A Q&A With the Sustainability Focused Yestermorrow Design/Build School

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Yestermorrow Design/Build School, established in 1980, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit located in Warren, Vermont.  Their focus is on education and hands-on learning experiences in the fields of design, construction, woodworking and architectural craft.  In each of their students they instill a passion for both aesthetically beautiful, as well as sustainable, and ecologically conscious designs.  These are the types of buildings that would ideally be found in an ecovillage.  If people can live and survive in gorgeously built structures, that are also sustainable, it could be a great image booster to ecological living communities.  Instead of the stigma being that you are living in dirty, unkempt, “natural” communities, Yestermorrow shows that sustainability can be attractive, and even modern or chic.  Their ideas and designs should be the template for any further building in this country.

I was lucky enough to get to talk to Kate Stephenson, the Executive Director of Yestermorrow, and ask her a few questions I had about the school.

David Jaeger: How does having a building and design school in rural Vermont affect the types of students, teachers, and products that come out of the school?

Kate Stephenson: We attract both local Vermonters as well as more urban and suburban students who love to escape the city and come to Vermont. The landscape and the rural nature of the school is definitely part of the appeal. In terms of the products that are designed and built at the school, they vary widely, but I would say they are influenced somewhat by our location- we try to use locally harvested and milled wood for example, so you won’t see any tropical hardwoods in our projects.

DJ: How diverse are the backgrounds of your faculty and do they all work solely at Yestermorrow or do they continue their practices out in the professional world as well?

KS: None of our faculty are employed full time at Yestermorrow. They all have businesses and day jobs in the professional world and then teach a few days to a month per year depending on their specialty, availability and our curriculum schedule. The faculty is really a diverse mix of architects and builders, but also farmers, stained glass artists, welders, permaculturists, cabinetmakers, and much more. And a big part of our teaching philosophy is emphasizing team teaching where we can partner a builder and architect together on one class so the students get two complementary perspectives.

DJ: How has the interest in the work done at Yestermorrow changed since its development in 1980?  With the rise in interest in eco-living these days I would expect that more and more people are looking for the kinds of skills taught at your school, is this true?

KS: While the school has had a sustainability focus since the very beginning, it has come more to the forefront in the past ten years. Whereas previously we focused more on the owner-builder process, and DIY mentality, and sort of “snuck in” the solar design and green components, now it is more explicitly what students are looking for and asking for, both for their own personal knowledge and also to enhance their career skills. I would say though that our focus is less on “sustainable living and lifestyle” and more on the skills and inspiration needed to contribute meaningfully to a sustainable world. It’s about how you live your own life to some extent, but also about how you can positively impact the community and place around you.

DJ: People often like to talk about the idea of “simplifying” lifestyles when it comes to ecologically sustainable living.  However sometimes the technology needed to become more sustainable can be quite complex. So how would you characterize sustainable buildings and designs, are they simple, complicated, or possibly a mix of both?

KS: Sustainable buildings can be radically simple, or they can be drastically complex. This depends on the design, the client’s intent, as well as the scope of the project. It’s challenging to build a 50 story skyscraper without getting in to some pretty complex systems, but at the residential scale there are certainly opportunities to keep things simple. Right now we are definitely seeing an interest in smaller or tiny houses, which I think is a reaction to “too much stuff”.

DJ: How much of a crutch is the commitment to ecological sustainability when it comes to how attractive or aesthetically pleasing building and landscape designs become? Or is it no crutch at all?

KS: The aesthetics of a building or site should not be compromised in any way by an intention to build sustainably. In fact, beauty is one of the key elements of sustainability- if a structure is not beautiful, then it is unlikely to last a long time because people won’t put the same effort into maintaining and preserving it over time.

DJ: On your website you state that your philosophy as a school is to teach students to both design and build, rather than the general “either or” approach given to architects and construction workers.  Why do you think this is such an important idea to have as a driving philosophy?

KS: One of the key concepts behind “design/build” is empowerment. The design/build method empowers architects to understand how their designs are actually implemented, it empowers builders to understand they can influence design and not just build what is presented to them on a piece of paper. And for laypeople and homeowners design/build really allows them to understand that they can influence the places where they live and work; they do not need to accept what is delivered to them as-is.

If you want to see more pictures of the kinds of things Yestermorrow students have created, I urge you to check out their photo gallery.

-DJ

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One thought on “A Q&A With the Sustainability Focused Yestermorrow Design/Build School

  1. Excellent interview: concise, smart, and a compelling read. That’s what we’re after. Nicely done, David.

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