A CONVERTED FIRE LOOKOUT TOWER | 15.4m² / by Jamie Warne

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Quick note: Apologies for the long delay to this months blog entry, the motherboard on my PC died, so I've been without a PC for a couple weeks. This has left me very far behind on numerous projects, including this blog. Next month's blog entry may also be delayed as a result.


The Real Things

The Prototypes

Whilst not really existing in the UK, fire lookout towers are prevalent in a number of countries, particularly from the 1900s onwards. For the sake of convenience, I'm going to focus on lookout towers built in the United States for this blog entry; since I wanted a standard design from which to start from. Some European countries feature much more variety with fire lookout tower designs than can be found in the US, whereas the US designs (From about the 1930s onwards) seem to have been mainly standardised.

Anyway, as you'd imagine, fire lookout towers are/were usually nestled among large forests that are prone to lightning strikes, and come in a variety of forms; from the classic wooden tower with a cabin (cab) atop, to impressively tall examples, some made with metal towers. Sometimes, a simple wooden cabin is all that is needed when there is a large enough natural rock on top of a hill or mountain - such cabins are known as "ground cabs" and are still classed as towers!

Anyway, over the years, many fire lookout towers had fallen out of favour due to either lack of budget, or improvements in technology - much in the same way as the railway signal boxes from last months' blog! Thankfully, many have been preserved, and a few even converted into homes and holiday cabins - which proves to be a useful source of income for the national forests. Some are still maintained for their original purpose, with many people arguing that such towers are an effective and relatively cheap way of maintaining fire safety in remote places.

Types, Usage & Construction

Types

  •   D-6 - 12x12ft Cupola design (1920s) - 1/4 sized observatory (The type this blog entry is based on)
  •   L-4 - 14x14ft pre-cut lookout design (1929-1953) - Peaked roof, horizontal wooden shades
  •   L-5 - 10x10ft pre-cut lookout design (1930s)(small L-4 variant for secondary posts)
  •   L-6 - 8x8ft pre-cut lookout design (even smaller L-4) built mostly atop tall wooden towers, with separate ground-level living quarters
  •   R-6 - 15x15ft (1953 onwards) - flat roof that extends past cabin to provide shade
  •   Aermotor (Illinois) - Tiny cabins on a slender metal tower

Construction

As one might expect, the cabins themselves boasted 360 degree views, with windows on all 4 sides, usually with a balcony as well. What's surprising about some is that they utilised the towers from old railway (sorry, railroad!) water towers. Other towers were made entirely of steel, and although sturdier than their wooden counterparts, they were much more prone to swaying in the wind!

The cabs (cabins), on lookouts with towers, were usually sized between 3m square, to 4.3m square; although other sizes were not uncommon. For example, "Aeromotor" towers (common in the South or Midwest) had tiny cabins, measuring only 2.1m x 2.1m! Ground cabs on the other hand could be built to suit the location, and thus varied greatly in size. Either way, most ground cabins were simple wooden buildings, often with a small cupola on top for the lookout area.

Since fire-lookout jobs were seasonal, many structures featured shutters to protect the windows from the harsh winter elements; some were top-hinged to form shades during the summer, whilst others had the cupola shutters bottom-hinged (so they can fold flat onto the roof), with the cab shutters completely removable. The latter is what I chose for my design, since the top-hinged design looked to block a lot of natural light  - too much for my liking. At the end of the day, the location is more relevant to what kind of shutters are most suitable.

Usage

As to the usage of such lookouts, any potential fires were spotted by eye. Using a device known as an Osborne Fire Finder, the exact location of smoke could be determined by spotters, and fire suppression teams called in to deal with it. It's also important that personnel noted the location of lightning strikes, and monitored them; since ignition could take a number of days to become apparent. You would expect this to be quite a laid-back job most of the time, but during lightning season, you'd be surprised at how many strikes would happen. Lookouts would have to not only write this all down, but relay information with the relevant authorities. If you're interested, you can find more information online (again, links to follow).

Their Rise...

Whilst it's hard to pinpoint the exact beginning of the introduction of fire lookout towers, in the US, many towers were built by lumbermills and townships. It wasn't until the Great Fire of 1910 that burned 3 million acres of forest across 3 states, that spurred the formation of new policies to deal with forest fires; including the construction of hundreds of towers. In 1933, thanks to a new initiative by President Franklin Roosevelt, a corp was started containing veterans and young men which set about building hundreds more towers; in fact, in California, some 250 lookout towers were built by them in the following  9 years!

...and demise!

For 20 years following 1930, many towers (particularly on the West Coast of the US during WWII) saw such towers assigned additional enemy aircraft Spotter duties. But the heyday of these towers was soon coming to a close, and from 1960 onwards, many towers were left to slowly rot away once improvements in technology had made many obselete... or had they? Truth be told, technology was not always the solution, and particularly remote areas of wilderness were still besting even the latest in satellite technology. So today, many remote cabins are still used for their original purpose.

Sadly though, many towers weren't quite so lucky. And in what appears to be a familiar ending on this blog, many such buildings were doomed to be destroyed! Idaho, for example, at it's height had 966 lookout sites; today, that number is just under 200, with only 60 staffed regularly. There have been notable accounts of tall wooden towers completely toppling over thanks to their abandonment! But it's also worth mentioning that there are quite a number of towers that have been given listed status on the National Register of Historic places. Thankfully, these will be safe for many years to come.

Further Reading


MY DESIGN

Design Overview

Fire lookouts, being predominantly on top of remote mountains, contained only the bare necessities. As most were staffed only during the hot dry seasons, it was considered unnecessary to have many creature comforts. Indeed, the standard cabins didn't even have mattresses or springs! They were also devoid of running water and electricity - and many stayed this way, thanks to their remoteness. Indeed, whilst I've updated some aspects of the design to bring it inline with modern standards, this design is still very much on the "glamping" side of holiday homes. There is no running water (only a storage tank for fresh water which would have to be filled by hauling up water from a natural spring or from down the bottom of the mountain), no proper bed, and the bathroom is in an outhouse! I have however included some sort of lighting - the type of which would depend on just how remote the location was.

Main Cabin Room

The Main Room - This small, but charming space goes back to basics, but the views would be totally worth it!

In many ways, this design is pretty similar to last months design - from the same style of kitchenette, to the dining set-up and the dinettes. It also benefits from huge amounts of natural light, and really focuses on the "back to basics" nature that such buildings would originally have been.  As is always the case with small cabins, compromise is the name of the game; and there have been several!

First off, the Osborne Fire Finder (that would sit on a cabinet in the middle of the room) had to be removed so that the ladder can be positioned in a more convenient location. Traditionally, the ladder up to the cupola would be positioned on one of the outer edges of the cupola framing (i.e. where the log burner is sited now); meaning you would have to squeeze between the framing joists! Instead, I have added a trapdoor to the cupola, which, whilst still somewhat awkward, is better than squeezing through a narrow gap.

The other obvious compromises are the lack of facilities - no running water, and no bed; only a convertible bench-style sofa bed. As this is clearly not a cabin for long stays, I don't feel like it's the end of the world, and is still far more comfortable than sleeping accommodation found in traditional lookout towers! You may note a lowered section of worktop above the log storage area, whilst I have not shown it, I would probably use this space for a portable water container. Of course, the real things had special cupboards to keep water and food a bit cooler, so perhaps you could use one of the pull-out drawers under the sofa bed. Either way, I figured the area above the logs is a bit easier to access.

The Cupola

The Cupola - This tiny observation room really makes for a fantastic place to relax!

Ah, yes, the cupola. This tiny, tiny space proved difficult to utilise. Earlier I mentioned how I've moved the original location of the ladder to make access to it easier. In the render above, you can see the tiny gap on the right (underneath the window) where the original access would have been! You'd have to be pretty slender to get up here, hence the reasoning for sacrificing some of the space to make room for a trap door. In the end, you'll notice I decided to stick another simple padded bench up here, with storage underneath. As it's only 1.5m on every side, there's not enough room for much, especially with the trapdoor. Curiously, in some old towers, I've seen that the floor of the cupola is in fact an old metal bed frame. Quite how anyone can sleep in such a small space is beyond me!

A nice original feature that I've retained are the shutters - the ropes you can see can be unwound and pulled to close the shutters, and the opposite done to open them up. Each side also contains a sliding window, so you can really feel like you're outside with them open! I can't think of a more pleasant place to sit and watch the world go by; and since these towers often had fantastic views...

The Outhouse

The Outhouse - Although access to water is limited, there should be enough water in the tank for short showers and handwashing.

Typical fire lookout towers don't include any sort of bathroom facilities in the main cabin, instead having a small outhouse (usually with a non-flushing toilet for obvious reasons). As far as I can work out, this would also mean there were never any form of showering facilities; probably only a sink with a limited supply of fresh water to use. I've taken a few liberties with my design, mainly that there is a flushing toilet and a shower. A cesspit would have to be installed for the waste water from both. The large fresh water tank beside the outhouse would probably be enough for a weekend use of the property, providing no more than 2 people were present. Either way, I've purposely not delved into the specifics of how the facilities would function with this design, since it would depend how remote the cabin was. A really remote mountain-top location may mean that the shower and flushing toilet is a no-go, thus limiting the cabins' usefulness. For a set-up like the design I've shown, there would probably have to be some sort of road access to the cabin.

Of course, there are always alternates for completely off-grid cabins; composting toilets, rain-water fed showers, solar for lighting and possibly heat. Thankfully technology in these areas has come a long way in the last couple of decades!


Final Thoughts

All in all, I think it's a rather charming little cabin; particularly with the cupola lookout on top. The model was surprisingly complex to build - despite the simple appearance, there are a lot of awkward angles (for example, the tower tapers as it goes up). I also tried to be as faithful to the original tower as possible, which meant a lot of time spent researching; in fact, half the battle was converting all the imperial measurements to metric! I think it's been worth it though, as it really captures the 1920s style of lookout towers well.

As I've said many times in this blog post, this is not a permanent residence, and is more of a weekend getaway. Facilities are limited, and I'd imagine access would be difficult. Regardless, I can't think of a more relaxing place to come and stay, and with the balcony going around the entire cabin, you could sit outside and enjoy the view. Or, perhaps if it's raining, you can snug up all cozy in the cupola with a good book!

As always, if you have any thoughts or comments, please post them down below - I'd love to hear from you!
Until next time,
Jam

 


Component Credits

  • CushionsMeasuredMove
  • Hex Bolts & Nuts- Adamplato
  • Industrial Pendant Lights - Celeste H.
  • Pedestal SinkXYZ Visualisations
  • Shutter Hinges - Tom_K/Mo
  • ShowerPedro
  • Toilet - WRX