An in-depth Q&A with the Ramboland project team

If you’ve already received our February issue, then you’ve read the article in our cover series, “Green Building Pioneers Take on Accessibility & Independence,” about the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Malcom Lewis IMPACT! Award-winning project—Ramboland. If you haven’t yet, check it out here.

In the article, we gave you some of the best quotes from our interview with members of the team who are building what’s been termed a “regenerative-living laboratory"—a home for Ron Rambo, 57, who was born with cerebral palsy. The are six main goals for the project:

  1. Universal access—The home will be accessible to specially abled people across the full spectrum of special needs.
  2. Energy grid independence—The home will produce eight times as much energy as it uses, eliminating utility bills and creating income though the sale of excess power.
  3. Water grid independence—Heal hydrology will eliminate the need for municipal water or sewer systems through rainwater collection, wastewater treatment and stormwater solutions.
  4. Food grid independence—Healing living systems, such as a backyard garden and aquaponics system (connected to the on-site water grid) will produce a substantial abundance of food, creating income though the sale of excess food.
  5. Neighborhood ecological restoration—Benefits of the water and food grids will be extended throughout the neighborhood.
  6. LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge certifications—The project will exceed the highest green building standards in the world through acting as a living laboratory that heals the ecosystem as it supports citizens with special needs through a cheaper method than has ever before existed.

But, we had so much great information, that we wanted to share with you the entire Q&A session with project designer and facilitator Max Zahniser, lead builder Jesse Pellman, project manager Jennifer Sheffield and architect Carol Hickey. Check out their insights below.

CBO: How did you become involved in the construction of Ramboland?

MZ: Ron contacted me through a mutual acquaintance in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area. His mother had offered him a property on which to develop a home for himself if he could find someone to design it for him. He wanted it to be a [sustainably built] home and a demonstration of green living. He also wanted it to be useable for visitors and future residents with any level of physical capabilities. In other words, he wanted a home for himself, but he also wanted to show the world a better way, and leave something for others to continue to benefit from long after he is gone. All of that was inspiring to me, and in line with my own goals. I instantly agreed.

JP: I got a call one day about a project that needed a builder, and as soon as the concept was explained, I was on board. It’s such an innovative house, and it aligns well with the goals that have been set for our company. It really was a no-brainer.

JS: Representing GBWAWA, a sustainable design firm with offices in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I attended a green conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in May 2017, and heard Zahniser speak about Ramboland. I was fascinated by the advanced social and economic aspects complementing the environmental goals—all integrated in ways that I haven't seen before.

CH: Max Zahniser asked me if I’d be interested in participating. I knew Ron’s caregiver, Lou, from many years ago, and see Lou and Ron in town frequently. I was honored to be asked and interested in the project.

CBO: What is your role in the project?

MZ: I am the overall project designer and facilitator. I immediately began to draw in the best professionals I could from both the region and my international green building network. We now have a strong design team, and a lot of that comes down to how inspiring Ron’s original vision was and the way it has evolved through interactions with the design and construction team members, neighbors and government officials that want to see the project come to fruition.

My role, and my focus, definitely changed over time, oscillating between integrative-process and regenerative-development facilitator, project ambassador/liaison, fundraiser, and other responsibilities that have emerged through leading such an innovative project. It’s been both a learning process and an adventure.

JP: I'm tasked with the actual implementation of the project. There are some phenomenal engineers and designers on board who are dialing in the design and performance metrics. It will be my responsibility to make sure that everything comes together as it should and performs at the highest level. Longview Structures [my company] will be the nuts and bolts of the project—the nails, screws and labor to make it all a reality.

JS: I've been serving in the role of project manager for the past year or so to keep things moving forward. Right now, I'm focusing on fundraising so that we can move into the construction phase.

CH: I joined the team as architect/designer. Our office (Hickey Architects) agreed to be the architect of record and stamp/seal the drawings when they are ready as well. Since my office is in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I’m able to handle the legwork with local city codes, site, etc.

CBO: Aside from the mission for Ramboland to be “a living laboratory, demonstrating that cities can heal our ecosystems while supporting the lifestyles of our citizens with special needs in a far better and less expensive fashion than we do today,” do you have a personal goal?

MZ: There are so many preconceptions and assumptions about the cost of inclusive and green design, with regard to level of attainable performance; what people will be willing to do; how physical structures and business systems need to be structured; and more. And these default mindsets contaminate and woefully limit most projects. Waiting and searching for the perfect client and team that could shed all of that was disappointing and exhausting.

We’re all sick of those artificial restraints. Because of its purpose and the way people have responded to it—as well as how we’ve sought our team members out—this project is proving what is possible without those mental shackles. I wanted to have something to show what is possible when all those preconceptions were not present and a team of highly qualified, creative people come together to optimize systems. I want to leverage what the project proves, and hopefully change projects we work on in the future.

JS: My goal is just that—for Ramboland to serve as a replicable model for other communities, hopefully at scale, so more families can enjoy the benefits of sustainable neighborhoods.

CH: I have always been interested in passive-solar design. (I was part of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Solar Energy Association many years ago and organized a solar home tour in conjunction with the Lancaster Women’s Sertoma Club.) I had not had a chance to do a real passive-solar project within our practice. This project was a chance to learn more about the current approaches to passive, sustainable design, and to meet new colleagues. I also really wanted Ron to have a nice, comfortable place to live, and wanted the project to help the neighborhood.

CBO: What is your favorite memory of your work on the project thus far?

MZ: One day we were standing on the site with some folks from the city, neighbors and our team of ecologists, and I was explaining to someone that, understandably so, cities don’t want every house to be a standalone water treatment facility because it would be difficult to monitor for protecting everyone’s safety. I said, “For example, if someone washes their toilet with bleach, and they don’t realize the water is treated with a constructed treatment wetland in the middle of the block (which has no surface water, pests or odor, but micro-biotic life in the root systems purify the water naturally), then the bleach would kill all of those organisms, and the wetland would no long treat the water.”

One of the ecologists chimed in, sort of sheepishly for fear of embarrassing me, “Well, Max, actually, there are bacteria that can break down bleach naturally, and we can just colonize the sand filter, so [the bacteria] will be eaten it before it gets to the wetland.” There are still plenty of other reasons not to have systems be so granular, but that was a mind-blowing moment—realizing how powerful and innovative life is, and that we can utilize that [power] carefully to the benefit of humans and the rest of nature alike.

JS: My team at GBWAWA and I enlisted the help of the Israel Green Building Council and its members to vote for the Ramboland project to win the USGBC Malcolm Lewis IMPACT! Award. I think we had all of Israel voting for us.

CH: Some of my favorite memories are actually related to using Ramboland as a project for an architectural design studio class offered for several semesters beginning in 2011 at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. I teach as an adjunct instructor there, and had designed a course in sustainable/green design—a basic studio course taught through the Art and Art History Department. The students got to go to the site, meet Ron and Lou, and listen to a presentation given by Zahniser on a broad, philosophical perspective of the sustainable approach.

We also had the mechanical designer, the accessibility equipment person, and a landscape architect (all volunteers on the project team at the time) come to the class during the design phase. The students worked in teams, and Ron and Lou came to the final critiques. It was great to see the interaction that took place, especially between the students and Ron. The students loved the project, and their solutions were remarkable, especially considering that, for most of them, this was their first introduction to architectural design.

CBO: What have you learned from your work on this project?

MZ: I've learned too much to fully list, but three of the biggest lessons are:

  1. Be conscious about the process constantly. Adopting clear principles that reflect how life really works and setting up a cyclical process of revisiting the process itself is crucial to staying aligned with an approach that is different from what we have all been conditioned to think.
  2. Constantly evolve your point of view; don’t atrophy into a stance. The moment you do that, you begin to miss important things you should be adapting to.
  3. Be forgiving of yourself. With this project, we are working to create ongoing infrastructure for learning about living systems, the built environment and the evolving relationship between the two. We were talking about it as a universal design demonstration project, among other things. Ron and I had a meeting with Melissa Hawkins, who was the executive director of the Disability Empowerment Center in Lancaster at the time. She is deaf, and going into that meeting, we realized we didn’t even have closed captioning in our video on our website. She was amazing in dealing with our embarrassment and frustration with ourselves. She said, "Don’t panic; don’t worry. That’s why projects like Ramboland are important—we don’t realize what we’re neglecting to think about until it’s somehow highlighted for us."

JP: I've gained a full realization of the power of community. There are so many team members who have contributed time, money and effort to see this thing come to life.

JS: As evidenced by Ron's determination, the project reminded me that anyone can start a movement for change.

CH: Professionally, I’ve learned about on-site water treatment, or at least how it might be accomplished. I’ve learned that the site/project might be able to become a minimally profitable urban farm. I’ve had the opportunity to meet new professional colleagues and expand those relationships. Personally, I’ve learned that one needs to be patient and listen carefully to all participants and accept limitations. It’s also important not to lose sight of the underlying goals.

CBO: What was it like to win the USCGB IMAPCT! Award?

MZ: It was fantastic. It felt really good for the project to be recognized for how special it is, and what an amazing amount of donated wisdom, intellect, expertise, time and energy has gone into it. USGBC members had learned about the project and were excited about it. They actually nominated the project themselves, but then the decision came down to voting. We really admire the projects we were up against and wish we could have all won. We also found out that a couple of the other project teams were voting for Ramboland as well. So, we didn’t know that we had won or that we had quite so much support until the voting closed. It was definitely a boost.

JS: It was amazing. I was so proud for Ron and for the team.

CH: I did not attend the ceremony, but I did vote via email and was excited to learn of the award. It’s rewarding to know that the project has gained such status. Now, it’s so important to get it built for Ron.

CBO: What effect do you hope this project and its recognition has?

MZ: I hope this project serves as proof that we don't need to make the false choice between financial, environmental, and socially just decisions; that by thinking about and designing our systems more holistically, we can create thriving, healthy places for all. And that doing so can actually save tax payers millions while simultaneously restoring health and vibrancy to our ecosystems and providing some of our most vulnerable and historically neglected and/or abused citizens with what they need to have safe, fun, healthy, fulfilling lives. So, no biggie.

JP: In some regard, this is a feasibility study. A project like this one models the possibilities of how good residential housing can—and should—be.

JS: I hope that Ramboland is seen as a viable model for addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) at the local level. The SDGs relate to the global challenges of poverty, inequality, climate and more—almost all of which are addressed by the Ramboland model.

CH: I hope that it will inspire others to do the same. Hopefully, it will be a model project, and others can actually visit (Ron’s privacy notwithstanding) from the design, architectural, engineering community; the special needs community; the neighborhood; and the city. It will be an opportunity to monitor and document the technical aspects and livability, comfort and sustainability of the design.