Visiting Yestermorrow Design-Build School

Recently I spoke with one of my more eccentric Yankee cousins, Appy Chandler, who mentioned that I really needed to go visit my cousin Bob Ferris, who was also an environmentalist and a green building proponent. He was sure I must remember him, he's the guy who used to train trumpeter swans to migrate by getting them to follow behind him in an ultra light aircraft and restored wolves to Yellowstone Park. I had no idea who he was talking about but agreed that I needed to meet him. Appy said that now he's the director of a place called Yestermorrow Design-Build School up in Warren, Vermont. This is a place I had been hearing about and been fascinated by for the almost 30 years that it's been gathering the most outrageous architects and building system innovators and teaching people about many different ways to build homes. Appy put us in touch with each other.

Bob Ferris next to a cob built bread oven with the Yestermorrow lower campus behind him.

Of course Bob is an open and friendly person and he immediately invited me and Beth to come up to visit with him and his wife, Carlene Ramus, who is a green architect and landscape designer. Beth had another obligation so I made the trip solo.

Carlene Ramus enjoying the view from a cob structure under construction on the Yestermorrow campus.

The view of the main studio building from the "upper campus".

The Yestermorrow campus is on 35 acres of heart-stoppingly beautiful land that used to be a tennis camp in the Mad River Valley in Warren, Vermont. The "lower campus" is the old camp building which has the dormitory, cafeteria, woodworking shop, design studio, and library. The "upper campus" is a hillside with a creek, tent sites, and many experimental buildings that have been constructed over the years by the students. Not all of these experiments were successful and not all of the buildings have been maintained, but walking through the woods is an educational and inspirational experience.

The gate to the upper campus. Cob walls and green roof.

One of the first things we saw after our tour of the main building was the gate to the upper campus. One of the interns had hand-knotted a hammock and hung it in the gate to make a cool and relaxing space along the, now diverted, path from the hills to the main campus. Bob explained that this was an early example of straw bale construction and had been built with a plaster that was too rich in cement and wouldn't allow for natural breathing of the straw bales. The bales had as a result gotten moldy inside and the cement has cracked. Newer stucco formulations are breathable and self-healing. Living proof that this stuff is harder to get right than it looks and that it's worth learning from people who have been doing it for a while.

Just around the corner from the gate to the upper campus is another essential structure that provides comic "relief". The path approaches from the side and my first view was from so close that I didn't get the joke until I got home and looked at the photo. The zipper is the door knob to this open air privy. Perhaps next year they'll build a roof with a giant belt buckle. Designed and executed by an intern with no review from the staff. There is a culture of trust and empowerment here that is pretty amazing.

The pine cabin, built by the women's construction class.

Empowerment seems to be a theme here. One of the more popular focuses is a women-only construction curriculum and Bob is especially eager to point out all the amazing projects built by women-only construction teams. Many of these folks are here gaining the knowledge to go back and build, re-model or GC their own homes. They are motivated to learn and come away ready to make the sawdust fly.

A half timbered cabin built by one of the pro classes.

Professional builders and designers also have a place here. This half timbered cabin was built by a group of skilled woodworkers who came here for an advanced class on timber framing and cob construction. It has a wood stove and a sleeping loft and is a very sweet miniature of a home hidden up here on the hillside. (I'm looking at the terrain and thinking about all the work just to get these materials to the site.)

A wheel chair accessible tree house.

Another pro class conceived and built this wheelchair accessible tree house. Yestermorrow is a great place for architects and designers to come as an antidote to the grueling reality of a traditional architecture practice or for young architects to use as a transition from the theory of design school to the reality of nails and bricks.

From the inside of the tree house, the split knee arch and the structural yurt cable, things you might not have covered at architecture school.

"Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love" Rumi

This is a place where it is truly okay to build just because it's the only thing you really feel capable of doing. It celebrates the joy of getting dirty in the pursuit of something beautiful that will give graceful shelter.

It's alive! A current natural building class project incorporates recycled grain bags filled with dirt and tied together with barbed wire for a foundation and cob walls with an innovative roof structure and a high tech roof membrane.

In recent years Yestermorrow has become well known for their "natural building" curriculum. With the new realities of global warming and the energy crises it hopes to reach out to the green building community and expand the curriculum to address the educational needs of green and high performance builders and designers. It has the potential to be a meeting ground for many different building approaches. As I was leaving I ran into Robert Riversong, one of the faculty, whom I have had lively debate with on Fine Homebuilding's on-line construction forum. He and I have fundamental disagreements about construction and business best practices. We shook hands and I introduced myself and we smiled and enjoyed each others company for a little while in the afternoon sunlight. In the end we agreed that, while we may differ in approaches to the details, we are both passionately committed to seeing better homes evolve to meet the new world. Even Martha Stewart would agree "it's a good thing."


  1. Bob said...
    It was great fun. We will have to do it again. And check out my blog on the visit:

    Meredith said...
    This place sounds and looks fantastic. I never know what I'm going to learn when I check in to your site.
    Ray said...
    Hey Michael,

    Just met Bob on LinkedIn and read of your visit on his blog. Great to read more about the visit and get to know both of you better.

    I'll be looking for a way to visit Yestermorrow!

    Ray Nichols
    Anonymous said...
    Yestermorrow is a great school, but if you can't make the pilgrimage to Vermont you have many other options, without the long commute. With sky high gas prices, earning degrees from home are the way to go. Check out reviews on schools like Ashford University at
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