An unusual Vermont company works to strengthen the connection between the natural and built environments
by Jacob Deva Racusin
Design Studio Director and Director of Building Science and Sustainability, New Frameworks
New Frameworks is a worker-owned cooperative committed to a kinder sort of building. Locally sourced natural materials like native hardwood, clay, and stone soften our impact on the planet. Our ecologically-minded building practices and comprehensive, full-service systems design make our buildings at home on earth while providing state-of-the-art comfort and efficiency for the people that rely on them.
New Frameworks is part proof-of-concept business model, part activist organization, part mini-think tank for the work of climate justice in the built environment. Our mission is to implement regenerative practices to actualize the potential of an eco-centric business in a just and equitable society; we do this through innovative education, design, building, and collaboration. Our organizational structure is modeled after a rhizome – a horizontal stem of structure and support that feeds a series of aerial bodies fed by a network of roots.
The “nodes” of New Frameworks include our Build construction team, our Building Performance team, our Design studio, our Gryphon Door high-performance enclosure door company, our Gryphon Panel structural straw-insulated panel company, and our Advocacy group that engages in research, educational trainings, public speaking, and policy development. The horizontal body of the rhizome is the management, sales, and administrative tissue that connects the nodes, as well as my position as Director of Building Science and Sustainability in service to each of the nodes. Science and sustainability is built into the DNA of our rhizome; so, too, is the work of justice. By design, we create transformational change to provide climate justice solutions in the materials we source, the clients we serve, the business we conduct, the resources we conserve, the culture we nurture, the relationships we build, and the vision we create.
Our earliest buildings – including my own home, the first of my projects – were framed with local softwoods, trimmed with local hardwoods, insulated with local straw bales, plastered with local clay renders, and floored with local stone. Values of craft, efficiency, biophilia, durability, and creativity wove into the fabric of each creation. Many years later, we have carried these values into Gryphon Panels, New Frameworks’ newest node: pre-fabricated straw-insulated structural panels, sourced from local forests and farms.
Our first full panel project in 2019 was a single family residence in Leyden, MA. The clients’ values aligned perfectly with ours, however we were too far away to be the general contractors, and no local builders were familiar with straw construction. This provided the opportunity for us to take the leap to remote fabrication of our panels, having conducted rounds of prototyping.
The result is a project that is a net positive PV energy producer, stores over 11 tons of carbon in its materials, and received a HERS rating of -2. Further, it is completely non-toxic, responding to the needs of a chemically-sensitive occupant, and showcases the natural beauty of wood, plaster, and stone. Further still, a local builder with no experience in straw construction was able to finish up the entire project seamlessly – a replicable model for integrating non-standard biogenic materials into conventional construction workflows.
With this success in hand, we doubled down on the development of the Gryphon Panel node. In staffing out this division of the company, we placed women and queer folk in leadership positions, worked with the non-profit Migrant Justice to support the hiring of workers from the migrant community and provide them a pathway towards business ownership through our cooperative model, and instituted a program of language justice to support all members’ use of their native tongues while teaching each other new ways to communicate with each other.
While it is important to focus on the technologies and materials that address atmospheric chemical balance, we realize that this focus alone is not sufficient to realize our climate goals. We must also focus on the people that occupy, build, and design these buildings, as well as on the communities and economies that provide the materials for these buildings, and in which these buildings are created. It is the intersection and integration of social and ecological action that yields our most optimized outcomes.
This intersection can be found in a building’s materials – they tell the story of place, of the forests and fields and rocky soils; the story of people, of the loggers and farmers and designers and craftsfolk; the story of heat and moisture, compelling us to understand of how our buildings follow patterns of the natural world to excel in our harsh environment. More than anything, the materials tell the stories of the relationships we strive to form between our world, our community, and ourselves, and this matters because our work as designers and builders is first and foremost about caretaking these relationships.
How we work with these materials is of equal importance – our mission has always been to transform our industry, and this is as much or more a cultural transformation as a technological one. From its inception, New Frameworks has been a place of inclusion and collaboration. Our structure as a worker-owned cooperative is as important to our success as the content of our work. It is the intersection of all these spaces through which we realize our mission: a feminist anti-racist workplace accessible to all people; a cooperative organization fueled by the passion of workers with a stake in its success; and an integrated process of creativity and accountability holding architects and tradesfolk in equal value.
New Frameworks is a community network of consultants, subcontractors, and vendors that extends all the way through the supply chain to the loggers that fell our framing and the farmers that grow our insulation; a creation of beauty that provides healthy, carbon-storing, energy-harvesting, safe, inspiring spaces for our family of clients in largely rural and moderate-income communities; a relentless curiosity fueling a pursuit of excellence compelling research in embodied carbon, enclosure and energy performance, and advanced mechanical design; an identity as leaders in a movement of activists hell-bent on creating a just future for our children.
Visit New Frameworks.