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Meet The Team: Austin Tunnell

Updated: Feb 14, 2019


Austin Tunnell is the founder of Building Culture. Photo provided.

The walls of The Joinery will be built to last.


We're employing one of the oldest and most resilient building methodologies: structural masonry. This refers to the practice of using masonry, brick, or stone in such mass that it becomes self-supporting.


There will be about 40,000 brick in The Joinery. The walls will each measure a foot in thickness.


"I think durability

has to be the central factor when discussing sustainability," our builder Austin Tunnell told us.


However, it’s important to acknowledge the role beauty plays in sustainability as well, he says. People take care of things that are beautiful, and things that are cared for, live on.


"Beautiful things are more likely to be maintained and repaired and conserved, rather than being torn down with the next big 'trend,'" Tunnell said. "Break a cheap vase from Walmart and throw it away. Break a beautiful, treasured, hand-molded vase, and take the time to repair it.


"I think sustainability is primarily a function of durability and lovability."


Tunnell is the founder of Building Culture in Carlton Landing, OK. He talked with us about the Living Building Challenge, his hopes for The Joinery, and his former life as a CPA. We conducted the following interview via email in January/February.


Why are you passionate about this project?


"I want to be clear that I’m speaking in generalities when I say: I believe we live in a disposable culture, and the housing industry is the quintessence of disposability. It churns out cheap, artificial, soulless houses that don’t last, and need constant maintenance and updating along the way. Rather than actually build good buildings, the industry relies on a constant barrage of marketing, appealing to some of our more base instincts by labeling everything as 'luxury,' 'premier,' 'signature,' or 'exclusive,' and selling the nonsense idea that 'bigger is better' and that 'keeping up with the Joneses' will make us happier. It seems to always be selling the same stuff with a shinier package. All of it, of course, is simply designed to keep people spending by buying new things indefinitely. In my opinion, we’ve forgotten why we build houses. It’s not for banks, investments or GDP, and while profits are certainly essential for any business, they aren’t everything. Houses are for people. We are supposed to be building for people. I think we’ve forgotten that as an industry.


"Part of the antidote to our disposable culture is just giving a damn. When people start to care, the outcome is almost always more beautiful, authentic and responsible. But in order to really make a difference, it’s not enough to just denounce something as bad; you have to create a compelling alternative. You have to give people a reason to care—show them something that stirs their soul.


"And that’s why I’m passionate about this project: the people behind The Joinery care. They want to do something good. They see a problem with our building culture and have decided to do something about it. Given that, as well as the incredible talent of everyone involved, and I think we are going to have a really special project: a beautiful home that serves families and communities for centuries and acts as a model for better ways to build."


What are your thoughts on the Living Building Challenge?


"I think it’s great because it starts a conversation: How can we build better? It draws

attention to how we are building, what we are putting in our houses, and how we are using them. I’m in support of anything that draws attention to that."


You were a CPA in a former life. Tell me about your experience that steered you to building.


"Well, it wasn’t tough to leave my accounting career behind because I was pretty dang unhappy. But it did take some serious searching—from the jungles of Panama to Uganda to rural Oklahoma—to find what I was passionate about.


"I moved to Panama to work for a company trying to build the world’s most sustainable modern town in the jungle. That turned me on to urban design, and the idea that how we build shapes how we live. When I went to Uganda with the Peace Corps, I saw that play out in real life. Growing up in the suburbs of Houston, it was a stark contrast—and not just because it was a developing country. Suffice it to say: I was convinced that our built environment has significant impact, for better or worse, on how we go about our lives.

"When people start to care, the outcome is almost always more beautiful, authentic and responsible."

"The last piece of the puzzle that led me to where I am was meeting a man named Clay Chapman. He was a master builder—a pretty much extinct breed—who was experimenting building with structural brick masonry. It’s one of the oldest ways of building and without a doubt the most durable. What is an antidote to a disposable building culture? Building things that last. Context (urbanism) isn’t enough to build thriving places; you also need the right content (buildings). I hadn’t seen any good 'content' in my lifetime, and when I ran across Clay I knew he was on to something. So I went and apprenticed with him for two years, learning everything he had discovered about building solid brick homes.


"The 20th Century will be remembered for a lot of things, from flying, landing on the moon to sequencing the human genome. But its contributions to building have been what…Suburbia and the McMansion? We are moving backwards in that area. What keeps me up at night is dreaming about how we can build another Paris or Florence—rich, beautiful cities built for people. They’ve got the right context and content. There are many reasons one can give to say 'it’s impossible' to build such city today, but in my opinion, none of them are good reasons."


What does sustainability actually mean to you?


"People talk a lot about energy efficiency, water conservation and “sustainable materials,” so I’m going to skip all that and jump to what I think is drastically overlooked: lifecycle. Take the most energy-efficient, gizmo-green house, but if it requires constant maintenance and only lasts half a century, is that really sustainable? I think durability has to be the central factor when discussing sustainability. Recycling is great, but still consumes a ton of energy. If you can build something once, and it lasts a thousand years, that has to count for a lot of points on the sustainability index. I think Florence, built mostly during the Renaissance, is a far better picture of sustainability than LEED-certified buildings.


"And on the note of Florence, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it’s important to acknowledge the role beauty plays in sustainability. People take care of things that are beautiful. Beautiful things are more likely to be maintained and repaired and conserved, rather than being torn down with the next big “trend.” Break a cheap vase from Walmart and throw it away. Break a beautiful, treasured, hand-molded vase, and take the time to repair it. Lovable buildings make for more sustainable buildings.


"So yeah, that’s it for me. I think sustainability is primarily a function of durability and lovability."


What is your hope for The Joinery when it’s completed?


"I hope The Joinery helps set in motion a renewed interest in craftsmanship and time-tested building practices in the Tulsa area and beyond. And I hope it will serve its owners and the surrounding community for centuries to come."

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The Joinery is a project of Restoration Collective, Inc. and supported by 9b.

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