By Steven Farnham
If you are about to embark on an ambitious undertaking, you might want to consult with Bill Reed to see if it’s a good idea – even if you’re sure it is – because he might just save you a ton of money, disaster, or heartbreak… or all three.
In the 10:30 Thursday breakout session entitled Story of Place, Bill asks the assembled group to consider what is involved when a couple decides that in order to accommodate their growing family, they need to construct an additional bedroom for their home. What do we need to “know and achieve” relative to the construction of this space? The answers are fairly predictable: The addition needs to have adequate square footage, be aesthetically appropriate to the existing structure, and it needs to connect well with existing infrastructure, i.e. the foundation, wiring, heating, plumbing, and roof system of the original building.
Then Bill suggests another parameter. If the addition is to be a bedroom for a developing child, what is required for this purpose? What do we need to “know and achieve” with this addition (this room) in order to provide the optimal environment for the individual to grow and mature in it? Suddenly, it appeared that constructing the addition requires one to hire a child psychologist, and prognosticate a bit on the child’s developing personality prior to hiring the architect.
The group isn’t allowed much time to absorb this (time is short, and there is much to cover). With head-snapping velocity, Reed plunges us into this question: What do we sustain with sustainability? It took this participant a day or two to catch on, but if I’m reading it correctly, in the new question (metaphorically speaking), sustainability is the developing child, and the “place” we are “constructing” is philosophy that nurtures it. A philosophy, whether nascent, developing, or mature, must always be elastic in order to remain fresh, because freshness is the essence of life, and life, presumably, is motive for sustainability.
To illustrate, Bill constructs a variant of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which might aptly be named a “Hierarchy of Life Activities.” It begins at the bottom with “Stabilize,” and proceeds upward through, “Operate,” “Maintain,” “Improve,” and “Regenerate.” It is left to the observer to imagine what lies below “Stabilize,” but if you’ve been watching the weather, the economy, or politics, you needn’t flex that muscle hard to know you don’t want to go there.
He then draws a line between “Maintain” and “Improve,” explaining that the activities below this line only provide for “existence,” whereas the items above the line allow for “potential.” Returning to his original metaphor, Bill points out the obvious: A child must, at minimum, live at “Improve,” implying that merely “Maintaining” a child really amounts to a form of repression, given the arc of life for a healthy maturing child.
After a (necessary) diversion to discuss the need to address wholes (not parts), Bill went on to discuss a proposed housing development on what had, for centuries, been agricultural land on an alluvial plain adjacent to the Teton River. Predictably, there was great local resistance to this loss of farmland. Ironically, after exploring the history of the alluvial plain, it unfolds that the farming activity was causing great disruption to the native flora fauna, and water flow, and thus causing untold damage to this ecosystem and environment. By studying the lay of the land, it became apparent that if planned and constructed properly, a housing development integrated with growing spaces appropriate to this land mass would be better suited to this location than the (previously believed) sacrosanct farming activity. A (properly designed) development is better use of land than farming? Whodathunkit?
An axiom is introduced with these ideas, and is frequently repeated until the end: When addressing a given community, ask not “What do you want?” Instead, ask, “How do you live?”
At this point, Kate Stephenson, the other speaker for this session is brought into more active play. She is the Executive Director of Yestermorrow Design School in Waitsfield, Vermont. We’re told that eight or nine master plans for a Yestermorrow campus have been proposed (and subsequently rejected) by the powers that be. When Bill Reed is hired to facilitate the creation of yet another master plan, he is concerned that the new one will join its predecessors as dust collectors on a shelf somewhere.
Using a pentagram of arrows to illustrate the connections between various aspects of the organization, Kate explained how these five entities, (earth processes, community, co-creators, investors, and users) are interrelated. With each of these operating in “silos”, no master plan would ever be created that served the needs of the whole. Bill chimed in that creating a master plan, which did not take all these needs into account, was akin to the expression, “Ready? Fire, Aim!” For Bill, the deliverable was not a piece of paper, but rather a process by which Yestermorrow personnel could write their own.
Considerations for this process include a tracker, to determine existing patterns, i.e. “How does Yestermorrow live?” For the “Earth Processes” piece, we need to know, “How big is here?” (The answer seems to be, “How big is the Mad River Valley?)
The session was running out of time, necessitating an accelerated rate of information dispersal, which far outpaced my saturated mind and cramped note-taking hand. At the end, we headed to lunch, and I am embarrassed to say that it was lost on me if there ever was a successful, adopted master plan at Yestermorrow.
Nevertheless, in an extraordinarily brief period, I learned a lot. For years, I have been chronically undecided about what to do with a small property of my own. Some vital piece of my “master plan” is missing. At least now I have a vague concept of where to begin – somewhere well before anything I had previously considered a logical starting point… The story of my place needs to encompass the earth processes of my locality, and, of course, how my community and I live.
Steven Farnham is an artificer who lives in Plainfield, Vermont.