Semester in Sustainable Design/Build Begins

August 24, 2018
By Madi Visser, Semester Program Teaching Assistant


The first in a series describing the process of the Semester in Sustainable Design/Build.

This blog will serve as a way for us to document our experiences as the 2018 Semester in Sustainable Design/Build. As topics and authors of the blog fluctuate, so too will the form. Stay tuned for our stories from the Mad River Valley as we grow and learn in our process to create something unique and empowering. In this first blog post I will take your through our orientation trip, stopping along the way to introduce our cast of characters. I’ll start with myself, I’m Orly, an Environmental Studies student at Kalamazoo College in West Michigan. I came here hoping to absorb knowledge about each step of the design/build process through the lens of a personal interest in identifying intersections of affordable and sustainable housing.


It was a misty morning in the Valley when we set off for our camping excursion. Led by our tree-and-mushroom-loving leaders Britton and Jesse and our TA and personal EMT Sam, we knew we were in good hands. This would be our bonding opportunity prior to the outset of our project that promises to dominate the rest of our time. We were all sure to take advantage of the slower pace of life knowing this would be a foreign concept in the coming weeks. With fresh energy and roaring anticipation we hopped aboard the van, canoes afoot, and delved into the Groton State Forest along Kettle Pond. Natalie, a recent grad of Environmental Biology at Hood College, said she’s here to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the entire design and build process. She especially liked “getting to see how everybody interacted with others and the environment around.”

A theme of our time was the incredible meals. Michelle, the chef, is incredibly accommodating, creative, and talented. She sourced our food locally, crafted her own recipes, and provided for varied dietary restrictions. Becca a Human Geography major at UMass Amherst says “[I’m here because I] realized I’m not happy when I’m not doing things with my hands and I finally learned to take that seriously.” She appreciated the food noting “there was as much love packed in to the food as there was food itself and there was a lot of food.”

Our activities varied. We paddled across the pond enjoying one-on-one time in boats then regrouping atop a rock to have impromptu conversations about housing while basking half in the water, half on the rock.  Josie, a recent grad of Sustainable Architecture at Hampshire College is here because she wanted to work with her hands after doing mostly theoretical work in school. She said “I was really afraid of how weak I am, but it was nice to feel stronger canoeing.”

We also hiked up to Owls Head which we could see from the pond below. We sat at the top, gently observing the view with no pull to descend. I particularly enjoyed that our time together was not hurried and appreciated commencing this several-month long journey in this way.

A highlight was gathering around the campfire each night. We played games, told stories, and were surprised at how quickly ease fell among us. Perhaps it was our peaceful surroundings—the frequent loon calls, swaying maples above, and the rippling pond—that helped foster this camaraderie. Shannon, an architecture student at UMass Amherst came here to complement her degree and to fulfill her dream to go to school in VT. She enjoyed the campfires each night as a nice way to wind down the day and to participate in  “quirky funny activities.” Jacob, a History major at UMass Amherst put it simply, “I came to yestermorrow because I wanted to build in the mountains.” He also liked lounging on the Kettle pond rock and the nightly campfire conversations.

Our trip was not without some introduction to course concepts. We had two design activities, one involved a series of sketches using inspiration from our surroundings. The other, involved pairing off and spending two hours building a structure in the woods using only what we could find. We were blow away by the resulting creativity, collaboration, and variety of thought. Hannah, an architecture student at UMass Amherst came here for the practical knowledge to apply to the design process. She was thrilled with being  “creative in the woods” and “getting to build a fairy goblin ogre world.” We walked around each creation afterwards and the group eagerly discussed different elements. We could tell, right off the bat, that we were in for something powerful.

Here’s to the next 16 weeks!

That’s all for now,