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With an interest in constructing renewable energy sources but no expertise, If You Build It is a community collective running on passion, great conversation and a love of learning from each other.

The If You Build It crew on the job.
  • The If You Build It crew on the job.

Building a renewable energy source sounds kind of complicated, doesn't it? It's probably the type of project that would take a team of experts, right? What do you think would happen if a group of people, who only sort of knew what they were getting themselves into, went for it and embraced any challenges or hiccups as learning experiences? Magic, it seems.

That's If You Built It in a tiny and very generalized nutshell. The community group that's constructed a wind turbine, solar panels and a portable renewable energy source states the following in its mission: "Our lack of expertise in the projects we attempt is essential to the process of learning and acting, together."

It sounds risky, but it works like a charm.

The group got its start last winter when a handful of friends who were studying engineering had a wind turbine on their minds. They wanted to try to build one, and luckily their friend, The Wooden Monkey's Lil MacPherson, wanted to own one and was willing to pay for the materials.

"We barely knew what we were getting ourselves into," says Stephen Thomas. one of the group's original builders. "None of us were experts in wind energy, but it necessitated us branching out."

By late spring they'd completed the project, taking away from it much more than a sense of accomplishment. That's when If You Build It really took shape.

Thanks to a short documentary the group made while about building MacPherson's turbine, If You Build It was the recipient of some funding from Zoopa's Siemens Your earth, your dream, your action contest, and it was enough to push them into their next project.

"We took what we found to be valuable out of the wind turbine project and amplified it," says Thomas. "Intentionally having builds in public spaces, intentionally reaching out to folks who wouldn't necessarily otherwise have a chance to do such a thing and seeing what beauty became of it."

Now, the group has grown from four engineering students to about 50 builders of all ages, avenues of life and reasons for taking part. University students studying planning, international development and sustainability work alongside artists, carpenters, high schoolers and a broad range of innately curious folks looking to really do something.

"The group is so much better for it, for not having a high percentage of students of engineering, or design. It's important for our style of having these open, public builds that its not a workshop-type format. It's not someone speaking from experience or talking down to others," says Thomas. "We're all learning and doing together. We're teaching one another and learning from one another."

The group's latest project is a portable energy unit---kind of like a little sun-powered generator---that can be trucked around town via two bike trailers. They've designed--- and built---the solar panels themselves during a series of weekend builds through the winter that were open to anyone interested. Again, despite the fact no one was necessarily a solar energy expert, they went for it, together.

"As a collective its important that not everyone knows whats going on. That mystery of figuring it out and having like 20 people in a room labouring to see how you solder this thing together and then it all clicks for all of us at once," says Thomas. "We all have that learning experience and we all have that a-ha moment. It levels the playing field."

And collective really is the best way to describe this group. It's never about what a single person can do, or has done. There's no one that makes or breaks the team. There's not a single swelling ego to be found. This machine is powered by the we, and that energy's contagious.

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Vol 26, No 43
March 21, 2019

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