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How '70s Firm Jersey Devil Helped Spread the Gospel of Design/Build

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A trio of Princeton architecture students taught themselves carpentry, slept on construction sites, and championed the design build concept

One of the bigger shifts in architectural education over the last few decades has been the introduction of design-build programs. While a handful of examples, such as the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project at Yale, have been providing students with an opportunity to get hands-on in school, the opening of Auburn’s famous Rural Studio project in 1992 helped usher in a wave of socially minded programs across the country. The idea of bridging the gap between architects and builders seems obvious in retrospect, both as a teaching tool and guiding philosophy. But back in the early ‘70s, a trio of architects in New Jersey set out to challenge that long-standing separation with an approach that was anything but mainstream.

Jersey Devil Design/Build—formed by Princeton graduates Steve Badanes, John Ringel, and Jim Adamson—exemplified a DIY approach to architecture at a time when the profession was more firmly perched in its ivory towers. The architects and self-taught builders not only designed and constructed all their projects, but they became nomadic, living on site, sometimes in tents and Airstream trailers, and focusing on a just a single project at a time. This unorthodox approach, and the short but artistic list of homes they’ve completed across the country, helped make a novel approach mainstream. Samuel Mockbee, who founded the Rural Studio, spoke of the group as a big influence, and others have said their decades-long career showed that potential of the design/build ideal, albeit to a degree that many architects wouldn't entertain.

"The way we did things was almost more important than what we did," says Badanes.

The Jersey Devil crew came together during studies at Princeton in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Badanes and Ringel, both grad students, and Adamson, an undergrad, were like-minded students captivated by the radical designs and theories of avant-garde architecture groups at the time, such as San Francisco’s Ant Farm and Archigram in London, as well as the general sense of unrest animating their fellow students. The rise of the ecology movement and the first Earth Day, as well as a trend toward inflatable architecture and temporary structures, seemed much more compelling to them than the straight-laced world of architecture, and the thought of heading straight for a corporate firm and cushy office job after graduation.

"At the time, as far as architecture education was concerned, if you could design a cube, you were on the right track," says Ringel.

According to Badanes, the curriculum at Princeton gave them plenty to rebel against, and in response, the Devils decided to design their own projects and education. In addition to proposing an inflatable dorm, they also built an inflatable concert venue. Ringel and Badanes began collaborating on community-oriented projects on the side, designing playgrounds and housing for the Urban League. Adamson, who also spent time in Vermont working and building at the Prickly Mountain school, was inspired by the institution’s DIY ethos and freeform designs. These early endeavors attracted inquiries for residential commissions, and birthed Jersey Devil Design/Build, named after a character from local folklore.

"Architecture, at the time, was very theoretical," says Adamson. "We wanted to do something practical."

The Devils’s first few projects defined the process and philosophy that would guide them for decades to come, channeling their belief in practical, site-specific design into an itinerant, craftsman-like approach to architecture. The group would live and work on site, setting up temporary campsites or renting housing near a project, and would build, and often improvise, off plans they drew up themselves. Part of Badanes’ thesis project on mobile housing for migrant workers included designing a trailer, which the Devil’s used as housing and officespace. According to Adamson, they literally dived in: he remembers ordering books on plumbing, carpentry, and masonry and following along as he worked on early projects. He would hire electricians for gigs, and have them supervise and teach him as he figured out how to wire homes. They would often draw plans just specific enough to get building approval, and then change and improvise during construction.

While it may seem complicated, the process produced a string of singular homes while providing numerous built-in advantages. By living and working on site, the architects could quickly adopt, change, and improve on their initial concept. Badanes says they were quickly able to see what was wrong, adjust ("it’s important for young architects to quickly realize the impact of the lines they’re drawing"), and consult with clients. They could sketch out a proposal on a 2x4, discuss that morning, and begin making changes that afternoon. The Jersey Devil team often made more money from construction that design. While it seems radical, they see it, in part as an approach to vernacular, craftsmanlike construction.

The first three Jersey Devil projects—the Snail House (1972), in Forked River, New Jersey, the Stone House (1973) in Princeton, and the Silo House (1975) in New Hampshire, the first which involved the full trio—established the group’s playful style. In addition to a focus on site-specific design, the work reflected nature’s curvilinear shapes in much of their work, as suggested by the names they gave their projects.

"You can tell when that thing was built, it was guys getting out of school in the ‘60s and trying out every idea that they learned," says Badanes.

The Silo House (1975), a trio of converted grain silos joined with an overhead solar collector, showed a new level of ambition. Along with their first West Coast project, the Hill House (1979) in La Honda, California, the Jersey Devils began attracting press attention, which, along with word-of-mouth, helped bring new jobs.

In the late ‘70s, the group’s methods and results weren’t always fully understood, or well received . The National Enquirer gave a Weird House award to the aptly title Helmet House, a press notice the group relished and often referenced, while Paul Goldberger of The New York Times called their work ''tiresome'' and ''gimmickry.'' (Ringel, in a wry letter to the editor, noted an earlier Times article about their work, and wrote "If he had stopped at ranking our work as bad, we would have written it off as good press, considering the source, but no one calls us ''tiresome'' and gets away with it.") While others saw eccentric buildings, the architects in Jersey Devil had reasons behind their unique structures, grounding their work in concepts of organic architecture, passive solar design and ecological awareness.

"Frank Lloyd Wright was the biggest influence," says Adamson, "the whole idea of organic architecture, building something that’s not the norm at that particular time, and relating to the earth and the site. Architects, back in that day, used to build monuments to themselves, not the client or the environment. That wasn’t our approach."

Over the years, the three members of Jersey Devil have slowed down, spread out and settled down: Adamson is in Miami, teaching at the University of Miami and living in the Palmetto House, one of the group’s projects; Ringel is in New Jersey, and teaches at Yestermorrow Design/Build School; and Badanes is in Seattle, a Professor at the University of Washington Department of Architecture. While they don’t collaborate nearly as much as they did in the past—they've always been a loose-knit, unorthodox groupthese early advocates of hands-on architecture are still making an impact on the profession by teaching, imparting their own philosophies and the benefits of a collaborative process.

Badanes has seen his students approach the profession much differently than many of his classmates did in the '60s and '70s, with more interest in the community-oriented, environmentally sound structures Jersey Devil was championing decades ago.

"In the early years, what we were doing wasn’t really acceptable," says Badanes, recalling times when he’d deliver a lecture, then return to the scaffold of a construction site. "It’s a bit like Bernie Sanders; the establishment has to hammer it, because it’s so far from the standard."

But, they’re still at it, refining a more holistic version of what architects and architecture can accomplish. Construction, Badanes says, is a young man’s game. But the members of Jersey Devil still do it. He’s not sure what else they’d be doing.

Snail House (Forked River, New Jersey: 1972)

The group’s first project, a converted smokehouse on a Jersey farm, utilized concrete manhole sections laid up like masonry to create a central smokestack.

Helmet House (Goffstown, New Hampshire: 1974)

Resembling the helmet of a suit of armor, this unique structure was called out by the National Enquirer for it's odd shape, a barn-like, open structure built into an outcropping of granite.

Silo House (Lambertville, New Jersey: 1975)

Built for Charlie and Mary Lou Swift, the Devils designed this eco-conscious structure to recall structures in Tanzania, where the clients had previously lived. The home was built with an early solar collector in the roof, and, as the name suggests, utilizes three silos from the Unadilla Silo Company in New York to create separate live, work, and sleeping spaces. The group set up a campsite on the grounds, since they didn’t have anywhere else to stay.

Airplane House (Colorado City, Colorado: 1980)

Located on an empty lot in the middle of Colorado, this home, and its unique facade and form, were designed and built for a former airline pilot. The triangular form was built to maximize southern exposure for heat, and a series of water tanks set up as a series of half walls help provide heat.

Hoagie House (Northern Virginia: 1986)

Designed with a dramatic cantilever that recalls Frank Lloyd Wright, this streamlined, rectangular home showcases the Devil's penchant for site-specific homes and passive solar strategies. One of the group's most impressive projects, the home incorporates 120-foot skylight down the central spine of the building to provide light and heat.