Build Simple: A meditation on simple machines and ancient technology

words and photos :: Nicolas Teichrob

If you want something done, you do it yourself. If you want something done right, it’s worth considering the technological innovations of the ancient. Moving laterally across time for solutions to apply now is sometimes the simplest and best way to complete the task at hand. The “old school” can still teach us a lot. 

A year or so ago I embarked on a project to build my own heavy timber house in Ucluelet, BC. I was unsure of the specifics of how to accomplish this goal, but I had a desire to maximize my learning and problem-solving abilities. 

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Because my greatest resource was time rather than money, building solo quickly became my best option. Working this way required a much-simplified approach, and I found myself relying on tools developed thousands of years ago by populations across the globe, including the First Nations of coastal BC. These are simple machines, and of particular interest in this context are levers, ramps, wheels, and pulleys. Some of these machines were being used prior to classification, but it was Archimedes around 300 B.C. who studied and shared the concept of mechanical advantage with the lever, which allows the output force to be greater than your input and/or in a different direction.

Applied to the building process and coupled with ropes, cables, and Prusik knots to capture progress, I was able to raise beyond-heavy pieces of wood by simply moving one step at a time, removing external pressures and allowing the machines to do the work. Capturing progress is to harness the work you’ve already put into the system so you can pause, asses, or reset a come-along (bolt and tackle) for example, and the Prusik knot, a simple symmetrical three-turn friction knot, is reliable and versatile for such a task. 

My extensive use of simple machines began when the weight of the wood slabs I was milling exceeded my ability to shoulder them. So I built a bicycle-wheeled cart that has since moved every single piece of larger wood 40 metres up my driveway and into or onto the house. 

The next rethought tool was the ladder, which works great as a ramp, and, along with a pulley, rope, come-along and Prusiks, helped get a number of 7”x7” beams up 15 feet in the air and negotiated into place. Pieces of old broomsticks used as rollers made each move across flat ground easy, and mats woven from salvaged beach ropes helped keep the beautiful Douglas Fir timbers protected from aesthetic damage during transport (while also decreasing friction and promoting sliding). As the house grew vertically, the step-by-step process became less about blitzes of brute force and more about patience and simplicity of thought.

As a civilization, humanity now faces an infinite number problems to solve, on large and small scales globally. I found that by looking to the past and to the land itself, I was able to tap into millennia of success and evolution and build my house alone. Perhaps other, larger problems our world currently faces could be approached in similar fashion. Maybe a step backwards is the right direction, and we should welcome the chance to remix old ideas now rather than banking on future advancements that can be implemented later. —ML 

This project is in great collaboration with Deutscher Architecture (http://deutscher-architecture.ca/) and Miskimmin Structural Engineering (https://www.miskimmineng.com/) and it is a privilege to work with such experience on this build! — Nic

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