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Woodbury architecture students turn sheds into cool little cabins

May 18, 2012 | 11:03 am

Woodbury shed cabinsThe challenge for three teams of architecture students from Woodbury University in Burbank: Design the coolest, smartest cabin that you can dream up. The catch: Your building materials have to come from an ordinary, not-so-cool shed kit from Lowes.

Woodbury paper cabin“There was a lot of grumbling at the beginning,” said Jeanine Centuori, chairwoman of the undergraduate architecture program at Woodbury. Each 10-by-10-foot shed had to be transformed to accommodate two people for sleeping. The template had to be tweaked to provide light, ventilation and insulation. And though the teams each had a budget of $1,500 for additional supplies, they also had a mandate to experiment with one assigned material — paper, plastic or wood.

PHOTO GALLERY: Woodbury students tweak shed kits into mini modern cabins

POLL: Vote for your favorite cabin design

Just how much can a simple shed be transformed? The answer becomes apparent before you're even off the driveway at the Shadow Hills Riding Club, the San Fernando Valley equestrian center where the three cabins were built.

The paper team's bright orange cabin practically glows, its exterior pop-outs borrowing an idea from motor homes (imagine dresser drawers left open). The pop-outs provide seating on the outside and space for luggage racks on the inside. Two beds are cleverly hidden under removable floor panels. Colorful hammocks from Craigslist hang from the ceiling, prompting student Sunny Lam to claim (as only a college student could) that the cabin “sleeps four.” (That's Lam in the photo hanging out, with Colin McCarville holding a floor panel that, when lifted up, becomes a privacy screen.)

Wall insulation — squares of cotton covered with upholstery fabric — can be pulled down to double as seating. For a less costly alternative to glass, four pieces of plastic sheeting were fused together to create an opaque “window” that lets in natural light. And to fulfill their requirement to experiment with paper, parts of the interior were finished with a sort of homemade wallpaper — newspapers woven in a basket pattern and sealed with polyurethane (visible to the right of McCarville, near the floor).

Woodbury Oscar the GrouchMeanwhile, the wood team's cabin — a pea-green structure dubbed Oscar the Grouch — left visitors feeling anything but grumpy. A cantilevered sleeping alcove and a loft are connected by a wooden ladder, creating what seems like the world's smallest split-level house. The separate sleeping areas provide maximum privacy in a structure of only 100 square feet.

“We pushed ourselves to use wood in a different way,” said student John Epperly, whose group finished the interiors with oriented strand board, the structural panels left exposed for an organic-meets-industrial look in some modern architecture. “We wanted the space to feel natural and elegant and not at all like a shed.”

The plastic team ironed 2,000 ribbed polyethylene bottles donated by a recycling center and attached them to a wood grid. From afar, the fanciful results look a bit like a house attacked by tinsel, but the design is meant to be functional: Gaps between the bottles and the shed allow the structure to breathe, the students said. Inside, they made the room feel much more open by stacking beds in a sleeping loft.

Woodbury plastic cabinIn the end, Centuori said, the students succeeded in taking a small, everyday structure and making it special.

“There is something in the air right now in this economy in regard to looking at what really matters and questioning some of the decadence of architecture,” Centuori said. She and Sonny Ward, one of the professors on the project, said students were exploring “the architecture of necessity.”

The project was inspired by Auburn University's Rural Studio, whose projects include affordable housing for the poor. For Woodbury students, seeing the equestrian center's nonprofit program in action — horses used as therapy for autistic children, paraplegics and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder — was a lesson that could not have come in a classroom.

“In architectural academia, there is a lot of talk about broadening what we do, talking about architecture in terms of things that matter,” Centuori said. Doing good work transformed the students, she said. “It had an impact on them. It had an impact on all of us.”


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-- Lisa Boone

Photo credits: Anne Cusack