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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Vermont Homebuilding School

Air Date: Week of

In today’s highly mobile society, few of us have the time or the skills to construct a shelter with our own hands. At the Yestermorrow School in Warren, Vermont, students are trained to build communities by designing and constructing their own homes.


CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, with an encore edition of Living on Earth. The image of pioneers building their own homes is an icon of American life. But in today's frantic and highly mobile society few of us have the time or the skills needed to construct a shelter with our own hands. Besides, a few of us stay in one place long enough to invest more than money in our homes.

CONNELL: People now relate to their homes, or have been since the second World War, as a product that you move into for a certain phase of your life, hope it appreciates, and then sell it. And with it you sell all the relationships that you have with the other people in that community. You sell your children's memories. You sell a whole section of your life down the road. And a lot of people never put their lives into their homes just because of that.

CURWOOD: John Connell is founder of the Yestermorrow School in Warren, Vermont. An architect and a builder, he started this training program in 1980 to help people build communities by teaching them how to design and construct their own homes.

(Hammering in the background)

CONNELL: We say look, you want a home? We'll help you design it, we'll help you build it, it will be more expressive of who you are. It'll cost you less. If you want to change it as your kids grow older and stuff, we'll empower you to do that. And you know, by the way, as we're teaching you how to do all this, don't you think you'd rather build it this way, as we're teaching you how to do all this, don't you think you'd rather build it this way that's going to save you money and energy than that way? Wouldn't you rather put your house here on the land that's not that's going to trash this habitat of this animal and keep it around for your kids?

(Construction sounds, hammering, a drill. Man: "The rafter needs a compound cut on the bottom." Man #2: "A compounder. Okay, it's this angle in relationship to that...")

CURWOOD: About a dozen latter-day Thoreaus surround their instructor inside a roofless structure about a 10-minute drive from the school.

(A drill sounds.)

CURWOOD: Under the watchful eye of 3 teachers, these students are building a small horse barn on which they practice basic construction skills. They learn to hammer a nail, cut a beam and shingle a roof. The students range from a California truck driver nearing retirement to a young couple from Alaska.

McDANNOLD: We're going to build a stone house, is what we're interested in. There's plenty of river stone around where we live.

CURWOOD: Dori McDannold lives with her husband outside of Palmer, Alaska.

McDANNOLD: We live in a kind of a harsh environment up in Alaska, and I think it's important just to consider where you live and what elements you have to deal with and build a building that suits that. Otherwise, you're always sort of fighting nature. I mean, you know, you do things the wrong way, you know, if you see people put huge windows on north sides of houses and then they end up having to heat like heck, you know? And so it just doesn't make sense.

CURWOOD: Lynn Preston wants to build her dream home in rural Maryland.

PRESTON: I wanted something that was designed around the way I live. I guess I wanted a greenhouse; I also want a nice big tub in there, so that I can actually sit down and have my knees covered when I sit in the tub. I wanted -- I wanted a big library. I have a bookshelf right now that's about 8 foot tall and 24 feet long and there aren't a whole bunch of houses that they feel that will accommodate a library like that.

CURWOOD: Liz Preston and the others are introduced to construction skills, but they learn there is much more to homebuilding.

(People gathering in a room; ambient conversation)

CURWOOD: In an architect's studio, students toil, often until the early hours of the morning, shaping and re-shaping their designs on paper. Then they build models to test their house plans in 3 dimensions. For now, Dori McDannold's stone home looks like a cardboard doll house.

McDANNOLD: This is going to be the roof and that will be where the sawed roof is, so you have to use your imagination and imagine that this will just look like the ground. But magically the roof comes off, and --

CURWOOD: Ms. McDannold peels off the roof and opens up the first floor of her model for viewing. She points out some problems that the model revealed and how she coped with them.

McDANNOLD: If you've got this plus the second floor laid over top here, actually approaches 2,000 square feet, 2,100.

CURWOOD: That's a big house.

McDANNOLD: Yeah, it got too big on me last night, in the wee hours. (Laughs) So I went ahead and thought okay, well if I eliminate that and just go with this and put the stairs back over there, then it dropped it back down to the 1,700 square foot, which includes the root cellar and the greenhouse.

ROOD: Unfortunately the attitude these days often is that hey, we'll just make it big. That'll make it flexible enough so that it'll work somehow.

CURWOOD: Yestermorrow instructor Mac Rood explains that controlling house size is an important environmentally sound building concept.

ROOD: You spend the time on paper, with paper and pencil and building models. You can design a space that is efficient, uses every square foot to the maximum, maybe just by moving some doors around you can reduce the traffic flow through a room and therefore be able to make the room smaller. Still as functional, still as gracious, but with less square footage, thereby saving material, saving the energy cost that's involved in heating that building for the 50, 100, 200 years that we hope this building's going to last.

CURWOOD: That's another of the key lessons taught at the Yestermorrow school. Building a sustainable home means building a structure that's going to last a long time.

ROOD: It means that the energy that's gone into creating that building, the materials and resources that have gone into that building, are going to be 2, 3 times more valuable if the building lasts 2 or 3 times as long. We've got to get away from the notion of disposable buildings.

CURWOOD: Mr. Rood and 2 other instructors go over these ideas again and again with students during marathon studio sessions. They also spend hours going over general architecture, building codes, and other basic concepts needed to plan a house. While those ideas seem simple enough, the students quickly learn that putting it all together takes time. Lots of time. Dori McDannold.

McDANNOLD: Before I came I was thinking, when we walk away from here we'll have blueprints for our house. But by the second week of this course I was like, yeah, I can let go of -- I'm not going to have blueprints. I'm not even going to be close. There are so many details and so many decisions, and I realize what a complex project it is just making all those decisions. So it might be a year, might be 2, who knows?

CURWOOD: You're going to be cold for a while.


CURWOOD: For those students who don't actually go on to build homes with their own 2 hands, Yestermorrow training puts them in a better position to deal with the architects and contractors who may create their home for them.

(A car door closes; people move around, ambient conversation)

CURWOOD: Every day Yestermorrow students take field trips to local homes. Most often the owners are architects or builders themselves who have created the long lasting space and energy efficient homes the school trumpets. Today, they visit the log house of instructor Joe Brent, who greets them as they pile out of the school van.

CHUCK: How's it going, Joe?

BRENT: Good, Chuck. You?

CHUCK: Good. This is neat.

CURWOOD: The log home is simple yet elegant.

McDANNOLD: Nice job, Joe!

BRENT: Thanks, Dori.

McDANNOLD: That's great. This looks like a well-done log house.

BRENT: Oh, well.

MAN: There's a crack you could get a rhino through here! (Laughter)

BRENT: I didn't have anything to do with that...

CURWOOD: A cheerful man, Joe Brent describes how he built this house himself, using a lot of local resources. The logs came from trees on his own land and were milled nearby. Pieces of his furnace were salvaged from old copy machines. Mr. Brent says it was not a conscious effort to reduce waste or save energy, it was just the cheapest, simplest course to take. As the students gather in the living room, Joe Brent uses the midsummer sun to explain how designing with nature makes it easier to keep the building comfortable.

BRENT: Now as you can see it's about 1:20 and the sun's up about as high as it's going to get, and there's just a very narrow band of sun that's hitting the porch. And very little coming in the windows. Now here it is the middle of summer, we're just not getting that solar gain that you would get if you didn't have enough overhang and some other factors. But in the winter, when the sun is much lower in the sky, the light just literally streams right in to where Rob is standing. So -- yeah, it's astounding.

CURWOOD: Mr. Brent expects that he and his family will spend the rest of their days here. Yestermorrow School founder John Connell says no matter where you live, that sense of place is the best reward from personal home building.

CONNELL: See, if you build your own home, you put a lot of effort into it. If you live there, and for a long time, it's important, all of a sudden it's important to know where the water's coming from and where the waste is going to. But if you buy your home and you're going to sell it in 5 years, or flip it as they say, then you can endure whatever kind of crime or waste or poor schools or other social ills come along with that home, because you're going to sell it. It's only when you invest in a spot and commit to a community of people that you really start to see the reason for cleaning up our streets, for saving the environment.

CURWOOD: Cleaning up the whole world is not the goal of John Connell or the Yestermorrow School. But he hopes the hundreds of prospective home builders sent out from this rural Vermont valley will try to change their own corners of it. Perhaps then their message of constructing a home to reflect the owner's values, as well as respect the environment, will catch on.



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