Little Spaces – Big Decisions

Architect Mark Waghorn discusses how to analyse a structure’s suitability for your glampsite.

View from glampsite bedroomRegardless of if you are planning to start a new venture in glamping, or if you are an experience site owner, I am sure that you have spent endless hours asking yourself and others numerous questions about the type of structures and designs that are available. But have you been asking the right questions? Here’s one I imagine you haven’t asked before: what’s the difference between an object and a thing?
Believe it or not, some philosophers have devoted considerable time and effort debating the difference between objects and things. They have looked into the origins of each word, written extensively and given talks on the subject. So, what are objects and things, and what is the difference between them? According to the anthropologist, Tim Ingold, objects are externally bounded entities, that are distinct, separate and easily separable from their immediate environment. In contrast, things are deeply connected to the world around them.

The word ‘thing’ was originally used to signify both a gathering of people and a place where such gatherings occurred, and Ingold, and the philosopher Heidegger before him, maintain that its historic meaning has evolved to a more general sense of coming together. As Ingold would have it, “the thing is a ‘going on’, or better, a place where several goings on become entwined”.

So, how does this relate to the world of glamping? If you’re buying a glamping pod, then I would argue that it is starting life as an object. It will have been built to a standardised design and transported either in parts or as a whole unit and installed in its new home at your site. The fact that it will have been conceived as an object will have helped facilitate this first stage of its life. But once it is installed you will be wanting it to have very different characteristics. Unlike a touring caravan, you are not going to continue demanding it to be a moveable object. Instead, you want it to integrate with its surroundings, and then became a natural home from home for the visitors who come to spend their holidays in it. In essence, you are asking it to become more of a thing.

You might not be convinced by this object/thing comparison, which is absolutely fine. After all, in everyday life, most of us use both words pretty much interchangeably. I’m only using this comparison to help illustrate some of the issues with the design of small spaces, so please hear me out.

The problem I have with the way small spaces are often perceived is a similar issue that I believe is evident in the way buildings are appreciated in the modern age too. And that is they are too often viewed as objects and judged by the way they look in photographs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the way a glamping unit looks from the outside isn’t important, of course it is, but I would argue that the designs that achieve real, lasting beauty are the ones that have been conceived to function beautifully, to be inhabited. It is the interaction of the space with its surroundings and with its occupants that creates the richness that is so important, that brings it alive. This character is what some of these philosophers I’ve mentioned would call ‘thingness’. Whatever you want to call it, I believe that it is this aspect of a design that is worth looking for to be able to anticipate how it is going to cope with the transition from a website or the pages of a glossy magazine and manage to meet the demands real people place on it in the real world.

Wellies being kept outsideMuddy wellies
Let me start with an example to illustrate my point: muddy wellies. I live in rural Wales so muddy wellies are very much a part of my life. They are also a likely feature of a lot of people’s glamping holidays in the UK. You’d certainly be very lucky, or otherwise unadventurous, to not get some pretty mucky footwear whilst on a glamping holiday here in Carmarthenshire, so I’d say that they are a pretty good place to start to question whether that gorgeous looking pod, shepherd’s hut or other glamping structure is really going to fit the bill for your site. By asking these questions, we are looking at the products that are out there more as things, and less as objects. Things can handle getting dirty, lived in and worn, because the fact they are being lived in enriches them in a way that objects can’t handle.
It is not always easy to find out how well a product is suited to being a ‘thing’. Ideally, you would have the opportunity to actually stay in one and observe how it enriches or restricts your life. Of course, this is rarely possible, so instead you will need to imagine how it would be from the information that is available to you. A photo or rendered visual might tell you how it looks from a particular angle, but its looks can actually distract you from considering all the practical questions of how it may be occupied. A floor plan will certainly be helpful, providing more information, communicating how the furniture, fittings and spaces relate to each other. You may even have the opportunity to actually look round one at a show, but this still requires imagination to take it out of this artificial setting and consider how it would perform in the context of your own site.

No matter how much information about a product is available, the trick is to set your own terms on how to interrogate it, to actively ask questions that are important to you and relevant to your setting. For example, if long country walks are a key part of the experience you are offering, then the dirty wellies question really will be critical. Try to visualise the process of returning from a walk. Is there a boot room or covered area to remove boots and coats, where would they then be kept and how does the visitor then come into the living space? Of course, this is only one of a multitude of considerations, so you will then need to keep going, imagining what might happen next. Perhaps your guest wants to pour themself a drink and go out onto the deck to sit and enjoy the view. Has the designer provided another access to the deck, or will you need to use the same entrance that you came in by and have go past the dirty boots and coats again?

A designer of a glamping unit needs to anticipate ways that the occupants might want to inhabit a small space, whilst accepting that they cannot predict every possible demand that is going to be made of it. However, you as the site owner will be able to fill in some of the gaps. Maybe you are next to the beach, in which case your guests will have wetsuits and swimming costumes that they will want to rinse and hang to dry. Maybe you are looking for a unit with a log burner, so there will need to be covered space to store logs outside and a way to easily bring them in ready to burn. You can test the designs of the units that you are considering to see how well they cater for your particular requirements.

In small spaces, just as much ‘living’ goes on as in larger spaces. For holiday accommodation, you could say that more living goes on, at least more varied types of activity than normally happen at home. Clever design is therefore essential to allow all this to happen in the space available, and the external space around the glamping unit will need to provide for much of the functionality that cannot be accommodated inside it.

Glampsite house interiorLet your imagination loose
As an architectural student, one of the first things I was taught was to connect the photographs and plans of projects published in architectural magazines in order to develop a three-dimensional understanding of the building in question. This is something most people can manage, but it still requires a conscious effort to step beyond a simple appreciation of the photographs. Depending on the complexity of the design, and the number of photos, this can sometimes be done without the help of a floor plan, but if a plan is available I would always recommend referring back to it to try to work out where each photo or view is taken from.

Once you have gained a three-dimensional understanding of the space, then you are ready to explore it in your imagination and test it in different scenarios, as in the examples above. To step beyond the visual and have a good feel for whether the product suits your needs, I urge you to really let your imagination loose. Don’t just rely on the visuals the supplier is offering you, but ask questions such as: how does this take advantage of the view I may have? Will the interior be warm or cool, and what control does the guest have over temperature? Will they have a sense of connection to the natural world or will they be detached from it? What sounds will they hear? Will it be a pleasure to stay in all year round, or in all weathers? Will people enjoy staying there in February, for example?

The number of questions you might ask is practically infinite, so there is no point trying to cover all bases. But I would argue that any amount of imagining, of trying to visualise the experience in different conditions is worthwhile. By stepping beyond the merely visual, and occupying the spaces in your mind, you will have a greater understanding of different structures’ characteristics and be better equipped to compare them on terms that are important to you.

Glampsite hut with grass roof

About the Author

Mark Waghorn is an architect and designer based in Wales who specialises in small and modular sustainable design. His designs are inspired by the natural world, focusing as much on functionality as on aesthetics. He uses materials and resources sustainably to create high quality structures that are beautiful and practical. 01558 822009 / /


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