As a Granville-area builder and frequent Habitat for Humanity project director, Richard Downs ’77 is well known for how he runs a construction job, particularly when it involved less-experienced laborers. Downs is again putting every bit of that experience to work, and he’s loving it.
The current job site is the Denison Homestead, located in the woods on the northern reach of the college’s property in Granville Township. The project’s working title is “Cabin 6,” which some of the crew joke about, given its size compared to neighboring cabins, and it’s role of housing nine students in the coming fall semester.
The crew consists of current and recently graduated Homestead residents. For much of the past year, many of them have been deeply involved in researching and designing Cabin 6, which models an array of sustainable construction practices. They are under the guidance of Downs, the project director; Tom Henshaw, the year-round Homestead coordinator; and Eric Alvery, the general contractor.
Downs hustles back and forth between two groups. Up on the second floor, he reviews a team of six who are framing a wall. He speaks with a mentor’s calm demeanor, but needs to say very little as they mark plates, nail studs, and maintain their square while attaching the plywood sheathing. The wall will be ready to raise shortly, and that gives Downs time to move back to the ground level, where another four are ready to learn how to cut and lay cinder block for a trombe wall that, when finished, will absorb and circulate solar heat throughout the building. It only takes one or two demonstrations before his apprentices get to work grinding, chiseling, and hoisting blocks.
“These kids are just amazing workers,” Downs says. “Once they get going in the morning, they’re at it all day. They’re so quick to learn and so efficient, I think we may have initially underestimated how prepared they were, even though they’ve never built a house before.”
By the end of the day, they’ll have all four walls framed on the second floor. Then, they’ll be prepared to build the trombe wall in the coming week. After that, the roof trusses will be set in place by a professional crew with a crane, and then they can get to work on the interior.
Cabin 6 represents the latest phase of the “living-learning experiment” that began In 1977, when biology professor Bob Alrutz and a dozen of his students, including Downs, established the Homestead, a community based on sustainability, self-sufficiency, and social harmony. Through faculty-guided seminar projects, and with the land as their laboratory, they have tested alternative construction, agricultural, and living methods. They built three cabins in which the community members live, with the idea that the structures would be replaced every three to five years based on emerging sustainable building practices.
In the 36 years since then, scores of Homesteaders have upheld the experiment’s founding ethos. Limited financial and labor resources, however, allowed for only two major construction projects. The two-story, straw-bale Cabin Bob (named for Alrutz) was completed in 2002 to serve as the Homestead’s community center, and Cabin Phoenix, featuring an “earthship” design, was completed in 2009 on the site of the former Cabin 2, which was destroyed by fire in 2000.
Concern for safety is precisely why the college mandated and funded Cabin 6, which replaces the need for the original Cabins 1 and 3. For all the fondness that Homesteaders have for those spaces, they posed risks that simply couldn’t meet today’s safety, reliability, and indemnification requirements, which have become drastically more stringent over the last 36 years. By investing in Cabin 6, Downs says, the college is assuring the Homestead’s future prospects, not to mention giving his crew an opportunity that not all of their predecessors enjoyed.
As a result of student research and planning, Cabin 6 features hydronic heating fueled by an external wood stove, and a greywater system that will support a composting toilet, showers, and laundry facilities (thus eliminating the so-called “Homestead cheat” of occasionally using some less sustainable utilities located on campus). A solar panel system will provide the small amount of electricity that’s actually used at the Homestead and to power the college’s nearby recycling barn. In addition, a number of other components and features employed throughout the design equally reflect modern sustainability practices.
“This is huge for the whole green movement,” Downs says. “It gives Denison a chance to showcase several new applications and demonstrate their effectiveness within all kinds of parameters.”
Cabin 6 is certainly not the only project at the Homestead this summer. The students also will build a wood-seasoning shed, repair the chicken coop, restore Cabin Bob’s exterior stucco, tend the gardens, and build a retaining wall with a few tons of stone that they reclaimed from an old barn foundation in a nearby woods. Along the way, they’ll get help from visiting alumni such as Nicco Pandolfi ’12 and Louise Vasher ’12, who are making their former “home” a stop amid summer travels.
Ryan Culligan ’14 understands the concerns that his fellow residents and alumni may have about how Cabin 6 will change the Homestead, but he believes those changes are a good thing in the long run.
“The Homestead historically has been reluctant to embrace changes that could help it realize its mission, because it operates on a basis of only embracing what it deems ‘appropriate technology,'” he says. “But everybody has a slightly different interpretation of what constitutes appropriate. Personally, I think the modernization will provide opportunities to future Homesteaders that just weren’t possible before.”
What’s most important to Culligan, though, is the fact that members of his community will continue to have a say and a direct hand in whatever important venture takes place at the Homestead, just as Denison Homesteaders always have. And how many students get to say that about their summer work?