If you look for it, you might not see it. Rising high above Wallowa Lake, hidden in the shadows of the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Eastern Oregon sits the award-winning Signal Shed—a 130-square-foot modern mountain outpost. Built with mostly recycled materials, the outbuilding is simple in detail, yet beautiful in design: recaptured wood siding is stained dark to help the shed blend into the natural landscape. Cedar shutters protect the windows and secure the interior in the winter. A large, sliding barn door opens to create an outdoor living space. And the entire structure is built on floating piers to lessen its impact.
It’s the ultimate expression of minimalism. In fact, a judge from a prominent architecture magazine recently praised it as “the absence of almost everything.” And we tend to agree. Its simple beauty, low-impact design and effortless utilitarianism reflects the same principles that we follow in our design process.
To get a closer look, we decided, with some stealthy sleuthing, to track down its mastermind—Ryan Lingard. The Portland architect was more than willing to sit down with us and share his insight into his process of sustainable design, off-the-grid building, and how he did it all for under $10k.
OTG: Let’s start from the beginning; how did this all start?
Ryan: We had owned the land for about a year when, during a backpacking trip in the Wallowas, a bear attacked our tent. At that moment, we knew we needed to build something a little more secure. But we also didn’t need everything you would find in a traditional vacation home, nor did it seem appropriate to bring in all the traditional utilities and affect the landscape. We also wanted a structure that would sit more delicately in the landscape: to be modern and minimal, but on the other hand, fit into the pallet of how we saw the environment. We also wanted it to appear as if it was a utility building or a lean-to shelter, so in passing by, you didn’t realize it was an actual home. In the end, we built this utilitarian structure that fills this kind of pragmatic protection of warmth and security that we weren’t getting out of a tent.
Did you have a certain approach or a process in designing the shed?
We wanted the structure to have the minimal support of camping, but offer the comfort of a more traditional residence. The big sliding barn door, which is probably one of the biggest architectural moves, is the nexus of that. We can throw that door open and have indoor/outdoor living, especially with the dock-like deck that cantilevers out.
Also, given how steep the lot was, building the whole cabin without an access road into the property was an enormous undertaking. One way we resolved the issue was by constructing this super-minimal pier foundation that sits on columns, so it serves the intent of sitting lightly on the landscape. It also makes it easy to minimize the amount of concrete and the amount of “earthwork” we had to do. It also decreased the amount of materials we had to bring in.
Since we would be gone for long periods of time, we also came up with the idea of using shutters as way to secure the shed. When they are closed, you can’t see any of the windows. And in the winter, when the interior lights are on, the rays seep through the slats in the siding to create this gorgeous, almost, sculptural piece.
Obviously, you sourced sustainable materials: reused windows, recaptured wood. Do you feel like that put constraints on the design? Or were there some happy accidents?
Some things did impact the design, like the windows. We had an idea of proportion and function and we knew we wanted a series of horizontal sliding windows, as well as a focal window looking out across to the mountain and the tram. We were willing to pay for new windows if we found the right ones, but we were able to find some great old windows from the Rebuilding Center in Portland.
For the recaptured wood, we found this character that runs a portable saw mill. He travels to different locations where he finds fallen tress. And his story was much like ours: he had built three signal sheds, connected them with two roofs and now lives in them with his wife and two kids. So it felt good to have a wholesome environmental story around the material, but also the added romance that we were doing the same thing.
So in designing the shed, were you influenced by any current design or architectural trends?
Basically, the intent of the whole project was to be very quiet in the landscape, to hide in the shadows, and let the views and the surrounding wilderness be the focus, not the structure. Ultimately, the design was more driven by pragmatic and practical ideas, then a specific style. The minimal architecture lends itself to a very basic, but high-quality streamlined design. I guess that is an architectural movement, but it is also an ethos that is much larger than a style: the idea that everything has to be functional. So you don’t have extra trim or extra frames.
That’s a lot like our philosophy; great design is not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away, when everything has a purpose, a function. So given this approach, what did you learn in the process of building the shed?
Before the shed, I had an almost academic appreciation for builders and craftsman. But through this process, I garnered an enormous respect for the art of crafting something that appears rather simple. Building something simple can actually be much more challenging, especially when you are in a rural environment and the collective resources and knowledge in the building community are otherwise very traditional, which I understand and respect, but it can make things more challenging.
You know, it’s easy when you go camping, because you know you’re only going to be out there for a few days, maybe a week, and then go home. But when you are building a structure and are intentionally eliminating certain luxuries, well, that can be hard for people to understand.
Yeah, you realize all of the crap that you don’t need.
Yeah, exactly. When you go camping for a lengthy period of time, everything gets reset. You come home, turn on a faucet or flip on a light switch and are amazed at the convenience. It’s exactly like that comedian, Louis C.K. says when he jokes about people who complain on airplanes, and he’s like, “Really? We’re flying dude! This is amazing.”