We spent equal time admiring what we were able to accomplish and doggedly fixing our many mistakes.
The company that emerged began as a cabinet making and woodworking shop in New City, New York in 1973. In 1975 my partner Mitchell Posin and I came to Martha's Vineyard to design and build a house for my parents.
This project was like grad school for Mitchell and me (undergrad had been Harry Saxman's house in Vermont in 1973, the first house we ever built. We didn't have a clue how to do it. Each day we worked hard at the jobsite; each night we spread out on the floor at home with a pile of carpentry and building books, desperately trying to figure out how to do the next day’s work. Crash course!). Like Harry Saxman, my parents had the (mostly false) impression that we could actually design and build them a house. Their faith in us helped us to believe that we could.
We bit off more than we could chew. We planned to spend six months on the Vineyard, but a full year later we were still hustling to finish this detailed, timber framed house with handmade doors, windows, cabinetry, and built-ins.
During this prolonged (and exciting) struggle, new projects came our way, and we stayed on the island (a great surprise to us - we never expected to). In the fall of 1975 we set up in Roger Allen's old shop at the Allen Farm and South Mountain began to take shape.
From the beginning our calling card was design/build. Our abilities were crude and our aspirations high. The key elements of the work were our devotion to woodwork and our commitment to exploring alternatives to conventional construction practices. We combined timber framing, passive solar, and an eclectic, unschooled design sense to make learn-by-doing buildings with mixed success. We had no formal training so we were unconstrained by knowing what couldn't be done. The harsh Vineyard winds drove water in and around the poorly flashed walls and roofs that were our early best efforts. We spent equal time admiring what we were able to accomplish and doggedly fixing our many mistakes.
During the years 1976-1978 we hired Steve Sinnett, Heikki Soikkeli, and Pete Ives in quick succession.
Pete Ives' story bears telling. He came to work in 1978. At the time he was an accomplished mason, painter, drywaller, floor sander, tilesetter, and surfer. He'd never done a lick of carpentry. He said, "Just tell me what to do. I'll do anything, as long as I don't have to tell anyone else what to do." He was loyal, dedicated, skilled, and afraid of responsibility. He began to find confidence in his work. He learned to be a very good carpenter and then a foreman, first reluctantly, then with pride. So much for not telling people what to do. Pete was to become one of the original employee owners when we restructured in 1987.
In those years South Mountain remained a true family business. My wife Chris and Mitchell's wife Clarissa were as involved as employees. They plastered and painted, Chris prepared the bills and picked up materials in Boston, and we all lived at the Allen Farm.
The end of the seventies was filled with milestone events. We designed and built a small house for Rob Kendall, a dedicated solar advocate. It was our first earth integrated passive solar house and a harbinger of things to come. We designed and built a house for Eli and Frimi Sagan that was more refined, more carefully designed, and more complex than anything we had done to date. I stopped doing carpentry and concentrated on design and project management. The Sagans' great faith in us pushed us further, and their house was an important turning point in our young company’s life.
We built two projects that we didn't design, both designed by Boston architects. The projects went okay, I guess, but they confirmed our devotion to the integration that design/build offers. It's now been 30 years since we built anything we didn't design.
And we designed and built a solar greenhouse attached to the Edgartown School with help from the nonprofit Energy Resource Group (which we had helped to form), and teachers and students. It was our first significant venture into community demonstration work. It felt good, and it was clear there would be more of this in our future.
My colleagues and I were on a simple dual mission: keep working and build the perfect house. We kept working. You can be certain that we were less successful at the other.
Our interest in affordable housing came into focus at the beginning of the decade. In 1980 we combined this commitment with our growing passive solar expertise to build two wonderful (we think!) little houses - for Madeline Blakeley and Cathy Weiss - that were financed by Farmers' Home Administration low interest loans.
These state-of-the-art energy efficient houses cost about $45,000, soup to nuts, and their owners were thrilled beyond reason. Those were the days!
The following year, 1981, my friend Lee Halprin and I built a fine little earth integrated passive solar office next to our shop at the Allen Farm. Today that building has become the farm's retail shop. I loved that place - a real honest-to-god office and design studio at last.
Lee played another important role in the development of South Mountain - as supporter and critic. He followed our work closely, always had plenty to say, and never minced words. My colleagues and I were on a simple dual mission: keep working and build the perfect house. We kept working. You can be certain that we were less successful at the other. But we learned a thing or two. When it came to money, however, we didn't have a clue.
The defining Halprin moment came one afternoon when we were touring some of our projects. He admired the work. "Beautiful work," he said. "Making any money?" "No way," I laughed. "Nice idea, Abrams. Novel, anyway. Subsidized housing for the rich!" Hmm. . . . at that moment, I began to seriously wonder about business. If we were going to give away our services, at least we better give them to someone in need. It was time to stop selling short the very efforts upon which our livelihood depended and our ability to make a difference. At that moment, I suppose, South Mountain truly began to be a real enterprise.
Through the middle years of the eighties there were significant projects, one after the other. In 1983 we built several houses at once for the first time and learned to juggle multiple projects. When the design work became too much for me to handle Peter Rodegast was hired to help.
One night in 1984, asleep in our new house up the hill from the Allen Farm, Chris and I were awakened by Vern Welch, who was shaking my shoulder and yelling in my ear, "John, wake up! Wake up! The shop's on fire!" I jumped out of bed, threw on my clothes and bolted out the door and down the hill. The sky was bright - flames leaped above the hilltop. The shop was engulfed in fire and the firefighters had their hoses aimed at our precious little office, which was smoking but not yet burning. They managed to save it, and my gratitude was boundless. The next few days we cleaned up the wreckage and hauled truckload after truckload of twisted metal to the Chilmark dump. Sad scene - all our wonderful old hand tools and fine cast iron machines, and that fine funky old barn, forever gone.
We regrouped soon after and began to build a new shop up the hill on our own property. A few months later we moved into new quarters with a well-equipped shop below and spacious offices above. The newness was strange, but the space felt good. We were back on track.
We were excited by the possibilities that emerged from these discussions and frightened by the implications of the decisions we were about to make.
We also felt the need to formalize a process which would facilitate and insure greater participation in decision-making, more responsibility on the part of the employees, and the creation of a group of true employee stockholders. Until that time, the company had been so small and familial that these issues were not apparent, but with growth they became more visible and urgent.
In 1986, at Steve's urging, we began discussions about a conversion to employee ownership. We were excited by the possibilities that emerged from these discussions and frightened by the implications of the decisions we were about to make. With some trepidation we hired Peter Pitegoff, an attorney at the Industrial Cooperatives Association in Cambridge, to advise and assist us with the transition and restructuring. I sold the company to a group which consisted of Steve, Pete, and me. We became three equal owners. Our jobs didn't change but our responsibilities did. We introduced several forms of profit sharing. There were seven other employees at the time of the restructuring.
The next year we designed and built three modest houses for the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA). This was a big step into the public arena for us. We were aware that the DCRHA owned a number of properties, but lacked the capacity to do anything with them, so we proposed to design and build three houses on their sites. We would orchestrate the entire development process; they would take care of financing the project and selecting the recipients. They reacted positively - we shook hands and went to work. We labored over the design, enlisted our subcontractors to work at low rates, convinced our suppliers to discount materials, and we still had to contribute financially ourselves to make the project work. It was a wonderful project, we survived it well, and it reminded us that periodic projects of this nature were important to us. We figured that by keeping plenty of lucrative work going we could afford to help underwrite projects like these on a regular basis.
About this time we began to feel that our continued use of old growth fir, cedar, and redwood was morally objectionable, and that it was becoming harder and harder to get high quality wood. We began to look for sources of salvage lumber, found many, and began to buy. It was like the creation of a new business - the extensive use of salvage wood required new business, design, and building practices. We had to inventory supplies and design around availability and both the shop and the crews had to learn how to effectively use the materials. We rented the Windy Gates barn for wood storage, and began to increase our use of salvage and certified wood. The decade ended with a solid group of 11 working at South Mountain. Steve Sinnett had departed (his new company, Indigo Farm, was doing our landscape design and building, and they do to this day). Peter Rodegast and Mike Drezner had joined Pete and me as new owners, and more were on their way. Near the end of the eighties we hired Jim Vercruysse, a talented and experienced woodworker, to run the shop.
Thus began an extraordinary odyssey that resulted in the first building the Wampanoags had built - as a tribe - in several centuries.
In 1990, after I took a trip to Denmark to study cohousing communities, we attempted to develop a property called the Rogers Farm to further our affordable housing goals. It didn't work out, but the thinking that went into it led to the Island Cohousing Project, that we began in 1996.
The early part of the decade was filled with wonderful clients and projects: Weinstock, Hamermesh, Thulin. We solidified our landscape design and construction relationship with Indigo Farm - when Sanford Evans of Indigo began to do all our landscape design we were able to achieve a new level of design sophistication that matched site with house and seamlessly welded the two. For further details see Placemaking.
In early 1992 we hired Tim Mathiesen to run South Mountain Solar - specifically to distribute a solar water heating system that we liked. The company that made the system went bankrupt a few years later, and South Mountain Solar fizzled, but Tim stayed on in a variety of capacities.
I had become involved in the work of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) in the late 80's, organizing Green Building conferences and workshops. I collaborated there with an architect, Bruce Coldham, and an engineer, Marc Rosenbaum. I liked and respected both. When the Wampanoags approached me in 1992 about their proposed Tribal Center, I realized it was a job South Mountain couldn't quite handle, but one which would be exciting to do. I approached our Board, and Marc and Bruce, about forming a partnership between South Mountain and Bruce and Marc, specifically to do integrated design for environmentally sensitive institutional and commercial projects. We agreed to form the ARC Design Group, submitted a proposal to the Wampanoags, and it was accepted. Thus began an extraordinary odyssey that resulted in the first building the Wampanoags had built - as a tribe - in several centuries. The building was completed at the end of 1993. See Solar Today article in Press & Media. Now, many years later, Marc has become a South Mountain employee.
That same year we ran out of space at our yard and at Windy Gates and began a search for commercial property. We bought a piece in the West Tisbury business district, built a storage building, and filled the yard with salvage material.
By 1994, when we built the White/Josa-Jones house and the Lewis/Marshall house, we were using salvage wood for almost all our exposed wood inside and out. Our focus on solar and energy conservation had evolved to a more integrated and sophisticated approach to design which fully incorporated good daylighting, sun-tempering, and green material selection. For a more detailed discussion see our environmental building and salvage articles .
We developed a significant new practice: providing detailed Owner’s Manuals for each of our projects. Stewart Brand wrote extensively about our technique in his seminal book, How Buildings Learn. We are pleased that the practice has spread to many other companies.
The year 1995 was a watershed - we built our two largest projects to date, the Dick project in Menemsha and the Kohlberg project at Swan Neck. The Kohlberg project was a multi-million dollar development of a large family compound on 75 acres. The fundamental design goals were to house their entire clan comfortably and to maximize sensitivity to the fragile Great Pond environment. Our profits soared and profit sharing became significant.
That year Vicki Romanauskas became our second owner to depart when she moved to Rochester to be near the new love of her life. Deirdre Bohan was hired to take on her bookkeeping and office responsibilities. She soon made what was previously a full-time bookkeeping job into a half time job by streamlining it, so we decided she would devote the rest of her time to Interior Design education and the development of that part of our business. This became a great success.
The following year was complex - we did a tough, rushed commercial renovation at the Hot Tin Roof, we dug into the Sounding renovation at Seven Gates, and we began design of two important projects: a four unit affordable housing project called Sepiessa and the tremendously complex Vagelos project (similar in scale to the Kohlberg project) on an 80 acre parcel on Chilmark's North Shore. Patrick Lindsey had joined us as a third designer, and now Derrill Bazzy switched from field crew to office and became our fourth.
Sepiessa was an economic challenge, but a social and aesthetic success, and the Vagelos project was an opportunity to stretch our design and craftsmanship abilities substantially for clients who were willing to reach with us. We also expanded our interior design services and our furniture-making abilities.
Sixteen houses and extensive common facilities were carefully clustered on 30 acres of land and our new shop and office located on 6 adjacent acres. This was brand new territory for us. In July of 1999 we moved into generous, gracious, soulful new quarters, a far cry from our cramped space in Chilmark. The successful completion of Island Cohousing in July of 2000 was a major milestone for the company.
During the nineties five new owners – Peggy MacKenzie, Billy Dillon, Peter D’Angelo, Jim Vercruysse, and Derrill Bazzy – joined up, followed in 2000 and 2001 by my son Pinto Abrams, Deirdre, and Phil Forest.
This pivotal event was our first significant attempt to chart our course far into the future. It has led to remarkable things.
During the next few years there was a diverse series of projects that culminated in 2003 with the Mazar House, perhaps the purest and most refined expression of our architectural and building ethics to that time, and the House Moves project, in which we moved four houses, all slated for demolition, from four locations, to four lots owned by the town of Edgartown, and re-furbished them.
During the winters of 2003 and 2004 I took six month sabbaticals to write my book, The Company We Keep. People in the company began to emerge from beneath the shadow of my leadership and come into their own. We formed a Management Committee to run the company in my absence and I joined it upon my return. Our collaborative style and distributed management was formalized. Along with the Management Committee, a group of other committees (Personnel, Design, Production, Education, etc.) began to take a more active role in the running of the company.
In 2005 we did our first Year in Review and established a series of goals for 2006 and 2007. Kane Bennett, our youngest foreman and owner, departed to go to engineering school.
In February 2006 we hosted the Next Level Network, a group of design/build companies from all over the country, for three days in February. We shared what we have learned, learned from them, and joined them. At the end of that year we completed our first Ten Year Plan.
We created a new Business plan for South Mountain Energy to do energy audits and renewable energy outside of our own projects, and decided to proceed. This endeavor, led at the beginning by Phil Forest and Rob Meyers, has been a great success, has expanded, and has become an important part of our identity and core business.
Gradually, we grew. We began to concentrate on hiring a group of younger employees who might form the nucleus of the next generation of South Mountain. We have begun to prepare for that next generation. Ryan Bushey brought great new life and talent to our design group as Rocco Bellebuono and Aaron Beck did to our building crews.
Our affordable housing efforts continued with Twin Oaks, completed in 2006, with the seminal Jenney Way project, completed in 2008, and with the planning of 250 State Road for 2009 construction. These and a group of remarkable custom projects - Van Dyk, Davis, Vlachos – led us closer and closer to the creation of Net Zero Energy homes.
In 2008 Deirdre became our Vice President and COO. I have been thrilled to have her as a partner, as I have been to have the support of the other standing members of our Management Committee, Mike Drezner and Jim Vercruysse, and the rotating members who have been so valuable (other board members rotate on and off the Management Committee, each doing 6-9 month stints).
Difficulty and opportunity mingle; at times it is hard to distinguish one from the other.
For 33 years, every South Mountain employee has come to work each day of each week of each month of each year and had productive work to do. Now, perhaps for the first time, that legacy might some day be in jeopardy.
It began looking like our best year ever, with wonderful opportunities ahead and a great backlog of good work. Immense progress was made on many fronts during the first half of the year. But the effects of the US economic collapse came quickly. It became the year of trials and tribulations, tumultuous change, and scrambling to stay ahead of the wave.
But the events that made this year so dramatically different from any other also inspired us to open our minds, to think differently, and to address tough issues.
It became clear to us that we needed to expand opportunities in our core work to maintain a stable workload, grow SMC Energy to fill in the gaps and bring long-term workload stability, increase efficiency throughout the organization, and at the same time remain true to our values.
There were major accomplishments, it was our most profitable year ever, Betsy Smith and Greg Small became Owners, but it led to 2009, a year of reckoning. As we recovered from the shock of the economic crash and the full dismemberment of the backlog we had come to expect and rely on, it was time to dig in and deal. We did so in several ways. We contended with the “unthinkable” – that is, not enough work for all – by making a tiered policy to implement if work was too meager. We began conscious, pro-active marketing. We re-considered our commitment to work only on the Vineyard.
We took the off-island plunge by accepting the assignment to design and build a Deep Energy Retrofit for the Woods Hole Research Center project (a complex leap which proved to be tremendously rewarding in so many ways) and we began to explore other opportunities in the Falmouth area.
Architect Ryan Bushey became an Owner. Long-time owner Tim Mathiesen left, after 17 years, to move to Vermont. And in 2010 Siobhan Mullin became an Owner.
Through a variety of means we successfully did all three. We became a dramatically different company. Five long-time employees (two of them former Owners) are no longer with us, four by layoff and one, Peter Rodegast, by early retirement. Peter had been our fourth original owner and was with us for 27 years! For many years he was our primary designer, and he was responsible for a multitude of important projects. Deirdre created a great little self-published book for him called The Rodegast Years.
Two new employees, long time friend and engineer Marc Rosenbaum and young architect Matt Coffey changed the complexion and orientation of the company as much as any two new people could possibly do. Solar and Deep Energy Retrofits began to drive the company as never before.
Before we did the layoffs, we had made big moves – furloughs, wage cuts, major marketing, new skill-building – to avoid them. But as we made our way through the evaluation process we came to realize that, for many reasons, we wanted to get smaller even if we didn’t absolutely have to.
All of the reasons had to do with an economy that has changed and the need for us, as a company, to change with it. We were not altogether unhappy that we had to change and we are glad that when forced by circumstances to do so, we were moved to tackle it vigorously, thoroughly, and as humanely as we could imagine. We were not proud of what we had to do, but we were proud of the process that led to it. It was wounding, wrenching, and heartbreaking – to ourselves as well as those who bore the brunt – but it was necessary.
We emerged from this period stronger, leaner, wiser, and with greater capacity than ever before - a bit worn out but excited about the future, ready for whatever may be in store, and working hard to chart a successful course. There are many examples of how we changed, but perhaps the most dramatic was that we landed – in association with Oudens-Ello Architecture in Boston - the job of designing a new Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which will consist of a Deep Energy Retrofit of the old 1890’s Marine Hospital, plus a major new addition, on the extraordinary St. Pierre property in Vineyard Haven. This will be a multi-year excursion dependent on the fundraising abilities of the MV Museum.
In 2011 our efforts paid off. We hired Brice Delhougne, a French specialist in energy, heating, and ventilation. Aaron and Rocco became foremen (and Rocco became an Owner), giving us five foremen and the ability to do more projects of smaller size, which is what the market seemed to be offering. We began to restore backlog. Energy began to soar. Some remarkable projects came in.
Today, I'm grateful to say, the company is – more than ever - healthy and vigorous, even as our economy begins to transition, as my friend Marjorie Kelly says in her book Owning the Future from "the extractive economy of the past to the generative economy of the future." Morale is good and there are exciting times around the bend. We continue to seek new business opportunities that expand job diversity. This is an extraordinary group of 30 individuals (18 of whom share ownership) who collaborate remarkably well. We've been consistently profitable for many years and are gradually able to do more to be of service at once to ourselves and our families, our clients, and our communities. The adventure continues. Change is constant. Some have said our motto is, "If it works, change it." That may not be quite accurate. Our character as a company may be closer to the saying, "The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts." We try to save the parts that work and build on them, just like we do when we renovate a building.
Onward we go. . .