Reading the Signs

There’s a lot of curiosity about Desert Rain. Much of that is because of how it’s being built and the Living Building Challenge standard that it strives to achieve. A home in the middle of town that uses no water or energy resources other than those that are available to it on site—well, it raises some eyebrows.

It is, without a doubt, unique.

It gets its fair share of drive-bys and walk-bys—people who have heard about it and want a peek at what’s going on. Whether they approach the property on its east side or its west side, they’re met with a large wooden sign that clearly states the mission of the home:

The Desert Rain sign on the west side of the property (Shasta).

The Desert Rain design and build processes have been remarkably transparent. Tom and Barb are clear about their intent to share their experience and the information they gather as they go. By sharing, they hope to educate people about sustainable design and construction, as well as perhaps inspire others to take on their own Living Building Challenge or to incorporate some of its philosophy into their own homes.

The sign, and its mate on the east end of the property, are part of that open approach.

After Tom and Barb came up with the idea for the sign Barb mentioned it to her brother, Kevin Scott. Kevin is an engineer by trade, but he is also a talented wood and metal craftsman. When I asked him why he built the sign he smiled and said, “Oh, Barb said they needed a sign.” Bear in mind: Kevin is an engineer and craftsman, but he is not a sign-maker. In fact, he had never made a sign before. And in terms of signs, it’s doubtful he could have started with anything more complex. But when he heard that his sister and his brother-in-law needed a sign he jumped at the chance. What he created is remarkable.

First, Tom and Barb sent Kevin a PDF of the sign’s design. “I took that PDF and re-drew it in AutoCAD. I used a program called MasterCAD to cut it.” He already had salvaged hardwood ready for the job. “The wood was leftover from a job that I did. I bought it from a Mennonite lumber yard in Ohio, and had some leftover. You can see some patterns in the wood, like here [pointing to a darker vein]; that’s called spalding, which means the wood had started to rot. It gives it unique coloration and patterns sought after by woodworkers. So I thought it would be perfect for the sign.”

The wood Kevin Scott would use for the Desert Rain sign. Plans for the sign, which he re-drew in AutoCAD, sit on top of the wood.

As you can see in the above photo, the wood came in different widths. “The wood was all twisted, and I had to form it down to sizes. Then, even the width of each wood piece is different. So I had to line those pieces up just right so the joints fell between the text just right for the cutting machine. And it matched up well,” said Kevin.

The wood for the sign, after being straightened and trimmed by Kevin.

After the pieces were straightening, trimmed and sanded, Kevin was able to key, or joint, them together.

A piece of sign board with a groove cut into its length. It was in this way that Kevin was able to join the many strips to make one large 5′ x 8′ sign.

Once the individual pieces of wood were jointed together, Kevin was able to begin inscribing the text for the sign. Or, more accurately, the lines and arcs. “It’s text, but in my world it’s lines and arcs,” he said. “Because my computer numerical control [CNC] machines can’t cut text. My machine doesn’t see letters, it only sees lines and arcs. So I had to take everything they had and create lines and arcs with it.”

Cutting the lines and arcs that would form the text for the Desert Rain sign.

What I found amazing is that the cutting tool did not move during the process. Instead it was the table that moved. Kevin would attach sections of the sign to the table, and the table would move to his line-and-arc specifications. The cutting tool just moved up and down as the table danced beneath it. He was limited by his table’s size capability, however, so could only cut three boards at a time. “My machine cuts 15” x 30”. So, I had to do it in thirds for every three boards, so it took some time.”

This photo shows how Kevin worked with three boards at a time, and how the text had to be laid out just right so that it would fit in between the board joints.

But over weeks the sign came together. And once it was together he had to take it apart again to ship it from his home in Colorado to Bend. It made for a more compact package. He then met up with the sign in Bend and reassembled it in town. Secured to a steel frame made in Bend, the sign now sits firmly in place, inviting passers-by to learn more about the Desert Rain house. Kevin, who was in Bend visiting Tom and Barb this past weekend, talked with me about the sign while we visited the site. I asked him if he had put his name on the sign–an artist’s signature. “Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t need that.”

But now everyone can imagine the signature at the bottom: Crafted by Kevin Scott.

Kevin Scott talks about the many steps involved in creating the Desert Rain sign.

It’s good to be able to lean on family. Barb and her brother Kevin during a recent picnic lunch on the Desert Rain site.

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