In November 2011, half a breath after they started dating (indeed the idea may have originated on their very first date, a traipse through the woods in West Virginia that summer) artist Lilah Horwitz, whose "main thing" is crafting art "in the shape of clothing," and Nick Olson, a photographer who takes on building projects to "bring in any income," were daydreaming about their first home, making plans to scrape up their savings and hand-build a house, making use of Olson's family plot in West Virginia and the robust, disused barns that dotted it. "We hadn't known each other for very long," Horwitz says by phone, "but this idea of home and shelter and shared space became central in our relationship." They didn't want to move into someone else's space; instead, they wanted to create something as a joint project—and they wanted to do it from scratch. Seven months later, in June 2012, the circumstances were ripe: "We had a little bit of money and we could leave our jobs very quickly. We decided to go for it."
Another seven months later and the pair were posing for photos inside their sunlight-maximizing cabin, which boasts the sort of found-item hodgepodge that turned it into something of a shelter blog darling—see previous Curbed coverage here—and for good reason.
The springboard? Abandoned barns. One of the previous owners of the Olsons' property owned and operated a saw mill, spending his spare hours building barns out of fat, hand-hawed planks. These abandoned structures, the couple decided, were to be the main source of materials for their house. They hopped in a U-Haul and headed down to West Virginia.
They began at the local library, where they checked out tomes on home construction, supplementary materials for the YouTube tutorials they watched at a local cafe. They began pulling apart the barns, prying off the heavy planks, uprooting and collecting the nails, and de-piecing the roofs. "Probably 90 percent of the materials were reclaimed from the barn," Olson says. "That includes the boards and the beams and the roofing and the nails and [some of] the windows. That's what kept the cost of building so low."
With the $500 they spent on additional materials, the duo bought nails and other hardware, as well as items haggled for at flea markets and salvage yards. "We'd try and make deals with people," Horwitz says. They rummaged windows from discard piles at antiques markets on drives to and from NYC (where Horwitz has her clothing in stores). They spent weekends in recommissioned West Virginia drive-ins, a "huge culture shock" for Horwitz, who was previously based in Brooklyn. Perusing the flea markets was her "favorite thing to do." She poured over "the strangest mix of confederate flag bracelets and guns and wild old stuff," which beckoned from atop car hoods. The pair started a garden on the land and spent the summer and fall building the shelter they huddled beneath.
In December 2012, after half a year of lifting heavy boards and balancing on wobbly, 12-foot ladders—"I'd just be thinking, 'Oh my God we're going to die,'" Horwitz says—the pair finally had a place they considered livable, their end-goal fulfilled. "It was very wonderful to bring our little things together, our little mementos and things we've built and put them in a home together," Horwitz, who had no previous building experience, says. "And I could look and say, 'Wow I even put a roof over my head.'"
Olson says their home, constructed "less from a builder's perspective and more from an artist's perspective," was designed to "experience the changing light throughout the day in an interior space," which explains the house's most compelling feature: a façade made entirely of window panes. "It's basically made to watch the sunset," Olson says.
Shortly after they wrapped, however, Horwitz and Olson moved back to their homebase in Milwaukee, picking up odd jobs (Olson was building again, Lilah worked doing ceramics) to save up some money. Nowadays they're somewhere in California, taking the winter months to see the coast. As for what's next? "Every day there's a different 'oh my god let's do this!'" Horwitz says, and the success of their retreat has allowed dozens of other shelter-related ideas to percolate. For example, they want to buy some land and create "a village" of experimental builds, including a tiny traveling studio, a treehouse, and a geodesic dome.
And, of course, Horwitz and Olson aren't not through with their West Virginia project, either. They plan to spend this summer behind those glass panes, building out a summer kitchen and outdoor bathroom. The pair talk about the saga as addicts, hooked for the foreseeable future on this idea of crafting dwellings. As Olson says, "Being out there building it by ourselves, [...] being together completely isolated and learning how to do that—"
"You kind of realize you can do the things you think are impossible when you have no other choice," Horwitz finishes.
· Found-Material Woodland Retreat Was Built With Only $500 [Curbed National]
· Site-Specific Clothing by Lilah Horwitz [official site]
· Old World Grange [Horwitz and Olson's Tumblr]
· Nick Olson and Lilah Horwitz video [Half Cut Tea]