Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Place I Find Myself

First of all, I have to say I live in probably the best place in the U.S. for cheaply building a house with green and alternative methods.  Taos, New Mexico is home to KTAO, the world's most powerful solar radio station,  as well as a branch of the University of New Mexico which was the first U.S. college campus entirely powered by solar.  In fact, I teach English at UNM-Taos, and also write grants for them to fund a LEED-certified library complex which will utilize a water catchment system for the native plants outside the building UNM-Taos also boasts a Green Technology program which offers classes around green design, building, and business.

U.S. Route 64 Rio Grande Gorge Bridge near Tao...Image via Wikipedia
Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

And then there's the Mesa, one of the last true frontiers in this country.  Across the famous Rio Grande Gorge bridge, there is a desert-y expanse of off-the-grid land which is inhabited by few humans.  The ones who do live there are a truly odd mix, which I won't go into too much at this point, but suffice it to say that it takes a certain amount of eccentricity to go into a desert and build a house.  And there are more varieties of eccentricity than there are of normalcy, of course, so what you see out there is a cornucopia of unusual folks and dwellings.

This is also the area where Earthships originated, and the home of the Greater World Earthship Community.  Earthships, however, are for the wealthy eccentric, which I am not.  The Earthship community is on the one side of the highway; the ragamuffin scattering that is the Mesa, is on other.

I'm about to buy land on the Mesa and build a home.

It all came about during a recent conversation with my oldest daughter, June Amber, and my 13-year-old son, Graeme.  June Amber spent the entirety of last summer out on the Mesa and loves it.  She made an assortment of friends, and Graeme went out there with her a few times, and he loved it too.  It turns out he really wants to live there, which is something I didn't know until the conversation in question happened.

I've wanted to build an off-grid house for a long time, and started researching straw bale construction several years ago.  For various reasons, the building dream got shelved, but when Graeme said he wanted to live on the Mesa, something clicked loudly into place for me, and I just immediately knew:  It's time.

The thing is, I don't have a lot of money.  I'm a single mother with four kids and I'm a freelance writer and teacher.  So buying land has seemed a dream beyond my means.  However, Mesa land is dirt cheap, I guess because it's TOTALLY off the grid, and because of its association with an eccentric population.

I had never really thought about moving out there for a couple of reasons:  1)  It's not my ideal landscape; I like trees, and 2) I'm not really the pot-smoking-dreadlocked-hippie type (which is what I thought was the only kind of person out there but have since found out otherwise).  However, during this conversation with my kids, something shifted in me.  The lease at my rental house is up in June, and I had been trying to figure out what to do next, as I know I don't want to stay in this house.  Rent is expensive in Taos, and I've been daunted at the lack of affordable options.  I've thought more and more about buying a house, but my credit's not good enough to get a mortgage (and I simply don't have ENOUGH credit as I've avoided credit cards).  And so what I've realized is that I can deal with the sagebrush and the hippies if it means I can actually own my own land and build a house with my own hands.

I've been doing oodles of research about house-building, off-grid considerations, and life on the Mesa, and have come up with a plan.  Step One is to buy the land, of course, and that's what I'm currently looking into.

So that's where I am, right at the beginning.  I invite you to follow along with me as I move through what is certain to be the adventure of a lifetime.
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  1. I'm so excited to be first to comment here (if I type fast!) and to say this venture of yours and similar ones give me such hope.
    You might find The Centre for Alternative Technology helpful as well (http://www.cat.org.uk/). Although it's British they have a great variety of info.

  2. Thanks for the link! Any and all resources are appreciated.

  3. Good luck! We built a house ourselves (2008 & 2009), and it was the most exciting thing we've ever done. I hope it goes well for you.

  4. Woohoo! Congratulations on making such an earth and life changing decision - lots and lots of good luck to you in your plans:)


  5. This is very exciting, polli. I think many of us are dreaming of doing such a thing. Congratulations for embarking on this. There was a time I hope we would settle in Taos. You may start me dreaming again.
    It's going to be great following you here!

  6. Ooh, Claire, it would be so wonderful to have you here! Even just virtually is good. Thanks for joining me.

  7. Polli, I'm so excited for you as you explore this project. This is a good time, there are so many resources available.

    Definitely do your research as you'll want to design something that is good for your needs and that also works with what is in abundance around you.. A few hours from where I am, cob building has taken off (see Becky Bee and Ianto Evans, for example), but I've also seen straw bale in the area. Maybe you're on a good track with earthbags as that seems very well suited for arid locations.

    Off the top of my head, for details beyond basic house structure, you might consider looking into Ianto Evans' work on rocket mass-heaters (rocket stoves) for heating, and Brad Lancaster's rainwater harvesting books for landscaping for optimum on-site water storage.

    But maybe you've already done your research? Regardless, I just wanted to put those out there in case you'd not discovered them yet.

    I think this is great. Good for you!

  8. I've been doing tons of research, but I welcome any suggestions such as you've commented here. I've decided on earthbags for a variety of reasons, which I'll be posting about soon.

    It's funny you mention rocket stoves, because JUST yesterday I came across this for the first time, and will definitely be looking into it, although the house design I've chosen is passive solar and has excellent thermal mass, so I'm thinking I can get by with just a woodstove.

    I'm also VERY blessed to have a wonderfully kind green-minded plumber friend who's going to help me with all my water issues. Rainwater harvesting is a must where I'm going to be, and I will look into Lancaster's books - thanks!

  9. Aloha i just read all your posts and i just finished reading the earth bag blog about the mess bags. not so messy and eliminates some of the time. though free bags are hard to say no to.

  10. Dibrah, have you decided to build with earthbags?