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Norwich Students Think Outside to Recreate the "Box"

State of the Arts


Published May 12, 2010 at 8:36 a.m.


At first glance, the T-Box looks kind of like a psychedelic chicken coop, with its curvy walls and sleeping pod on stilts. But this little structure is actually intended for human use. The roughly 70-foot-square “personal retreat,” as Norwich University’s Daniel Sagan calls it, could serve many functions, such as a writing studio or a deer blind, a private workspace or simply a curiosity in the garden.

Inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s minimal digs on Walden Pond — the project was initially named Thoreau’s Box — architecture prof Sagan and his students have created a two-room cabin small enough to fit on the bed of a truck. As of press time, it was in “a friendly bidding war” at around $1100, according to Sagan. This was the second annual T-Box auction to support the Design-Build Studio in Norwich’s architecture program.

“Our directive this year was, how do you work with this idea of a minimal footprint but not make it feel claustrophobic?” Sagan explains.

The students answered that challenge with walls that swerve outward, so the ceiling is roomier than the floor, and plenty of natural light from a long stretch of windows installed along the eaves. A mini-patio leads to the 32-square-foot main space, which opens into a 21-square-foot nook. Not tall enough to stand in, but just right for a catnap.

“We sort of imagined this process: someone alone doing some work, then lying down to sleep or doze,” Sagan says.

His 10 students designed and built the structure collaboratively from start to finish.

“There’s no single author of the work that we do,” Sagan says. While collaboration can have its challenges — such as changes the group decides to make during the process — it’s exactly the learning experience he’s after.

Sagan says one of the program’s missions is to ensure the students “have a deep understanding not only of how buildings are designed but how they are made.” To that end, over the last 10 years the class has worked from concept to completion on projects for surrounding communities, including the ice skating center in Randolph and an addition to the Roxbury Free library.

Securing grant money for these projects can be difficult, Sagan says, because often it’s only awarded as matching funds, which in this case means matching the hours of volunteer work his students put into the project. As a result, grant money doesn’t show up until after the project is finished.

That’s where the T-Box comes in. The money raised from the auction is used to pay for material up front, so the students can get started on their next project.

Last year’s T-Box was closer to the dimensions of Thoreau’s cabin, about 10 by 14 feet, but was just as unusual as this year’s: expansive windows, a symmetrical space-pod shape and two tracks on the roof, as if meant to attach to a mother ship. It now occupies a field in Brookfield near the home of the art-collecting couple who bought it.

“In the tradition of Thoreau,” suggests Sagan, “it’s an opportunity for [the owners] to engage with the landscape in a way they can’t with their house.”