Revisiting the Watchtower, as design exercise

This post has been getting some notice recently, from back in 2007. I wanted to highlight it, and set it in some sort of common relevance, as a possible design exercise for a medieval history class. You could do something similar, I suppose, with almost any era in history. Here’s the constraints:

  1. You’re a medieval engineer. You work for a king (or maybe a queen like Eleanor of Aquitaine). You’ve been tasked with building a castle. Not really a castle. A tower — your king/queen doesn’t have a lot of money for construction right now, and getting this tower built is a priority. There’s fast, cheap, and good… pick any two you like.
  2. The tower has to be between forty and sixty feet tall. It’s going to be a watch tower, and the main part of the roof has to have a signal station on top of it, in the form of a large pile of sticks to be set on fire if something goes wrong. All those sticks, and that fire, have to be high up — and the knight and his military force with him have to have a place to live, and from which they can see the surrounding country.
  3. The story of a building like a tower has got to be about 10 feet high — so this tower is four to six stories tall. It might have a low-ceilinged area, like a basement (maybe two); and it might have a high-cielinged area like a great hall. The tower isn’t going to be a grand construction. The base can’t be any larger than 30’x30 feet, and it can’t go more than 10′ deep in the ground.
  4. There’s going to be a knight assigned to the hall. He’s going to have two squires, who will be young men between 15-18. He’ll have maybe four pages, who will be between 7 years of age and 15 years of age. There will be somewhere between 8 and 15 additional men (some infantry, some archers who will want more private quarters because they are more likely professional soldiers) stationed with him, of varying rank and social station. The knight has a wife, who will want some private quarters for herself and her husband; and they have a household of 6-10 servants.
  5. The walls are going to have to be ten feet thick at the base to support the weight of the upper levels, and they can rarely be less than three feet thick because the building material is stone.

Now here’s the challenge:

  • Using graph paper at a scale of 1 square = 2 feet, design a plan and elevation for the tower.
  • Include — stairways between levels; cooking, eating and activity spaces like a great hall, sleeping, and (ahem!) elimination facilities for the residents, including private or semi-private living quarters for the knight and his wife; storage for food and essentials for the household for up to 4 months (winter + siege supplies); defensive positions to protect the tower-house against attack; support columns from basement to upper floors (to support the weight of the watchfire on the roof); show the position of doors and windows; positions of heating elements like fireplaces and chimney flues; water-storage capability for long sieges or winter, for cooking and cleaning.
  • Do not include: technology too advanced for the time period, e.g., electric light or water-driven plumbing.
  • Use David Macaulay’s book Castle as both inspiration and guide to certain construction techniques
  • Conclude with an estimation of the labor force needed to construct your proposed tower, and a rough outline of the project calendar, (e.g, dig foundation in March, make foundations in April, build 1st floor in May, etc.) Remember the limitations of the era’s technology in designing the workforce estimates and project calendar.
  • Extra Credit: Build a model that shows the outside of your tower.
  • SUPERDUPER  Extra-Special credit: Build a model of your tower that includes both internal and external structural detail.

And… Just because I’m nice, and because I want to get used to the idea of publishing and then editing, and building up a library of tools and projects: DT Medieval Engineer <- Here’s that whole exercise, pre-loaded into a PDF, ready to hand out and use in class.

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