clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Cabin Porn Author Zach Klein on His Book, Beaver Brook and the DIY Cabin Craze

New, 1 comment

Idyllic dreams about living a simpler life in the woods, and the clarifying power of nature, have been a theme in American life since we left those woods for cities. Zach Klein's genius was distilling it down to a simple phrase: Cabin Porn. The tech exec's Tumblr, a perfect and precise portrait of society's obsession over tiny places in the great outdoors, has been a huge hit since the former co-founder of Vimeo started publishing cabin pics in 2010. Klein's site, as well as his own cabin construction in Beaver Brook, New York, has become the inspiration for a book of the same name, a compendium of stories and images meant to inspire a move to nature. Curbed interviewed Klein via email about his new book, his own adventures in cabin construction, and how both have influenced his thoughts on the built environment.

Has the blog and book, and experience of living at Beaver Brook (a 50-acre site in upstate New York where Klein and friends have built cabins), taught you a lot about simplifying life and changed your design aesthetic in any way?
This is a massive question! That's a lot to unpack, but I will add this one tidbit:

Christopher Alexander suggested in his book Pattern Language that you should never build a home on the prettiest spot. A tremendous number of factors came together over a long period of time to make that pretty spot and we should preserve it, to always have it to look upon. Instead, we should find that ugly place, and there we'll find an opportunity for human ingenuity to create someplace wonderful.

Given everything we've built, I think about this a lot now. I wonder more often about how the land can inform us what to make and where.

Have you seen a difference in the way that people are constructing and building cabins since you started the blog a few years ago, and since the tiny homes movement has become such a big deal? Have there been any noticeable shifts in style and design?
I have not yet sensed Cabin Porn's impact on building. If we have influenced anyone, I'm not sure we would notice it or know what to look for. Our collection is diverse, we've received over 15,000 submissions from dozens of countries and are fairly balanced in the style and tradition that we feature.

I'm not sure if we've influenced them, but I love to see projects like this ... a bunch of friends giving it a shot.

Does it seem like the world of DIY cabin construction has also gotten bigger and more accessible? Were there particular moments where you felt like you had a real phenomenon on your hands?

I knew it was a phenomenon when I first checked the demographics of people who liked our Facebook page and realized that our audience was evenly balanced between people aged 18-34 and 65+. The vision we promote seems to be ageless.

How has the expanded programming at Beaver Brook gone this fall? How did the construction of the kitchen pavilion go earlier this month, and how has the artist's residency progressed?
Unfortunately, the programming hasn't expanded yet. We still offer one workshop each year that lasts about ten days in the summer. We call it the Beaver Brook School. This year's build was particularly successful. The project was just the right size (we actually finished the building) and just the right amount of whimsy (the design allowed for a high margin for error, didn't get too bogged down in technical details). And the students learned the beautiful art of timber-framing.




How do you see the property evolving next year?
My fantasy is to make Beaver Brook a full-time design/build school, but that's unlikely for as long as I live in California full-time, or until I find the right person to take over and make it happen.

How much time do you spend at Beaver Brook during the course of the year?
My family and I are there about six weeks a year.

Do you see these programs, and the school at Beaver Brook, as an outgrowth of the Cabin Porn book? Has it been a laboratory of sorts to experiment and learn about the kind of lifestyle you had been writing about?
I've always intended Beaver Brook to be nothing more than a piece of land to share. Efforts like the Beaver Brook School are my way of testing how to share the property with a circle larger than my closest friends. Remarkably everyone has a similar experience: a sudden and deep connection to the place, and an overwhelming sense of empowerment when they learn new skills there. It's a unique experience and I want more people to try it. In some way, Cabin Porn exists to encourage people to try something similar on their own, and allows me to share Beaver Brook's story with a wider group.

The book seems, based on looking at some of the descriptions and images, that it's a lot more educational – what can reader expect, and how is it different than what's on the site?
Although the site is prolific, it's fairly one-dimensional. Each entry features only an image, brief description, location, and a credit to the submitter. Our brevity results from a decision we made a long time ago that we would never make the blog something more than we could maintain ourselves with the time we had on hand. In other words, the format is designed so that we always have enough time to keep it up (I publish most posts on my walks to get coffee). So many great blogs die because they're too ambitious. The trade-off is that over the years, we've missed many opportunities to tell great stories about the people who made these buildings. The book was our chance to do that, our reconciliation for the stories we didn't tell. So that's what we made. Ten great stories about ten great, handmade places. And hundreds of great images, too, of course.

Were there any projects at Beaver Brook, successful or unsuccessful, that were very instructive to you?
There are two Beaver Brook building projects that contrast with each other sharply.

We commissioned a substantial bunkhouse to be built using an salvaged barn frame; it's our hub for large group gatherings and winter lodging. It was a complex project involving dozens of tradesmen, and for me it was my first experience managing the design and construction of a building. It's been three years since we completed it and sadly, I've realized that it doesn't belong. It looms on its site and doesn't relate to the land in any interesting way, and it's complex to maintain. Of course, it's obvious to me now why it was an unsuccessful project. The building envelope was borrowed from another building designed for a different purpose, and our re-casting of the building was designed in a vacuum, using SketchUp, mostly while away from the land. Now, I can't look at it without becoming overwhelmed by all of the decisions we didn't make because we didn't understand that the challenge wasn't only to make a building that could comfortably sleep 20 people, we also had to solve for making a building that belonged to its surroundings, that could be approached from each side and make sense.

Then, there's the suspension bridge conceived by my friend Jace Cooke. It's an elegant span across the brook and, incredibly, makes a perfect setting even more so. It replaced a fallen tree that we used for two years to cross. Of all things we've made, the bridge is the thing we use most. And we cherish it. We love standing on it and looking downstream, we love taking photos of it, we love to see the sheer joy (or sometimes fright) on the faces of people who cross it the first time. It was built by people who really knew the place and clearly understood the problem they were solving. All of the problems. It's beautiful.

Can you tell me about the home you're building in San Francisco – what were the inspirations for the design, and how does it reflect your philosophies on lifestyle and architecture that you've learned from your work with Cabin Porn and Beaver Brook?
Our project comprises two buildings separated by garden. One building is original and dates back to 1880's, the second is new construction that we're beginning this month.

It reflects Beaver Brook and Cabin Porn in at least two ways: 1) Its modest proportions. Each building is 1200 square feet and the floor plans are cozy. 2) The dependency on the outdoors. Key functions are spread between the two buildings, bedrooms primarily in one, office and living space in the other, connected by a garden that serves both as a passage and a cloister.

The new building reflects our predilection for small homes, but it's probably more informed by walks we took in Tokyo than our time at Beaver Brook. That said, building in SF and building in BB are solving the same problem with different constraints, it's all about having the right mixture of community and privacy and density and nature. At BB, we have a lot of trees and few people, and the things we build help to instigate community. In SF, we're overwhelmed by the activity of our neighborhood and we seek a quiet shelter from it.

· This Adorable 96-Sq.-Ft. Cabin Cost Just $10.5K to Build [Curbed]
· This 161-Square-Foot Writer's Cabin Looks Like a Cozy Place to Pen the Next Great Novel [Curbed]
· You Can Rent This Idyllic Finnish Floating Sauna-Cabin [Curbed]