On the Trail: Field Documenting Built History

How might we understand better what it means to design and construct sustainably by exploring the history and built legacy of structures on the Appalachian Trail? This paper uses the little bits of architecture known as shelters, or lean-tos, as an investigative lens to examine complex design and construction issues by scaling down the problem in order to scale up sustainable strategies. Research and in-field documentation of twenty shelters – nearly 10% of the shelter system – cataloged and evaluated a wide historical range of design values and construction techniques used along the Appalachian Trail since the 1920s. The resulting abbreviated structure reports survey the architectural elements, establish the socio-historical context, and examine the built significance of each shelter in the geographic study.

The social, economic, and environmental impacts of buildings are increasingly-present considerations for both professionals and the public. Whether site analysis and site logistics, material selection and detailing, or passive design and behavioral design strategies, this paper considers what it means to design, and design with resilience in mind, when the site is remote, and when the only energy available to construct – or assemble – is human energy.