Photo by Sam Hodgson
On Nov. 15, a construction crew will use one of the largest cranes in North America to hoist this 70,000-pound house onto the seventh story of one of UCSD's engineering buildings.
This is one complicated cottage.
A cozy New England clapboard-style house isn’t usually built this off-kilter. Nor do the owners of such a house typically plan to hoist it to a seemingly precarious perch on the seventh-floor roof of a campus building.
The angles of the house, now under construction at the University of California, San Diego, are so odd that people inside feel vertigo. Even installing a window can seem strange.
“It just throws everybody off,” said construction supervisor Don Franken. “We’re used to building on level and plumb. It’s like when you get up in the morning and tie your shoes: They’ve got laces and you tie them. That’s how we build.”
Not this time. The $1 million “Fallen Star” project, designed to invoke the disorientation of dislocation, is stretching the boundaries of art, architecture and construction.
If all goes well, the dream of artist Do Ho Suh will come true on Nov. 15 when the one-room cottage will be lowered into place by one of the biggest cranes in North America. The piece seems destined to become the most talked-about piece in UCSD’s Stuart Collection of works of art designed to be permanent parts of the campus.
The roots of the project go back to Suh’s earlier years, when he was “completely disoriented” by his move from South Korea to Rhode Island for graduate school, said the Stuart Collection’s director, Mary Beebe. He’s since become famous for art that explores issues of home and away-from-home, location and dislocation.
“The idea of putting something about home on campus seems really relevant,” Beebe said. “People are leaving home, coming to this place for the first time, and having to readjust and see the world in a new light.”
It wasn’t an easy thing to explain to campus officials. Sure, the Stuart Collection has launched unusual projects before, from the colorful sculpture that became the “Sun God” campus mascot to a “Bear” sculpture that required crews to transport giant boulders on trucks in the middle of the night.
This, though, was monumental. Where would the house “land”? Would people be able to go inside it? (They will, but only under supervision.) Would it be safe?
Despite the challenges, Beebe convinced them to appreciate what she called “an unforgettable image of a Wizard of Oz tornado-like force taking this house and crashing it into a building.”
The home for the home is a building that houses engineers near the iconic Geisel Library. Three months ago, construction began on the house itself, the rooftop pad where it will perch, and a garden filled with native New England plants that will sit in front of it.
Franken, the construction manager, said there’s little ordinary about the house other than its windows (double-paned, double-hung) and the anticipated baby-blue paint color of its outside walls.
It’s made not just of wood, PVC siding and concrete but also structural and non-structural steel. That allows it to be rigid without the support of the ground that a normal house would get. The concrete foundation is 18 inches thick compared to a normal 4 inches.
Since it’s high in the sky, it had to be built to withstand 100 mph winds, while homes on the ground typically are built for 40-60 mph winds. The roof shingles are each glued on so they won’t flutter in high winds and fly off.
There’s no air conditioning or heating and no sinks either, although it will have a fire sprinkler system because it has to have the same fire protection level as the rest of the engineering building.
The chimney has real bricks and there’s a fireplace, but it won’t work. Still, “smoke” will come out the chimney: The Stuart Collection consulted with UCSD’s theater department and found a way to create fake smoke through a hose that will go to the chimney. A chandelier will be installed, and the house will be home to furniture (at 85 percent of normal size) and a television.
Strangest of all are the crazy tilts of the house. The floor slopes at a 4 degree angle, while the walls and roof are 9 degrees off level.
Construction workers have gotten confused by the strange angles, which add about three times the complexity, Franken said. “You tell them to put a window in, and even though the hole is built just for the window, they ask, ‘How does the sill work?’ ‘Do I still have to put the tensions in on the side?’ Yes, you have to do everything.”
The angles have had an unexpected but not unappreciated effect: They make people inside the house feel dizzy.
“I get motion sickness if I’m here too long,” Franken said.
Indeed, the inside of the cottage does have a carnival funhouse feel, as if your legs and feet shouldn’t be slanting the way they do, that something is wrong. The vertigo is real, caused by the tilting.
‘The inner ear has these sense organs that are predicting that you are in a certain place in space and tells the brain this,” explained Dr. Jeffrey P. Harris, chief of ear, nose and throat medicine and head and neck surgery at UCSD. “But your eyes are telling it a completely different thing.” That mismatch leads to motion sickness, he said.
It’s the perfect natural special effect for a project that’s all about disorientation. “It does add this whole other dimension,” said project manager Mathieu Gregoire.
Showtime for Franken and the rest of the crew comes next week on Nov. 15, when they will try to put the house into place on the edge of the seventh-floor roof with the help of a mammoth crane.
The idea is to fit the house onto a specially constructed pad, fitting pegs on the pad into holes in the floor of the house. Then the house will be bolted in; it should fit perfectly if all the calculations are correct. If they’re not, the house might not be able to be safely secured to the roof.
No one will ride in the house on the way up, but construction workers on the ground will help keep it steady with ropes.
The project is scheduled to be finished in January. Then people will be able to walk in the little rooftop garden, go inside the house and feel decidedly out of sorts — just as though they landed in a completely new place.
“The whole idea,” Beebe said, “is about reorienting yourself from this disruption or displacement, looking at the world from a new perspective.”
But before then, supervisor Franken has a few more sleepless nights ahead, fretting over the lists of construction details that have to be finished before the hoist.
“If I’m wrong, I’m wrong,” he said. “I hope I’m not.”
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