of the staircase float within the steel structure and exemplify the interior woodworking employed on cabinetry throughout the project.
Client: Joseph and Barbara Hughes
Design Team: Michael Hughes, Earl Durand,
Building Crew: Michael Hughes, Joe Hughes,
Sitework + Foundations: Ray Rice Construction
Photography: Alex Harris
Honor Award, Colorado AIA Design Awards, 2006
Merit Award, Gulf States Region AIA Design Award
"Death Defying Act.' Progressive Architecture
"Extreme Retirement." Dwell, February 2001
"The Home." GA Houses: Projects 1995