Back in the mid-1970s, the plot of land located on the 600 block of Phillips Street on Missoula’s Northside was once described as “the most blighted piece of property in the Missoula Valley.” Abutting the less-than-scenic Montana Rail Link train yard, the property was strewn with trash, and the house that stood there, built back in 1895, was in utter shambles. Even in a town that had earned its moniker as the Garden City, this was the last piece of real estate anyone would consider starting a vegetable or herb garden, let alone eating what would grow there.
But grow there they did, and in the 20 years since the Down Home Project began its slow but steady resurrection of this neglected corner of urban landscape, eventually establishing the Missoula Urban Demonstration (MUD) Project there in 1990, it has served as proof positive that the principles of treading lightly and living well need not be mutually exclusive.
Beginning this month, MUD launches its most ambitious and expensive undertaking to date, the complete renovation of the original MUD offices and living quarters, including the reconstruction of an old railroad outbuilding, both of which will be outfitted with solar energy panels that are expected to reduce MUD’s monthly utility bills by 75-80 percent. The renovations will also involve reorienting the original house to incorporate passive solar designs, installing energy-efficient windows, thermal walls, foundations, and an air-to-air heat exchanger that captures wasted heat energy, and myriad other cutting-edge technologies and resource-efficiency building techniques.
At the same time, MUD itself is entering a new era and is about to undergo if not a complete transformation then at least a progression of sorts, as its director of two and a half years, Rick Stern, moves on to greener pastures. I sat down with Stern this week to talk about his accomplishments at MUD, where he sees it going, and what these changes will mean for MUD and Missoula at large.
“I think there are more people in the community right now who know about MUD and have some sense of what we’re doing and feel good about it,” says Stern. “Things are just going to continue to grow. … It’s not a big shift in direction, but building on the foundation of what we’ve been doing for 20 years.”
During his tenure Stern has done plenty of building of his own within the organization. When he joined the project as a co-director with Caitlin DeSilvey in 1997, MUD’s annual budget amounted to less than $20,000. In two years’ time the organization’s budget has grown to nearly $100,000, with the upcoming renovations expected to cost an additional $150,000. At the same time, MUD can now afford to employ three full-time employees and at least eight additional part-time employees.
“It’s always been a shoestring operation,” Stern says. “But the shoestring has gotten significantly bigger and thicker over the last few years.”
Such expansion will result in at least one major upcoming change: namely, the recruitment of the new executive director from outside the organization. For all of its history, MUD directors were by and large chosen from the volunteer ranks, selected for their level of enthusiasm, gardening and construction skills, and their investment of sweat equity—in short, a willingness to walk the walk as well as talk the talk in what amounts to a seven-days-a-week job. This time, however, Stern says that the organization has grown to the point where it needs someone at the helm who can bring in a proven record of fundraising and nonprofit business management, as well as new energy and fresh ideas.
Although Stern is reluctant to predict what direction MUD will take upon his departure, he does point to some areas of expansion that could benefit the community at large and still remain within the philosophical framework of MUD’s mission statement. For example, he speaks of promoting a large-scale community salvage operation and warehouse, where people who are renovating or demolishing buildings could drop off materials like light fixtures, doors and lumber to be recycled, which might otherwise end up in the city landfill.
As for Stern himself, he will be moving to the Rock Creek Alliance, which he hopes will allow him some time to get back to some of the leisure activities he’s lost touch with, such as hiking, writing (Stern has for years been a periodic freelance contributor to the Independent) and, ironically, gardening.
As for the future of MUD, Stern is confident that it will continue building on what it has done best: that is, teaching people in the community the basic principles of small-scale, organic agriculture, resource efficiency, non-polluting transportation, and high-quality living that demands a minimal use of energy and resources. In short, a philosophical foundation built on MUD.
MUD will be holding its fourth annual Green Shelter Tour on Saturday, June 10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., a self-guided tour of 15 Missoula-area alternative design homes. For more information, call 721-3589.