Yestermorrow/UMass Semester in Sustainable Design/Build
Lisa J. Carton
Students participated in an immersive retreat prior to the typical studio starting point offering them a chance to “pause” and reexamine more fundamental questions before they began to formulate the problem or the solution.
And when they return from the woods, that the students sit down and work out how to make decisions collaboratively.
(Less compelling because it was built explicitly for a private client.)
Eleven college students and three faculty embarked upon the Semester in Sustainable Design/Build in the fall of 2013, tasked to craft a lifestyle shift for a client in Bennington, VT. Drawing on client needs, transportation constraints, and environmental responsibility, students defined priorities for a small, flexible dwelling. Balancing aesthetic, theoretical, and contextual explorations with the hard constraints of budget, timeline, and constructability, the team found design intent and carried it through to fruition in sixteen weeks. The Carton House is a welcoming, portable, and efficient 350sf home that also flexes into an office for group and individual therapy sessions.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
The Semester in Sustainable Design/Build sought a small, tractable design/build project as a vehicle for student education. Our client craved the lifestyle shift embodied by the ‘tiny house’ movement, yet wanted to temper her transition with flexibility and balance. As a team of students and faculty, we uncovered constraints, defined our priorities, and found our aesthetic.
The problem was two-fold: Creating a portable dwelling and office space through a compressed design/build format; empowering our students to establish their priorities, craft, and aesthetic within a four month semester. The physical questions of constraint, design, and assembly were well-girded by site, client, budget, and schedule. Our client professed a desire to downsize her lifestyle, house her therapy practice, and prioritize quality materials and construction. Transportation logistics drove volumetrics and informed material choices while budget and schedule informed building scale, complexity, and programmatic scope. As we defined functional elements, we refined our reach to a living/dining/kitchen space that doubled as a meeting area, a three-quarter wet bath, and a flexible sleeping/office space with a Murphy bed and efficient storage. We discovered additional priorities as a student/faculty team. A desire for locally-sourced materials and our client’s chemical sensitivities influenced material choices; simplification of mechanical infrastructure guided our appliance selection and placement; portability and scalability yielded a durable and robust structure that provided for future additions. We entered into this project with sixteen weeks to discover, define, and prioritize our values in sustainable design/build and, at the end, stood back to admire the Carton House.
As faculty, our role was dual: we were charged as stewards, guides, and instructors of the Semester in Sustainable Design/Build; yet, as the course progressed, our roles deepened to those of advisors and collaborators. At first blush, this might seem a relaxing of roles and responsibilities, but pedagogically, it is the heart of the mission.
While our built project, drawings, and allied explorations are gorgeous and stunning artifacts of our process, our fundamental goal was far deeper—to develop in our students the ability to create and assess intent and progress and to develop and revise plans of action. To follow this through, often the balance of the faculty role pitches from instructive to facilitative and collaborative. It was our hope to push students to discover new arenas of inquiry, expression, and resolution; by exploring and distilling uncertainties, our students become deeper critical and analytical thinkers who can apply their insights to collaborative and individual decisions.
Our process is rooted in questions of aesthetic, performance, and practicality. By querying these attributes, our students establish their own shared and personal values and discover the balance between hopeful theory and pragmatic execution. The work then grows into a microcosm of the world outside of our studio and project—the uncertainties and challenges of building are an integral part of our curriculum.
Our program begins with an orientation retreat and, through backpacking in a National Forest in Northern New England, we explore nature-based design, individuals’ expectations, and group dynamics. Back on campus, we develop a social contract for our group—we evaluate the role of conversation and civil argument with reasonable expectations of equitable and appropriate discourse. We focus on collaborative approaches to decision-making with an emphasis on consensus. Once we’ve laid the groundwork for amenable discussion and resolution, we explore our values and priorities by discussing the broad topic of ‘sustainable design/build’. This provides the chance to voice personal views and values and to collectively develop a set of shared priorities and goals. With these shared values in hand, we progress to engaging our design problem.
We begin our design query within the context of site, vernacular, and region. We explore objective and qualitative aspects of our site with an eye towards employable characteristics (solar orientation, microclimate behavior, viewfields and -sheds) as well as an analysis of existing and potential infrastructure. We examine and discuss historic and vernacular solutions to design problems with a focus on the built history of our immediate area and the role of regional and climatic influence. As we understand our physical and historical context, we begin to examine the role of our client as occupant of our built space. We examine ways to extract aesthetic and programmatic goals from our client as well as ways to discover constraints yet to be articulated. Our client this year brought significant chemical sensitivities, a need for a flexible space, simple mechanical requirements, and a desire to see the sky at night.
Alongside these inquiries, we begin to introduce students to hand-drafting via small object documentation, digital modeling of free-form ideas, and shop safety and skills by engaging a small-scale project. As we develop these skills, we are able to bring conceptual ideas surrounding project design intent into deeper clarity through documentation, digital rendering, and an increased understanding of the tools at our disposal. As the itch to build grows, we find ourselves outside with chalk on pavement and arms aloft to show walls and ceilings.
There is an incredible moment when our design has progressed far enough to begin gathering materials and consider turning them into something more cohesive. As we drive the first nails and begin to turn a pile of boards into a floor, a giddy roar of hammers erupts from the jobsite as effort finds its focus on assembly. As the floor gains solidity, walls are released into being by more swinging hammers, which soon create a roof. As drawings on paper give way to boards held together and finally nailed in place, a skin of cladding grows around the building and we find our intent realized. Moments in assembly that we had not considered or foreseen return us to conversation and design to clarify details. As we move through the phases of construction, we revisit design intent and find the essence of the design/build process.
The Carton House yielded a range of benefit to students, client, faculty, and a broader social context. Fundamentally, this project was generated by a move towards voluntary simplicity. Our client was able to identify this project as a means to shift her lifestyle towards a more inwardly rich exploration. Our students gained immediate hard skills in the continuous design, documentation, and construction of a single, cohesive building as well as project and client management. The integration of these processes is a strong characterization of the design/build process and lends traction to its model. Furthermore, our students were able to seek and define and shared goals, evaluation processes, and task management—invaluable skills in the face of any goal. As faculty, we were fortunate to work with such a remarkable team—we were continually impressed with the flexibility and receptivity of our client as well as the responsibility and execution of our students. We were never disappointed when tasking our students—in the face of daunting objectives, they thrived and never failed to impress. At a broader scale, this project enlightened countless visitors and friends to the viability of a different lifestyle and the ability of a group to execute a unique project, furthered a social movement rooted in increased social equity, and empowered a group of young designers to embolden their work with value and principle. This project explored the ideas of prototyping affordable, energy-efficient, and sustainable homes that employ well-executed design to create inspired spaces.6. Describe the overall philosophy that drove the design brief, research methodologies, tools and outcomes (e.g. self-defined or client-defined briefs, participatory briefs, process outcomes or artifacts outcomes, etc.).
Ultimately, The Semester in Sustainable Design/Build seeks to empower its students to better the built environment. At the heart of this is the belief that individual and community-based values and priorities must inform the design/build process. With this philosophy in hand, exploration must be guided by both students and faculty. By creating the opportunity for students to advocate for their own ideas and synthesize many viewpoints into one, the Carton House becomes an allegory for shared intent and exploration. This exploration becomes real through conversation, pencil and paper, and hammer and nail. By giving students an arena to explore construction in a guided setting, the connection between mind and hands becomes evident and shows itself as an inescapable part of the human condition.7. How did the project, program or curriculum improve the students’ learning objectives, the institution’s overall learning and teaching and/or beneficial impact to outside community or industry partner?
The Semester in Sustainable Design/Build is driven by exploration and empowerment engendered in the design/build process. By combining the roles of designer and builder, the divisions of tasks between the two are discarded and the union becomes a rich informant. The concrete act of building becomes a tool of the design process and a deep understanding of design intent is likewise intrinsically linked to the success of a holistic design. In this model, our hands become design tools and our minds indispensable in the act of construction. This provides a deeper understanding of the impacts of decisions in material selection, spatial configuration, building performance, and aesthetic intent. Discussions in a classroom or studio lead to executing the tasks in many conditions and iterations—intent and theory are tempered with action and evaluation.
In this philosophy is the realization that every act, whether in the studio, classroom, or jobsite, is itself a step towards a better understanding of the design/build process. Students gain immediate feedback from themselves, the task at hand, and members of their student/faculty team; faculty gain a broader view of educational processes, enlightenment from the fresh eyes of students, and continue to revel in the dynamic of human interaction. Institutionally, we are able to evaluate our actions and plan for future tasks as well as refine and increase our educational, cultural, and social impact. In short, the mantra ‘we are always learning’ is, alongside sketches, sawdust, and hammers, in front of us always.