Village Voices: Jason Forney and Jason Jewhurst (part 1 of 2)

Architects Jason Forney and Jason Jewhurst are co-owners, with Dana Kelly, of Bruner/Cott Architects, which they acquired from original founders Simeon Bruner and Leland (Lee) Cott in 2016. That same year, they oversaw completion of the R.W. Kern Center, a multi-use campus facility at Hampshire College that was only the 17th building to earn full certification through the Living Building Challenge. The Boston-based firm has been affiliated with Yale Divinity School since the Living Village’s initiation in 2015 as a feasibility study. Here, Forney and Jewhurst detail those earliest stages of the residential project, and how they dovetailed with Bruner/Cott’s business transition and sustainability endeavors at the time.

Bruner/Cott found its way to YDS in 2015 not through a special connection or chance encounter, but by responding to a request for proposals—a process common to architects who are pursuing institutional clients.

Jason Jewhurst: An RFP for a feasibility study followed on the heels of a yearlong strategic planning effort; a feasibility study was one of the next steps that came out of that strategic plan, which Greg Sterling oversaw with a leadership team. YDS wanted to work with a design team on a campus that reflects their values and takes them to a more forward-thinking place. The initial study was to either prove that that was possible—that the site had the capacity to support exemplary sustainable housing—or not.

At the same time, you and Dana are speaking with Simeon and Lee about taking over the firm.

Jason Forney: Responding to the feasibility study RFP was the first time that Jason and I steered the business of the firm without involving Simeon and Lee. They were insightful enough to admit that their knowledge of sustainability limited them to an advising capacity, and they encouraged us to run with the RFP. In a way, it’s emblematic of how they ultimately supported our acquisition of Bruner/Cott.

In 2015, too, Bruner/Cott was finishing up construction of the Kern Center. Did that fluency in the Living Building Challenge inform your response to the Living Village RFP? 

JJ: No one was in a position to presume that the Living Village could achieve Living Building Challenge certification. In 2015, the program had mostly certified several houses, one-room-type educational facilities, and a commercial office building in Seattle. Academic and commercial buildings, designed at the scale of a campus, were not a focus of opportunity.

How did the interview go?

JF: The thing about us is that we are authentic and passionate about the connection between architecture and the environment, so we tried to communicate that we could help YDS figure out a course. Also, we had not met Greg before, so we started off the interview by asking him to share his vision for the Living Village. We had read what was written about the project, but that question set up an amazing conversation. It was the first time I had heard about the connection between ecology and theology, and how planetary stewardship was a responsibility for people of faith.

JJ: It was profound. The discussion wasn’t about architecture. It was about what’s possible, and how we move toward vision.

After YDS selected Bruner/Cott to undertake the feasibility study, conducting the project was not merely a thing of site analysis and solar studies. You were welcomed into the YDS family.

JJ: The kindness of campus culture—it was just a joy to get in and work on the challenge at hand. There was a real honest understanding that YDS was relying on us, and that, while there were procedures to follow, they would eliminate any red tape that could impede our work.

The process also included multiple stakeholder interviews. Besides clarifying fundamental programming needs, did those conversations provide a window into something deeper?

JF: There were a few drivers that became apparent quickly. One was that existing housing was near the end of its useful life and had to be replaced. But to your point, another driver was the collection of fond memories of the Sterling Quadrangle when people were living and learning there at the same time. The Living Village was poised to bring back that mode—for everyone to be in community all the time.

JJ: YDS was also very aware of the types of leadership roles that their students take on in the world, and Greg connected new campus housing with the costs that students would have to bear after graduation. In addition to caring about the planet, Greg was tying net-zero-energy, net-zero-water housing to affordable education and housing. Minimizing the financial burden for students would allow them to make the best choices for their careers and become leaders of communities.

People viewed a student’s two or three years at YDS to be an extreme honor and privilege, and that giving students a Living Village could enhance their experience of community and environmental stewardship exponentially. —Jason Forney

JF: I have a third recollection from this period: that people viewed a student’s two or three years at YDS to be an extreme honor and privilege, and that giving students a Living Village could enhance their experience of community and environmental stewardship exponentially. Overall, there was a simple understanding of the specialness of this place. It was seen as an advantage that YDS is on the edge of the wider Yale campus, up on the hill and surrounded by nature and views. What emerged, then, was this desire to share this specialness and learning opportunity with all Yale students. They could get away from downtown and come here to reflect on their place in the world. As long as we’ve known Greg, he has been thinking about fostering a sense of belonging for people of all backgrounds.

Could you talk more about inclusivity, in light of the way neoclassical architecture is now debated as not fully representative of American experience?

JJ: YDS knew they couldn’t replicate what they had on site. There’s a self-awareness of the Sterling Quadrangle’s closed-off quality, and of how its architecture is perceived by different people. In turn, there was a hunger to understand what a Living Building Challenge–certified or regenerative building would look like on this campus. Those answers would come to light with our second assignment, which was to design the buildings.

JF: We created a document whose tenets people could get excited about, which is where a feasibility study normally concludes. It invites a client to take the time to imagine where a building would go and how the site will be used, but just by its very nature it is a framework for planning strategies rather than a glimpse of an architectural language.