Mairi Beautyman | August 21, 2013
Stephen Turner might never have moved into an egg if he hadn’t nearly stepped on one. The installation artist was exploring an environmentally protected estuary on the Beaulieu River near Lymington, U.K., when his heavy boot came within inches of crushing the pale blue shell of a herring gull’s egg. “I was appalled that I could be so close to destroying the life that I seek to respect through my work,” Turner recalls. “It made me consider the preciousness of all life attempting to make a home amid the challenges of a changing landscape, in a world where human beings are the greatest threat.” That’s been particularly so along the Beaulieu—its waterways and nearby airfields were the departure point for Allied troops bound for Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, aka D-Day. Melted airframes and bullet casings are still found beneath the heather in the once heavily bombarded region.
Disaster averted with the herring gull’s egg, Turner had an idea. He’d recently become involved with the nonprofit SPUD Group, which stands for Space, Place-making, and Urban Design and supports architects, engineers, and artists interested in raising ecological awareness, particularly in schools. Approaching SPUD principal associate Mark Drury, Turner made his pitch: “You know what? I’d like to live in an egg.” Drury elaborates: “Our brief called for an off-the-grid, low-tech structure that an artist could use as a part-time live-work space. His egg would symbolize fragility and the cycle of life.”
Another SPUD collaborator, PAD Studio director Wendy Perring, came up with the design, while the maritime engineer behind the Queen Mary 2 provided technical assistance. A boatbuilder then made Turner’s dream a reality, using materials and funds largely donated by local individuals and organizations. The latter included Exbury Gardens, founded by a branch of the Rothschild family—and Turner, who named his project The Exbury Egg, is now in the midst of a 12-month residency there, tethered to a pontoon just a few feet from his encounter with the gull’s egg.
Rising and falling with the tide, the 20-foot-long egg is technically not a house but a boat. “We found this very beautiful old rotting hull near the site, and it inspired us to look at boatbuilding strategies,” Perring says. An avid boatswoman who once took a two-year sabbatical to sail around the world, she created the egg shape with the help of a skeleton comprising plywood circular fins and Douglas fir stringers. “If you were to cut through the vessel crossways at any point, it would be circular,” she notes. The shell you’d be cutting was constructed by sandwiching fiberglass between timber strips and nailing the result to the stringers. Epoxy resin, applied below the waterline, adds protection against leaks.
Cladding the exterior of the shell is untreated western red cedar. “By the end of the year, you’ll be able to see where the sun has bleached it,” Perring says. She cut four apertures out of the completed shell: two round ones for skylights and two rectangular ones, with radiused corners, for doors. The doors were particularly challenging. “There’s a lip and a neoprene seal that you gradually tighten,” she explains. When the doors open, stairs can flip down airplane-style to meet the pontoon if the tide is in.
If the tide is out, the egg rests on plywood legs with U-shape steel feet filled with concrete. “You get a bit of a shock when the water goes away, because the mud sucks the legs down. Then the egg pops back up,” Drury says. To keep the egg upright when afloat, water tanks fill the bottom of the shell. “Its weight, empty, is 1 ½ tons, and we needed to double that for it to sit in the water,” Perring continues. “With such a buoyant shape, a potential problem could have been the egg rolling off, down the river.”
Laid directly above the tanks, Douglas fir planks form the floor of the egg’s interior. A mixture of Douglas fir with western red cedar and pine—timber repurposed from such sources as fence posts, a shed, a garage door, and a shelf, then coated with epoxy resin—creates a striped effect, cladding the inside of the shell. The plywood of the shelving was scrap, left over from cutting the fins for the egg’s frame.
Cooking takes place on the kitchenette’s kerosene stove. For showers, the sun warms water in a plastic bag mounted outside. Electronic devices stay charged thanks to a cable running 1,300 feet from donated solar panels. In the winter, a charcoal-burning stove will provide heat. Wet and dry lockers store damp clothing and food. The portable toilet is emptied at a nearby farmhouse.
Furnishings are sparse. A hammock serves as a bed, and a beanbag is for lounging. A built-in oak tabletop provides a dining and work surface for Turner, who plans to record his day-to-day experiences via video, drawings, and maps.