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Sound Instruments

Peppered through our 7-day workshop in El Tejar, Guatemala, there were often sounds of musical instruments emanating from below.  These sounds gave purpose to our work:  the design and construction of a new music classroom that would enhance the program’s mission of developing future musicians and teachers. While our instruments were a little different, the premise was the same- to bring together a mix of people and objects to create a beautiful experience.

The music program is hosted by the CEDIN School, and is supported financially and logistically by three NGOs – Fundit, PEG, and LEAF International.  The Build Lightly team consisted of 10 young architectural professionals from across the United States.  We were supported and guided by many local skilled craftsmen such as Leonel, the mason foreman whose 9 year-old grandson was learning keyboard in the music program.  Pablo and Bernadino were the hard-working masons whom became enamored with our unbreakable hammers.  The welder, Jeremias, would always arrive and leave in a hurry as he squeezed us in between jobs; he was hoping his 7 year-old daughter would join the music program in a few years.  Ewa Niewozewska, a Fundit staff member, provided essential ground support.  Finally, Sara Morales, the director of the music program, provided unbridled energy and was an essential guide for finding everything we needed in El Tejar.

We were all teachers and students, constantly learning how to use the instruments we had on hand.  Pablo taught us how to use the most basic material in Guatemala:  the concrete block.  In many ways, this was our most important instrument because it was the most familiar and contextual.  It also offered the easiest way for the community to assist and support the project: parents of the students in the music program had been donating them, one by one.  These ubiquitous concrete blocks formed three of the walls of the new space.

We had other instruments we chose to work with:  wood studs, wall insulation, rolled fabric, carpet, old fabric sheets and comforters, corrugated roofing panels, rebar.  It was our job to take these common materials and use them to create a different kind of space- one that would both sound and feel great for musicians.  Leftover translucent roofing became light fixtures. Fabric, wood and insulation became acoustical panels.  Old fabric sheets became color accents on the walls.  Carpet tiles became wall finishes to help with sound absorption.  Corrugated metal roofing became wall siding.

The musical sounds we heard during the week were sometimes cacophonous, a work in progress, as the students would go over songs numerous times, often playing just a single instrument trying to get it just right.  Our project was similar in many regards- we had a sense of what the final product was going to be, but we really didn’t know how it was going to come together.  We were stumbling through, adjusting, testing, and re-evaluating as we learned through doing, focused on the specific task at hand at that moment, while never losing track of the concept and finished product.

BuildLightlyGuatemala from Ethan Lacy on Vimeo.

On our last day, we hustled to bring together the remaining disparate parts and pieces.  The acoustic panels got mounted, the doors were painted, the carpet tiles were installed on the walls, the wood slats were finished, the scaffolding was disassembled, the hanging ceiling lights were crafted and the electricians turned on the power.  It came together beautifully.  To celebrate, the students in the music program performed a number of pieces of music- integrating all the sounds and instruments we had been hearing during the week.  It came together beautifully.

The goals of the music program are much larger than actual performances.  It is cultivating new opportunities – offering a music teacher’s certificate, with more space to accommodate higher enrollment for the youth in El Tejar.  The new classroom is much more significant than the actual physical space as it helps to increase the capacity for the program to grow.   Additionally, we designed this classroom so that another one could be added right next to it very easily.

 SWP_7182 - Version 2

As is the case with these types of projects, the experience, the education and the exchange can be more significant than the physical product that is produced.  Yet, the space must serve the needs of those who are going to use it and they must feel empowered that it is their own.  And it appears they are doing just that. Since we have left, a new floor has been installed and the block walls have been plastered;  plants and window treatments are next on the list!  Much like the music program in El Tejar, this new performance space will only get better over time.

Guatemala Workshop – Apply Now!




Hola emerging professionals and young designers! You may have heard that Build Lightly is leading a collaborative design/build workshop in Guatemala Jan. 13-22, 2017. Are you ready for ten jam-packed days of adventure and design/build fun in Central America? If so, then read on for the Workshop application process.

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Design/Build For_Change – Bay Area Talk

Build Lightly Studio co-founder Miriam Gee will be giving a short presentation at SPUR in San Francisco this Wednesday, April 6, 2016. So if you’re in the Bay Area, follow this link to the Eventbrite page, tickets are $5 and benefit Open Architecture SF. It’s guaranteed to be slightly informative and somewhat unapologetic. But most of all, it should inspire you to see that design/build for change can be good fun! (If any of you were there at the Rural Studio soup roast this past December, then you’ll know what to expect.) Special thanks to OASF Director, Karl Johnson for organizing this event.


Event Description

At SPUR Wednesday night, join Open Architecture San Francisco and special guest Miriam Gee on an international journey of green architecture, design/build, community engagement, student mentorship, and building lightly.

Architect, globetrotter, and possibly a Millennial, Miriam presents the work of her Build Lightly Studio and the exhilarating professional possibilities for a young, ambitious licensed architect. Working in Hawaii, Vermont, North Carolina, Mexico, Costa Rica, and now Guatemala, Build Lightly Studio is a design/build collaborative pairing architecture professionals with university students to design, construct, and deliver projects to community clients in various locations around the world. A licensed architect, builder, instructor, and green building consultant, Miriam has adapted her career to focus on education through design/build: “Sometimes, there is no greater satisfaction than building your design with your own two hands.”

To date, Miriam’s experience as an educator through Build Lightly Studio includes: Asheville Design Center, Yestermorrow Design/Build School, University of Washington Neighborhood Design/Build Studio, and the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, archawai’i program.

PRESENTATION followed by questions and conversation. Drinks and snacks to follow, off-site.

SPUR – 654 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94105 – View Map

Guatemala 2017: Sky’s the limit!

Designers and builders – some exciting news: the design/build dream team Miriam Gee and Luke W. Perry just returned from Guatemala, scouting the site for the next Build Lightly Workshop slated for January 2017. We are inspired not only by the majestic lakes and dramatic volcanic activity, but also by the warm and friendly people at CEDIN School – the teachers, musicians, and students who will ultimately be the users of the next Build Lightly project! In sum:

for Guatemala 2017 – the sky’s the limit for this Build Lightly Team!

[More details on the Build Lightly Guatemala 2017 Workshop under ‘Projects‘.]

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Luke and Miriam approached LEAF Community Arts for an international partnership after the wild success of the U-LEAF, the AVL DesignBuild Studio’s 2015 project. Build Lightly headed to Guatemala with Development Director Adam Bowers to film interviews and measure the existing two-story concrete and CMU block building. Along with the kids, we participated in workshops conducted by LEAF Schools & Streets Teaching Artist, Erinn Hartley. Directors/head music instructors Sara and Silvia from the CEDIN School Music Program even prepared a welcome lunch for the whole group and a music performance in the courtyard. The students performed mandolin, guitars, drums, upright bass, recorders/flutes and – of course – marimba!

Some of the program needs that were recognized through the interviews and brainstorming workshops included:

  • 5-10 year master plan that can host a total of 120 music students at once
  • a new music classroom with sound attenuation for 10-20 students on the second level
  • absorptive materials for acoustic control in existing music classroom
  • interior partitions to help with scheduling and program separation in shared and multi-use spaces on ground level
  • more extense roof covering over existing courtyard and exterior stair to second level
  • storage for marimbas and other music equipment on ground level
  • programming must accommodate two user groups: ages 4-6 (day) and ages 9-19 (afternoon)

A few other key design/build considerations about El Tejar:

  • El Tejar has two seasons, summer and the rainy (May through October) season, it’s a temperate and humid climate
  • typical construction in Chimaltenango includes concrete columns and beams cast in place, with CMU block infill
  • typical wall finishes included plaster/stucco, ceramic or brick tile floors
  • bricks, CMU block, and roof tiles are manufactured locally
  • corrugated metal roof and limited carpentry are also used
  • volunteers within the CEDIN school community include brick-layers and masons
  • alternative materials such as plastic bottles and glass bottles are prevalent

The team also took some time to explore historic Antigua and took a one-day trip to the volcanoes and vistas at Lake Atitlan. Group bonding was definitely underway. Overall, the team is excited to announce our newest partnership with LEAF International and the first Build Lightly workshop hosted in Guatemala! As you can see, there are several opportunities for design interventions to improve the existing build environment to better serve it’s community.

So, designers and builders, mark your calendars for Antigua, Guatemala in January 2017, and stay tuned for more information! If you’d like to be kept up to date on all things Guatemala (finalization of the program, workshop details, application process, dates, and fees) just email info[at]buildlightly[dot]com and we’ll get in touch pronto! It’s gonna be a fun one, guys…

Muchisimas Gracias a LEAF Community Arts/LEAF International, PEG Partners, Fundit, Childaid, and CEDIN School.

Hasta luego, y abrazos,

Lucas y Miriam – the Build Lightly Guatemala Dream Team.

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YesterMester Students and Social Justice in Vermont



If you could go back in time and make one significant course correction in your education, what would it be? As an architect, designer, green building consultant, and design/build instructor, I would have told myself to make more things with my hands. Take the classes that involve exploring materials and methods in the wood and metal shop, and, whenever possible, get your hands dirty!


Enter the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in VT, pioneers in design/build education since the 1970s, a non-profit organization that teaches students learn to think with their hands.  In particular, let’s shine the spotlight on a boisterous group of 15 college students and grads lead by two instructors, Eric Cook and Vince Robles, and a fabulous intern – Jess Caruso. This is the Yestemorrow Semester Program.


The full-immersion, credit-bearing semester in green building and design complements architecture, building science, engineering, and environmental design majors and has wide application in liberal arts curricula. It’s a 17-week studio-based design/build program, partnering with U-Mass. During this semester, students:

  • Gain important hands-on skills developing a real-world project
  • Explore concepts of sustainability through practice
  • Earn college credit
  • Work with expert instructors who are professional designers and builders
  • Add practical and relevant experience to your professional résumé
  • Open to college students, recent graduates, and professionals
  • The only pre-requisite is self-motivation—no previous architecture or construction experience necessary
  • Financial aid may be transferable

I’ve been lucky enough to join this rowdy group as their guest instructor, weighing in on early design critiques, presenting on working drawings, and building with them.  Yay protecto-wrap!


This year, they are designing and building an ambitious structure for a community-based client, Janaki Natarajan – program director for Masters in Teaching for Social Justice with Marlboro College. There are two pieces to the building program revolving around social justice: a library/community space, and a studio residence for a visiting scholar. Essentially, this manifested in the design of two identical buildings joined by an entry, deemed “the dovetail” for both its shape and conceptual meaning as a connector.





The best part about the Semester Program is that the principals of building science and sustainable design STICK. There’s a difference between drawing a wall section for a high performance building and actually building said wall section, in order to complete a project for a real client, with real materials, keeping out real rain and weather.


Even after a partial installation of the mineral wool exterior insulation and high performance windows, students can stand inside the library wing and notice the difference between the interiors and the low 40s temperature outside.


The students are learning everything from rain screen assembly to thermal breaks.  And, all of these sustainable design moves and concepts get put into practice as they continue construction – rain or shine, 5 days a week (and sometimes weekends!), the students are out on the tennis courts at Yestermorrow, prefabricating the modular structure in pieces, so it can be trucked away and crane dropped into place.


Some of the environmental design features of the project include a high performance envelope, reclaimed pallet wood to be used as light fixtures, a composting toilet, passive solar design, reused faucets/fixtures, and hand made concrete countertops and sinks. For heating, the project relies on a tight and heavily insulated envelope, a wood-burning stove, and two small electrical fan heaters. The Dovetail has been designed to create an inviting space that encourages collaboration: one that is simple, beautiful, and welcoming. And overall, a safe place to explore and try new things.


Kudos to the Yestermorrow Semester program for making green buildings happen, fostering the next generation of environmental stewards, and teaching students in a meaningful way – to think with their hands. Stay tuned for photos of the completed project in place!