Design, Build and Installations
Designer and builder
MST Photo Essays

Little Black House 2018
Design and solo-build by Michael Simon Toon

One of thousands of abandoned homesteads in Wonder Valley

In 2018 I decided to build a small building in Joshua Tree, in the high desert of Southern California. I had recently built some picture frames for my friend’s art collection, and I imagined how easy it would be to make windows and window frames. I’d already made door frames, doors, roofs, floors for other projects; the last piece of the puzzle (a puzzle I was not consciously trying to complete) clicked into place - I knew how to make a building with my bare hands (or even wearing gloves), solo, from the ground up. To illustrate how isolated each construction job is normally, a carpenter of twenty years, asked me, “Where are you going to start?” I replied, “We in the business usually like to start at the bottom, being as the top of the building will not float in the air.” This seemed entirely reasonable to him, though not immediately obvious; it was completely understandable question from someone that specializes in one area. As with houses, so with most endeavors that are comprised of many smaller tasks - start in order, and start from the ground up. For me, that starts with pen and paper. It is highly practical for making lists and drawings, but you might also consider it a magic (that’s why they call it ‘spelling’) and oh-so-difficult first step to getting just about anything done, that you might want to do. In retrospect, a better answer to the same question might have been, “Make a list.”

Foundations for first Little Black House, and my daughter, Pioneer Town

In 1862, under Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Government passed the Homestead Act which allowed, for the cost of $18, any person including women, immigrants and former slaves, that was the head of a household, or at least 21 years of age, to claim a 160-acre parcel of land. The homesteaders were required to build, make improvements, and farm on the land of five years to be able to keep the property; no simple task. In 1938 The Small Tract Act was passed which allowed claims of smaller 5-acre parcels of land, without the caveat for farming. Veterans and victims of the Great Depression migrated to the high desert east of Los Angeles to make their claim. Each homesteader was required to build a cabin at least 120 sq ft in area, for use as a home, or business, for recreation, or convalescence. As a consequence, today there are thousands of abandoned and derelict small cabins littered across Joshua Tree and neighboring Wonder Valley. They are a glimpse into history for some, an eye sore for others. Many have grown into well-maintained homes. Others are abandoned and weather-beaten, some have only their skeletal remains or concrete pads, with owners that have not seen their property in decades. Understandably, many are squatted in by those that take advantage of the infrequent visitors to the relatively deep and unforgiving desert.

Cutting wood on mobile miter saw or “Blocks!” as my daughter called them

I designed a 120 sq ft structure, first with a pen of course, then on the computer. I adopted a position of both experience, but also a fresh ignorance, of conventional standards. Building standards are wise, and many, but there is always room for improvement and I had long been unsatisfied with at least a few standard building practices. The benefit of seeing countless small buildings in the desert at each and every various state of decay is the ability to see which parts of the building fail first. The skeletal frames made from the solid 2x4s, 2x6s, 2x12s etc. fare very well, as do the concrete pads. The first part to fail is the plywood shell, if there is one. Some desert cabins are made of brick. From experience, I can say that in the daytime, these brick buildings heat up and release the heat at night like a brick oven, making their interiors uncomfortably hot, even when it’s cool outside. After examining the exposed wooden frames of some of the derelict cabins, I noticed that the hot desert sun had not rendered the wood unusable; in fact it seemed to have preserved it, as was still remarkably strong and relatively unaffected. Plywood is a composite with glue layers and has many points of potential failure. Knowing this, I was unsatisfied with the accepted construction method of using plywood boards to keep wooden frames from shearing forces, that is preventing the rectangular walls from becoming parallelograms; a phenomenon clearly visible in the derelict cabins where the plywood has deteriorated but the wooden frame is still intact.”

How not to get sunburn in the desert

If you build a black house in the desert, be ready to defend your position. “Isn’t it going to get hot?” people will ask in so many ways, smirking and feeling ever so clever. Yes, if you put something in the desert it will get hot. Yes, black and darker colors will get hot quicker. They also lose heat faster. Many desert animals are black, from beetles to scorpions to crows; they have not evolved to be white to reflect heat. Polar bears are white, and they don’t live in the desert, nor do they have problem “reflecting too much heat” in the Arctic, due to their camouflage. The Tuareg people of the Sahara wear dark blue, and the Bedouins wear black, because they know from experience that it has a cooling effect. Scientifically, the best color for a radiator (whether in your car or in the home) is matte black. Of all the colors we can apply to an object, black is the best infrared emitter, and infrared radiation is able to carry more heat energy (away from the object) than visible light. Besides color, the building material has an effect on interior comfort; wood in contrast with brick also has a low thermal mass, so it cannot store or radiate heat well. If you build a black house in the desert, you will have to explain all of this dozens of times; maybe get a t-shirt printed, or a leaflet, and keep it in your pocket.

Unconventional framing, raised decking

Building in the desert is an undertaking not to be underestimated, nor the risks ignored. As a single full-time parent, I had some extra challenges. From her birth until school, I chose to keep my daughter by my side, for everything. I’m not an accountant, a lawyer or such that I cannot share my work with her; everything I do just happens to also be of interest to her; she is a talented artist and I’d like to think a ‘chip off the old block.’ Before building work started, of course my daughter needed to catered for, and I saw no reason for a ‘dip in service.’ I built an open-air shelter for her, reminiscent of the British on Safari, filled with books, toys and educational flash-cards. For meals, I used the same solar panels and battery to power a deep fryer to make her favorite fresh-cut french fries cooked in olive oil, a pizza oven for fresh made dough pizzas, and home-made pancakes on a griddle. I set up her play-area next to two gigantic boulders with a narrow gap in between them which cooled the air flowing through them providing a natural air conditioning. We would start at 5am, taking a break in the midday sun, and continue in the cooler evening. In between parenting, I would build, one eye on my daughter, the other on the task at hand. In my mind I was directly inspired by Sacagawea, the woman that did everything Lewis and Clark did and more, but also with baby on her back. Occasionally I would ask her to pass me my hammer, knowing even at the time, that these small experiences and memories, like showing her how to throw and catch a ball, perhaps even more so than teaching her how to read, would be the ones of which she might eventually be the fondest. One of my proudest achievements of the project is that I never once saw a bead of sweat on her brow, in the desert summer.

Proprietary scaffolding (home-made) to be later incorprated into structure

Like Sacagawea, we had no mains electricity, mains water, or plumbing. Unlike Sacagawea, we had 300W solar panels and 3kW battery to provide power for lighting, power tools and cooking, (before we make too much of a comparison with an otherwise incomparable teenage heroine that endured sexual slavery and walked across mountains and deserts traversing the whole country with her newborn, leading men that would take the glory). In fact, ‘roughing-it’ has never been my intention, nor my idea of a good time. I do not understand the fetishizing of the basic limitations of ‘camping’ culture with which we may be familiar. Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark would have used every resource, every technology and advantage available to them to achieve their objective. They were not in search of the rustic, outdoor experience (adventure, perhaps); at least not in the way modern people would; they were trying to achieve an objective as efficiently as possible. I believe in moving forwards, as they exemplified, not backwards. I have no interest in reversing progress, I want to make things ‘better,’ not ‘older’ or ‘simpler.’ People born in cities can forget, if they ever knew at all, that nature, on the outside of their walled cities, is constantly trying to kill them. Nature, holistically, keeps us alive; but individually the animals and plants want to eat you, and without protection from the elements we would perish. My name, Toon, is the origin of the word, ‘town,’ - a ‘toon’ was the wall surrounding early settlements in Britain, protecting them from the ‘outside.’ In a sense, the act of wearing spectacles, shoes, clothes, building bridges, buildings, or walls; these are not an integration with nature, they are an overcoming of it.

Second version, Joshua Tree. I rather think it has an emergent rustic-modernist-tudor style

Again, before we get carried away making comparisons, the pendulum always swings too far on its way back. Overcoming nature has its limits. We can’t replace it, nor do without it, and why on Earth would we want to? WE are an inextricable part of nature, with just as much right, (or lack of) as anything else. Is there some sort of middle ground between overcoming nature, and submitting to it? Yes. Like everything in the universe since the beginning of time and maybe before that, there is balance to all things. Whether it is a star, a galaxy, or a soap bubble, there is a perfect balance. Balance, not just in a linear sense, like a tightrope walker that can fall left or right; balance is what makes bubbles and plants perfectly round in three dimensions. A metronome moves back and forth because it’s balanced in the 4th dimension, time. The universe is already a perfect balancing trick, and we should endeavor not to rock the boat unnecessarily while we’re ‘overcoming’ nature. Nature is a complex system with checks and balances of which we are not fully aware. There is common word that I can’t help noticing has fallen out of fashion in recent years for whatever reason, that is used in a different context by architects - sympathetic. It is possible to design, build, and operate, sympathetically, with our environment, and circumstances. Sympathy, as described by the third part of the second definition in the dictionary means, “relating harmoniously to something else; in keeping.” When wearing spectacles, we are overcoming nature, but we are also ‘in keeping’ with it, as spectacles mimic and perform the same function of the natural lens of an animal’s eye; they also assist or improve a natural process - seeing.

The sun shines its light [and reveals everything] - Ephesians 5:13 (in this case, my sawdust on the floor)

Before our little black house was complete, it was bought by a local party in Joshua Tree. After disassembly and transportation sixteen miles to its new location, I solo-rebuilt it (again, with my daughter’s help) using the exact same materials in a configuration more ‘sympathetic’ to the landscape, (moving the windows to be able to see the sunset). The first build took 3 months, and the second time I was able to complete the build from breaking ground to completion; waterproof roof, windows, doors, seals, locks etc. in 30 days. Its owner uses the little building for meditation and yoga, keeping it sparse; shielding the occupant from the harsher elements while still feeling part of them, without distractions. Now the high desert has yet another small building, though I would like to think that in fifty or a hundred years time, this one will still be there, functional and intact, having learned the lessons from all the local homestead cabins that came before it. As a bonus, or perhaps consequence, my daughter seems to have found at least one calling in life: slave driver. Quite the motivational speaker, she would, each time, after seconds of me sitting down taking a break, exclaim, “Now the walls! Now the doors! Now the windows! Now the roof!” uncannily at exactly the time that each task became possible. It would seem that my 5-year-old-at-the-time daughter, does in fact, know the correct order in which to build a house, even with zero carpentry experience.

— Michael Simon Toon