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Raising the Roof

A Waitsfield design/build school drafts post-carbon plans


Published October 17, 2007 at 9:20 p.m.

New unfinished cob wall
  • New unfinished cob wall

If the planet's natural resources were a chocolate cake, the typical American contractor would have a wicked stomachache. Despite mounting evidence of resource scarcity, commercial buildings consume 70 percent of the country's electricity. And an average new residence measures almost 2500 square feet - a 32 percent increase since 1976.

At Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield, the trend runs in the opposite direction. For 27 years, the school has offered courses based on an experimental aesthetic philosophy. Along the way, it has encouraged generations of builders, planners and jacks-of-all-trades to challenge dominant architectural and spatial paradigms. Now, faced with a skyrocketing enrollment, school administrators are simply trying to fit all the students under one roof.

On a recent fall afternoon, a reporter winds down Route 100 South and pulls into Yestermorrow's gravel parking lot. Inside the main building sits Bob Ferris, 55, who's been the school's executive director since last summer. With his flannel shirt, wire-rimmed glasses and trim, gray mustache, Ferris conveys the air of an administrator - he's a former environmental consultant - but without the rigidity. "If everything goes to hell in a hand basket, then what are we going to build with?" Ferris jokes, stepping outside. "The answer is, we're going to build with natural materials, and we'll build locally."

A quick tour of Yestermorrow's campus offers solid support for that assertion. In addition to a few Hobbit-friendly cabins, Ferris points out a "moldering," or non-aerobic, toilet, an outdoor solar shower and a stately, wheelchair-accessible tree house. Beyond the parking lot, a garden shed is being built from "cob" - a mixture of mud, straw, clay and sand. Like its neighbors, the shed looks like something out of a nursery rhyme.

Indeed, while Ferris insists, "You don't necessarily have to be frumpy and hirsute-ish to be green," he concedes that Yestermorrow buildings can be "pretty whimsical." No kidding: Placed in another context, some of these structures might win prizes in sculpture contests. "I think that most of the architects here have some proclivity for art," Ferris muses. "One nice thing about cob is that it makes artists out of us all - if you don't like what you've done . . . you can add to or subtract from it."

Looks aside, Yestermorrow has always been structured around one nuts-and-bolts principle. Talking over the clatter of hammers from a nearby carpentry class, Ferris explains that Warren resident John Connell, the school's founder, envisioned the place as an antidote to perennial "disjunctures" among architects, contractors and builders - the triumvirate that guides any residential construction project. "The core goal of the school was to get those three parties talking together," Ferris explains. "And to cross-train them."

In its early years, Yestermorrow operated on what Ferris calls an "ad hoc" basis. Some instructors taught out of their garages; all classes focused loosely on the established "design/ build" theme. After the school acquired this Waitsfield site in 1990, its curriculum was divided into three categories: "Whole Buildings and Communities," "Materials, Methods and Building Systems" and "Architectural Craft and Woodworking." According to Ferris, the shift reflected a new, countrywide environmental consciousness.

Change didn't stop there. Between 2001 and 2005, Yestermorrow's enrollment tripled. It grew by another 38 percent this summer. These days, with an expanded mission and student body, Yestermorrow features a quirky blend of traditional classes - "Joinery," "Home Design" - and esoteric ones such as "Architecture as Re:Use," "Timber Framing Outside the Box" and "Permaculture Home and Garden." So far this year, 4000 people have partaken of the unaccredited school's offerings, which include one- or two-week workshops and longer "certificate" courses. Still, administrators sometimes have to turn away interested students due to lack of space. "We're at a point where, in six months, we're going to have to double the size of the campus," Ferris notes.

With its course offerings that appeal to disparate sensibilities, Yestermorrow's curriculum seems like a blueprint for a polarized clientele. Not so, says Ferris. "I see hunters sitting down with vegans at the dinner table," he observes. The hunters "start coming in here and saying, 'What's permaculture?' I think that's because people are here to spread their wings and be open - on both sides of the equation. They don't have to live up to their own façades."

Yestermorrow instructor Patti Garbeck agrees. As Ferris returns to his office, Garbeck, 51, supervises a "Basic Carpentry" class. She's dressed in scruffy jeans, a Yestermorrow baseball cap and neon-orange earplugs. While Garbeck talks, a dreadlocked, twentysomething woman with a nose ring planes a batch of two-by-sixes. "One thing I've gotten out of this school is that everything is a design opportunity," the teacher explains, adding that scrap material is often transformed into artful creations. Case in point: A nearby solar water heater was made from stray metal, wood and glass. "People think you did it intentionally," Garbeck concludes with a chuckle.

For this self-employed builder from Woodbury, the technical aspect of a Yestermorrow experience isn't an end in itself. Garbeck stresses, for instance, that in her "Carpentry for Women" class, students build lasting personal relationships. "It's not about the carpentry; it's about life experiences," she says. "At the end of the week, you find out that this woman's husband just split and left her with a house!" After a pause to reflect, she adds, "That's the neatest thing - empowering people with skills, making them more proficient."

Yestermorrow student Brandon Angrisani echoes Garbeck's riff. While the carpentry class hammers on, the bearded 24-year-old graduate of Washington's progressive Evergreen State College is making an iron door pull under a makeshift blacksmith tent. This three-day smithy training is part of a summer-long "certificate" course in "Sustainable Building and Design" that cost him $4000. The door pull will complement an "earth structure" he's building in Athens, Vermont, with his sister, who's also taking the course. "A lot of people who come here are in big transitions in their lives," Angrisani reports. "And this place sets them off in new directions."

He certainly has enough paths to choose from. After earning his Yestermorrow certificate this fall, Angrisani plans to cruise around Argentina for a while, then go back to school for a graduate degree in conservation biology. Yestermorrow skills won't translate directly into a career path, but he hopes the wisdom he's picked up here will "inform" future endeavors. "I wanted to spend the summer either learning or working," he reflects casually, wiping his brow. "Here, I did both."

To some, a class on blacksmithing might seem a bit antiquated. But, with several registered smithies, Vermont appears to be a hotbed of forging. In any case, Angrisani suggests that Yestermorrow's majesty, like its wily name, lies in its implicit time-bending contradiction. "Yestermorrow is the only place in the country of its kind," he says, beaming. "You're learning old-school techniques to apply to new principles . . . So it's a throwback, but you'll need these skills for the future."

That's just the kind of talk Bob Ferris wants to hear. Sitting at a picnic table as the day's classes wind down, Ferris explains that he'd like to establish a full-residency, semester-long program by 2010. "Some people think it's a bunch of folks building houses," he says. "They don't realize that we teach; we open people's minds. I see Yestermorrow as a living laboratory."

Like the school itself, Ferris' interest in sustainable design is grounded in a diverse background of environmentally conscious activities. An avid outdoorsman, he worked for years on wildlife-management projects in all 50 states before directing an environmental advocacy group in southern California. Working those jobs, though, he feared he wasn't taking a holistic approach to systemic problems. "A part of me said, 'This isn't enough,'" he recalls. "It wasn't going to stop global warming or pollution."

Just as Yestermorrow's founders attempted to bridge fissures within the architectural field, Ferris hopes Yestermorrow can help smooth over inconsistencies in contemporary green thinking. "It all has to do with a philosophical revolution," he asserts. "When you look at conservation biology, it's always protecting something. In the environmental movement, it's all about 'We want to stop them and they,' but it's still removed from us." At Yestermorrow, he suggests, "We're educating people to get them to change their lives - that's going to change more on a broader scale than some of the other approaches."

fter he waxes philosophical, Ferris places his hands on the table and looks around. A few students from an "Ecological Planning, Design and Construction" course are riding bikes through the parking lot; planers and saws from Garbeck's carpentry workshop buzz in tandem with crickets. On a western ridge, fall foliage is burning gold and burgundy.

"We have to change the way we look at things," Ferris insists. "If we all do that - collectively and voluntarily - we'll make some progress."