South of Eugene, Oregon, Will Cooley ‘08 discovered Aprovecho Sustainability Education Center. He would spend two years earning a permaculture design and natural building certification. “Permanent agriculture (or permaculture) is,” as Will explains, “obtaining a yield from the land while giving back to the land as much as you are taking away from it.” It is a whole-systems method of design that organizes strategies and techniques from agriculture, appropriate technology, natural building, economics, and similar disciplines into a pattern of mutually supportive relationships that help create sustainable places to live. Aprovecho’s permaculture programs are the longest running of their kind in the Pacific Northwest. The emphasis is hands-on application of design and establishment of whole-systems based farms, forests, homesteads, and businesses.
Aprovecho, which means “I make best use of” in Spanish, is a non-profit organization located on a beautiful 40-acre land trust outside of Cottage Grove, Oregon. Its mission is “Living, Learning, Organizing, and Educating to Inspire a Sustainable Culture.” Will calls it a “living laboratory.” Offering college-accredited programs in organic agriculture, sustainable forestry, appropriate technology, permaculture, natural building and hands-on training in aquaponics, earthen plasters, renewable energy, organic gardening, rainwater harvesting, humanpowered machines, animal husbandry, woodlot management, and much more, Aprovecho teaches a holistic approach to the methods of homesteading and sustainable living.
After completing his certification, Will relocated to Telluride, Colorado, for three years, snowboarding frequently while working in a restaurant set at a higher elevation than any other restaurant in the country. He then moved to a farm in northern California where he dwelled in a traditional nomadic yurt for almost a full year. The experience at Aprovecho sparked Will’s natural interests and fueled his passions for sustainable living. After driving across country several times and visiting all 50 US states and every national park, Will is now putting the skills he learned at Aprovecho to good use—building timber-framed barns and cabins with his brother Ben. Unlike conventional structures, which are built with machined equipment and two-by-four boards nailed together, timber-frame structures (also called post-and-beam) use beams cut on the premises to fit together like puzzle pieces. “Timber-frame structures typically last for hundreds of years,” Will says, “in a way more modern-day construction rarely does because the use of high-quality and locally harvested beams are custom-fit and piece snugly together. The structures we build take more time, but they are built with lots of care and respect to their natural habitats.”
Together the brothers completed a project for Yale University’s 136-acre Landscape Lab on the school’s West Campus. The barn itself is timber framed, a very old-school method of building also known as notch and peg or mortise and tenon. “Basically, the joints are connected with wood pegs, so not a lot of hardware or metal is used in the frame,” Will explains. Designed by his brother Ben, the barn features a hammer truss, which allows the barn to feel very open and roomy. It has a metal roof to allow for water catchment and will later include solar panels. The doors are massive and swing or slide open to allow natural light and air to enter the space. The frame was raised with just a few people by a hand crank and forklift (no cranes were used in order to minimize the impact on the land). The most intriguing aspect of the project is that all the wood came from Yale’s own Urban Farm. The structure is built entirely from local materials. “We integrate natural building materials in our work. We use straw-bale insulation with natural plaster whenever we can. It’s earth as structure,” Will describes. “Cob is an old building method which utilizes a mixture of sand, straw, clay, and water. It is an incredible substance we use to build our walls; a lot of work but sustainable. We harvest wood locally and mill it ourselves. Building like this is about being closer to nature. It’s a lifestyle choice that has special meaning to our environment.”
The timber frame barn serves as an outdoor hub for many of the Landscape Lab’s activities and for classes and programs such as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Inspired by long-standing barns found throughout New England, it allows for the traditional timber-frame design and Yale Forest-sourced wood to shine. Its final form is, however, not necessarily fully traditional. It is designed to allow for a variety of uses and activities and to facilitate further experimentation—right in line with the Landscape Lab’s mission.
When Will returned to Suffield, he saw a campus that continues to change and a landscape that continues to evolve. The buildings on campus are very unlike the ones he now constructs. The size, shape, materials, and methods of construction may in fact be entirely different, but the character and care which lines each wall is very much the same. Perhaps Will now prefers a mixture of cob and sand, but he may agree the mission is quite similar. Suffield is built upon a foundation of tradition, kindness, and structure. It is a place where traditions are nurtured and foundations are laid solidly, lasting lifetimes and generations. Both processes represent sustainable living by teaching and carrying on the concept of giving back what you have received. Coming from Connecticut himself, Will could be considered a locally farmed material that became a part of Suffield’s tradition, yet Suffield’s influence also reaches worldwide. Sustainable living is a respectful way of treating Earth with dignity and ourselves with a future. “Being on campus brings back a lot of fond memories,” Will says. “The friendships I made here at Suffield are amongst the best I have. Suffield’s family is a whole-systems design.”