After a year of design, we’ve just begun construction of a sweet project for a great family on an extraordinary property at Seven Gates Farm. It’s the third project we have done, on different pieces of this remarkable this part of the Vineyard. The first was in 1995, the second in 2004, and now this one.
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.
Our 40th year in business will soon come to a close.
We had a party to celebrate. It was different from our usual parties. This time none of our beloved clients were invited. It was a party was for the people who do the work – our employees, our former employees, our subcontractors, and our other work partners.
We missed all those incredible clients with whom we have established such important friendships. But it was satisfying to honor and emphasize those who get up each day, go to work, and make it possible to do what we do.
It was a gorgeous day at the Tisbury Waterworks. Our FunCom group (the SMC party and event committee, which includes Siobhan Mullin, Betsy Smith, Jim Vercruysse, and Rob Meyers) had worked closely with Deirdre Bohan and Abbie Rogers to orchestrate the event.
Patrie Grace and her wonderful catering group, along with master barbeque man Tim Laursen (a former employee) had the place set up and done up for a magnificent feast. My son Pinto played music that set a sweet tone.
Before dinner, I said some welcomes, mentioned a few old stalwarts who weren’t there, and told a story or two. Then I invited others to ascend the hill and share stories and memories. A string of people took the mic– Richard Green, Tara Simmons, Jill Walsh, Billy Dillon, Pete Ives, Siobhan Mullin, Bill (Norton) Russell, Christina Platt, Eric Bates – for tall tales and rollicking sketches. Finally, Pete D’Angelo dramatized my own exit interview in the distant future – in his inimitable manner he sent the doddering old idiot (me) out the door.
A bit later photographer Wayne Smith assembled as many of us as he could and shot this picture.
We missed some people. Many old employees were far away and couldn’t make the trip. September is a time when many Vineyarders take post-summer vacations. Two major events were happening at the exact same time – a memorial service for Ernie Mendenhall (longtime West Tisbury building inspector and affordable housing advocate) and, remarkably, on the very same day Morning Glory Farm was celebrating its 40th anniversary, too! Sister companies from way back in 1975.
For those of us who were there it was one fine party – homey, collegial, friendly, tasty, and touching.
Onward to the next 40!
I went to the MV Hospital for an appointment. I ran into Sue, a woman I've known for many years. She used to own the camera store in town. I doubt it’s there anymore; can’t remember (are there still camera stores?).
In 1979 she built a passive solar house. We helped her with the design and we installed one of the ingenious monolithic Insulating Curtainwalls (ICW) that were made – in those days – by a Colorado company called Thermal Technology Corporation.
Not long ago a former client died. I received a letter with a copy of her will. She left some funds for South Mountain to do two community projects – one to help the Vineyard affordable housing effort and another to do an educational demonstration about solar energy.
The amazing thing: she was not wealthy at all. In 1980, when she was 59 years old, we designed and built the first home she ever owned – a sweet little subsidized passive solar earth-bermed house in Vineyard Haven for Madeline and her dog.
We were excited to receive this bequest. It enhanced our company charitable and pro-bono commitment: each year we give 10% of our net profits to charitable organizations, and an additional 10% to pro-bono work and in-kind donations.
Giving away money is fun, it’s rewarding, it makes a difference, and there’s never as much to give as we wish. Many deserving needs go without.
We have a foundation (the South Mountain Foundation, now 13 years old), a policy regarding charitable contributions and pro bono work, and a small committee to implement. The committee consists of four of our owners, Derrill Bazzy (chair), Betsy Smith, Ken Leuchtenmacher, and myself.
The first section of our policy describes the purpose: “South Mountain Company donates funds and services to reflect the values and interests of the Owners and employees of SMC. This is one aspect of our commitment to our community and to social change.”
We distribute the majority of our funds to local organizations, with a strong emphasis on Affordable Housing, Local Food, and Renewable Energy. The same is true of our in-kind donations. The remaining funds are distributed to organizations in the following categories: Conservation & Environment, Schools & Children, Health & Social Services, Arts & Culture, and Global Poverty Relief. We also keep a set-aside for emergency disaster relief efforts.
We generally target organizations with limited resources rather than those with good fundraising departments and large budgets. Our funds can be most effective that way.
In FY 15 (just concluded) we donated approximately $39,000 in cash. Our largest donation was to the Island Housing Trust. Our pro-bono and discounted work this year went to the MV Public Charter School, the Vineyard Playhouse, the Aquinnah Cultural Center, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, the Island Grown Initiative’s Thimble Farm, the Farm Institute, and others. Some of this was design work, some was for feasibility studies, and some was construction materials.
The SMC Foundation can also accept and redistribute donations of cash and/or property. We welcome donations from living persons and estates (like Madeline’s) for designated purposes consistent with company values.
Here’s what we did with the two Madeline bequests:
• We designed several versions of a prototype high quality, high performance, zero energy affordable home. We agreed to donate these plans to anyone doing affordable housing as long as they agree to pay small fees for quality assurance – so the houses get built as they’re supposed to. Five houses (three of those subsidized and permanently affordable, for the Island Housing Trust) have been built from these plans to date. More are in development. Here’s a rendering of one.
• We commissioned a kinetic sculpture by Tim Laursen called SunBird which is powered by the sun (and by a hand crank, so we humans can see how how feeble we are compared to sunlight!). Soon to be installed in a highly visible location and un-veiled! Here’s a photo of it at its current test site.
But mostly the Foundation exists to distribute a part of our profits. Someone once said, “As I give, I get.” This part of South Mountain’s work is about helping to improve both peoples’ lives and the community from which we get so much. It’s one of the ways we give . . . and get. We are grateful for the opportunity.
The Vineyard remains uncommonly chilly. Snow on the ground since late January, more last night. The other morning it was 6 below zero, the coldest since we arrived 40 years ago. Mal Jones told me the last time it was colder than that was in 1961. Quite a winter. But if we’re going to live in Vermont, I think we oughta get to have some mountains!! No such luck.
Recently Julie Wells, the editor of the Vineyard Gazette, asked me to write an article about the demise of Cape Wind. Reasonable request, but I declined. What I could do, I suggested, is include a few thoughts about Cape Wind in a larger context. She agreed to that, and here’s the piece that emerged, published in the Gazette on February 5, 2015.
On the Gazette website there were many comments about the article, both positive and negative. My favorite, from someone in Oak Bluffs, who called himself (or herself) BS: “I’m tired of shoveling all this global warming from my driveway.”
That was the only one I responded to. I said: “Hah, BS, I’m tired of it too – you shovel mine and I’ll shovel yours. But you’re not shoveling Global Warming, it’s Climate Change you’re shoveling, which brings, over time, greater weather extremes – more precipitation, more drought, colder temps, warmer temps. Some even call it Global Wilding.”