Miriam Gee and Steve Badanes: Community Design/Build Pioneers

In 2010, Steve Badanes - a Yestermorrow Instructor and Architecture Professor at the University of Washington (UW) -  received an interesting phone call while in his woodshop on Whidbey Island, Washington. It was from Miriam Gee, a young architect living in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Inspired by the documentary “Citizen Architect,” a film that featured, among other initiatives, Steve’s UW Neighborhood Design/Build program, Miriam was curious about his approach to delivering consensus-based, community-driven projects for local non-profits. And she wanted advice on how she could set up a similar program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UH).

At the time, Miriam had just earned her architecture license and she found a job at Urban Works, a small design firm in Honolulu. Although she was excited about her new role as a project architect, she felt that something was missing: she wanted to the opportunity to build designs with her own two hands, and use her architectural skills to benefit her local community.

So, Miriam made a modest proposal to her firm: in lieu of a pay raise for her promotion, she requested  ½ days on Fridays for pro-bono work. To her delight, her firm agreed. Her friend and colleague Jason Selley then lent her a copy of his “Citizen Architect” DVD. Miriam was blown away: she found a group of people doing exactly the kind of work she was passionate about.

“I started calling everybody in the documentary to see how hard it would be to set up a design/build program at UH,” she recalls. And when Miriam got Steve on the phone, they hit it off right away. After chatting for a while, Steve saw an opportunity: “like anyone else who gets a call from Hawaii, I said, get me some airplane tickets!”

Miriam was able to convince UH to bring Steve to the UH Manoa campus. He spent about a week in Honolulu, where he gave a talk to the architecture students, met with a client on site, and helped Miriam write a design/build curriculum.

Steve’s visit was the ingredient that made Miriam’s concept a reality. With Steve’s coaching, she co-founded the Build Lightly Studio with Jason, and set off on an ambitious project with UH students to repurpose an abandoned bunkhouse in the jungle into an off-grid community center. The project focused on community-building and sustainability, and featured composting toilets, an outdoor kitchen, and rain totes. Steve remained involved from Whidbey Island. “I would periodically call Steve during the project,” said Miriam, “he was like my lifeline.” They developed a strong mentor/mentee relationship, and Miriam and her colleagues even started calling Steve, “Uncle Steve,” a term of endearment in local Hawaiian culture. As Miriam put it,  “I just adopted him.”

The following summer, Steve invited Miriam to co-teach in his Neighborhood Design Studio course at Yestermorrow. She agreed, and she’s been coming back to Yestermorrow every summer since 2012.

That first summer at Yestermorrow, Miriam became even more enamored with community-driven design/build projects. So much so that she decided to leave her architecture firm in Honolulu to pursue more projects through the Build Lightly Studio. She led design/build projects in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Guatemala, and eventually started teaching design/build through the Asheville Design Center, MASSArt Community Build in Boston, and Steve’s Neighborhood Design/Build studio at UW.

In 2014 Miriam invited Steve and Jim Adamson (Steve’s colleague at his design/build firm, Jersey Devil), to join a project at an organic coffee farm in Costa Rica. They created an addition to a mountain-top cabin, called “El Colibri”, or “The Hummingbird” house, which includes a demonstration kitchen space. The old kitchen was then converted to a classroom space for the community, local school children, farmers, and visiting international students.

For Miriam, community-driven design/build projects make a lot of sense in an academic environment. As an architecture student she was a bit dissatisfied because she and her fellow students would generate design after design that would never get built. “There’s no consequence to what you design,” she said. Miriam and Steve have found that engaging students in real, meaningful projects makes a big difference in their education, and it greatly benefits the surrounding community. According to Steve, that’s “a pretty unique equation.” Students work for free, in exchange for academic credit and real world experience. And universities pay instructor salaries and much of the overhead. Steve found that to be a “pretty important for community non-profits who are typically always broke.”

Miriam is now a co-owner at Placetailor, a design/build co-op in Boston that focuses on affordable, high performance, energy efficient housing. It’s a natural fit for Miriam, who has dedicated her life to sustainability and community justice through design/build. And she’s still doing projects for the Build Lightly studio in her spare time. She’s also Yestermorrow’s newest Board member, where she’s helping develop the school’s community-based design/build programs, among other contributions.

For Miriam, if it weren’t for Steve and her experience at Yestermorrow she wouldn’t have found the momentum to continue her work with the Build Lightly Studio. In her experience, “all good design/build roads lead back to Yestermorrow!”

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