Hiram College

Since the early 2000s, reality TV has dominated the p.m. airwaves.  Countless millions of person-hours have been squandered watching so-called “real people” do any number of rather un-real things.  Swapping wives.  Surviving with strangers on exotic islands.  Racing around the world searching for clues.  You get the idea.

Whatever the theme, there are a handful of key elements which make these shows somewhat compelling:

  • a quest fraught with great challenges
  • a maximally motley crew
  • inexperienced people put in unfamiliar roles
  • plenty of DIY (do it yourself)

Additional mainstays of the genre are mean people and the constant threat of elimination.

But apart from the pounds we’re likely to put on watching from the comfort of our couches, there’s not much for viewers to gain by spending their time this way.

It recently dawned on me that one project I, and Hiram colleagues and students, have been involved in possesses all the qualities that draw people to reality TV (except the mean people and elimination rounds, we skipped those), plus lots of other real value which anyone can directly see, touch, and enjoy.

I’m talking about the TREE House. Below are some highlights.

The Quest

At Hiram, we know that anyone who chooses to be here—be it student, faculty, or staff—had better be up for a challenge. The mission given to us went something like this:


We bequeath to you this leaky (but lovely) 115-year old house. You must transform it into a new home for Environmental Studies which includes offices, classrooms, and exciting new educational opportunities for all.  The finished structure must be as environmentally, socially, and economically responsible as possible and, by the way, must be professionally certified as such.  In addition, it must be beautiful, comfortable, and harmonious with its surroundings.  To accomplish these things, you may use $150,000, plus whatever resources you procure along the way.  Be brave. You will encounter the construction-world equivalents of dangerous beasts, evil sorcerers, and mazes choked with dead ends. Good luck.

(Is that sinister laughter I hear?…..)

Almost as soon as we set out, we encountered our first dragon:  the diagnosis that the house needed a new foundation. Despite much wailing and gnashing of teeth, we emerged from that trial stronger, wiser, and with a dry, well-insulated, and taller basement that provides added square footage and will (eventually) become a second classroom. With curses cast upon us at every turn, we encountered baffling miscommunications, defective products, mistaken deliveries, and the countless surprises which seem to lay in wait in every corner of an old house. The antidote to this black magic turned out to be a blend of flexibility, resourcefulness, and generosity of spirit. The mysterious mazes we navigated took the shape of bureaucracy, red tape, and the seemingly infinite multiplication of new needs. Through it all, we were spurred on by benevolent gifts1 and the occasional treasures unearthed through our efforts.2

Motley Crew

Viewing the house as a system made our approach unusual compared to conventional construction. It led us to assemble a diverse group of tradespeople and stakeholders for an intensive design phase. For specialists who typically have little contact with each other, this process got interesting very quickly. Throw in the needs and wants of those who will be using the building and you’ve got a roiling, boiling pot of differing opinions. For every step, there were questions about which product, strategy, or technology to use. We used whatever information we could get our hands on to discuss, debate, and ultimately decide. Our mild-mannered professionals found themselves having to duke it out with one another until a consensus was reached. There were moments of confusion and frustration and, on more than a few occasions, we were forced to re-think our choices. Still, we worked through it and our meetings (almost) always ended in broad smiles, handshakes, and friendly conversation.

The Novice

For entertainment purposes, it doesn’t get much better than watching college professors don (metaphorical) hardhats to make their way through managing budgets, playing general contractor, mediating conflict, and making the final call on the questions for which nobody had answers. Do we keep the attic or seal it up? Should we tear off the old siding or cover it with new? What kinds of flooring should we put in each room?  And so on, and on…and on.  Oooh! I’ve got an idea for next season: “TREE House Sub-Contractor Teaches Environmental Studies Course at Hiram College.”  Guys?…Any takers?


We had mostly free reign to develop this project as we saw fit. Freedom’s great and all, but with it, of course, comes enormous responsibility. There were things we had to make happen, regardless of the degree of difficulty and whether we had the money or not. We are grateful to have worked with some of the most helpful professionals around,3 but each phase of this design/build involved plenty of our own labor, and that of our heaven-sent volunteers.4  From demo and flooring, to cleaning and painting, to ramp-building and landscaping, we have all done
and, more importantly, learned an awful lot!

Though partly motivated by thrift, our DIY-approach reflects the general character of Hiram College and the people who call this place home. Hiram’s grit, scrappy character (we are the Terriers, after all), and let’s-figure-it-out approach is what endows this place, and our little corner of it, with the unique spirit of our eclectic founders.

Spoiler Alert

There’s no way of knowing exactly how this season will end, but we’ve nearly completed the basic mission and lived to tell about it.  It’s not perfect (hindsight really is 20/20), but we do have a wonderful new facility that will continue to teach us, and all who enter, for years to come. We’re hoping for at least another 115.

 Get Real at Hiram

The TREE House is just one of many such experiential-learning-oriented projects happening here at any given time.  So get off those couches and abandon your screens because (adapting the  lyrics of Gil Scott-Heron):  Your education will not be televised.

[insert background drum and flute music]

Your education will not arrive in 2-3 business days.

Your education will not be delivered to you by Youtube or brought to you by “these proud sponsors” whose ads you can skip in 18 seconds.

Your education will not appear in 140 characters or less.

Your education cannot be contained in a Glass or a Cloud.

There will be no re-runs.

Your education is live.

Look around; go check out the opportunities that await you. There’s plenty of actual reality to experience at Hiram College.

And, as our project demonstrates, a real  education comes with great entertainment value.  Who knew?

One final note: the renovation will also not be televised…regardless of how totally amusing our behind the scenes outtakes and many bloopers might be.



1 Sincere gratitude to Jane Rose and Merrill Preston, Jr., and Damaris Peters-Pike and Ken Pike for their generous donations to the TREE House project.

2 With appreciation, we acknowledge the support of the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, the Kent-Smith Charitable Trust, the Lubrizol Foundation, Dominion’s Higher Educational Partnership, and the expert assistance of Christine Kohls and Janice Zeigler.

3 Special thanks for significant contributions during design and/or construction go to (in alphabetical order):  Nate Adams, Matt Berges, George Clapp, Dominic Gualtieri, Scott Robinson, Dale Tomasek, Mike Viggiani, MJ Viggiani, Steve Zabor, and Jim Zella.

4 Special thanks for the creativity and hard work of our volunteers extraordinaire: Tim Kasper, Sam Oliphant, Becky Oliphant, Louis Oliphant, Ephraim Oliphant, Addie Oliphant, Chris Szell, Dennis Cardello, Kathryn Craig, Steve Zabor, and the many others who helped with some part of this project!

Additional thanks to:  Martha Schettler, Christie Borkan, Christina Russ, Mary Lou McKinney, Barb Wood, Linda Blackstone, Bryan Drennen, Jennifer Stapleton, Sue Boyle, Steve Jones, and Bob Haak (and anyone else I’ve unintentionally left off this list). We know that projects like this mean more work for you, and we appreciate all that you do to support our efforts and the mission of Hiram College.