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PRESS RELEASE: 3/13/06

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OPEN LETTER TO ARCHITECTS
DESIGN: JANA K. VANDER GOOT

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WHY BUILD GREEN?
TEN PRINCIPLES
DR. JONG-JIN KIM: EXCERPTS
A VISIT TO TRYON FARM
LETTER FROM HANNA DONIGER
A SOLAR ENVELOPE HOME
HYBRID HOMES
CONSIDERING LEED FOR HOMES

A Visit to Tryon Farm

June 11-12, 2006

Jean Bahle

Sometimes when you go on a fact-finding mission you come away with something else.

David and I went to "find facts" about Tryon Farm, an eco-development near Michigan City, Indiana, and came away with excitement, inspiration, yes, facts, too - and renewed energy for our own Thorntree Commons project.

Getting off I-94 and going through the small towns of Union Pier and New Buffalo and then moving further off the beaten path to Tryon Road to find the Tryon B&B, once the original Tryon farmhouse - felt like being on a jet coming in for a slow landing in the middle of a hayfield. From the first, the experience was marked by grace and space.

And good use of space is what it's all about. I loved the feeling of openness, the feel of the prairie as you looked across the land, and of course the specially considered space of the very interesting eco-houses behind the farmhouse. This "farmstead" community is one of several different clusters of dwellings congregated around a specific topography that make up the 170-acre Tryon Farms. This "farmland" community - not a cutesified name for a pseudo-farm house model, but a cluster of architectural gems echoing the design of the real barns and coops and longhouses that still exist on the premises - nestles unobtrusively within the landscape. (Parts of the land are still truly farmed - there are real chickens roosting in the coop behind the B&B.) There is a sort of courtyard with raised beds of flowers and vegetables nearby. It all looks and feels connected to the spacious outdoors.

Beside the farmland cluster is "The Woods", well underway, "The Dunes", yet to be built, and one of our favorites, "The Pond" settlement. There were two bermed dwellings that we experienced from inside and out. We were amazed. Approaching from the road the tall grasses completely hide the house - coming around you see a stone patio and entryway that, in good old Frank Lloyd Wright fashion draws you around and in to a rather hidden entryway. Walking in was like walking in to another world. What we'd expected to feel dark and "underground" was huge, spacious, light. Skylights penetrate the "sod" roof - and the design of the house again, felt incredibly spacious. A very long folding door (made in Germany and called a Nana door) opened up onto a beautiful wide view of a pond - shared by the other bermed houses nearby. Purposely designed so that on three sides of the house you look out onto nature instead of your neighbor, never-the-less your neighbor can be quite close by... experiencing the same sense of privacy.

Our host at the B&B, Claudia Geise answered many of our questions (in addition to fixing a delicious breakfast), and resident manager, Dan Rybicky gave us an excellent overview of the history and philosophy behind Tryon Farms, but the nice surprise of the visit was the five hours owners Ed and Eve Noonen spent with us. They graciously shared with us their process (long and slow in the beginning, they said) of creating this environmentally friendly community, this "different way of living." It was encouraging to see that, yes, "thoughtful" does take longer, but it pays off.

Apart from reinforcing our ideas on energy conservation, small, well-designed spaces, and land preservation, they listened to our intentions with Thorntree Commons and spurred us to think differently about the "Commons" aspect of our project. What does that mean, beyond the 50% open spaces? they asked... the discussion moved to the possibility of footpaths that could connect property to property. (At the Tryon Farms Woods development, elevated boardwalks link sites to the road, but also to other sites.) We liked the idea.

We also talked about the important question of who will be attracted to an eco-development. Tryon Farms seems to have attracted a good mix of permanent residents, Chicago weekenders or second home folks, and those who may be somewhere in the middle; to quote a Chicago Tribune article featuring Tryon Farms "...buyers want more than a vacation home... as more and more people discover that the drive (to/from Chicago) is not that bad, we'll continue to see people move out here as their primary residence." Our advantage, the Noonans told us, was that in our situation, driving could be kept at a minimum, with the Suttons Bay community so close.

In fact, "community" was a point the Noonans returned to often. "Ultimately, you want to be a good neighbor," Ed told us. Being a good neighbor shapes all the building questions - being mindful of the context means working with the land and, of course, with your neighbors, present and future. (So, in addition to "grace and space", it's "connect and respect.")

Last, the Noonans suggested we first go through the design process ourselves, figuring out our "program" as it's sometimes referred to - a kind of activity map of how you live/how you'd actually use a living space (for further explanation of "program", a good resource is John Connell's "Homing Instinct.") Whether this results in an initial model home or not, it would be an excellent way to help others as well as ourselves come to the design process a little differently. A process that would integrate our environmental ideals with our lifestyle ideals; a way to see that, far from being at odds, these two spheres could mesh beautifully. They certainly seem to have at Tryon Farms.

This trip provided a great boost to our thinking - it helped us ask better questions and reframe some original ideas - a very worthwhile visit. We invite you to check out the Tryon Farms website: www.tryonfarms.com and the B&B at www.tryonfarmguesthouse.com.