small-town primer

Thinking of leaving the bright lights for the backwoods? You might want to check in with architect John Connell, AIA, LEED AP, founder of Yestermorrow Design/Build School and 2morrow Studio in Warren, Vt., and design director for Connor Homes, a Middlebury, Vt.-based maker of high-end vernacular factory-built homes. After graduating from the Yale School of Architecture in 1978, Connell staked out a piece of paradise in the Green Mountains, bootstrapping a practice on little more than some construction experience and an outsized enthusiasm for design.

Looking back, it's clear to him what it took to find success in a small town—and eventually, beyond. “As a young graduate, I didn't know much, and I didn't try to pretend I did,” Connell remembers. “I admitted I was learning on everyone's project, and I gave away an inordinate amount of design in order to learn.” Capitalizing on the rural can-do culture, he also started Yestermorrow, a school for nonprofessionals, to show people how to design for themselves.

Building experience—the ability to help people make their house instead of just draw it—is good currency for young practitioners in the outback, he believes. “If a person couldn't afford a big project, I'd say, ‘Let me just build your dream table; we can make the cost work out,'” he says. He left a trail along the way, making sure all of his customers were satisfied. “I've lived in plenty of cities, and I know that if you screw up with one person, there are plenty more to go,” Connell says. In a rural situation, on the other hand, “you really need to be honest. There's no starting over; you'd have to move out of town.”

To up-and-comers, Connell suggests finding small ways to establish credibility. For example, ask a local Realtor to provide office space for a weekend workshop in which you teach others how to lay out a floor plan. Then get the local paper to write an article about it. For a small fee, Connell also was willing to offer design advice on homes people were building for themselves. It was, he says, a quick way to find quality-oriented people with whom he wanted to work.

Finding reputable builders—and getting them to back you up on projects—is another key piece of the small-town puzzle. Whenever Connell spotted a well-built house going up, he'd stop and chat with the crew. “Once you start talking to the subs, they pigeonhole you—‘Oh, he cares about all these trim things.' They say, ‘You're a lot like Mel, or Joe. You guys are all about the same thing.'”