Faces of Prickly Mountain

AS THE DESIGN/BUILD MOVEMENT TURNS 50, ARCHITECTS DAVE SELLERS AND JIM SANFORD SHOW US WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

Story By Seth Putnam
Photography by Jesse Lenz and Corey Hendrickson

200 PAGES PERFECT BOUND 4 COLOR LITHO PRINTING FSC APPROVED PAPER PRINTED IN USA


200 PAGES
PERFECT BOUND
4 COLOR LITHO PRINTING
FSC APPROVED PAPER
PRINTED IN USA

 
"IF YOU FAIL AT SOMETHING, YOU'RE JUDGED ON HOW YOU RECOVER," HE SAYS. "IF YOU REALLY WANT TO MAKE SOMETHING OF YOURSELF, YOU FIX IT."

 Half circles and triangles are everywhere. Windows are made out of curved Plexiglas. Entire cantilevered rooms are tacked on, constructed as afterthoughts out of either necessity or pure curiosity.

A magazine interested in the offbeat, The Collective Quarterly took as one of its primary directives in the Mad River Valley to discover of how this extraterrestrial-looking cluster of structures got built. Some claim that Warren, Vermont, is home to more architects per capita than anywhere else in the United States. To be sure, there were many involved in the cultivation of the design/build ethos. But a testament to the staying power of the movement is that several of the major players still remain. We sought two of them out: David Sellers, the father of the design/build movement, and Jim Sanford, who was one of three architects behind one of Prickly Mountain’s most iconic structures.

The story goes that Prickly Mountain got its name when someone sat down on a raspberry bush and quickly hopped up with a nettle in his cheek.

It was 1965, and a band of disenchanted architecture students from Yale had come to Vermont to do instead of read. They were the pioneers of the design/build movement—which believed that designers shouldn’t be drawing up blueprints if they don’t know a darn thing about construction. These days, the concept seems simple enough. But in 1966, Progressive Architecture magazine called it “architectural blastoff.”

The idea took shape as a madcap colony of bizarro buildings. Functionality and an unbroken view of the rolling hills are the guiding lights of the movement, more so than the aesthetics of the buildings themselves. 

 

DAVE SELlERS

Dave Sellers in his workshop, The Temple of Dindor. Photo by Corey Hendrickson

Dave Sellers in his workshop, The Temple of Dindor. Photo by Corey Hendrickson

We first meet Sellers in Tracks, the subterranean cocktail lounge underneath the Pitcher Inn, Warren’s opulent hotel, whose design he spearheaded. His wrist is in a brace, and his flyaway Doc Brown–esque hair threatens to overthrow the hybrid beret-beanie keeping it in some semblance of order.

“I came up here for one year, and the year isn’t up yet,” he says, considering his five decades in the Mad River Valley. Born in 1938, he wound up as a dissatisfied student at the Yale School of Architecture in the early ’60s. “I thought my education was incomplete. I wanted to make a real building with real materials.”

He struggled to conceal his ennui. “I had decided that you could bullshit your way through critiques,” Sellers says. Once, he bet some classmates 10 bucks that he could dig old structural models out of the trash, glue them together, sneak into a presentation, and defend the design. “I figured with a good eye and a great mouth, you could get by.” He made his way to the front of the room, hacked-together prototype in hand, and gave a lengthy explanation of how well thought-out his idea was. The professor, wise to Sellers’ scam, looked at him with lasers for eyes but was powerless in front of the evaluation panel.

Sellers’ theory of design doesn’t end with simply drafting a set of instructions. “If the instructions are crappy, the contractors say, ‘This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing,’” he opines. “So we wanted to do it ourselves. It could be outrageous, but we learned we could make anything.”

 

Somehow, word had begun to circulate in Vermont that he was a front man for the Rockefellers. He talked his way into lines of credit at the lumberyard and the grocery store, and with a group of about 30 other students who turned up in exchange for room and board plus a $500 stipend, the experiment came to life. The plan was to build a series of houses, sell them, and pay any outstanding debts. It was design/build boot camp. 

Creativity may be Sellers’ main export, but money has rarely been the return. When he went to the bank to ask for a loan to pay the stipends, the financiers denied him, citing the fact that the houses were weird and in a strange location. “Dear Mr. Sellers,” their letter said, “we think you’re on the wrong foot. Before it’s too late, we recommend you dissolve this thing.”

Suddenly, he was in a boiling pot. Through a combination of devil-may-care business sense and a belief that selling land shouldn’t result in massive profits, he ended up unloading the lots for $4,000 apiece. Sellers found himself hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, divorced, and in court. 

“If you fail at something, you’re judged on how you recover,” he says. “If you really want to make something of yourself, you fix it.”

Sellers is addicted to starting projects. In 1974, he launched North Wind Power Co., which would eventually become Northern Power, a successful global supplier of wind turbines (albeit without him). After a couple of years, he and some friends held a design contest for a new wood-burning oven that would be sold under the name Vermont Iron Stove Works. In 1978, he embarked upon a solar project to treat aquatic waste. Nine years later, he formed Mad River Rocket, a company that makes agile, zippy sleds for riding snow.

He has also designed clinics (including the partially finished Gesundheit! Institute) for Patch Adams, the clowning doctor that Robin Williams famously portrayed in the eponymous 1998 film. Located in West Virginia, the hospital complex is full of whimsical buildings straight out of Sellers’ head that house costume boxes and soul-focused activities like dance parties and creative workshops.

Why does Sellers so frequently reject agreed-upon architectural wisdom? “Maybe I’m crazy,” he says after a long pause. "I don’t think normally about stuff. I look at what people have done over thousands of years, all over the world, and I still see opportunities for new ideas.”

“I came up here for one year, and the year isn’t up yet,” he says, considering his five decades in the Mad River Valley. Born in 1938, he wound up as a dissatisfied student at the Yale School of Architecture in the early ’60s. “I thought my education was incomplete. I wanted to make a real building with real materials.”

He struggled to conceal his ennui. “I had decided that you could bullshit your way through critiques,” Sellers says. Once, he bet some classmates 10 bucks that he could dig old structural models out of the trash, glue them together, sneak into a presentation, and defend the design. “I figured with a good eye and a great mouth, you could get by.” He made his way to the front of the room, hacked-together prototype in hand, and gave a lengthy explanation of how well thought-out his idea was. The professor, wise to Sellers’ scam, looked at him with lasers for eyes but was powerless in front of the evaluation panel. 

Sellers’ theory of design doesn’t end with simply drafting a set of instructions. “If the instructions are crappy, the contractors say, ‘This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing,’” he opines. “So we wanted to do it ourselves. It could be outrageous, but we learned we could make anything.”

 

JIM SANFORD

Jim Sanford in his study. Photograph by Corey Hendrickson

Jim Sanford in his study. Photograph by Corey Hendrickson

A pair of bird-hunting Brittany dogs bound out the door toward us when we arrive late at Jim Sanford’s house on Prickly Mountain. Their owner follows closely behind them, eyeing us, and tells us to work on our punctuality. He invites us inside, where we stand around a preserved birch tree in his living room. (“I don’t sit,” Sanford says with resolve.) Taxidermied crows perch on the tree’s leafless branches. 

He quickly launches into an exposition of what he calls “architecture in the round,” beginning with the story of the building for which he’s best known around here: Dimetrodon, an imaginative take on communal housing with multiple units “plugged in” to a shared structural hub. “Design/build to us means that the architect is on site,” he says. “It’s not a firm where someone designs but another guy hammers nails.

 “The reality of the situation will always tell you more than a drawing. If design is a conversation you’re having, you’re one side of it. When you’re in the space and can feel it, much more is coming your way from the other side of the conversation.”

Pausing, he offers to drive us over to Dimetrodon, a multifamily building a few miles away from his current home. “Sanford 1986” is still on the red door at the back of Unit 7. “There were five of us and two dogs in 900 square feet on seven different levels,” he reminisces. “This tree has my eldest son’s placenta underneath it.”

It’s clear that Dimetrodon was just as much about a way of life as it was about architectural techniques. It was the idea that “sharing is a boon.” Six families called the complex building at various stages from 1971 to 1991, and a cherished community formed. “Not only was it a great group of people who I owe my life to, but it was such a nice feeling to have other people around.”

That’s not to say there weren’t occasional hard lessons. “Some things are not good to share,” Sanford concedes. “Cars, machines, gardens—somebody maintains them, and another person busts them. Common land is fine.”

When asked whether it was hard to leave Dimetrodon behind, he’s confident: “This is an old idea. Even the house I’m living in now is an old idea. You get excited about a new one.”

These days, Sellers and Sanford often team up on projects, like the hotel they’re designing on a historic site along the Northern California coast. They travel all over the world, usually for at least a week out of each month. “I’m working on an inn 3,000 miles away with Dave, and I’m also working on a project 300 yards away,” Sanford says. The two architects share a century of education and experience between them, and Prickly Mountain’s influences still permeate their work. 

We head back to Sanford’s home, which he uses as an example of how everything becomes less complicated when he’s working for himself. “I built this house,” he says. “I was the architect, the contractor, the client. If I want to change something, I have the power.”

Ultimately, the Sanfords left Dimetrodon because they needed peace and more space. On their “new” property, their indelible style is everywhere: the garden produces cabbage, carrots, beets, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, squash, onions, pumpkins, and more, for canning. The forest on the 45-acre property provides the six cords of wood that the house consumes annually for heat. “The kids know that when you turn the thermostat up it means you have to work harder,” he says.

As we make our way into the backyard, a mischievous grin flashes across Sanford’s face. “Oh, great!” he says. “I can show you my balls.” It’s a favorite joke of his—he means the giant steel buoys in the back yard that once held up a submarine net in Boston Harbor. They were a Christmas gift from one of his best friends some years back, and Sanford and his children spent all afternoon rolling them about the yard. “But the balls weren’t the gift,” he reveals. “The gift was the fun we had horsing around with them.”

That’s the spirit of play that epitomizes Prickly Mountain.

“It’s old-fashioned to do what we do,” Sanford admits. “But you get the feeling of being connected intimately to the land in a time of virtual living.”