20. The Bankruptcy of the Design/Build Movement

 [See endnote to differentiate between the D/B Movement and the Design-Build Industry.]

vs.     Gaza PyramidIMG_8520

Architecture and Engineering – Two Ancient and Noble Professions

The term “architecture” comes from the Latin architectura, after the Greek arkhitekton – or “chief builder” – who was responsible for both the process and the product of planning, designing and constructing buildings and other physical structures. What began as the role of master builder, morphed over the centuries into the role of the designer and draftsman, often more concerned with aesthetics than function, and with creating costly monuments to vanity instead of simple habitable shelter or fundamentally functional commercial, industrial, or civic buildings and other structures. Ancillary to the primary design function of the modern architect might be budgeting, scheduling and construction oversight – what is called construction management – though virtually no architecture schools include even elective, let alone mandatory, courses in hands-on construction technology.

The professional tasked with determining the structural and functional properties and relationships of a building and its infrastructure is typically the engineer, but even a licensed structural engineer is not required to have hands-on building experience.

Engineering, from the Latin ingeniare, meaning “to contrive or devise”, is “the application of scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge in order to invent, design, build, maintain, and improve structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes” and “to forecast their behavior under specific operating conditions as respect to intended function, economics of operation and safety to life and property”.

The earliest civil engineer known by name is Imhotep, who designed and supervised the construction of the Pyramid of Djoser (the Step Pyramid) at Saqqara in Egypt around 2630-2611 BCE.

Pyramid of Djoser

Pyramid of Djoser

Many ancient-world engineers were military machine architects and operators. The renowned Roman architect, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, whose De Architectura (On Architecture) is the first written treatise on the subject, wrote it as ten books on building everything from war machines to public works. Vitruvius, in fact, began his architectural career as artillery specialist to Julius Caesar.

By his own description, Vitruvius served as a ballista (artilleryman), and likely served as chief of the ballista (senior officer of artillery) in charge of doctores ballistarum (artillery experts) and the libratores who actually operated the machines. In other words, he was a military engineer.


Simplicity as the Essence of Design – Form Follows Function

vmanVitruvius, whose sense of natural proportion was immortalized in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, defined the three essential principles of good design as firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, commonly known by the original translation: firmness, commodity and delight. An equivalent in modern English would be:

  • Durability – a building should be robust and remain in good condition.
  • Utility – it should be suitable for the purposes for which it is intended.
  • Beauty – it should be aesthetically pleasing.

I do not think it accidental that he listed the three in that order, with well-built and functional assuming first and second priorities. Renaissance man Leone Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472), who elaborates on the ideas of Vitruvius in his treatise, De Re Aedificatoria (On the Art of Building), saw beauty primarily as a matter of geometrical proportion and harmony, based on the golden mean. The most important aspect of beauty was therefore an inherent quality of an object, rather than something applied superficially as ornament, and was based on universal forms and natural archetypes.

The notable 19th-century architect of skyscrapers, Louis Sullivan, promoted the design philosophy that stipulates the overriding precept is “form follows function”, and attributed his inspiration to Vitruvius (Frank Lloyd Wright was his assistant).

Wainwright Building by Louis Sullivan

Wainwright Building by Louis Sullivan

Ironically, a competing design philosophy propagated by the prominent industrial designer, Raymond Loewy, called “The Man Who Shaped America”, was named the MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) principle, to express that product designs are bounded by functional constraints but their acceptance is constrained by social expectations and marketing demands. The irony is that, in Sanskrit, Maya means illusion or delusion, two concepts which have become central to product marketing campaigns.

Professor Jay Shafer, one of the leading voices of the modern tiny house movement, refers to “subtractive design”, a concept of functional utility and beauty perhaps first articulated by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, author of The Little Prince: “You know you have reached perfection of design not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.”

The emphasis on simplicity of design, however, has deep roots.

“Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity.” – Plato

“Simplicity is the ultimate in sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci

“Nothing is true, but that which is simple.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Simplicity is the glory of expression.” – Walt Whitman

“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth.” – Leo Tolstoy

Perhaps the first to address this fundamental truth, however, was Horace (c. 20 BCE), famous for coining the term “carpe diem” and “the golden mean”:

Would I a house for happiness erect,
Nature alone should be my architect,
She’d build it more convenient than great,
And doubtless in the country choose her seat.

If functional utility is the most important quality of the design of any artifact, from military machines to buildings and public works, then the appropriate designer of such constructions would be at least as much an engineer as an architect, and then only in the ancient sense of arkhitekton – master builder.

“Science attempts to understand what is – engineers try to create what never was.” Design is central to engineering and, unlike much of the architecture field, a central tenet is to anticipate failure in order to avoid it. Failure, in other words, is not an option, yet much of modern design involves an unplanned and unanticipated obsolescence.

Systems Thinking and Due Process

Systems ThinkingA modern dwelling is more like a complex and sophisticated machine than a simple structure. In part because of the damage civilization and its built environment has already done to the natural world that today requires extensive technique to minimize or mitigate, and because of the paradox of incessantly rising “consumer” expectations, we demand that a residence maintain a very narrow and consistent interior climate with a healthy indoor environment; that it provide the utilities of water and gas supply and solid and liquid waste management, electric lighting, ventilation, heating and air conditioning with minimal energy inputs and minimal noise; that it be roomy enough for all our many possessions, for entertaining and overnight guests; and that it provide work space for professional or avocational pursuits – as if it were a self-contained community for one family. Additionally, it must be low-maintenance, user-friendly and relatively passive (not requiring constant human intervention).

This presents a major engineering challenge that far transcends simple spatial and aesthetic design. It requires soil and utility engineering; structural (and possibly seismic or hurricane wind-load) engineering; hygro-thermal engineering; mechanical (HVAC, electrical, plumbing and waste) engineering; acoustic and lighting engineering; as well as spatial and traffic-flow engineering. It also requires sophisticated knowledge of material science, including chemical incompatibilities and degradation factors, and of cybernetic control systems – as well as the interrelationships and interactions of each of those subsystems.

Systems-Thinking-Web-SlideBecause of this sophisticated complexity, what is required – no matter which professional takes the role of multi-system creator – is that a thorough, complete and integrative design process precedes the construction phase and is given at least as much development time as the actual building process. Design-as-you-go is really not appropriate to a systems approach to a complex integrated whole-systems creation.

In my 30+ years of designing and building (mostly) residential structures (primarily single-family homes) as well as rehabilitating the same, I have developed the professional practice of devoting an entire Winter to the design, engineering and planning process, so that construction can begin when the ground thaws and dries in the Spring and be (hopefully) completed before the next Winter.

Not For Profit Does Not Have to Mean Low Quality

When, in 1982, I joined the staff of the Institute for Community Economics (the non-profit organization that created and propagated the Community Land Trust model of collective land stewardship), as the lead person in a new Community Construction Assistance Program, I looked around New England for a crash course in design, construction and construction management. At the time, there were four nascent “owner-builder” or “design-build” schools in the region: Shelter Institute in Bath ME (catering to the back-to-the-land movement), its offshoot Cornerstones School of Energy Efficient Building in Brunswick ME (run by a college physics professor and master engineer), Heartwood in the Berkshires of MA (which focused on timber framing), and Yestermorrow in Vermont (which was started and run by architects).

I ruled out Yestermorrow immediately, as it was far too focused on creative design and far too little on the actual mechanics and craft of building. Heartwood seemed enticing (they were famous for their culinary program and musicianship as well) but not quite broad enough in approach. Shelter Institute was too much a “hippy” program. But Cornerstones offered the perfect mix of thermal and structural engineering, energy-efficiency and solar design, and quality building praxis (the lead instructor was the first woman to become a carpentry journeyman in the Chicago union) – and it had an optional evening class in design and drafting. Fortunately, they also offered us a significant non-profit scholarship and helped put two of us up in the parsonage of a revolutionary-era Quaker meetinghouse.

I could not have made a better choice in beginning what proved to be my primary career and form of service to the world – half of my work has been in the non-profit realm, and most of my private practice has been geared toward affordable homes for those with meager resources but a willingness to participate in the design and building process (I generally make the homeowner/client the titular general contractor, and I take on the roles of lead designer, primary engineer, supervising builder, and consultant – this way, I don’t have to mark up materials or labor to cover insurance, payroll, or other contracting overhead).

YestermorrowIronically, towards the end of my building career as a pioneer in super-insulated and passive solar homes, I found myself living near the Yestermorrow Design/Build School 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

When I first approached Yestermorrow with interest in teaching, I was asked (as was their practice) to assist in one or more of their flagship two-week Home Design/Build classes, in order for me to learn their approach to teaching and for them to learn about my skills in both construction and in education. I asked to audit a couple of those classes – each taught by one of the long-standing instructors (and board members), including one who was the school founder – before making a commitment to assisting.

I visited the two building project sites associated with the two classes, and was singularly unimpressed with the quality of work and with the neatness and safety on the job sites. Some time later, I was told by one of those instructors that it simply was not possible to expect quality work from people with little to no carpentry experience in so short a course. But I also witnessed poor quality work and poor work planning on the part of the instructors, and I had a very different experience in my own professional journey. So I declined to assist those courses and offered, instead, to teach my own self-created classes.

My Building History (for more, see 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).

Covenant CLT Homestead

Maine’s Covenant CLT Homestead – 1200 SF 3-bedroom with attached garage, greenhouse and woodshed

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.

Sojourner House, Roxbury MA

Sojourner House Duplex, Roxbury MA

Finished Renovation with First Tenants (Haitian Refugee Family)

Finished Renovation with First Tenants (Haitian Refugee Family)

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.


Passive Solar Saltbox

Raised Ranch

Split-Entry Raised Ranch

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.

Pre-Assembly for Efficiency

Pre-Assembly for Efficiency



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.

Since President Reagan had decreased funding for the most important social programs such as this, I was also tasked with creating a design for the next generation of Mutual Self Help homes: a 2-bedroom, 1-storey, ≤900 SF model, which I named the Grammy (after the Gramm-Rudman Budget Reduction Act). It was a 32′ x 28′ near-square so the roof trusses could be oriented in either direction, depending on preference and local style.

Grammy Alternative Front Elevations

Grammy Alternative Front Elevations

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.

[For more on this project: Constructive Program – Building on Our Ideals.]

Truss-Wall Framing

Truss-Wall Framing

Finished Duplex

Finished Duplex

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.

Though my no- or low-skilled and volunteer and trainee building projects had the advantage of being a lot longer than the two weeks of Yestermorrow’s Home Design/Build courses, I never found it difficult to expect and receive exceptionally high-quality work from my helpers and students. It’s a little like the movie motto, “build it and they will come”, except this was more like “model it and expect it and they will rise to the expectations”.

Frankly, I think the real reason that even some of the veteran teachers at Yestermorrow could not expect quality workmanship from their students was because they did not know how to achieve that level of craft themselves (they were mostly architects). Another reason, however, was that building technology had always taken a back seat to the design process at Yestermorrow, as it was an outgrowth of what came to be called the Design/Build Movement which sprang up somewhat organically in the Mad River Valley of Vermont.

The Design/Build Movement – Creativity over Common Sense

In 1965, a Yale Architecture School graduate by the name of Dave Sellers moved to the Mad River Valley of Vermont with one of his fellow students, and put down a couple thousand dollars on a 425-acre wooded and hilly undeveloped land parcel. They set up a credit account at the local lumberyard and the supermarket and invited other architecture students (mostly from Yale) to join them in designing and building maximally-creative houses that were to be sold as unique ski chalets to out-of-state people.

Seller's First House

Seller’s First House

These homes were a madcap mix of rectangles, triangles and curves with unusual discontinuities and an almost free-form kind of aesthetic. Ironically, this convention-shattering aesthetic then became the “standard” for much to come. But instead of attracting skiers willing to pay top dollar for the fanciful chalets, they drew disaffected architects from all over the country to try out their ideas and went a quarter of a million dollars in debt.


Dimetrodon 5-Family Condominium

There were no blueprints. Plans were scratched in the dirt or scribbled on the plywood and the 2-by-4s being assembled. The plywood houses were designed as they were being built, and built as they were being designed.

Sibley Pyramid House

Sibley Pyramid House

The Pyramid House “is one of the first buildings that had no drawings whatsoever,” Sellers says. At the same time Sellers was designing it, his partner was creating the Bridge House. “For that one we had a sculptor on-site, and we just started making things,” Sellers says. “We would put up a window frame and make a room to match.”



One of Seller’s building partners recalled, “The Design/Build is sort of fun, ’cause you never know what’s going to happen.”

Bridge House

Bridge House

A few homes – like the Bridge House – burned down. Some were bought by new owners and renovated beyond recognition or demolished. Many of the houses are much as they were when they were built, and some are still occupied by the original owners, continuing to look like “not a home but a happening”.

Sellers wrote an obituary for the Bridge house, which burned in 1978. It reads, in part:

“The most wonderful thing about the house was the manner in which it was built… First, was to forget about designing the house and go right to building it, so the sculpture is integrated into the action of the form from the beginning.”

A few miles from Prickly Mountain, on another Warren hillside, is a concrete house Sellers calls the Archy Bunker. He built the house with students at Yestermorrow, with more apparent concern for the creative design process than for planning or quality of outcome. The concrete casting is full of voids, discontinuities and blowouts.

Archy Bunker under construction

Archy Bunker Under Construction (note stairs to nowhere design/build error)

Bunker 6

Bunker North Facade

“Wild Rebar” and Rolling Wall

A precast concrete counter over a toilet is set so that it’s impossible to install the tank lid or do any tank maintenance without first removing the toilet, and the water supply is not located, as it should be, under the tank inlet – is the shut-off valve accessible?


Poor Planning = Unintended Consequences

If Prickly Mountain was a crash-course in the Joy of Plywood (as Sellers named one of his courses), Archy Bunker is about the Joy of Concrete. “We made a piece of spatial sculpture, and then we figured out where we wanted to put functional things,” Sellers said. In the summer, the south wall of the house rolls away on tracks, and you can jump right into the pool. Air-tightness and energy-efficiency (as well as occupant safety) obviously also took a back seat to extravagant design ideas.

Temple of Dindor 2Temple of Dindor 1

Across the hillside from Archy Bunker is Sellers’ workshop, affectionately called the Temple of Dindor, built in the original “plywood style”. Both were built Prickly Mountain-style: with no client and no formal design. This kind of freedom in architecture is what Sellers prefers, and what interests him. He calls the profession in its standard practice “bankrupt”.

Sellers in the Temple of Dindor

Sellers in the Temple of Dindor with its Huge Central Fireplace

Frankly, I consider “bankrupt” any approach to construction which puts frivolity before functional utility and quality. And the Design/Build approach is perhaps the worst way to create quality shelter.

In fact, in addition to the occasional classes I taught at Yestermorrow, I supplemented my income for the first few years in the Mad River Valley by repairing and renovating a number of Yestermorrow class projects which had clearly put creative and quirky (and Sellers-inspired) design ahead of function, durability and quality of outcome.

Wild Tree Post

Wild Tree Post & Wavy Rafter Tails

In addition to a crazy conflation of curves and angles and the use of natural trees for outdoor and indoor posts, the Prickly Mountain aesthetic included the “wild beam theory”, whereby a beam is longer than the span it fills – with the overhang left in place for possible later use, and for looks. This, however, results in the exposed and structurally unnecessary beam end becoming subject to environmental damage over time – damage which can also migrate into the structural portion of the beam.

Pyramid Piers

“Cocky” Pyramid Piers

Birch trees with their bark intact were sometimes used for structural exterior posts, and birch trees rot from the inside with their waterproof bark covering. Fanciful pyramid-shaped concrete pier footings were poured on top of cylindrical concrete columns, with the result being that frost heaving lifted and tilted the footings and caused exterior doors to bind. Inadequate or non-existent exterior flashing details accelerated deterioration of siding, trim, wall sheathing and structural framing, as well as providing habitat for carpenter ants.

Ironically, a job-site visit while still a student at Yale led Sellers to determine “I don’t ever want to be on a construction site laughed at by the builders.” Yet, when I visit his Design/Build construction sites, I have to constantly shake my head and try to keep my opinions to myself.

As one of several articles written on it states, “The Design/Build movement that took root at Prickly Mountain in Vermont in the mid 1960s stresses hands-on construction, creativity and learning by making mistakes.”

Norwich College brought its own Design/Build students on a field trip to Goddard College to evaluate and document some of the early Sellers’ buildings at that campus.

Goddard College Design Building

Goddard College Design ?? Building

At Goddard College, “the buildings are really decaying and falling apart,” said a Norwich student. “They basically call them the ‘hippie buildings’. They were hand-built, stylistically flamboyant and sometimes unsuccessful.”

Norwich perpetuates the Design/Build philosophy in its own curriculum. In projects such as a public library addition, students learn about collaboration, risk-taking and self-reliance. “We don’t spoon-feed them how to build stuff” said the instructor.

When I hear that disclaimer, it sounds like “we don’t bother to train them in state-of-the-art construction methodologies, but let them learn on their own”. While it’s certainly possible to acquire a high level of skill after years of devoted work, throughout time immemorial apprentices and journeymen have been trained by older master craftspeople. There is little point in reinventing the wheel a thousand times, even if the unfettered inventive trial-and-error process may occasionally lead to a truly innovative outcome.

Truth be told, much worthwhile creative process grew out of the Prickly Mountain Gang, including the introduction of composting toilets and tankless water heaters to the US, a couple of wind-power companies which are now major corporations, the world-famous Vermont Castings Stove Company as well as the now-defunct Elm Stove, and the insulated Comfort Shade window treatments.

Following the 1973 Arab oil embargo, several of the Prickly Mountain denizens decided it would be fun to hold a “design-off” to see who could come up with the best concept for an efficient woodstove. Sellers’ design for a stove called “The Maple” was “the most eloquent and attractive, (but) its flaw was that it couldn’t be built”, according to one of his friendly competitors.

Cast in Concrete

Dave Sellers has become enamored with concrete as a house construction material (for both exterior and interior structural and aesthetic elements), because of its sculptural quality and its alleged durability. However durability, no matter the medium, requires both careful engineering and planning and also high quality work. Neither of those are hallmarks of the Sellers’ “shoot-from-the-hip” approach.

Archy Bunker

Archy Bunker Interior

His Archy Bunker is almost entirely composed of concrete, and it has a dank mausoleum-like feel to it. His latest project, called the House of Tomorrow because it incorporates a number of “alternative” systems, such as sub-basement geothermal heat, solar thermal collectors and rain-water catchment, is also largely built of concrete, though the foundation used Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs).

Vaulted Ceiling - Concrete Floor - ICF Walls

Vaulted Ceiling – Concrete Floor – ICF Walls

As I’ve discussed in my Foundations essay, ICFs not only use two of the most environmentally impactful materials – concrete and petrochemical foam – but combine them in the least effective and least durable manner, with the foam exposed on both inner and outer walls (requiring protection from physical damage, insects, fire and UV), and with much of the dynamic thermal mass benefit of the concrete trapped between insulation and thereby lost to the conditioned space. On my Pictures and Details page, I show a far better alternative, called ThermoMass, which places the rigid foam board in the center of the concrete wall.

Like his Archy Bunker, Sellers likes to think of his House of Tomorrow as a 1,000-year house. But steel-reinforced concrete – even when used to exacting specifications such as in bridges and other infrastructure – has an effective lifespan of about 50 years, with the better constructions, including conditioned spaces, lasting a century. The standards of construction on the experimental Sellers’ projects is anything but exacting, and the “wild beam” idea has become the “wild rebar” practice of extending extra steel reinforcement beyond every concrete section in case it might be needed for some later design inspiration, so the in-process house looks like a concrete porcupine with steel quills.


Wild Rebar

In contrast, Roman unreinforced concrete structures – like their roads, walls, aqueducts and the still-world’s-largest all-concrete dome of the Pantheon – have lasted 2,000 years. They also did not employ a fanciful design-as-you-go ethic, but were meticulously designed, planned and engineered (see From Rome to Portland – The Story of Concrete).

World Renowned and Whacky

To be fair, Dave Sellers was named one of the 100 foremost architects in the world by Architectural Digest; has taught at Yale, MIT, Goddard and the University of Washington; designed Patch Adams’ Gesundheit Institute and the $100 million Lodge at Lincoln Peak at Sugarbush; orchestrated the multi-million dollar reconstruction of the historic Pitcher Inn in Warren Village after it burned down; and has been working since 1982 on the completion of the largest and last Gothic cathedral in the world – the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. His student from Yale, John Connell, founded the Yestermorrow Design/Build School, and Sellers opened an industrial arts museum in Waitsfield VT.

This critique of the Design/Build Philosophy is not meant to be a libel of David Sellers, who has many admirable qualities, but does focus on his ideas and his work, since he puts himself forward as the creator and voice of the movement he started nearly half a century ago in the woods of the Mad River Valley.

A couple of his wealthy and accommodating patrons have financed his latest concrete “sculpture”, the House of Tomorrow on Prickly Mountain, which is being erected painstakingly slowly and rather awkwardly by a part-time semi-skilled crew of design studio employees, interns and assorted other hirelings.


Pouring the Second Section of the Vaulted Ceiling/Floor

The disheveled approach to construction that Sellers seems to enjoy emphasizes lots of hands over machines and technology. For instance, he would rather pay eight workers a modest wage to sling concrete with shovels, rakes and buckets than hire a concrete pumper truck which would not only place the slurry much more efficiently and exactly where needed, but would allow a more uniform mix with low slump for additional strength.

As it is, the crew struggles with wanting to minimize the water in the concrete (water makes it flow and consolidate better but makes the finished product weaker and increases the hydraulic force which can blow out poorly-assembled forms), while making it wet enough to slide it down their jury-rigged wooden chutes necessitated by the fact that the transit mixer can’t get very close to the building.

But, with a half million dollar budget and financiers who are too tolerant of his idiosyncrasies, Sellers and company (the house is actually being built under the auspices of the Madsonian Museum) can afford to take their time and make their mistakes as they design the project day by day as whimsy and inspiration dictates.


Poor Quality Concrete Work with Voids and Inadequate Consolidation

Says Sellers, “You have to operate on the frontier of what’s possible. To know what’s possible, you have to know where it won’t work. I’m not operating at my full potential, unless there’s a high risk for failure.” Contrast that to the “failure is not an option” tenet of the engineering profession.

I guess when you’re spending other people’s money without accountability, failure is an option. With the haphazard manner of the Design/Build process and less-than-skilled labor, small failures, at least, are a certainty.


Bunker Bloopers

IMG_6128 IMG_6131

In my decades of building experience, on my own construction projects and those of others I’ve worked for, I have found a consistent relationship between the tidiness of a construction site and the care put into the actual work. A neat site is not only a much safer site, but it is as much a reflection of the concern for order and functional beauty as is the craftsmanship of the work. It’s nearly impossible to do good work at a sloppy and littered site.


House of Tomorrow Job Site

The House of Tomorrow construction site is littered with trash, construction debris and abused tools – and the near-constant cigarette smoking of several of the crew is yet another indication of the lack of concern about basic health and safety that is reflected in the many permanent “cast-in-concrete” defects that are evident in every part of the construction. (In contrast, there is no smoking on any of my construction sites, the indoor and outdoor spaces are kept neat and tidy with a major cleaning at the end of each week, every step is done carefully and safely, and there are no significant work-site accidents or injuries.)

Sellers says he became convinced that understanding materials is the cornerstone for developing new and interesting ideas and building beautiful structures that last. But understanding the inherent qualities of materials, alone, is hardly sufficient to produce beautiful, functional and lasting buildings absent care and craft and the attitudes and skills necessary for both.

Architecture is Artisanship Not Art

Sculpture is defined as “the art of making three-dimensional representative or abstract forms” and derives from the Latin past participle stem of sculpere (“to carve, engrave”) which itself is a back-formation from compounds such as exculpere, from ex (away) and scalpere (“to carve, cut”), from the Proto Indo-European root (s)kel (“to cut, cleave”).

As many great sculptors have attested, their work involves cleaving away the extraneous to reveal the true inner nature of a material, though more often than not in practice it is about imposing the artist’s ideas onto a material, or allowing the free flow of creative intelligence to impress itself on a material or to emerge in material form.

This is a wonderful way to produce art – that which is placed in a museum or public or private space for the appreciation of its owners or the masses. But it is an awful way to produce something as complex and functionally important as modern human shelter.

I am not asserting that art and architecture are incompatible, but that creative flair is best accommodated in sheer ornament (where time and cost is not a factor) or in simple structures that serve few functional demands and don’t incorporate complex multiple interacting systems.

Here are a few examples of Yestermorrow class projects that have a single uncomplicated function, and show creative artistic flair. They are an unheated student cabin, a community shelter space for an affordable housing complex, a bridge over a small creek, and a wheelchair accessible tree house (which has now been removed because one of the three trees that supports it was diseased at the time of construction but not noticed by the designers and soon thereafter died).

YM CabinShelterBridgeTree HouseEach of these structures draw the attention and invite people to approach, admire and spend time in or on them, but are not amenable to being the long-term locus of human diurnal life.

Architectural Engineering Craft

What, then, is required to produce functionally beautiful and lasting structures?



First and foremost is an attitude of care for all the elements of the process and product, including the health and welfare of the people who participate, the civic environment, the natural environment, the materials selected, the tools used, the site as a workspace, and the finished product.

“We are going to have to see that, if we want our forests to last, then we must make wood products that last, for our forests are more threatened by shoddy workmanship than by clear-cutting or by fire. Good workmanship – that is, careful, considerate, and loving work – requires us to think considerately of the whole process, natural and cultural, involved in the making of wooden artifacts, because the good worker does not share the industrial contempt for ‘raw material’. The good worker loves the board before it becomes a table, loves the tree before it yields the board, loves the forest before it gives up the tree. The good worker understands that a badly made artifact is both an insult to its user and a danger to its source.”

– Wendell Berry, Home Economics

Secondly, it requires careful, thorough and complete designing and planning of the entire process so that nothing is overlooked and all the intricate relationships of the integrated whole-systems process and product are considered. This does not negate the possibility of making creative design changes as new and interesting ideas emerge organically from the construction process, but it allows those ideas to be incorporated and integrated into the larger whole without undermining other related elements or processes or significantly compromising the construction schedule and budget.

Third, it requires a deep, broad and intimate knowledge of every facet of the design and construction process, from the universal archetypes of proportion and harmony, to ergonomics and spatial efficiency, to cost-effective and functionally-efficient mechanical systems, to material science and the physics of energy and material flows, to structural and hygrothermal and solar engineering, to the care and use of quality tools and equipment.

These characteristics define the true arkhitekton ingeniare or master builder, contriver of clever solutions to fundamental design problems that meet authentic human needs. Anything less is a waste of natural resources and human effort.


Explanatory Endnote:

The Design/Build Movement, as I describe it here, is a radical shift in the order, priority and relationship of the two primary functions of the arkhitekton or master builder: the design and planning process, and the construction process. It is largely based on the ideas of one architectural professional by the name of Dave Sellers and propagated by the Yestermorrow Design/Build School that one of his protégés, John Connell, established.

DBIA LogoIt is NOT, however, the same as the relatively recent Design-Build Industry, as represented by the DBIA, which is a collaborative team-work form of construction management that is based on a single contract with the project owner to provide design and construction services. As the DBIA states: “One entity, one contract, one unified flow of work from initial concept through completion – thereby re-integrating the roles of designer and constructor. ”

Conventional construction practice in the US has been what’s called Design-Bid-Build, in which the general contractor is engaged through a tender process after designs have been completed by the architect and/or engineer. This approach considers design and construction as two entirely distinct phases of production, requires very detailed specifications to make sure that all construction bids are “apples-to-apples”, and can result in poor quality of execution due to low-bid winners, cost and time overruns due to change orders, or conflict between the different entities, each with their own financial and scheduling interests.

Another contractual approach is called “CM at-Risk”, which gives a Construction Manager, whose loyalty is to the project owner, an oversight and approval role in every element of the process, from design to permitting to completion, and may include a commitment to deliver the project within a guaranteed maximum price (GMP). The construction manager acts as a consultant to the owner in the development and design phases (pre-construction services), estimating the cost based on the goals of the designer and owner (design concept), and balancing the costs, schedule, quality and scope of the project to most effectively and efficiently meet those goals. This adds an additional intermediary role between owner and both designer and builder, but can reduce cost and cost growth on very large or complex projects.

The Design-Build (D-B) approach, on the other hand, reduces the number of contractual entities in a project by collecting them all – or most of them – under one contractual “umbrella”, and can reduce cost and speed up delivery times while potentially minimizing professional conflicts. This approach also makes sense for large and complex projects in which a team-based method allows more varied experience and skill sets to be brought to bear.

While the D-B approach attempts to “re-integrate the roles of designer and constructor”, it does so by assembling a team of specialists under a single contract with the project owner, but likely requiring multiple sub-contracts for each of the building specialties that are now required by code or complexity or convention – and thereby failing to eliminate the myriad scheduling challenges or the overhead markup and profit built into each separate subcontract, and requiring intermediary oversight of subcontractors to assure quality and consistency with specifications.

My own preferred approach, which works best if the design concept is based on timeless “elegant simplicity” and the precept that “form follows function”, is that of the ancient arkhitekton or master builder, who assumes all the necessary roles – from designer to engineer, to builder and construction manager/supervisor; and including the functions normally assigned to separate subcontractors, such as foundation, mechanicals (HVAC, electric, plumbing, lighting and telecom), cabinetry, trim and finishes. This holistic or generalist approach, of course, can be restricted by local requirements for licensure in certain building trades, such as electrical or plumbing.

While, in today’s world, there are precious few such generalists who are also masters of their craft (as contrasted to “Jack of all trades and master of none”), this approach eliminates the pyramid of personnel and professions normally involved in a construction project, eliminates the layer-cake of overhead and profit,  makes it easier for the owner to be involved in any or all phases, and is the most time-efficient and cost-effective.


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

2 Responses to 20. The Bankruptcy of the Design/Build Movement

  1. Paul says:

    Many Living minds – Thank you

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