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Author Lynne Cox, MArch October 2012

A DESIGN-BUILD SCHOOL IN VERMONT, USA


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During October 2012 members of the Tog team went on a journey into the green mountain state of Vermont as it was turning to shades of gold in search of the Yestermorrow Design-Build School. Having heard of the school from Jersey Devil’s Steve Badanes at the Ghost 13 conference in 2011 we were eager to learn from a well established design-build school and find out what has made Yestermorrow a place that attracts participants from all over America. What better place to start than on-site in the rain in Montpelier with tutors José Galarza, Ben Cheney and Anna Lucey and six students on the newly accredited 4-month design build course, now in its second year in association with the University of Massachusetts. The task for this year’s course was the construction of Ben’s new house on a sloping woodland site. The students had come from various academic backgrounds, but only one had prior experience in design or construction. We arrived during Week 2 of work on site: what would be Ben’s new ground level workshop had been excavated from the slope and retained in concrete, enclosed by a skeletal timber frame structure supporting the first floor where the living accommodation would be located. There was a great energy on site despite the dismal weather as all members of the team were engaged in the tasks of the day. We were given a quick tour around the build and onto the first floor platform where we were introduced to a design feature affectionately nicknamed ‘the kranuckle’. The kranuckle, named as a hybrid of a knuckle and a crank, would become an angled wall at the front of the living area that, on completion, would frame views out from the living space into the forest. It was clearly a feature that had presented some challenges to the team, but it was an aspect of the design that the students were particularly proud of and enthusiastic to realise.

The in-progress workshop offered the group some shelter and formed a temporary studio space for pinning up detailed drawings and sharing discussions on the continuing work. Invited to linger, we were startled by the degree of sophistication in the student’s discussion after only a few weeks of tuition in design and construction. In the first week the group were taken into the woods for initial activities to “establish a group culture”, after which they were taught basic drawing and communication skills using traditional drawing boards to convey their design ideas to the group. Each student had been given responsibility for researching a particular aspect of the next phase of the build, such as drawing the structural plan for the roof, calculating the size and selecting an appropriate material for a cantilevering beam, and designing the window head details.  Each individual took their turn to pin up their latest drawing and talk through ideas in an open forum with their tutors and peers offering thoughts and points of reference.  A student would be advised to “give James Smith a call over at the farm I think he had trouble with a similar detail and he might be able to help you” or “perhaps you should call up the manufacturer of this product tomorrow for some advice”.  There was very much a sense of collaborative learning, trust and shared responsibility amongst the group. The design was evolving during construction, influenced by the contributions made by the students in these discussions. It was inspiring to observe such democratic discourse given the vested interest of the future owner. The tutors were questioned by the students, such as whether a beam should be LVL or steel, and this opened up a broad discussion on what the group wanted to achieve with the design and how this decision would affect the overall outcome. This was a team of young architects and designers beginning their careers at the deep end.


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Ben’s house, nearly-finished Ben’s house under construction Students present to an impromtu review during construction The finished’Kranuckle’

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Astonished by the learning environment we had witnessed, we took an opportunity to meet with Kate Stephenson, Executive Director of Yestermorrow, who kindly gave us a walking tour of the Yestermorrow Campus in Warren. Yestermorrow has an ethos that bears some similarity to the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales, where the objective is to make construction techniques and traditional skills accessible for all to learn. Courses are open to students of all backgrounds from 18 to 50+ years old and cover an array of subjects beyond self-build; from wood turning, to permaculture, how to use SketchUp, and the basics of plumbing or electrical installation. In recent years the demand from younger students has grown as the effects of the recession have taken their toll on employment opportunities. In the last few years the school, like CAT, has entered into an agreement with a local university to gain accreditation for one of its courses; it will be interesting to watch whether this will have an impact on the way Yestermorrow operates and whether there will be more academic courses established in the coming years. The campus itself was once a ski-resort, which has been incrementally renovated through donations over a 30 year period to accommodate teaching workshops, drawing studios, a library, a kitchen, dormitories and staff offices.  The land surrounding this main building is host to experimental construction projects and summer lodges that have been built to house visiting participants and interns; a test bed for mock-ups and new ideas. One of the courses at Yestermorrow currently in great demand is the Tiny House building course. The Tiny House movement has become very popular in Vermont. As explained by a writer from New York who was sharing our hostel, the Vermont people are known for their independence and resilience, and in the face of the recession they have taken to building small affordable homes at a size that is minimal and accommodating only their basic needs.

Championed by local architect Peter King, the idea is a reaction to the excessive ways of contemporary culture, but offers individuals a means of affording to build their own place to live (see www.vermonttinyhouses.com). As we wandered around the Yestermorrow grounds we encountered this year’s Tiny House project built upon the wheel base of a trailer ready to be towed to site. Resembling a timber chalet on wheels, it made us think of the ‘Rolling Huts’ project by Olson Kundig Architects which had been purposefully designed to fit within a caravan sized plot to get around local planning restrictions. Will trends such as this become more evident in the UK in the coming years as the cost of housing remains out of reach for many would-be home owners? There is a tremendous feeling of goodwill on the Yestermorrow campus. Kate explained that Yestermorrow’s built projects are predominantly made for local not-for-profit clients, such as schools, and charitable donations have been important in supporting Yestermorrow’s development. Commitment to the ideals of this school is evident in the staff that generously give time to work alongside their students, the young interns who have volunteered to work there, and the short-course teachers who come to Yestermorrow during holidays to give lessons. This is a special learning environment that seems to instil some of the self-empowering Vermont spirit in its students. Yestermorrow embodies many admirable qualities, but, looking back on the visit, what was most important to us was the culture of mutual learning and self-empowerment that had been established; something we hope to foster within future Tog livebuild projects. We would like to thank our friends at Yestermorrow for sharing their experiences with us and wish them the best of luck with future projects. We are also grateful to José who has since been in touch to update us with images of Ben’s finished house via the Yestermorrow blog: http://ym-semester12.tumblr.com


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‘Rolling Huts’ by Olson Kundig Architects Chair-making workshop at Yestermorrow Studio space at Yestermorrow Early version of a Vermont ‘Tiny House’ at Yestermorrow

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Pictures 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.

Yestermorrow Lynne Cox Lynne Cox Yestermorrow Olson Kundig Architects Lynne Cox Lynne Cox Lynne Cox

A DESIGN-BUILD SCHOOL IN VERMONT, USA


Tog visit to Yestermorrow  

Tog Studio report on their visit to Yestermorrow, a design-build school in Vermont, USA

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