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The Company They Keep
How the Island's South Mountain Company Creates Architectural Solutions for the Way We Live

By Molly Doyle

Walking into South Mountain Company’s offices nestled in the West Tisbury woodlands just off of State Road, you are immediately struck by several things:
• Even though there are twenty or so people working the offices’ large open spaces, it is quiet. Peaceful really.

• Even though the staff has deadlines and some massive projects on their plates – designing the new Community Services campus for one – no one seems tired or stressed. Instead they seem relaxed, engaged and genuinely happy.

• Even though it is a hive of activity – inside and out (on a summer day, you see people bearing tools and sweating out back) – there is no sense that there is a queen bee. The hive is its own leader.

And if you have spent any time at any other architecture and building firms, then you know that this congenial, home-like atmosphere is an unusual vibe. So Vineyard Style sat down with Founder & CEO John Abrams and his design team to learn how people’s homes are designed and how the company culture, governance, and longevity affect that process.

Of course, South Mountain Company (SMCo) is not just an architecture firm. It also builds what it designs, makes cabinetry and furniture, and has a thriving solar business. But we decided to focus on one arm: South Mountain Company as an integrated architecture, interior design, and engineering firm. There are five licensed architects, two engineers and two interior designers on the 35-person staff.

SMC Founder John Abrams credits much of the company health and happiness to the decision in 1987 to make the company a worker-owned cooperative. “We wanted to make a structure that welcomes people to stay.” John remembers. The structure that has evolved has other descriptors: SMCo is a B Corporation [https://bcorporation.net/] and a triple bottom line business, which means that “people, planet, and profit are all equally important in our decision making – balancing profits with environmental restoration, social justice, and community engagement.” Patagonia and King Arthur Flour are two well-known companies that also embrace this and have proved this philosophy works. “But South Mountain has been doing it since before it was even a recognized thing.” John says, “It’s in our DNA.” He is not wrong. B Corporations (it stands for Benefit Corporation) were not certified until 2006.

Architect and co-owner Matt Coffey sums it up, “It really all comes down to the South Mountain values.” He ticks off the guiding principles from memory:
• Remember how fortunate we are to be able to produce the good things we do.
• Establish enduring and respectful relationships.
• Encourage individual creativity, health, opportunity, and fulfillment in the workplace.
• Honor craft and those who practice it.
• Embrace new ideas with a bold and flexible approach.
• Employ reclaimed, renewable, and energy efficient materials and systems whenever possible.
• Make places that draw from past intelligence and anticipate future change.
• Seek projects that are consistent with our values.
• Generate lasting value for our clients.
• Grow only with purpose.
• Concentrate our endeavors primarily on Martha’s Vineyard.
• Expand our extensive network of professional connections for learning and educating.
• Use our financial resources to support our mission.

Architect and co-owner Ryan Bushey, who co-manages SMCo Architecture with John, jumps in to flush out Matt’s thought, “While the projects run the gamut from garden kiosks for Island Grown Schools to the original master planning for the new MV Museum to affordable housing to our bread-and-butter high-end residential work, the values of quality, craft, efficiency, and beauty are deeply embedded throughout. John and I are the only two remaining [in design] from when I started 15 years ago. In some ways, it has evolved spectacularly and in other ways the seeds sown by the amazing designers like Peter Rodegast, Derrill Bazzy, and Laurel Wilkinson have grown deeper roots. John has been the consistent thread and has done an incredible job balancing each architect’s specific talents, taste, and aspirations with the company values, reputation, and vision. Our carpenters and energy experts keep us in line too!”

When asked about how he started with SMCo, Ryan explains, “I had been working on-island for three years and I had heard a lot about South Mountain, and I was ready for a new adventure. Steve Sinnett, my landlord and an original SMCo owner, insisted that I at least interview. I didn’t do any prep work and strolled in saying, ‘I know you do great work, but I’d like to focus on sustainable architecture. Is that a priority here?’ John just smiled and said, ‘Yes, we know a thing or two about that.’ He and I hatched a plan where I would work on jobsites for six weeks to get to know the carpenters. That experience was as valuable as my five years of architecture school. I gained a deeper appreciation for the craft, the hard work, the materials, and the methods. And then, once in the office, I had the opportunity to design Dave and Karen Davis’ house in Chilmark. They were the first clients I’d worked with who were open to architectural forms that expressed our shared values. It was an incredible experience.”

Matt Coffey adds, “I was interested in how they were translating sustainable values into architecture. When I first learned about South Mountain, I was admittedly skeptical that they were creating sophisticated work. Their houses were not of the contemporary aesthetic that some other image-based architects strive for. I came to understand that a great home needs to be beautiful but also efficient, healthy, comfortable and environmentally responsible. Now I see how all of the many deliberate considerations add up. And even though some of our newer houses embody a more modern vocabulary, I know just how progressive every South Mountain structure really is. We have two brilliant engineers here who ask hard” Matt pauses to laugh, “sometimes seemingly impossible, questions about our designs and the way we are building every day.”

The engineers he mentions are Marc Rosenbaum and Brice Delhougne.

Architect and co-owner Greg Milne agrees, “We live amongst two mad scientists. It’s wonderful. When we were redoing the heating system for the Charter School, Brice and Marc mocked-up the specified duct system (all over our office) and, through a bunch of tests, established that the school did not need such a large size, which saved the school money and, more importantly, used much less energy.”

Greg continues, “Until I worked here, I was always in architectural offices where we designed small parts of big projects – hospitals, campuses – and then passed our work on to a builder. Here, I look out my office window and I see timbers in the yard, I see the work being realized. And, in most cases, it is a home for someone. There is so much that goes into our process. It is personal. Our clients tell us that it feels like it is theirs.”

John says, “The rewarding thing is that I often hear from our clients, ‘South Mountain’s best house is mine.’ John pauses and looks at his hands, ‘for me, that is the truest sign that we have done our job well.”

So how does South Mountain Company do its job?

“Well, in the early days, we were designing and building by the seat of our pants.” John remembers. “Then a mentor of mine said, “So the work is beautiful. Are you making any money?” I chuckled and said, “No, we seem to lose more than we make.” He said, ‘Well Abrams, you’ve got a unique idea here – subsidized housing for the rich.’ That bombshell inspired me to learn about business, to learn about profits, and to learn how to make subsidized housing for working people.’”

Twenty years later, John and the SMCo team have not only found and refined a business model that works, but also one that allows the business and its people to grow and evolve together. Thanks to this solid foundation that is, as Ryan says, “baked in”, the focus for the company has been on design (particularly pushing their houses’ relationship with the environment, especially energy, even further) and community. They have recruited architects like Angie Francis who is a self-described mid-century modern buff who spent time at other firms where she says, “aesthetics take the front seat.” She explains, “I love working here. At other firms it was all about the view, again the aesthetic experience. Of course we all gravitate toward spaces with a view. But I’ve learned that I can strategically give up some glass to help make the house more energy efficient and more comfortable to occupy.”

John expands on this, “Windows are not just about the view and are not sized arbitrarily. Aesthetics, view, ventilation, interior day lighting, effect on mechanical systems, thermal comfort for occupants, the need for wall space, the technical specifications of the various kinds of glass that can be tailored to exposure to let in and keep out the appropriate amount of light and heat all must be considered and woven together to make a successful design.”

Another example of creative design for performance is their treatment of fireplaces. Everyone loves fireplaces, but fireplaces and high performance houses are a mis-match (they suck energy from the house and in a tight house they can backdraft appliances if not provided with mechanically-assisted make-up air). In recent years SMCo has convinced clients, on multiple occasions, to move the fireplace out of the conditioned space and into screened porches. Beautiful, effective, and satisfying.

SMCo is also expanding their project scope from private residences to non-residential institutional projects such as Camp Jabberwocky, MV Community Services and Island Grown Initiative’s Thimble Farm. “Our ability to engage in these projects,” John says, “Which are precisely the kinds of projects we’ve always wanted to do, has been driven by the diverse abilities and interests of our architectural team. They are all excited about giving back, and this is an opportunity to extend our long-time work in affordable housing to other important community resources.”

Matt, who is working on the Jabberwocky project says, “I have learned so much on this project. The history of the camp and its relationship within overlapping rings of community are wonderfully layered. Learning about the social dynamics of this beloved camp directly informed our design work to address their needs and aspirations.”

Interior Designer, architect and co-owner Beth Kostman, who has been at the company for 10 years and is also working on the project, agrees with Matt. “We had to deeply consider durable materials and function. Even something as simple as a basic cafeteria table had to be thoroughly considered. How does it feel sitting at this table in a wheelchair? Where can it be stored when there is a dance party? It’s pretty great.”

Ryan adds, “With the Community Services project, we are designing a building for the day care program. We’re asking ourselves new questions. How can we make the kids feel safe? How can we have a design that empowers people? It is exhilarating to think this way.”

Engineer and co-owner Marc Rosenbaum agrees. “When we designed a net zero barn in West Tisbury, we got to push our thinking and engineering as far as we could go. And build a timber frame while doing it! South Mountain lets me be a part of combining science with craft, all within a larger ethical framework.” Marc, who got both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from MIT, spent years consulting on leading environmental projects for clients like MIT, Harvard, Vermont Law School, Woods Hole Research Center, and Stonyfield Farms before coming to South Mountain eight years ago. He continues, “John and I met in the early ‘80s. We were both part of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association. I love it here. And I love working with Brice. We make a great forensic team for solving problems in buildings.”

Engineer and co-owner Brice Delhougne, who came to SMCo after being trained in the rigorous Compagnons apprenticeship program in France says, “Yeah, my job is essentially to make things work. To take the conceptual and make it a functioning product. When I first got here, it was a little confusing. The colors for wiring are the complete opposite of Europe. And I could go kiteboarding at lunch as long as my work got done. It was so nice, I thought, there must be something wrong here.”

“Our architects and engineers are doing incredible work these days.” John says. “Of course when we first meet with clients we always try to figure out who is the best fit for the project. But no matter which architect is assigned to the project, it always comes back to the team for input.”

Beth Kostman says, “As a designer, it’s amazing to be in a place that is not into gluttony or excess. We source regional materials, like American marble and woods from the Northeast. We educate ourselves. We are constantly thinking about things like how much do we need? And as a team we push each other and help each other raise the bar.”

Greg adds, “When I first met my wife Reade, she was building her house. I would go over and pretend to help. Now that house is ours. Every corner has a memory. Our history – children, births, deaths, and weddings – is part of the house. I feel the stories. Everyone’s house should feel this way. And that’s what we’re doing at South Mountain.”

“We want everyone to have that feeling,” agrees John. “That’s why we got involved with affordable housing long ago. But for me, the most exciting thing is that this doesn’t feel like work. We can and are charting our course. We don’t have to do things that don’t align with our values and somehow our values keep leading us to truly exciting projects. We are willing to take risks and always expect a certain amount of failure and celebrate the process of falling short and making corrections. I think that’s a key to whatever modest successes we’ve had.”

Deirdre Bohan, who is an interior designer, co-owner, SMCo’s Chief Operating Officer and has been with the company since 1995 says, “I think the most important thing about us is that we are a learning organization.”

John nods, “Yes! We know how little we know so we keep educating ourselves.”

Deirdre continues, “And because our team has this tradition of continual learning and building lineage, we are always developing new systems and resources. It’s exciting to ask, “What is the company going to be designing and building in 15 or 20 more years? Where is the next generation going to take us?”

It’s a wonderful question and we can’t wait to find out.

South Mountain Company
508-693-4850, www.southmountain.com, info@southmountain.com, @southmountaincompany