My colleagues and fellow owners Deirdre, Rob, Siobhán and I just returned from a conference in Boston called Local Sustainable Economies. It was a national gathering, hosted by the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, of people and organizations working to localize economic activity and encourage the long haul shift from the extractive economy of the present to a generative economy of the future.
For the Earth Day campaign mentioned in the last post, SunPower created two videos and three blog posts. This link will take you to their second video and second blog post. Please take the journey to explore the SunPower/South Mountain relationship further. This one is about the connection between our devotion to craft and our passion for solar. The two go hand in hand.
We’ll send out another reminder when the 3rd SunPower blog post is up. Thanks for listening!
Architect Ryan Bushey, one of my co-owners and co-manager of our design department, recently designed and built a house for he and his family in Oak Bluffs. Building a house shouldn’t be much of a trick for a talented and experienced architect like Ryan, right?
Hmm. Let’s see. Last week Ryan shared with us, at a company meeting, “Ten Lessons I Learned Building My House”. Here you go:
In 1980 a woman named Madeline Blakeley asked me to look at a piece of land with her. She was a librarian in her early sixties whose husband had recently died. They had no children and had always lived in rented apartments. Her dream was to own a piece of property.
She had $7,000 in cash. A realtor showed her a lot priced at exactly that, but her friends advised her against buying it. The lot fell steeply south to a sweet little valley, a perfectly matched solar exposure and view, but it was right beside the main road from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown, which was very loud. Except for that proximity and the fact that the whole lot was a hillside, it was lovely. There was nothing else on Martha’s Vineyard even close to her price range.
I suggested that we could cut and fill and build an earth-bermed, partially underground house. “The southern orientation aims away from the road just enough, and the berming would dull the noise as long as the house doesn’t open to that side. We can design the traffic right out of this scene!” She was excited. Even though she didn’t imagine she could afford to build anything at all, the idea that the land could eventually be sensibly used was appealing. I didn’t tell her that we didn’t – at the time – actually know how to properly build an earth-integrated house.
She bought the property.
We began our recent year-end company meeting by reviewing finances, work completed, work ahead, affordable housing projects in the pipeline, solar sales and installations, and a variety of compelling and not-so-compelling metrics and indicators.
It has been a very good year, as were the two that came before. A robust trifecta. One of our younger employees, Ian Gumpel, asked why we’re doing so well. Great question. I mumbled a few dis-jointed explanations that didn’t quite add up. Later I thought more and the next day I wrote a brief addendum to everyone that said in part, about Ian’s question, “As a friend of ours, Devon Hartman, once said, ‘The key to making a company work is getting all the wood behind one arrow.’ We are making great strides toward doing just that. Sometimes it doesn’t seem so; the alignment can be obscured by the drama and upheaval of constant change. But it becomes clear through the lens of our triple bottom line performance.”
I walk into a just-completed house to have a look around. I’m alone, it’s quiet, I move slowly. It’s the only way to really see. Stand in one place and look at everything visible from that spot. Move to another. Gaze at every nook and cranny.
Look for beauty. Look for alignment. Look for flaws.
Examine each intersection of wall, ceiling, and roof planes. Look at every window – the trim around them, the feel of the sills, the views through them. Interior views too; what do we see at the end of the hall?
Check the daylight in the room. Is it balanced, is there too much glare or contrast? Should there have been a window in that corner?
How are things positioned? Why is that fixture just a smidge off center over the dining room table? That’s an unusual place for a doorstop, but I guess it’s okay.
Our clients will move in two days later. I try to imagine them experiencing the results of a year of decisions. Some were easy. Some were agonizing. What will the space feel like all clean and shiny and complete? I remember conversations with them standing here months ago when it was dusty and raw and partial.
It’s a small, carefully detailed, highly crafted house. Our clients are observant, discerning, strong-willed. The place looks pretty good. Houses are never perfect, of course, never even close. But I don’t see anything seriously wrong at first, except the kitchen faucet. It’s a tall gooseneck, and it’s noticeably crooked. Too crooked. I fool around with it, mess with the nut that holds it tight, wonder why it’s like that, and wonder how to fix it.
I have no idea how to do it.
Back in the office, I write a glowing e-mail to our project architects, our project lead, and our carpenters. I mention the faucet (I put that part in parentheses). Greg, the architect, writes back, ” That’s no problem. We’ll take care of it.” Nice. That’s just what I would say to a client if they were to see it and bring it to my attention. Just what I would say, not knowing how to fix it, but knowing that someone will know. Not knowing, either, if it would be a big problem or a little problem. Just knowing it needs to get done.
At times like this it’s pleasing to be part of a company that consists of a large group of people who know how to do stuff, who know how to solve problems, who know about remedies and fixes and tricks and adjustments. I may not know who knows, but I know that someone in the company knows – whatever it is – or somebody knows how to find out. It’s almost like The Company Knows.
It could be a question about wood, or codes, or building science, or ventilation, or cleaning, or design, or color, or doorstops, or just about anything – the topics are endless.
We look for answers. We try to find solutions. We try things out.
Picasso once said, “God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. He has no real style. He just goes on trying other things.” That’s what we do. We just keep trying other ways to make better houses. Other ways to make a better company.
We do things. We make things. We change things.
As I walked out of that sweet little house that day, I spotted a particularly nice joint on the porch where the reclaimed fir post meets the plate. As I looked at it, I stumbled clumsily on the threshold and tore the screen in the screen door ever so slightly. I mentioned that in the e-mail too.
We break things. We fix things.
Most of the time, there are one or two raging controversies on the Vineyard. The last few years, however, have been quiet. The only polarizing conflict was a roundabout in the center of the island. I never understood that one; it really didn’t matter much either way. I thought it would be fine to have a roundabout, but I thought it would be fine not to, as well. What’s the big difference?
Now it’s built. It’s fine. I like it. Nobody really cares that much, as far as I can tell. So be it.
But now there are two big controversies, and both seem important to me. One is the Squibnocket Beach parking and access re-design in Chilmark. The beach and its parking lot, and an adjacent roadway that is the only access to a number of valuable properties, are threatened by coastal erosion.
The town selectmen, together with the property owners, a land conservation non-profit, and coastal biology and geology experts, have fashioned a unique partnership and plan. The plan has generated intense controversy. I don’t know if it’s a good plan, or the best plan, but it makes sense to me.
Nobody knows what the precise outcome will be, but something is going to happen, because it must – it’s in everybody’s interest to solve this problem. I’m particularly interested in the outcome because it foreshadows many such efforts to come. This is about climate change adaptation and mitigation. It is the future, right now.
The other big controversy is the efforts of Stop and Shop and its parent company, Ahold, to significantly expand their shabby downtown supermarket in Tisbury. There are many issues – scale, congestion, community character, the need to raise the building to stay above the flood zone now and in the future – and the debate has become highly emotional. My knowledge about this plan is limited too, and I haven’t been inclined to wade into the sea of accusations, wild inaccuracies, and finger pointing.
But then I read a letter in the paper from Henry Stephenson, the co-chair of the Tisbury planning board, a good thinker with a broad design background. He quietly suggested important ways to make it a much better project. His solutions rang true, and I had also been noticing something missing from the debate, so I wrote the following to our regional planning agency, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which is the primary regulatory decision-maker for the project, and to the local papers:
It’s hard to imagine anyone who cares more about Tisbury than planning board co-chairman Henry Stephenson. He thinks deeply about the town and he has a nuanced and practical sense of design. His Stop and Shop letter several weeks ago was right on the mark, in my view.
No hyperbole, no careless inaccuracies – just the most cogent and thoughtful alternative plan to date.
I hope the Martha’s Vineyard Commission will heed his specific suggestions about decreasing building size, increasing setbacks, re-designing the municipal parking lot, Water Street congestion, Union Street traffic flow, and added transportation services. I hope the MVC will condition the project in the realistic ways he suggests.
I also want to call attention to something that has been sadly absent from the Stop and Shop discussion. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission has a responsibility to promote appropriate economic development. I hope the MVC will add to its conditions – if and when it approves a better, scaled down version of the plan that is before it – that Stop and Shop will be required to provide full time jobs with full benefits at Living Wages.
We need good jobs. Part-time jobs at low wages are harmful and unprincipled. Stop and Shop and its parent, Ahold, can afford decency. It is within the powers of the MVC to require such decency. And we cannot afford to accept less. Thank you.
I hope this letter brings support to Henry’s excellent suggestions and, at the same time, opens up a new – and very important – topic of discussion.
But aside from the particulars of these controversies, there are two things I particularly like about both of them.
First, it’s the passion.
The downside of passion is that it can bring out hostility – people attack, personalize, demonize, distort, and falsify. But that’s part of the deal, part of the inherent messiness of democracy.
The upside of passion is that it brings people out. People put themselves on the line. I recently watched a good talk called Why Your Critics Aren’t the Ones Who Count, by Brene Brown, a researcher and author who studies vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. She is the author of The Gifts of Imperfection (2010) and Daring Greatly (2012).
In it she says, in part, “Show up. Be seen. Be brave. If you do show up, in the arena, there’s one guarantee: You will get your ass kicked. That’s the only certainty. “ My experience over decades bears that out. Brown goes on to say that “if you’re not in the arena, getting your ass kicked like I am, then I’m really not interested in your feedback.”
Along with “showing up”, she honors the importance of vulnerability. She points out that vulnerability is the gateway to love, belonging, joy, trust, empathy, innovation, and creativity. Without vulnerability, she says, you can’t create. We need to enter the arena, and we need not hide our vulnerability.
I like seeing so many entering the arena, warts and all.
The other thing that interests me is the essential importance of the issues at stake. In the scheme of things, these are minor controversies in small towns. But they both have elements of two of the great issues of our time – climate change and income inequality.
Climate change is certain to test our democracy in ways we can’t foresee. Nobody will be un-affected, nobody will be able to stand on the sidelines. That much is clear, and here are two examples of the issues, in a nutshell, in our small outpost. Such examples, close to home, may promote greater engagement in the larger arena of public policy that our future depends on.
And two sides of the income inequality issue are visible in these controversies. At Squibnocket, land owners are showing what’s possible when it serves all interests for the wealthy to enter into public-private partnerships. At Stop and Shop, we see a major multi-national affecting a small community in ways that corporations do, and the community exercising its will to make sure that local benefits come first.
In her book The Sixth Extinction, author Elizabeth Kolbert says, “Chimps are smart, and can do all kinds of clever things, but they don’t have collective problem solving ability. You’ll never see two chimps carrying something together. Only humans do that stuff.”
Whatever the outcomes, Squibnocket and Stop and Shop are vibrant examples of humans fully engaged in collective problem solving. Doing that stuff. Good stuff.
Our youngest project lead and Owner, Aaron Beck, is a very good carpenter (and manager too). He carves duck decoys with great skill. But his passion – these days – is metal. Aaron loves blacksmithing. Last year he spent a week in Mississippi living in a backwoods trailer and learning from an accomplished blacksmith there.
This spring he came to us and said he had a great opportunity: a well-known blacksmith in Montana, Jeffrey Funk, had agreed to take him on for a three month internship. He asked if he could take a sabbatical. We said yes. He needed to finish a house he was working on by the end of June; then he could take off for three months.
Part of Aaron’s interest – and part of our interest in his interest – is the idea of setting up a blacksmith shop at SMCo to complement our woodwork and enhance our architecture. Might this happen? We don’t know, but it’s a topic of some consideration these days.
We just completed an addition to a house we built 17 years ago. But not just any addition to any house we built 17 years ago. It was part of a remarkable continuum of projects and part of the story of our relationship with a family and their large property.
It began in 1996 when Roy and Diana came to us after purchasing an 80 acre parcel in Chilmark that stretched from North Road to the Vineyard Sound. There was an old farmstead near the road consisting of a pre-revolutionary cape, a garage, and a cottage built in the 1930’s. It was a mile drive down the twisting dirt road to the Vineyard Sound, where there is a lovely cove, a sandy beach, and a small tucked-away camp with an outhouse and a pitcher pump.
Our clients wanted a single house to accommodate their large family in the immediate future and a master plan to make houses for their four children over time.
The property is long and narrow. The road ran along the edge, next to an adjoining development. Except for the original farmstead near the road and the beach area, the property was overgrown and inaccessible. As we began to investigate, we discovered that it is far more dramatic than we initially thought: there is a series of deep ravines and some wonderful high spots with potential for wonderful views across the Vineyard Sound to the Elizabeth Islands.
During the next several years we worked closely with landscape designer Sanford Evans. We explored, we mapped, we envisioned.
Anthony Lewis died last week.
Tony and his wife Margie have been long-time SMCo clients and great friends – to the company and a number of us within it.
Tony was a New York Times columnist for three decades who won two Pulitzer prizes. The Times said after his death that he “transformed coverage of the supreme court.” But Eric Alterman of The Nation focused on “the remarkable three-decade career that followed his Supreme Court coverage: the period, beginning in 1969, when Lewis established himself as the bravest and most eloquent columnist of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam eras.”
“Nobody,”said Alterman, “had ever written anything in the paper of record the way Lewis did. The Vietnam War, he thundered, was ‘a crime against humanity.’ He continued to speak, over the coming decades, as perhaps the most prominent of establishment voices for the antiwar, human rights and civil rights movements. Indeed, he lit up his biweekly corner of the Times op-ed page with the kind of political passion that is typically roped off in Washington at marches and rallies.”
It’s early Thanksgiving morning. I’m the only one awake. I’m looking forward to family, friends, and food later.
I’m looking back to yesterday. It was the one year anniversary of my wife Chris’ brain surgery. Last night, as we ate dinner with a friend, I remembered following the ambulance from Woods Hole to Boston at high speed. I was wondering, as I swerved onto Route 24, if it was all just a dream. A nightmare. It wasn’t; it was the real deal.