Home News and Features Features Interview with Kate Stephenson, Executive Director of Waitsfield’s Yestermorrow Design/Build School

Interview with Kate Stephenson, Executive Director of Waitsfield’s Yestermorrow Design/Build School

Students ponder computations for a home being built in a semester program. Photo courtesy George Soules.
Students ponder computations for a home being built in a semester program. Photo courtesy George Soules.

By The Bridge Staff-

Kate Stephenson, executive director of Yestermorrow Design/Build School, grew up in Plainfield, New Hampshire. She holds a BA in anthropology and environmental science from Pennsylvania’s Haverford College and an MS in management from New Hampshire’s Antioch University New England. In 2002, at age 24, she came to Yestermorrow as an intern, later becoming a program manager. She assumed the executive directorship in 2008. 

Since Stephenson came on board 12 years ago, the school’s enrollment and budget have tripled. As recently as 2000, the institution remained a summer-only operation, headquartered in an abandoned hotel that the school purchased in 1990. Since 2000, however, Yestermorrow has evolved rapidly into a year-round enterprise. Quite naturally, it has expanded physically, too, building new structures large and small—including a variety of cabins for summer housing for students—on 38 acres of our beloved green hills. 

Stephenson visited The Bridge office recently to discuss issues facing Yestermorrow—and educational institutions across the state and nation. 

The Bridge: Our higher-education series is looking at Goddard, Norwich, NECI, Vermont College of Fine Arts and CCV, as well as Yestermorrow. What distinguishes you from these other institutions?

Stephenson: We’re accessible to everyone. We are not a degree-granting institution. You don’t have to commit to a four-year program. You can start with a weekend, you can take a week-long class, you can come for a semester. There are a lot of different ways where people can tap into Yestermorrow.

The Bridge: You can be of any skill set, right?

Stephenson: Right. We have a range of programs, ranging from courses for rank beginners—how to use basic power tools, for instance—to programs that are more for professionals who have a background in architecture, design and building and are looking for more continuing education— and everything in between.

The Bridge: Is the model at Yestermorrow addressing the big issues of tuition and debt?

Stephenson: I see more students who are looking for an alternative to a four-year degree that’s going to cost them $100,000 to $200,000. We’re seeing more young adults of traditional college student age who are saying, “Gee, I don’t know what I really want to do with my life. I’m going to wait a few years and figure out what I really want to study before going on to college.”

The Bridge: Our series is about tuition inflation, student debt, the shift from tenure-track professors to adjuncts.

Stephenson: The adjunct thing is interesting. Yestermorrow has always been an adjunct-only model. All of our faculty are practicing professionals in their fields, whether they’re architects or builders or woodworkers or stained glass artisans. Teaching is not their primary occupation, or their primary source of income.

We’re growing our longer programs, and looking at the possibility of hiring full-time faculty. But, right now, it’s basically all adjuncts. I think there’s real value in having people who are not just academics.

The Bridge: Why aren’t you accredited?

Stephenson: Because we’re not degree-granting.

The Bridge: Why don’t you see a value in granting degrees?

Stephenson: We’re figuring out ways for our students to earn college credit, if that’s what they’re interested in, but most of our students are adults—most of them already have degrees, and that’s not what they’re coming for.

We’ve been able to say, “OK, it doesn’t make sense for us to be accredited ourselves, but let’s partner with other institutions that are accredited.” We recently launched a partnership with Sterling College. It’s a win-win.

The Bridge: How does that work?

Stephenson: Sterling offers continuing education credits for any class at Yestermorrow. The really nice thing about that partnership is that it allows people to use GI Bill or Americorps funds, or any kind of federal funding, then go through Sterling and use that money at attend classes at Yestermorrow. Sterling students can also take Yestermorrow programs and count it toward their degree requirements.

The Bridge: Would you please critique the traditional model [of higher education]?

Stephenson: [At Yestermorrow] one hundred percent of the people in the room really want to be there. At Yestermorrow no one’s being forced to be there, and it changes the dynamic. They’re not doing it to get a grade.

The Bridge: There are no grades?

Stephenson: There are no grades. If they need to get college credit, we’ll give them a pass-fail grade.

The Bridge: What part of what you’re doing is blazing a new trail?

Stephenson: We’re a design-build school. Bringing the design lens into anything you’re doing is a really valuable way of looking at the world, and we’re giving people really practical, hands-on ways to go out and make a difference in the world.


Location: Waitsfield, Vermont.

Format: Year-round operation. Weekend to two-week classes, 6- to 12-week certificate programs, semester program.

Tuition: Typically $350 for a weekend course, $875 for a week-long class, $1,750 for a two-week class; more for certificate and semester programs

Financial Aid: Work trade program on an application basis; funding from the GI Bill and AmeriCorps available.

Accreditation: None 

Enrollment: 750 students per year. Typically, there are two classes running; one in the woodshop and one in the design studio, with 20 to 30 students on campus.

Diversity: Students come from around the world, and range in age from 18 to over 80.

Academic focus: “Yestermorrow’s courses are specifically designed to demystify the design and building processes, using hands-on, experiential learning to teach students the art and wisdom of good design, and the skill and savvy of enduring craftsmanship as a single, integrated process. … Combining design and building offers numerous advantages and promotes the creation of intentional and inspired buildings and communities that enhance our world. From the professional designer-builder to the do-it-yourself design-and-build homeowner, every designer should know how to build and every builder should know how to design. This philosophy sets Yestermorrow apart from other educational institutions,” (from Yestermorrow website).

Mission Statement: “Yestermorrow Design/Build School inspires people to create a better, more sustainable world by providing hands-on education that integrates design and craft as a creative, interactive process” (from website).

Housing: Year-round dorms; seasonal camping and cabins.

History: “Yestermorrow Design/Build School was founded in 1980 by John Connell and a small group of architect friends who wanted to change the way people build houses and communities. With a single course and eight students they took their first steps to realizing their dream of teaching the integrated design-build process to students of all ages and from all walks of life” (from website).

Admissions contact:luke@yestermorrow.org.

Student to faculty ratio: 6:1. 

Little known fact: Yestermorrow has more than 200 faculty members, who are all practicing professionals in the fields of architecture, woodworking, design and construction.

Statement: “As a result of intensive strategic planning, this year we’ve changed our class schedule to deepen the curriculum we offer, with more in-depth opportunities for students in our certificate and semester programs. This fall we are excited to offer a second session of our Woodworking certificate program and are bringing our Semester in Sustainable Design/Build program to our Waitsfield campus.

“We’re also moving forward on the build-out of our campus master plan and spending this winter finalizing our infrastructure design and permitting so that in 2015 we can break ground on the first phase of campus expansion. We’re looking forward to engaging students, faculty, and supporters in the development of the Yestermorrow campus over the coming years, in both the design and construction of new classrooms, shops, dormitories, dining areas, and landscapes.

“Yestermorrow will continue to offer a wide range of curricula teaching the design/build process, with opportunities for both novices and professionals to engage with each other and the world we live in. Our goal is to engage you in an interactive, hands-on learning experience and empower you to make a lasting impact in your local community.”

—Kate Stephenson, Executive Director