Gateway (II)

Since my last post in this thread, where I mentioned an upcoming project with a well-known and long-established Museum on the east coast, things have been moving along gradually.  I’m patient with the process and re-adjusting expectations when dealing with a larger project and one with many involved parties. So far so good in that regard.

The process I have been involved with over the past year or so has comprised a number of phases. There were initial discussions and meetings, then I wrote up a written 12 page preliminary proposal, followed by a revised and extended ‘proposal II’. In ‘II’, I mentioned that the 25 year lifespan of the current gate – now in a poor state – was really far short of ideal, especially in light of the precious material involved, namely Japanese Hinoki, a relative of Port Orford Cedar and Atlantic White Cedar in the US. The material specified for replacing the Hinoki is in fact to be Port Orford Cedar, however POC is a species with a very limited habitat (a small portion of southern Oregon and a few patches in northern California), and is currently under attack from a root-borne fungus which is killing off the trees. With climate changes in that portion of the country likely to be in the direction of increased aridity, and given the seemingly inexorable march of the root rot problem, the future supply of Port Orford Cedar is, well, uncertain at best.

Given those factors, I argued in my proposal, both part I and II, for changing the gate design, moving away from the simple kabukimon arrangement towards a roofed gate form. Any wooden structure outdoors will last far longer with a roof on it than without. Without a roof, in most species of wood, you are looking at 10~25 years durability, tops. Clearly, the lifespan of Hinoki, left out in the weather, is but 25 years in the Boston climate.

In proposal ‘II’, I laid out some options for improving the weatherproofness of the gate, incremental steps ranging from foundation changes, to additional copper cladding/flashing and capping, to added-on mini-roofs, to a fully-roofed gate form, of which there are various options. As one moves along through the steps, the appearance of the gate is modified further and further from the original configuration. While these weatherproofing options would certainly increase the up-front build cost of the gate, the reward, as such, is some increase in durability: the fully-roofed option would gain, I would think, at the minimum a 5- to 6-fold extension of gate lifespan. The steps short of a full roof would gain a certain increase in durability, but it was more difficult to anticipate how much bang for the buck that would actually mean. The question as ever: spend money up front to do it right, or, as is more commonly the case, spend far more money later to make it right?

One important point in this equation is that Port Orford Cedar is getting scarce and expensive now – what’s the availability and price picture for this species going to look like in 25 years? From what I have seen with other species, I would not be optimistic in that regard. Materials in general are going to be more expensive in 25 years than they are now, and one might expect labor costs, insurance, taxes, etc., to have also risen some amount.

Moreover, the elephant in the room, so to speak: is it ethical to take a 300~400 year old tree, convert it into timber and configure it into a structure which, by its very design, sees that wood rot away in 25 years? I don’t need to spend much time thinking on that issue to reach a conclusion, personally. In years past, this might have been something that people once barely batted an eye at, in the time when trees seemed a limitless resource and there was always another hillside to be found and more trees to chop, ‘as far as the eye could see’. Those days are over, and how we use natural materials must move forward into a sustainable paradigm or else we simply repeat the fate of the Easter Islanders, chopping down that last tree, comfortable perhaps in the thought that ‘it was the way things have always been done’.

That sustainability piece is really important to me, and it was clear to me from discussions that simply from an economic ROI (return on investment) perspective, the Museum was looking for a better outcome for their dollar than a 25-year gate lifespan. They knew as well that they could not simply count on funding to materialize for another gate if it were required 25 years from now – – make hay while the sun shines in other words.

In the end the Museum received a funding grant which allowed for the construction of a roofed gate, as per the proposal recommendations I had made. While the course may have seemed straightforward at that point, it turned out that there were peripheral parties involved with the process who were uncomfortable with any change away from the original garden designer’s specifications in regards to the gate. While I understand and greatly respect those motives, for me it comes down to the simple fact that the previously installed gate only survived 25 years, and that short lifespan is due almost entirely to the design of the gate. For me what counts is how can best use a precious and perishable material to create a structure of beauty and durability. The roof is the best solution to that puzzle.

The Museum was trying to steer a smooth path through these competing visions of what should be done with the garden, and so when I met with staff there after funding had come through, they indicated that there were looking to replace the gate much as is, with the addition of some mini-roofs to the top of the cross-beam and post caps, etc.. This is the sort of thing they were contemplating – a picture of one of the roofing options I had supplied in the proposal ‘II’:

If you look closely, you can see through the gates opening that there are a pair of smaller and lower roofs heading out to the rear of the gate, cross-wise to the main beam. These cover over the rear support posts, hikae-bashira, and associated ties. The form of this gate, having three small roofs, is fairly similar to a kind of gate most often associated with Japanese castles, a kōrai-mon, with the exception of the relationship between the main posts and beam. Notice above that there are portions of the main posts which protrude above the main roof. The projections are shingled in copper completely (which makes good sense to do). With a kōrai-mon, however, the roof sits atop the posts and covers them completely, which makes better sense for other reasons. I can’t say the arrangement seen in the above photo is entirely attractive, and all in all it would make more sense, at least to me, to have a gate in which the roof completely covered the posts, instead of inviting future trouble by having the posts pierce the roof fabric. A golden rule of sound roof design is to keep the folds and penetrations of the roof membrane as low in number as possible.

Key point: It’s always better to depend upon geometry to shed water as opposed to depending upon materials to keep water out.

The Museum asked me to undertake some preliminary sketches of a gate similar to the above-pictured example so as to have something with which they could move forward in internal discussion. While they were sold on the idea of protecting their investment by adding some roofing, they were also seeking a balanced solution to the various viewpoints on the project, and so they were looking at a middle path. Sometimes this middle path seems like a fair compromise to solve tension between competing visions and expectations, however it is not always the case that a compromise in direction is in fact a wise direction. Sometimes a compromise means everyone ‘wins’ to some extent and sometime it means everyone ‘loses’ to some extent. But great designs are rarely produced by trying to balance a weigh scale….

I was very excited from the get-go at the prospect of a project such as this. For me, to have the chance to build a traditional Japanese structure, and one that would be publicly accessible, was an incredible opportunity, and one which I have been hoping would come along. I was slightly deflated the museum was indicating a design direction that fell short of what I thought would be the wisest course, however I returned home intending to draw up a version of the gate with the mini-roofs and additional flashing. I felt I had made, in my proposal, a strong pitch for a roofed gate and they had chosen not to go with that idea, and thought that maybe it was best if I simply accepted the situation as it was and get on with designing what they asked me to do (?)

It has often been the lot of craftspeople to be merely the ‘hands’, executing the plans and designs of others, and this is something I’ve brought up many times before on this blog – and railed against. What it boils down to, it seems to me, is to use one’s skill and knowledge to benefit the client, as it is not always the case that the client is intimately familiar with the technical details that can make or break a design, regardless of how attractive the design may appear to them. And some design ideas, regardless of aesthetics, are simply bad ideas, no two ways about it. One task of a craftsperson is to endeavor to educate their clients about the things which matter in terms of craftsmanship. It’s a case that needs to be made, though in practice it is not always an effective selling proposition. The hierarchy of needs with each client may mean that crafstmanship, sound building practice, wise use of materials, etc., can take a place several steps down their list of priorities. It’s not that those things aren’t important, it’s just that they may be invisible to the client and other things play larger in their minds. For me, those things are on the top of the list of what is important, and some projects must be turned down even if certain minimums cannot be met in a project, though saying ‘no’ can be hard to do in a lot of cases. Fortunately though, there is often some room for getting the critical details funded in most projects, if the matter is explained succinctly and persuasively. A craftsman-builder does no good service putting up a structure they know from the outset will have defects in its design that reduce the integrity and lifespan of a structure.

As I explored the gate design in more detail, I soon came to the conclusion that the mini-roof idea was simply not a very good direction to take regardless. I also asked myself if I this was simply a case of confirmation bias, and I don’t think so – I saw clear reasons why the mini-roof idea fell short (excuse the play on words). While the small roofs offered an improvement over having no roofs, after taking time to consider the matter in detail, the improvement was, in my estimation, a marginal one at best.

For one thing, if you look at how the weather deteriorates a wooden structure, presuming normal functioning of the structure (in other words, no leaks at the flashing, etc.), the portion of the structure which takes the brunt of the damage is the lower 1/3rd of the structure closest to the soil. The damage is most severe just above the ground, where you get the unfortunate tag team of dripping water and mud splash, with the associated wood-devouring fungi which eventually take hold. Kind of like a  Muay Thai fight, where one kick to the thigh too many and the opponent can no longer stand up, the weather effects give a beating on the wood elements most acutely on the lowest parts of the structure. The lowest portions of the structure get wet the most quickly, and dry the most slowly. Any moisture which may have accumulated higher up on the structure, drains downward, keeping the lower parts wet for longer. Eventually rot sets in. And when the lowest parts of the structure become wobbly, the entire edifice becomes vulnerable to collapse, while upper areas of the structure may be in reasonable condition.

Looking at the current gate, there is ample evidence of this weathering process:

Having a mini-roof on the gate is the same thing as having a house with a small eave projection. New England is a great place to see such houses, and when it rains, as one would expect, where the rain drips is where the bottom 1/4~1/3 of the house walls can be readily seen to be soaked, and these are the portions of wall which are invariably in the worst condition. Here’s one local example, a fairly modern small barn on a  concrete foundation:

A closer look:

The trend is clear to see on a building about 15 years old.

I realized that, like short eaves, the mini-roofs tacked onto a gate would do very little to stop the process of the lowest portions of the gate taking the brunt of the weather.  In fact, leaving the roofs off altogether would confer but one advantage: the entire gate would rot out more or less evenly. A consolation prize, perhaps.

Another problem relates to the presence of the cross-wise roofs heading out to the rear – here’s an example of a kōrai-mon for illustrative purposes:

Now imagine it’s raining and you are standing between the gate’s doors – would that likely be a nice spot to hang out? I didn’t think so either. The only way that arrangement could work for people who did wish to stand in that space would be to put gutters on all the roofs (which some kōrai-mon have). That’s a route which then percolates on down, design-wise, to other fundamentals of the site, like drainage. It didn’t seem like a good direction to go. One of the advantages to a roofed gate – and in fact a significant reason for larger temple gates having roofs in the first place – is that it provides shelter from the weather, which allows someone who might want to take in the garden, but not stand out in the rain, to linger a while. In the first few centuries after Buddhism and Buddhist temples appeared in Japan, it was not possible for commoners to actually enter these sacred compounds – they could approach to the gate only, and pray towards the inner recesses. Even priests were only able to enter the most sacred spaces but once a year. A roofed gate allows people a comfortable place to stop and contemplate what lies within, and thus the roofed gate takes a place in the cultures of both Japan and China.

On another front, I realized that cost-wise, the added mini-roofs were every bit as complex and time-consuming to build as having a single main roof covering the entire structure. There was essentially no cost-saving to be realized by going to the mini-roofs – in other words, for the same investment one could have a single covering roof, which was a vastly superior solution in terms of protecting the structure over time.

It then became quite clear to me, after some pacing and cogitating, that I had to make a second push for the fully roofed gate. I feel, in retrospect, that this was in interesting junction in my professional career. I believed firmly in the virtues of the fully roofed gate, and yet after proposing that initially, the client had chosen a different direction. I had to make a decision about whether to make another push, to make the case again for the roofed gate, in the hope that they would listen and would see the logic in it, and would see how that represented the wisest investment in terms of money and materials. But to make another push was also to invite the possibility that they might react negatively – some people, after their ‘minds are made up that’s it’, and they may resent any further entreaties to reconsider their decision. I worried that I risked the possibility of damaging my relationship with my contacts at the Museum if I brought the topic up again. And yet, when I reflected on my duty as a designer and carpenter, and considered the sort of work I wanted to leave behind in this world, I could only conclude that the risk was one very much worth taking. I was confident in my beliefs, and was hopeful that the client would be open to my input. I decided to tread carefully, but determinedly.

I took a breath and made the phone call, explained my conclusions about the mini-roof idea, made my argument, and discussions ensued within the Museum. They came back to me a week later and asked me to draw what I was proposing, and that they would “take that into consideration”. A crack in the door thus appeared. I then spent about a week drawing the gate, taking into account some of the aesthetic direction that the Museum staff had indicated. They were looking for a gate which was not tending towards ‘monumentality’, a gate without a lot of ornament and elaboration. Not being intimately familiar with Japanese architecture, they found a lot of Japanese wooded buildings had roofs which appeared (overly) massive to them. They wanted something toned down from that. Hah! – I was now the one trying to steer a middle path….

Considering the issue of a full roof, it was not long before I came to see the wisdom in placing the roof over the structure so that the roof ridge was set back from the main front posts, centered over the entire structure. This pattern of gate is the physician’s gate, or yakuimon. Based on some examples I had seen in Japan, I decided to modify the typical yakuimon framing so that the structural core of the gate was in fact virtually identical to the kabukimon pattern, save for the posts sticking out through the roof. I did this as I thought it would mean the gate was changing less from its predecessor than otherwise. I then dropped the roof slope down a notch or two from what is otherwise typical, and scaled the mass of the gate to match the feel of its predecessor. This gate not only fronts the garden, which suggests a certain scale, but also is placed within a wall attached to the massive museum building itself, so the proportioning had to work for both contexts. While most Japanese gates have a more massive and steeply pitched roof, there were certainly classic and pleasing examples to be seen which had shallower roof lines.

Here’s my design for the new MFA Tenshin-en gate as it stands currently – front elevation:

Perspective view from the front:

The flanking section on the right side contains a small door, while the one on the left is paneled.

Side elevation, showing the non-centered roof:

I have not rendered the roof’s small minoko completely cleanly or accurately in SketchUp due to time constraints and the hassle of doing such double-curvature drawing work in SketchUp. This roof employs the traditional hidden roof/decorative roof system. The roof will be shingled in copper, and the above drawing does not show that shingling in detail, again. The barge boards will be profiled with mayu, also not shown on the drawings. Some details may yet change, design-wise, and I am open to massaging out further refinements and adjustments. The above represents but a week of exploration, and I’m sure further consideration may well result in some tweaks at least.

The design was submitted more than a month ago and has now made its way through several levels of approval at the Museum. They decided that the final arbiter of whether the design was appropriate to the garden would be the son of the original garden designer, a fellow who lives in Japan. In the past few days we have received his blessing (whew!), and I am in fact going to be meeting with him later this month, along with other people involved in the garden rebuild project. I’ll be interested to hear his impressions of my design and see if he has any desires for stylistic changes.

The Museum’s Conservator has requested that I build a scale model of the gate as part of the project, so I am likely to be starting in on a 1/10 scale model sometime later this month. That will be a lot of fun to construct, and I’ll be interested to see how the scale model might affect perceptions of the design.

I had been waiting for some paperwork to complete so that a purchase order comes through, and that happened yesterday so the project is officially underway! I will make my way out to Oregon next week to look at some POC logs. I’m looking forward to that, and of course you’ll read and see the developments here on the Carpentry Way. Thanks for coming by. On to post III.

21 Replies to “Gateway (II)”

  1. Chris

    I feel as if I am in some strange parallel universe, where integrity and concern for the future prevail! This is great news.


  2. Congratulations! As a rough estimation how much time do you see the build phase needing (layout, cut out, foundations, assembly etc..)? This will be a great project for you and well deserved it is!

  3. I too wonder if I have entered a parallel universe where the ship that seemed to be coming into harbor actually came into harbor, and nice stuff happened as a result. Good to have your comment.


  4. Shawn,

    thanks! The plan that was incorporated with the proposal was envisioning an earlier start and completion for April of 2014. The Museum wants the gate to go in for the third week of April as they have a garden-opening ceremony scheduled. With the project getting started a little later than expected, the completion date has now been pushed ahead to April of 2015, which is providing a lot more time for the build than is necessary. What the stretched time frame does allow as an awesome benefit is that there will be more than 12 months of time for drying the timbers, which is more than ample for the smaller bits and probably about right for the larger ones, given drying by dehumidification method and possibly vacuum kiln dry as well. I have to talk to the kiln people to see what they suggest based on their experience. Not sure of what the starting moisture content is going to be at this point.

    The next few months are all about finalizing the drawings, obtaining the timber and getting it into drying, then making the 1/10 scale model. Next year I will remove the old gate at some point – kind of playing it by ear in that regard.


  5. Thank you so much! We just visited Tenshin-en at the beginning of our recent east coast trip. Making our way around the geese, we spent a wonderful morning at the garden. This gate is quite beautiful, though as you note in need of replacement. The design considerations you have laid out are quite detailed (as one would expect from you) and well thought out. The resulting design is something I can picture in that spot. I look forward to your continuing adventures with Port Orford cedar, museum boards, Kinsaku Nakane's son, and Boston weather. Nakane-san, by the way, has a connection to our County's garden, Lili`uokalani Gardens.
    Much aloha,

  6. K.T.,

    very nice to hear from you and your warm comment is greatly appreciated! I haven't much idea about the plans for the resurrection of the garden itself, but a lot of work is supposed to be taking place this month.


  7. Wow! As usual, an inspirational read, which will set my head spinning for the rest of the day. I'm a beginner woodworker in Western Australia, embarking on the adventure of building a house. I had a stint of time in Japan and was fortunate to take part in renovation and building projects, as a labourer, for a friend there. Your blog keeps reminding me how much I have to learn, what depths of understanding and heights of skill I will need to emulate anything you have done, and to keep striving for perfection. Thankyou so much for sharing your journey. Linda

  8. The barn is typical of so much roof construction in America…truncated eaves or mini roofs as you call them. I am really curious why these types of roofs are accepted and built. As for the timber frame…I would call it a salt box…this no overhang roof style is very common. Seems like a huge waste of time and resources to go to the expense of building a timber frame and putting a roof up there that gives no protection from the elements.

    Some body must think these roofs look good and merit being used,

  9. Linda,

    a pleasure to hear from you – thanks for venturing a comment and I'm always glad to read of someone who is inspired to strive for perfection in their work!


    thanks for your comment. By “mini-roofs” I was referring only to the minimal board roofs as might be placed across gate timbers, as seen at the top of this blog, not to roofs with short eaves as seen in many places.

    I have long been looking a bit askance at wooden buildings without significant eaves, and agree with you that it does not make a lot of sense, however it is a great demonstration of the role of stylistic and cultural factors governing a lot of architectural design regardless of what might be practical. New England architecture derives its cues in large part from urban European architecture – namely what was fresh in the mind of settlers when they came here – and that is an architecture of shorter eaves for the most part. People build with an idea in their head of what a house 'should' look like, and those ideas are culturally derived for the most part. It's also, in the case of the English perhaps most particularly, a fact that certain cultural groups, placed in a strange and new living situation, might choose to ignore local indigenous adaptations and stick bull-headedly to what was done in their own country previously, even if they fled that country for religious persecution, lack of opportunity, etc.. Those are some blanket generalizations of course, so take them with a grain of salt.

    Those short eaves in England were a solution to the situation of having buildings with masonry walls which were placed close together. The stone walls withstand the weather quite well, and the close-packed buildings tends to reduce eave depth. I think a certain parsimonious aspect ties in here too, the frugal Yankee, if you like, as economizing with materials also connects to the short eave design. Also, roof pitches tended to be of the 12/12 (45˚) and up type, and long eaves are problematic with steeper roof pitches. German and French solutions to that, using sprocket rafters, etc., never seems to have caught on. The only places one sees deep eaves in New England, more or less, is on the old passenger train stations.


  10. one reason why the barn looks to have water damage to the front is because there is no gutter or means for the water not to splash up and seems it was driven by wind against the wall and doors. The gable end still looks great.

  11. Absolutely. A gutter would have made a big difference, as would a foundation which came higher out of the ground. The long side of the building we see in the picture is also south facing, which explains the much darker weathering on the pine cladding. Wind, rain and sun have taken their toll, and some different design aspects would have made a significant difference in that equation. You can learn a lot by observing older buildings and furniture.


  12. The design is under revision/refinement right now, and at this moment I'm concentrating on other aspects. Wasn't planning on gutters so far, and obviously the water off the roof ought to be directed somewhere away from the structure by some means. Most of the gate roofs I've looked at lack gutters.


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