Interview with John Connell on 30 Years of Yestermorrow

In preparation for our upcoming 30th Anniversary Reunion we decided to check in with Yestermorrow's founder, John Connell, on what he's observed about the School over the last 30 years...

What was your original vision for Yestermorrow?
I wanted to teach the butcher/baker/candlestick maker a method of design-driven construction that would allow them to have well designed homes without the cost/annoyance of an architect.

Did you ever think it’d be around 30 years later?
Absolutely. When I was shopping for a campus (there were several potential parcels that I considered) one of the highest priorities was that it should be a situation that we could grow into for at least the next 100 years. At least....

What’s changed the most about the school over the past 30 years?
Many of us old timers lament the loss of design focus that drove the first decade. I guess this is the inevitable price to be paid for being a leader in green and sustainable methodologies. And maybe the pendulum will swing back now that "green" is as common and credentialed as 2x6 studs. Also, we were involved in bigger structures back then. We always tried to build homes or full scale additions. Here again there has been a trade off. By moving to tiny structures we can service more non-profits and municipalities. Still, I think there's something to be learned by wrestling with a real house and a real client's constraints.

What’s stayed the same?
The people! The school is still the net result of an incredible group of outstanding people. It's these people that generate the school's gravitational pull, bringing in more of the same. While the physical plant is important and our facility helps us attract funds and students - it's our faculty and staff that really make the school. If the campus were foreclosed on tomorrow, I know we could start over in a heart beat. We should never lose sight of this fact. It's the staff, the faculty and the interns that really keep the curriculum fresh and the students coming.

When you led the decision to buy the Alpen Inn property, what did you hope would happen to the campus?
Again, my vision was at least 100 years out and I was hoping we would pioneer some really new and brave design/build directions. The economic realities of such a large property have forced us to settle for something a good deal more conventional than I had dreamed. And yet, I still think in 100 year increments (and even 200 years!) so I'm not the least bit disappointed in what we have accomplished in a mere 30 years. There is nothing keeping us from stepping up to even greater design accomplishments if only we will make that a priority. Our campus is an excellent reflection of where we have put our focus - green methodologies both vernacular and high-tech. I love that about it.

How do you think Yestermorrow has influenced design/build education on a national scale? When we started Yestermorrow there were exactly two design/build curricula in the nation's architecture schools. Today, over half the schools have great shops and ongoing design/build programs. Yestermorrow faculty helped set up and run a handful of those programs and many others took lessons from our early efforts. But we are no longer leading the discussions that take place in that national context. We could do well to tune in. Additionally, I find that there are more design/build offerings at the elementary and middle school level. This is an incredibly important development and an arena we need to pay more attention to. Only be educating our entire population to design basics and visual intelligence will we be able to bootstrap the future of our built environment. The "Solar Age" of the late Sixties and early Seventies taught us that even green architecture that works will be razed if it's unattractive or poorly designed.

What do you imagine Yestermorrow’s next 30 years looking like?
Yestermorrow, like many institutions, is looking at a critical moment in its evolution. Every aspect of residential design and construction is under review as we look at the post-meltdown resource limited future. I would so like Yestermorrow to be a place that looks at things that other institutions can't because of entrenched special interests, routine or bureaucracy. If we could grow a school that combined the qualities of the Atlantic Monthly, Wired and Metropolis magazines, I think we might be headed in a promising direction. As an organization matures, it becomes increasingly difficult for it to persist as an innovative trail breaker. Maybe that phase of Yestermorrow has passed. I think not (see above concerning the staff).

But really the answer to question #5 should be, "Surprise me!"