Building Much More than a House
by Bill Nichols
If you've ever struggled to agree with someone on a rug color or wallpaper, you'll appreciate the challenge of settling with several others on a site, a design, and building materials for a house. But that's the kind of thing people do at charrettes, sometimes in only a few hours.
I've just attended my second charrette, led by Abram Kaplan. Kaplan tells me the "charrette" as we know it today began with art and architecture students in 19th century Paris. It is the name for the intense, focused work they did in finishing a design, and the charrette was a cart used to collect their drawings. Students would sometimes jump on the cart and ride along, working frantically to complete a drawing. That image of 19th century multi-tasking doesn't quite catch the spirit of the charrettes I've observed.
Granville's most recent charrette took place on a Saturday in Denison's Barney-Davis Building. This seemed fitting because plans for the "green renovation" of Barney-Davis, a restoration aimed at making the building more environmentally friendly, were made at my first charrette a few years ago. The participants this time were students in the Homestead Seminar, preparing to build a new cabin at Denison's Homestead. Three other people also attended, folks who know a lot about building, Art Chonko, Richard Downs, and Hans Gorsuch, and I was there to make coffee and take notes.
You might predict that students who choose to live more like Henry Thoreau at Walden than most of us do are liable to have minds of their own on such matters, and you would not be wrong. They want to live "off the grid", generating electricity from solar panels, and they aren't willing to burn fossil fuels. They are drawn to "sustainable" innovations like composting toilets. These aren't just aesthetic preferences, as they see it. They are moral choices.
So it seemed little short of miraculous when more than a dozen students reached agreement in a matter of hours, after considering building materials as varied as wood, straw bales, earth, used tires, adobe, cob, steel, concrete block, logs, cans, recycled building materials, and brick. They decided to build an "earthship," a house made of old tires, filled with compressed soil. It will be a split-level, they concluded, on the site of one of the three original Homestead cabins, built under the supervision of biologist Bob Alrutz. The upper level, nestled into the hill, will be the thickly insulated earth-ship, and the lower level will probably be made of more conventional materials with large windows on the south side to make passive solar heating possible.
To reach this impressive communal decision the students needed to move beyond language for a while. Kaplan asked each of them to draw the house they imagined, and it was the process of choosing among their drawings that seemed to lead to consensus. When they returned to talking, what impressed me most was the way students listened to each other. You could tell they were on the verge of agreement, but instead of rushing toward a conclusion, they asked to hear from folks with different ideas. That kind of listening is rare, and I've been trying to imagine what made it possible. My best guess is that these young people who work together to find a way of living more lightly on the land than most of us are able to do have already succeeded in building an authentic community.
I hope to report on further steps in the building project.