Designing Turtletown: Part 1

Posted by Kenneth Black on September 09, 2016
Designing Turtletown: Part 1
This is the site for Turtletown after clearing out the weeds and placing cinderblocks for the enclosure. Essentially the preexisting flowerbed was a pile of clay and a single surviving bush.

We have all had an idea about the place we live and a desire to improve it in some capacity. But how do we harness them for performance benefits? And can we use our experience as a framework to start engaging others in the design of beautiful and high performance homes?

I will start with a personal example. I have a glare problem and it’s uncomfortable. Light comes through the south side of my home and blinds me on a daily basis. I don’t want to solve the problem by using blinds, since if I do I cannot see my wonderful backyard. In the summer I do not want extra heat, but in the winter I like the warm daylight that shines though. I also have a pet tortoise that is steadily outgrowing its current home.

How are these problems even related? I have a glare problem and a voracious turtle.

There are a wide variety of ways that personalize a built environment. The built environment, for me, is the structures that we design for ourselves: our homes, our workplaces, our roadways, and so much more. The most interesting of these built environments are the places we make for ourselves.

I call my project Turtletown. Judging from the name, you can probably guess where this is going. I think that Turtletown will be fun to build and will meet the requirements of the client—my fiancé and our turtle, Sheldon. In the end, what is important is that the project engages me as a designer and builder, engages the client in the process of design, and meets the client’s needs. We all have similar considerations to take into account when designing and building a home or portion of a home. In my case, I need to understand the performance and safety needs of the Sheldon, his desired habitat and comfort, food sources, and his integration into the existing environment and site, cost, and maintenance over time. This particular project will take place near my home in Blacksburg, Virginia. I teach and am a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Architecture + Design at Virginian Tech.

Thinking of a Beautiful Turtletown

I have a plant bed against the south side of the house that regularly grows weeds but nothing else. This plant bed is the right size for a spacious turtle pen, and is also the location of my glare problem. Needs, means, and resources combined for an interesting solution. For this reason, Turtletown will be founded in the weedy flowerbed in the backyard – established 2016.

I will start with a shell (no pun intended?) of the design process and begin to fill in necessary information (see figure above). I have used this process with students to engage a topic they have not encountered before. It helps them to compile and organize their thoughts. As professionals we can begin to discover what is meaningful to others, what troubles or concerns they have, and then begin to show them how we propose helping them.

We’ll start out with what we know. For example, as a designer and builder I enjoy working with my hands and I find wood appealing. What can I make with it? I also need to consider what the client will appreciate. I have two clients: the owner of the pet and the tortoise itself. While the tortoise cannot express its needs, its owner can.

These needs then begin to inform the framework that guides our work. It is important to remember that the design work that we do influence the life of the very people (and tortoise) being designed for. This is crucial to realize, as the quantitative performance of a space is important, however the comfort and perceived performance is just as significant. So what are the concerns that we now have by combining the needs of a tortoise and a shading method?

Our materials budget is limited; no mahogany for Turtletown. Untreated wood is needed, as tortoises can uptake chemicals very easily and be poisoned. Tortoises need a variety of temperature options in a habitat, as they do not regulate their temperature internally:  sunlight for proper shell growth, a source of water; food; and protection from predators. This means that while the enclosure is outside, it is not acceptable to leave Sheldon out in extreme temperatures and at all hours, so a door is needed. The water source is used often, so more durable groundcover or stone will be needed there. Sheldon is an adventurous eater, so any plants within her reach inside the enclosure need to be edible. Finally, we will need to incorporate some sheltered areas into our design.

This is a good start, but are there any concerns about the place we will be designing in? I have spent a good deal of time learning about vegetation and materials, but the design process is be strengthened in a team using everyone’s experience and knowledge. Do not underestimate area-specific knowledge and observation. The landlord explained that snow and ice fall from the roof in certain locations; rain strikes in a certain pattern making mud splash; do not pick a vine that could attach to the house; there are high winds at times that could strip the project. There are a few additional issues to keep in mind during the designing process.  

On to part two of this three part series,  “Designing Turtletown Part 2—Design Framework”.  Part 3 will feature drawings from the design charrette and photos of the finished product.


Kenneth Black is a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech in the Center for Higher Performance Environments. He has 10 years experience in design or teaching in architecture. His research involves studio pedagogy, the performance of the building envelope (vegetated walls and roofs, and black and white roofing membranes), and design frameworks.

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