This weekend, I helped my brother construct a deck on the back of his house. We got the foundations dug, inspected, and permitted, then spent two days pouring concrete and framing. I became intimately reacquainted with muscles that have lain fallow for quite some time . . . The deck will hover about 12' off the ground, with an entrance off of the kitchen and a winding staircase to the driveway. It overlooks a sloped yard, so the platform is eye-level with the leaves, floating in the trees.
Decks have a straightforward structural logic, which makes their construction amenable to amateurs. However, lacking sheathing -- on either the platform or the posts -- decks are vulnerable to lateral movement, shear, and ledger failure. If a series of deck posts were sheathed, creating a diaphragm wall system, one might call the result a pole house.
In North America, the Iroquois pioneered pole construction, knitting together fire-hardened palisades with horizontal branches and bark sheathing. Though similar, the settlers imported post-and-beam techniques relied on square timbers, triangular braces, and complex joinery. In the seventies, back-to-the-landers drove creosoted telephone poles into rural hillsides, linking them together with 2x12 girders and through-bolts.
In the sixties, many modernists took a stab at pole building -- it allowed for the flexibility of an open plan and non-structural curtain walls without expensive steel frames. Pierre Koenig, most famous for Case Study House #22, built several pole houses in southern California in the sixties. Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion house was suspended from a single pole (technically a mast house, but still!) to minimize foundation costs and allow for rotation. In 1981, natural builder and DIY enthusiast Ken Kern, along with wife and collaborator Barbara, published the definitive how-to guide, The Owner-Built Pole Frame House. Today, the system is mostly used for barns and utility buildings.
Pole houses never quite died, just went the way of the geodesic dome, drifting out mainstream relevance. Other hippie building methods -- cob, strawbale, papercrete, Earthship -- supplanted them. Though the foundations were easy, and materials cheap, pole buildings can be fiendishly difficult to frame, as the poles taper, twist, and bow. As time wears on, seasonal changes can cause the poles to heave their girts, leaving the house out of square. Folks mostly seem to use the technique on barns now, where longevity and multiple stories are not issues.
Occasionally, the single-pier idea comes back, looking all coy and sexy in a rendering, but revealing itself to be expensive and needlessly complicated after the first date. Some greenies still argue for their bona fides, but I think all the pressure-treating and framing complications probably negate most of the environmental gains.
The fundamental appeal of a pole house, slung onto the side of a hill, looking out into the leaves, is that of a treehouse. It taps into some basic sense of comfort and safety, rocked in the branches, free from threat. So, after the deck, maybe I'll get my nephew to pick out an oak and get to work . . .