Every semester, a group of students and faculty from the University of Massachusetts and Yestermorrow Design/Build school embark on a task of sustainable proportions, otherwise known as the Semester in Sustainable Design/Build program. Their project from Fall 2013, Carton House, was recently named a Professional Notable in the Educational Initiatives category of the 2014 Core77 Design Awards. That specific semester, 11 students and three faculty members were assigned to help their client in Bennington, Vermont, take on a more sustainable lifestyle through the home she lived in and worked from. Within 16 weeks (barely—more on that later), the team designed and created a 350 sq. ft. mobile home that also incorporates an office space. "There are really two tough aspects to our design," says the design team. "Building something that is (legally) portable and making sure our process allows broad ownership throughout our group."
The team had to take note of the height, width and length restrictions enforced by Vermont's Department of Transportation, as well as restrictions on the size of the trailer they use to transport the house. "The trick was making a volumetric constraint a catalyst for good design," says the faculty team. "The Carton House was able to really create an engaging space while maximizing area and architectural interest. I can't commend our students highly enough on this one."
But the more difficult of the considerations was keeping cohesive communication throughout the entire project. "The grace of the dynamic really comes in our individual abilities to relinquish control of ideas to the group," says the faculty team. "If we do this well—again, my hat goes off to our team this year—the design is owned collectively. While we all start to focus on different aspects (kitchen layout, siding details, roof assembly), we maintain appropriate levels of group input and response. It's a pretty remarkable process that we discuss at the beginning of the course and keep our eyes on throughout."
In addition to the communication challenges and government constraints, the experience of working with physical boundaries of mobility makes this much more than a study in sustainable materials. The group encountered transportation issues part the government ordinances on trailer and house size. "It was a pretty humbling dose of reality when we considered overhead wires and low bridges as wildly concrete design constraints.
The House itself is a fluid space that's perfectly suited for the therapist it was designed for. "The Carton House bedroom can easily be transformed into an office while the main living space easily functions as a group gathering area," the team says. "Our client is a therapist in private practice and hoped for a space that could be both her home and her office. We even allowed for future additions at the opening of the operable wall."
Of course, like all worthwhile projects, the Carton House came down to the wire:The team worked right up until 15 minutes before the photographer arrived to come capture the finished product. "On the day of graduation we had a photographer arriving at 3pm," the faculty says. "We worked until 2:45pm, at which point we had to get out of the way and (finally) celebrate all of the progress that we had made. We were fortunate to incorporate just about all of our final details and only one or two had to be scaled back for the sake of a limited timeline."
There seems to be something about the stress of deadlines and the classroom experience that brings people together in a way that isn't as expected or experienced in post-grad life. The reflection that comes with projects like Carton House is almost as rewarding as the in-the-moment experience. "About midway through the semester we spend some time speaking with each student to check in and see how things are going for them individually," says the faculty. "There were a lot of comments on the fluid nature of the work and the relationships between different aspects of the curriculum (gratifying for us as instructors, of course). One student really brought it home: 'It's like you're giving us pages that we get to turn into a coloring book and then color it.' I was both touched by the whimsical nature of the allegory and floored by its depth."
The team is already looking ahead to future projects. According to the involved faculty team, once one semester is finished the planning for the next begins. Their advice for future Core77 Design Awards entrants? "Get your work out there. Everyone wants to be inspired and, chances are, that's the most important part of what we're all doing—getting more and more people excited. In the end, once you ship the work, it's all we get to hang onto."