WHEN SOUTH MOUNTAIN BEGAN, in 1975, I was 26 years old. Most of our clients were twice my age. Now, 35 years later, our long-time client base is aging. They (and their cohorts) have been our primary source of work and referrals, and now we must appeal to the next generation. Can we? Do we? Will we be able to serve their needs and desires?
At least we have set the stage.
During the past decade we have hired and cultivated a superb cadre of younger people – in their twenties, thirties and early forties. Some of them have become owners. This helps us in many ways as we begin to transition to Generation Two, but will it help us appeal to the next generation?
So far, it looks okay.
Right now we are working on a new house for the daughter of one of our early clients. We just completed a project for the son of another. So. . . we’re making progress. And there’s one more to tell about, but that’s a long – and very special – story.
Twenty-some years ago we completed extensive renovations to a summer house on Chilmark Pond. It wasn’t a big job, but it was the start of something big, something great, that keeps becoming something better.
Several years later the same couple bought a large acreage on the Edgartown Great Pond and asked us to design and build a house that would accommodate them, their four grandchildren, and their growing gang of grandchildren.
This was the largest project we had done up to that time. These were very wealthy people, but different from other wealthy people I had known. It wasn’t just that they were very philanthropic (many wealthy people are). It wasn’t just that they had a strong and enduring commitment to social change (some wealthy people do). It was also that they had a different relation to their wealth.
When we were planning the Edgartown project they came to visit one day after we had cleared some of the land. The two of them arrived in their private plane. I met them. He got off carrying a backpack. She got off carrying a picnic basket. We drove to the land and sat on the fresh stumps and ate sandwiches that she had made before they left for the airport.
You know, just different. And very modest, too. Many of their charitable donations are anonymous.
They also had a strong environmental bent, and the house we designed and built was – at the time – the very best and most forward-thinking environmental building we could do. This was long before green got cool. The house even had composting toilets. Nobody had composting toilets back then (almost nobody does now!).
The only thing that wasn’t green was its size. It was big. But it had to be, because its purpose was to accommodate the whole family in one place, at one time.
Over time we became friendly with the family, and they have been huge supporters – financially and otherwise – of our affordable housing efforts.
Roughly 10 years after we completed the big house – and another project for them, a renovation – we were asked to design and build a house for their daughter and her husband, in Chilmark. This was 2005, and we knew more than we did a decade before. So did they. The second generation folks wanted to come as close as possible to zero-fossil fuel use and zero-waste discharge.
They also were willing to be daring, design-wise. The house has many curves – it undulates – and it is built into a south-facing hillside. A clerestory, arching in the middle to mimic the path of the sun, delivers daylight to the northernmost rooms and basement through strategically placed interior windows and glass block in the floor. Using the basement as living space and shifting it out from under the first floor makes the house less massive and improves the lower level daylighting. There’s even a grass roof on part of the house.
It’s one of our favorite houses (one of many).
The ownership of the original summer camp where we had begun the relationship had shifted, over the years, to the daughter and son-in-law. A few years ago their oldest son got married; he and his wife started having babies. Last year they decided to move to the Vineyard. The parents passed the camp on to them.
We got a call from the young couple. Our job? To renovate the original summer camp to make it livable year round and to do a Deep Energy Retrofit to make it, in fact, a net-zero energy house – a house that produces as much energy as it uses, or more.
That project is in construction now. It’s a great job, for still another part of a great family.
This is the fifth major project we have done for members of this family, and each time they have allowed us new room to explore design and environmental building avenues.
Three generations spread over 22 years. What a remarkable relationship! They seem to outdo themselves every time. Baseball commentator John Smoltz, after watching pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg mow down the Pittsburgh Pirates in his major league debut for the Washington Nationals this summer, said, “He has super-exceeded the unexceedable.”
Those words (if you can call them that) say, in a wildly expressive way, what these clients are doing, time after time. Super-exceeding the unexceedable.
This is the stuff that makes business worth doing. And it bodes well for our future, I think. We’re not only finding our way to the second generation, but the third!