2019 Semester In Sustainable Design/Build - Our First Week

September 1, 2019
By Madi Visser, Semester Program Teaching Assistant


-Written by Hadley Gibson -

Since arriving in Vermont roughly two weeks ago we’ve hit the ground running to design our structure as quickly as possible. Our current goal is meeting a deadline of September 18th to submit our design to the DRB, and then present it on the 24th. No easy feat, but here we go! 


This project is near and dear to Yestermorrow’s heart (literally), because we have been tasked with building a new dorm here on campus. Ideally, the dorm will be a more affordable option to the rooms in the main building and will create a communal space that is somewhat lacking elsewhere on the property. 


As someone who has lived in various dorms, shared houses and apartments, I’m super excited to be able to take pieces of each to apply to this! Who wouldn’t be eager to take their favorite parts of past experiences and form a Franken-building that’s better than all the rest? An appealing image, no?


As an added bonus, living in the original Yestermorrow dorms while designing the new one helps to give me something to constantly compare to. What do I like about the dorms? What do I dislike? What would I keep? What would I change? How does being in the dorm make me feel? How does the process of going from the classroom to the dorm affect my mood? I feel very strongly that moving through a building is and should be an emotional process. The transition from room to room is not random, and the design informs both the uses and the emotional state of the room. It’s an exciting challenge.


I come from a family that is constantly editing the spaces we inhabit. While in middle school, my parents were renovating a house up in Bethel, Maine. As I recall, every Friday after school we’d make the two hour drive up to the mountains, with homework and cocker spaniel in tow. 

Where we slept each weekend depended on what part of the house was being worked on. Sometimes we were on mattresses in the dining room, slightly under the table. Other times we were wedged into the little living room, with the futon unfurled and a sea of mattresses surrounding it.


While my parents were in the basement removing the ancient crumbling insulation (an asbestos field of dreams!), my sister and I would be wandering around in the dusty barn, sweeping up ancient saw dust, balancing like tight rope walkers across the rafters, or wandering around town. I learned how to peel ancient wallpaper off the walls while wearing a face mask in the event of any lead, as is the case with many old homes in New England. I watched while my parents painstakingly re-grouted the upstairs bathroom and placed the white hexagonal tiles one at a time, using a toothpick to push them into place. (I should add that I learned of Yestermorrow through my parents, who have taken a few courses here over the years.)


All of this is to say, my first introduction to working with architecture was not on the design side. It was far more hands-on, and my comfort zone has remained on that side of the applied versus theoretical spectrum. I didn’t study architecture in college and have spent the past three years ski-bumming out west, so returning to the classroom in a discipline that I have no official experience in was a little daunting. 


However, Yestermorrow is proving to be a wonderful marriage of hands-on to hands-off, as it has been since its inception. The design/build movement in Vermont originated here in the Mad River Valley in the 1960s, and eventually led to the creation of a school where people could both learn about architectural theory as well as pour their own concrete counter tops. The idea of designing a structure while you are concurrently building it helped to create some of the magical, wild, and whimsical structures nestled into the landscape here, and I find that so inspiring. 


One of our first projects this semester was to create a “sit spot” somewhere on campus. A sit spot is essentially somewhere where one can sit and appreciate nature, while also enhancing the best aspects of the spot. My partner and I found a nice rock wall on the edge of campus looking up across the valley, but the view was somewhat blocked by the hangar/workshop. We decided to create a structure that you could crawl into that was able to frame the view of the mountains while blocking out the view of the hangar. 

What ensued was a 72-hour exploration of different materials and shapes, and when we finally started building, we didn’t have a set plan, we just created the skeleton of the structure and built out. We took twine and fleshed out the dome-shape with cross sections of sticks, and finally began covering it in leaves, branches, and golden rod until we had a human sized fairy house. 


Moving forward with our project, I hope that constructing will help to inform our design as we go. While I recognize that having a general plan is imperative to building a successful dorm, I think the creativity that can strike at any moment is something that can be harnessed to make the design even better. 


Stay tuned ~~