The South Mountain Conspiracy

South Mountain Company of West Tisbury builds some of the most expensive homes on Martha’s Vineyard. It also builds more affordable housing than any other design and construction firm on the Island. The funny thing is, South Mountain builds both types of house in much the same way.

Down at the bottom of a long, winding driveway, a 5,000-square-foot home and a 2,000-square-foot guest house nestle into a 200-acre estate near Spring Point on the north shore in Chilmark. With large, open rooms filled with light, and views that range across Vineyard Sound to the Elizabeth Islands beyond, the buildings were designed as a second home and family compound for a recently retired ceo.

A few miles north in the neighboring town of West Tisbury, an 1,100-square-foot, two-bedroom house sits on an eighth of an acre at the end of a short walking path. Home to an architect, her teenage son, and dog, the house is part of a unique, affordable-housing development on the Vineyard – a cluster of sixteen small homes in the woods, with cars relegated to the perimeter of the neighborhood.

At first glimpse, these two Vineyard homes couldn’t be more different, standing as they do at opposing ends of the economic spectrum of Martha’s Vineyard. But both were built from the same philosophical concepts, and with the same attention to detail, by South Mountain Company, an employee-owned, design-and-construction firm based in West Tisbury.

The ideas that link these two homes – and the facts of size and lavishness that separate them – illustrate the breadth of the work of South Mountain, which celebrated its thirtieth anniversary last fall. South Mountain is probably the most prolific builder of affordable housing on the Vineyard – but its employees also earn a living building some of the Island’s most unaffordable homes.

In a real estate market in which a lower-end house can cost half a million dollars and rent for four figures per week during the height of the summer season, the housing crunch has driven away many middle-class Islanders, and made living here hard for many more. The irony is not lost on South Mountain employees that it is expensive second homes, such as those they build, that keep people like themselves out of the market.

So South Mountain will often take on a new affordable-housing project soon after finishing a custom home as a way to balance the impact the company may have on the economics of the Island. “We’re recognizing that we are a part of the problem. But the problem isn’t going to go away,” says South Mountain architect Derrill Bazzy of Aquinnah. “So let’s try to do the best we can and use it as a way to bring some resolution to the problem too.”

In fact, South Mountain designs and builds both sorts of houses with the idea that each fits together and contributes to the Vineyard economy. “They don’t necessarily oppose each other – even though they’re strange bedfellows,” says Bazzy, who, along with other co-owners of the company, spends his free time volunteering for one or more of the community-housing organizations on Martha’s Vineyard. “The trick is that they both need to be done with care.”

The Chilmark home on the north shore belongs to Diana and Roy Vagelos, and it’s one of the largest that South Mountain has built. Company employees say they have turned down projects that they thought were inappropriate or too big for their sites, but they took this job because they had enough land to work with and because the clients were willing to build their home in a thoughtful way. The company and the Vageloses went to great lengths to limit their impact on the land and environment, breaking down the original building mass into two separate structures and leaving most of the landscape untouched.

With any project, South Mountain cuts down only as many trees as necessary – and many of those that are removed are then incorporated into the design and construction of the building. In the Chilmark home, oak trees selected from the site reappear as a frame for the entry porch, and again as a dramatic post-and-beam backdrop in the dining room. Curving around the base of the oaks is molding made of blueberry branches, and the railing of the  grandchildren’s sleeping loft in the guest house nearby is built by South Mountain craftsmen entirely of driftwood found on the nearby beach.

Scribed timber joinery – the method by which the oaks and driftwood are fit together structurally – is a signature South Mountain technique. The joinery looks stunning, but the technique also helps the home and the site feel natural by blurring the boundaries between exterior and interior. “The whole idea of having a home that almost looks like it kind of grew from out of the site is what we wanted – and that’s what we got,” says Diana Vagelos from her Far Hills, New Jersey, home. “South Mountain doesn’t fight with nature ever, as far as I can tell. And we don’t like to either.”

South Mountain uses salvaged lumber almost exclusively in its work, whether it comes from the building site or from far away. Roughly 90 percent of the exposed exterior and interior woodwork in a South Mountain home is reclaimed lumber – the company keeps a huge inventory in storage – which lasts much longer than traditional timber (because it grows more slowly in ancient forests and its growth rings are closer together, making the wood more dense and durable). Using recycled wood also minimizes the impact on the environment, and adds both character and soul. As often as possible, company architects design rooms and even whole houses around salvaged wood, such as the lumber found in an abandoned Rhode Island warehouse or an old Toronto pickle factory. The large living room of the Chilmark house features huge pieces of timber once used as floating corrals for the logging industry in northern Ontario.

The same creative and environmentally gentle principles lie behind, within, and around the affordable-housing home in West Tisbury, even if they are not carried through in quite the same degree of detail. When South Mountain designed what it calls the Island Co-Housing neighborhood, just down the path from its own offices off the road to Chicama Vineyards in West Tisbury, the company structured the development in a way that left 85 percent of the land – more than 25 acres – forever undeveloped.

The co-housing homes line up in two rows on either side of a walking path and lawn that winds through a stand of oaks. As with the Vagelos home in Chilmark, South Mountain took down as few trees as possible, and used those that were removed in the frames of the front porches. Parking for the development is limited to the southern perimeter, and residents use green pull-carts to transport groceries and larger items to their homes. The neighborhood also features a man-made pond, agricultural area, athletic field, and common house for community activities.

Co-housing homeowners began with a two-bedroom, 1,100-square-foot model and had the option to add as many as two more bedrooms and 700 square feet at an additional cost. Certain aspects of each home – such as paint, trim, and cabinetry – were also customized. Most of the residents initially joined co-housing as “members,” contributing a down-payment over time that funded the purchase of the land and design of the development. Island Co-Housing LLC took out a construction loan and built the neighborhood. The new homeowners then took out mortgages to pay the balance of what they owed for their houses. The cost to each: between $125,000 and $350,000. Together the residents share responsibility for the community facilities. Four of the houses were assigned by lottery to residents who needed sizable subsidies to live there.

Unable to afford a home on the Vineyard a few years ago, South Mountain architect Laurel Wilkinson and her son were doing what’s known as the “Island shuffle” – moving from seasonal rental to seasonal rental, with no end in sight. At one point Wilkinson had to put aside her architectural work and take a job as a nanny just to provide a roof for her son.

Wilkinson now owns a two-bedroom home for herself and her son, a place where she can tend a small garden out back, and from which she can walk to work. She is almost certain that she would have been forced to leave the Island if it were not for co-housing. “Like so many people – so many people,” Wilkinson said. “The people who are really taking care of this Island are having to leave.”

Recycled materials of all kinds are integrated into the design of both the West Tisbury and Chilmark homes. The kitchen counter in Wilkinson’s home is recycled roof slate, and the Vageloses’ home uses old newspapers for insulation. Bathroom tiles in both homes led former lives as automobile windshields. To reduce costs for affordable housing, South Mountain sometimes recycles an entire home – moving a potential teardown from one location
on the Island to another. In January, the company moved the second story of a Greek revival house – the only part worth saving – from Beach Road to State Road in Vineyard Haven, where the Island Housing Trust will build a first floor on which the second floor will be set. The amalgamated building will be divided into four units, which will be sold at discounted rates, possibly to Islanders working in health care or for the town.

There is no trick to building affordable housing,” South Mountain president and co-founder John Abrams says while sitting in his company office. In winter, through a window and a thicket of trees, you can see the co-housing neighborhood down the walking path. “The homes are just smaller, less detailed, and – most importantly – differently financed.” Most are substantially subsidized, either through reduced mortgage rates, private donations, funds from the state Community Preservation Act, or from a Vineyard organization devoted to the cause.

In 1975 Abrams and Mitchell Posin of Chilmark came to the Island from Vermont to build Abrams’s parents a summer home. They planned to stay for six months, but the learning curve proved steeper than expected, and a year later they were still working on the house. They never left.

Posin took up sheep farming with his wife Clarissa Allen a few years later, and in 1987 Abrams restructured South Mountain as an employee-owned company. He wanted his colleagues to feel as invested in the enterprise as he is, to share in the wealth they themselves create, and to feel a personal sense of responsibility for the decisions they make. The business has expanded to thirty-two employees – half of whom are full owners – and does about $6 million in business each year. Abrams is now among the Vineyard’s most vocal affordable-housing advocates. He serves as a board member of both the Island Affordable Housing Fund and the Island Housing Trust. Six years ago, he and his wife Christine sold their home, which stood on three acres in Chilmark, and moved into a co-housing model house after the neighborhood was complete.

The high-end custom work is still the bread and butter of the business, Abrams says. It allows the architects and carpenters to expand their craft, spend more time on detail work, and experiment with new green-building techniques, such as installing wind turbines to help power houses (a South Mountain turbine is set to go up at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School this year). But South Mountain employees care deeply about their affordable housing projects, which bring an even greater sense of meaning to their work, Abrams says.

Abrams acknowledges that there is a common belief among many Vineyard residents – the South Mountain Conspiracy, he calls it – that the affordable-housing work is simply a new way to make money in a potentially lucrative and growing market. But he says that South Mountain makes no profit on its affordable housing projects. “It isn’t the case – and we just chuckle about it,” Abrams says. “If we could make money providing good, affordable housing, that would be great. But we haven’t managed it yet.”

Whether a large family estate or a small two-bedroom farmhouse, South Mountain builds its homes to last at least 250 years. And Abrams says there is only one way to ensure that a building will endure. “People say they don’t build homes like they used to,” he says, driving through a village street lined with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century homes in the center of West Tisbury. “But these are still standing because people cared about them. There is certainly an aspect of quality of construction, but it is really a building that is truly loved and taken care of that will last.”