21. My Design & Build Journey

Though I had done odd carpentry projects since the late 1960s and helped a friend build his geodesic dome house in 1970, I began my professional building career in 1982, following my three-week crash course at Cornerstones, as construction supervisor and trainer for a two-house summer project on a community land trust deep in the hollows of rural Tennessee. Each house was a prototype design, one a double-wall home and the other a panelized unit, and my crew was composed of three locals – two women who had done some weatherization work, and a man who was a former moonshiner with some carpentry skills – who helped me erect two fine homes which set the standard for the several dozen more to come after my departure. The crew did everything from the foundation and (first in the valley) septic system, to the framing and siding and trim, to the plumbing and wiring, to the insulation and air/vapor barrier, to the drywall and painting, to the roofing and cabinet/counter/fixture installation – and I trained them in each skill set (prior to my Cornerstones training, I had designed and installed the plumbing and electrical systems for two new volunteer-built homes on a community land trust in rural Maine).

(Click on any picture to enlarge – back-arrow to return)

 

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In 1983, I was consultant, designer, site supervisor and trainer for a gut rehab of an abandoned and twice-arsoned duplex in an inner-city neighborhood of Boston, for a church-run family shelter which was interested in creating permanent affordable housing in the neighborhood. My crew was two local black youths with no carpentry experience who managed to rebuild every wooden sash by hand, reset 1″ hexagonal tiles in a mortar bed, and complete a beautiful and energy-efficient pair of residences for those who had been homeless.

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In 1986-87, I took my one and only salaried position with a rural non-profit housing corporation called Rural Housing Improvement  in north-central Massachusetts. The Mutual Self-Help Program was funded by the federal Farmers Home Administration, and administered by local non-profits which hired a construction supervisor to lead each group in the building of 8 to 10 homes for as many young first-time homeowners within a 12-month timeline.

The young couples and singles generally had no construction skills, but lots of motivation, as no one could move in to their new home until all the homes in their group were done. They also gave their sweat equity, in the form of three evenings per week and all day Saturday and Sunday for a year, in lieu of a down-payment, and were pre-approved for 1% 30-year mortgages. It was probably the best housing program ever to come out of the DC bureaucracy.

Each participating family had a choice of three versions of a 3-bedroom, 1200 SF home on a full basement – a solar saltbox, a traditional cape, or a raised ranch – with choice of either white cedar shingle or red cedar clapboard siding.

My nine families not only completed their nine houses (it did take us 13 months working through rain, snow and darkness), but were given effusive compliments from the finish carpentry and cabinetry subcontractor, who was tickled that our homes (unlike those of some previous groups and even professional crews), were level, square and plumb, and had all the appropriate blocking in the walls to make his job easy.

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In 1993-94, I was project organizer, design committee chair and construction supervisor for the Building Our Swords Into Plowshares super-insulated affordable community housing project, built with volunteers for a community land trust and housing coop in Greenfield MA (it was later turned over to Habitat for Humanity, which built another home in the attached lot). During the year-and-a-half of construction, I had a constantly changing crew of volunteers, with a few regulars, most of whom had little or no previous carpentry skills.

This was the first of what would later become my “Riversong Truss” homes, and it was a front-and-back duplex on a full foundation with various roof heights and offsets. Not only did we maintain a high quality of product, but we met or exceeded the utility-sponsored Energy-Crafted Home program standards for air-tightness and energy-efficiency.

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See Constructive Program – Building on Our Ideals, for more on the Plowshares Project

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YestermorrowTowards the end of my building career as a pioneer in super-insulated and passive solar homes, when it was time to share with the next generation what I had learned, I found myself living near the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Vermont and spent a number of years teaching a variety of self-generated courses and workshops there, including:

  • The Sun-Tempered Super-Insulated Home
  • Creating Sacred Space
  • Efficiency by Design
  • Plumbing DeMystified
  • Math for Builders
  • Engineering for the Homebuilder
  • Hygro-Thermal Engineering: Moisture Mechanics & Management in Residential Construction
  • Tricks of the Trade
  • Thinking Like a Mountain: Sustainability from the Ground Up
  • Foundations: Building the Base for Appropriate Construction (as part of the Natural Building Intensive)
  • Rigging, Rolling & Raising: The Art of Moving Immovable Objects
  • Plumbing Repair (in DIY Home Repair)
  • Practical Math for Builders
  • Carpentry for a Non-Linear World (a week-long practicum in carpentry techniques and the mathematical principles which underlie them)

I also gave lectures for other classes, including:

  • Structures 101 (Home Design/Build)
  • Engineering From the Ground Up (Home Design/Build)
  • HVAC (Home Design/Build & Raising the Bar on Sustainability)
  • EPA RRP Lead Safe Intro (Renovation)
  • Plumbing Repair (Renovation)
  • Building Science (Renovation)
  • Job-Site Safety and First Aid Workshop (Semester Program)
  • Two site tours of the Thompson House I was building (Green Home Design & Home Design/Build)
  • A site engineering tour of the Moffroid concrete house (Home Design/Build)
  • Sat on two juries for Design for Builders & Home Design/Build final projects

To make a living, in addition to the modest stipends from teaching, I engaged in a variety of local renovation and construction projects, as well as designing and consulting on new super-insulated, passive-solar homes.

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In addition to teaching classes at Yestermorrow – and as a perk for teaching there – I attended a variety of classes taught by other skilled professionals and artisans, including:

  • Superinsulation for Zero Net-Energy Homes (2007)
  • Trees & Wood (2008)
  • Handplanes (2008)
  • Natural Building (2009)
  • Natural Plasters & Finishes (2009)
  • Masonry Fireplace Design/Build (2009)
  • Stone Masonry (2010)
  • Slate Roofing (2010)
  • Advanced Timber Framing (2010)
  • Traditional Trades for the Historic Home (2011)
  • Concrete Countertops (2011)Elevation SouthFloor PlanTinmouth Lake HousePerry-Simon HouseReaser Farmhouse-ShopApartment PlanHoyler House1st Floor Full

Upon my first arrival in Vermont, in 1998, I was fortunate to be in a relationship that allowed me to share a wonderful homestead on which we each engaged in ritual healing work.

Ponds-Edge sign

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Ponds-Edge Labyrinth

Ponds-Edge Labyrinth

Ponds Edge Medicine Wheel

Ponds Edge Medicine Wheel

Ponds Edge Sweat Lodge

Ponds Edge Sweat Lodge

Areas of Expertise:

  • collaborative design-build process
  • green building and sustainable living
  • job planning, organization, and safety
  • basic structural engineering
  • hygro-thermal engineering – or – the alchemy of moisture flow in the home
  • passive solar and super-insulated design and techniques
  • building with native, rough-sawn lumber and hybrid simplified timber frames
  • shallow, frost-protected and rubble-trench foundations
  • Riversong Truss super-insulated wall system
  • air-tight drywall air barrier/vapor diffusion retarder system
  • dense-pack cellulose insulation
  • healthy homes, low-tech ventilation systems
  • site-built composting toilets
  • community land trust as land-reform movement

Public Lectures & Workshop Presentations:

July 13, 2005 – Super-insulation Strategies (Yestermorrow Summer Lecture Series)

June 29, 2006 – Measures of Sustainability & Super-Insulation Strategies (Brattleboro Area Natural Building Group, Marlboro Tech Center, Brattleboro VT)

June 20, 2007 – Land Reform American Style: The Community Land Trust (Yestermorrow Summer Lecture Series)

November 6, 2007 – Measures of Sustainability in the Built Environment (Sustainability: Principles and Practices, Burlington College, Burlington VT)

June 27, 2007 – Panel Discussion: What is Green Building in Vermont? (Public town meeting style, Yestermorrow Design/Build School, Warren VT)

May 10, 2009 – Moisture Mechanics & Management in Residential Construction (Brattleboro Area Natural Building Group and Natural Builders Northeast, Building Green, Brattleboro VT)

June 23, 2010  – Super-Insulation Symposium: A Discussion on the Best Methods to Reduce Energy Consumption in Vermont (Yestermorrow Design/Build School)

June 14, 2011  – Sustainable Shelter Panel Discussion (Village Building Convergence, Kellogg Library, Montpelier VT)

Published Articles:

2007 – What Does Green Really Mean?, interview by Scott Gibson, Fine Home Building (Feb/Mar)

2009 – Building (Really) Green in Vermont, Green Energy Times

2009 – The Modified Larsen Truss Wall System, Fine Home Building

2010 – Designing a Passive Solar Slab, Home Power magazine (April/May issue)

2010 – A Thick Cocoon of Cellulose Protects This Superinsulated House, GreenBuildingAdvisor.com (Oct 15)

2011 – Riversong’s Radical Reflections, 10-part series, BuildingGreen.com

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For my philosophy on legitimate wages (or trade) versus illegitimate profit, see:

Sustainable Economics

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This site is my gift to you. If you find value here and are moved to reciprocate:

Make a Donation Button

If you need project consultation or design services, contact me directly at

HouseWright (at) Ponds-Edge (dot) net.

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by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with author attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page
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