Mudrooms

From A Country Planet: Smart Ways to Rural Success and Survival by Tim Matson.

Lately I’ve become a connoisseur of mudrooms. I’ve been scanning the countryside for specimens of mudroom design, taking shots, and bringing them home to add to my mudroom bestiary, a collection of photographs I plan to consult as soon as I build a mudroom of my own.  I  say  bestiary  because  the  mudroom  embodies  a  unique architectural species. Rarely will you find two alike. Some are plain homemade,  some  ornamental. Often  they  say  something  about  the people behind the door.

At  its  simplest,  the  mudroom  is  an  enclosed entry  way,  usually annexed,  where you can  stomp  the  dirt  or  snow off your boots,  or remove  them,  and  hang  up  a  coat  and  hat,  before  entering.  More sophisticated mudrooms combine the advantages of the shakedown entry  way  with  an  airlock  for  conserving  heat.  Other  facets  of mudroom  design  can  produce  payoffs  in  refrigeration,  storage space, shelter for critters, solar power, and so forth.

The   mudroom   appears   to   have   humble   farmhouse   origins, coinciding with the elimination of earthen floors. In Japan, where it is  customary to  slip off your  shoes before entering a dwelling,  the mudroom  is  known  as  the  genken;  it’s  been  a  cornerstone  of Japanese  architecture  since  the  twelfth  century.  In  Vermont,  the mudroom  has been  a  popular  architectural  tradition  since  the  first settlers  kicked  off  their  boots.  It  has  sheltered  the  thresholds  of taverns,  inns,  schoolhouses,  stores,  farmhouses,  and  homes.  The newest  mudroom  in  my neighborhood  is  a  portable  entry  to  the general store. It’s a three-piece modular unit–roof, walls, door–that is assembled in November and taken away in May.

“It’s  great,”  the  storekeeper  told  me.  “Keeps  out  the  snow  and keeps in the heat. The girls at the cash register were freezing. They love it.”

Apart from the rare roving mudroom, most domestic varieties set up  house  for  keeps,  and  one  of  the  best  places  to  learn  about  the standard breed mudroom is in a one-room schoolhouse. There can’t have been many places more in need of it. Kids have the knack of tracking in more debris per square inch than the rest of humankind put together. Send a dozen or more through the same door five days a  week,  nine  months  a  year,  and  the  advantages  of  the  mudroom become  clear.  In  one  nearby  village,  I  came  upon  a  century-old crimson  schoolhouse  recently  converted  into  a  community  center, complete with solar greenhouse on the south wall. Jutting out from the  same wall  stands  the mudroom,  which the designer wisely  left intact. The mudroom is roughly 10 feet by 10 feet and capped with a hip roof. The floor is a thick concrete slab, perhaps the best defense against  the  march  of  Vermont  seasons.  There  are  benches  for unlaced  boots,  pegs  to  hang  wet  clothes,  and  a  couple  of  large windows to provide natural light.

Another good lesson lies in the schoolhouse elevation, two steps about mudroom level. In winter, then the mudroom door is open to the   schoolroom,   heat   resists   spilling   out.   This   is   an   airlock conservation measure pioneered by Neanderthal-era Eskimos. They built tunnelways into their igloos a foot of two below the dwelling level.

Indeed,  there’s  a  lot  to  be  learned  in  a  schoolhouse  mudroom, pitfalls  included.  In  this  instance,  the  hip  roof.  Apart  from  the aesthetic  prejudice  I  have  against  this  umbrella  design,  as  a mudroom  entry  roof,  it  flunks.  The  watershed  pattern  drenches  all eaves.  Gutters  are  one  solution,  I  suppose,  but  I’m accustomed  to seeing  roof  ice  twist  them  around  like  Budweiser  pop  tops.  I’d chose instead a peaked roof with the gable over the mudroom door.

At  the  opposite  end  of  the  spectrum  you’ll  find  the  micro mudroom. It tends to be a homemade add-on, often not much bigger than a telephone booth. (Any day now I’m expecting to find an old phone  booth  planted  at  the  front  of  a  glassy  solar  dwelling;  what better  way  to  recycle  all  those  phone  booths  displaced  by  plastic hoods?) Built on a foundation of posts, stone, or concrete piers, the micro mudroom may not be as durable or spacious as the one sitting on  a  concrete  slab,  but  then  it’s  more  manageable  to  finance  and construct.  After  all,  it  is  just  a  mudroom.  Stud-wall  wood-frame construction  is  the  norm,  as  is  the  lack  of  insulation,  unless  the mudroom  is  to  be  heated,  or  treated  like  a  hermetically  sealed airlock. And I’d look for at least one window in the door or the wall.

Nobody  needs  a  gloomy  mudroom—mud  season’s  dreary  enough already. One architect I know likes to station a mudroom on each of his buildings. It adds a beguiling touch to the structure and a personal stamp to his work. You can’t mistake his hometown; its main street is  flanked  with  various  three-dimensional thresholds:  tall  and narrow, some with arched doors, some with curved roofs, some with steep  gables.  Most  stand  at  homefronts,  but  one  doubles  as  an airlock  and  clodbuster  for  a  local  tavern.  Stepping  through  it  I’m reminded  of  the  ticket  booth  at  the  Tumbridge  World’s  Fair. Another of his mudrooms features a domed door with a tiny leaded window  and  a  steep  pitched  roof.  It  looks  like  a  sentinel  hut  at Buckingham Palace.

Since a mudroom may tend to look like an outhouse, I will resist the temptation to carve a quarter moon in the window shutters. One embellishment  I  will  add  is  the  grate  dirt  remover.  This  is  a salvaged  heat  register  set  into  the  floor  in  place  of  a  door  mat, preferably  vintage  cast  iron  to  rebuff  kicking,  mudcaked  feet.  The register  collects  dirt  and  snow  which  drops  into  an  inset  cleanout box, or clear through the floor if you don’t mind the draft.

The bigger the mudroom, the better the storage. It’s a good place to  keep  a  cat  or  hang  a  side  of  beef  (not  simultaneously).  Some people install an unplugged refrigerator or an insulated storage box to preserve food, fuel free, in winter. There’s only one thing crazier than  a  hip  roof,  and  that’s  running  the  fridge  during  a  Vermont winter.  Mudrooms  intended  for  cold  storage  work  best  on  the shadowy  north  side  of  the  house.  Over  on  the  sunny  side,  a mudroom equipped with coldframe glazing can grow vegetables and flowers. Now there’s  a  designer’s dilemma  with just one solution: the two-mudroom house.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the book A Country Planet: Smart Ways to Rural Success and Survival by Tim Matson. The book is now out of print. However, watch our blog for several more reprints of Tim’s great articles from this book!

Tim is also the author of three books offered at Lehmans.com: Earth Ponds A to Z, Earth Ponds Sourcebook and The Book of Non-Electric Lighting.

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