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low cost eco-building

Earthship Biotecture, near Taos, New Mexico, USA May 17, 2012

Standing on top of an Earthship in the New Mexico desert watching the sunset turn the mountains a deep red, makes you realise how boring conventional housing is. Earthships are a highly inventive and unusual house design by Mike Reynolds who spent years experimenting in the New Mexico deserts. There are now hundreds of examples worldwide but I wanted to come to the place of their inception to try and understand their possibilities and questions around affordability.

Sunset view from top of an earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

An Earthship is an autonomous building made from car tyres filled with waste (such as drinks cans and bottles) to produce highly insulating walls. The Earthship has been replicated in the UK (Fife and Brighton), Holland, France, South Africa and India. There are now 3,000 Earthships globally. The design, often built into the ground, not only uses recycled and natural materials, but by using passive solar heating (and cooling), water harvesting, contained sewage treatment, and internal food production (through conservatories), creates a self-sustaining building with a stable ambient temperature even in climatic extremes. Built to be cheap, efficient and autonomous, Earthships represent radical ecological architecture designed to reshape our relation to the environment and our daily lifestyles.

“The Earthship concept is meant to place shelter and a less stressful method of living within the immediate grasp of people. If land is made available for no profit; if shelter can be obtained with little or no mortgage payment; if utilities come free from the sky; if much of our food can be grown in our homes; people will become more mobile with their thinking. They will begin to have time to think of each other and the planet” (Reynolds, 1990, p.254)


An Earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

There is a great sense of freedom from knowing that a house has everything you need to survive without needing to be connected to anything else. All the systems are holistic and autonomous. Standing on the roof I am next to the water cistern which collects the rainwater, and overlooking the PV panels and solar thermal hot water heater. Moreover all resources are used as efficiently as possible, for example, rainwater is used three times – for drinking, to flush the toilet and then to water plants. Having stayed in one at the height of summer I can also confidently confirm that it works – nice and cool during the day, warm at night and not too dark inside. Such autonomy also enables the resident to more clearly understand how houses work – if you are not careful you will use up all your water – and thus, potentially, how to look after and fix it.

Inside the studio earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

By watching the sunset you also realise that Earthships enable a landscape without wires. Look out of your door – do you see wires? Most houses are linked by electricity and telephone cables criss-crossing the landscape, but here there is only sky: huge big open skies. It is a liberating view compared to most outlooks from houses. In New Mexico all you can really see of the houses are the windows reflecting the sunlight. It is a very calming view.

Phoenix Earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

Earthships are more than simply highly integrated autonomous houses, they are amongst the most radical and inventive green buildings I have seen. So inventive that new systems, such as water and power management systems, have been designed specifically for them. But they do have an unusual aesthetic, they do not look anything like a house as conventionally understood – buried in the ground, glass wall to the south, curved walls inside, and glass bottle walls. This of course potentially limits wider adoption. Personally I find them rather beautiful buildings to look at, but then I already love eco-houses and all things quirky. Replication is not only limited by how they look however, but also by their requirement for manual management (such as opening vents and closing blinds) which in an age of ‘on demand’ heating and air conditioning puts some people off.

The houses were designed to be highly replicable, and Reynolds has gone to great effort to build demonstration houses around the world and to create plans and ‘off-the-peg’ designs which can be purchased and followed. The use of the metaphor of the ‘ship’ in its name also signifies that such designs should be replicated elsewhere (that the ideas should travel, they were designed to run without fuel, use rubbish and thus locate anywhere); that these ships should be part of a broader network (that we should exchange and develop these ideas); that ideas need freedom to enable experimentation and radical innovation (the ship as autonomous and free from regulations); and, finally, that they will “sail on the seas of tomorrow” (Reynolds, quoted in Paschich and Hendricks, 1995, 73) (and thus continue to travel into the future).

Yet this replication has not happened in the way that might have been imagined. The design is robust, tested and cheap and yet few Earthships exist. In addition to how they look and what it is like to live in them, they are not the easiest to build – they require time and effort (and strength and perseverance) in a way that brick houses do not. Finally, they are not appropriate for all places, they have been developed to work best in the climate of New Mexico and as the Brighton Earthship has shown, if changes are not made to the design when built in other climates then they do not work as well (in Brighton the floor is rather cold). This could be overcome, but only with further experimentation and the freedom to adapt Reynolds designs.


Inside the studio earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

Earthships can be built expensively or cheaply, it all depends on choices made by the builder. They are designed to be extremely low-cost to run, but to make the actual build cost lower then there is a need for self-build (using your own labour, also called ‘sweaty equity’), build on cheap land (hence the growth of such houses in the deserts of New Mexico), use waste materials (there are some plans for Earthships using concrete), ignore building codes, and keep the design simple and small scale (thus ‘designing down’ the house so that you need less electricity in everyday running). Reynolds argues that “just as the sun allows no darkness, the lake allows no dryness, the wind allows no calm, the river no silence … the Earthship allows no poverty” (1993). However, some have complained at the high cost of the step-by-step designs to build an Earthship.

An Earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

There are many lessons to be learnt from Earthships which could be, and should be, applied to eco-housing elsewhere. It is a bold design that works: the result of years of practical experimentation and radical innovation. Whether it is about their autonomy, low cost, low visual impact, self-build nature, or the way in which every resource is carefully harvested and used multiple times, we need to understand and learn from Earthships. The strongest memory for me is of sitting on the roof watching the sunset knowing that I would be warm and cosy that night, that there was amble water and heat for a shower, and that the environmental cost of all that comfort was minimal. It was a guilt free sunset.

There is a Visitors Centre at the Earthships near Taos (#2 Earthship Way Taos NM 87571) which is open 10am to 4 pm, 7 days a week.


Key references about Earthships:

Freney, M (2009) Earthships: Sustainable housing alternative. International Journal of Sustainable Design, 1, 2, 223-240.

Harkness, R (2011) Earthships: The homes that trash built. Anthropology Now, 3, 1, 54-66

Hewitt, M and Telfer, K (2007) Earthships: Building a zero carbon future for homes. HIS BRE Press, Watford

Hodge, O (2008) Garbage Warrior (Film). A Co Production of Open Eye Media UK, ITVS International & Sundance Channel.

Ip, K and Miller, A (2009) Thermal behaviour of an earth-sheltered autonomous building – The Brighton Earthship. Renewable Energy, 34, 9, 2037-2034

Kemp, S and Cowie, P (2004) The Earthship Toolkit: Your Guide to Building a Zero Waste, Zero Energy Future. Sustainable Communities Initiatives, Kinghorn.

Paschich, E and Hendricks, P (1995) The Tire House Book. Sunstone Press, New Mexico.

Reynolds, M (2000) Comfort in any climate. Solar Survival Architecture, Taos, NM.

Reynolds, M (2005) Water from the sky. Solar Survival Print, Taos, NM.

Reynolds, M. (1990) Earthship Volume I. One Solar Survival Press, Taos, NM

Reynolds, M. (1993) Earthship Volume III. One Solar Survival Press, Taos, NM


Columbia Eco-village, Portland, Oregon May 31, 2011

Filed under: Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs,USA — naturalbuild @ 11:08 pm

Columbia eco-village is a relatively new co-housing project in the north east of Portland. It is on the site of an old nut farm which was partly sold to developers in the 1960s who built five apartment buildings. These buildings and the remainder of the farm and farmhouse now constitute the eco-village. Using a loan the original buildings were dramatically eco-retrofitted – stripped and gutted with new roofs and ecological materials. They added many new ecological features such as rainwater harvesting off the new roofs, and added eves and gables to provide shade and have hopes and plans for more such as photovoltaic panels.


Entrance sign and old farmhouse

This renovation was finished in March 2009 and the village is now homes to 50 adults and 13 children aged 7 and under. Organisationally everything is run by consensus through a Home Owners Association and there are membership conditions through a number of bylaws which determine certain responsibilities such as attending communal meals and meetings, and contributing eight hours each month to communal maintenance, working the gardens, harvesting and storing food. They also have different ‘teams’ which take responsibility for certain areas like food, facilitation, events, compost, maintenance etc.


The main housing units and the communal space in front of them

At first glance from the road Columbia looks like a pretty standard (albeit colourful) retrofit of existing apartment blocks with the unfortunate central focus on a car park, but much of its wonder lies in the back half of the plot – where the gardens are – and in the way the different spaces inside the buildings are used.

The six bee hives

The gardens are large and include individual growing plots, chickens, bees, a permaculture food forest, fruit and nut trees (walnut and hazelnut) and also space for more formal gardens. Once in the wooded area at the back it is easy to forget that you are in a city at all. Even the gardens near the original housing units are lush and varied and provide both food and shade for residents. There is also a ‘grazing zone’ which is where residents are encouraged to pick and eat the produce as they walk through the gardens. As such there is a great variety in the way the green spaces are used – as individual, communal, grazing annuals and permanent spaces make it feel bigger than it actually is. There is hope that they might be able to reduce the size of the asphalt car park in due course and reclaim it for a greener use.


Trees at the back of the project and eggs from the chickens in the bulk food room

There are also a large number of communal spaces such as a laundry room, meeting and craft room, outdoor drying space, covered (new) bike shed, compost bins areas, and the old farmhouse is used as communal space with a kitchen, dining and sitting room, quiet room, bulk food storage area, gathering room and several guest rooms. Each resident is allowed to use the guest rooms 28 days a year for $5 a night – an excellent way to reduce the need for people to have their own spare guest space which would likely remain unused much of the year. In the same way new external individual storage units have been built for people to store extra belongings, reducing the size of home unit required. All these extra spaces available reduce any replication of individual use and make obvious ecological savings.


Extra individual storage units and communal garden space

The huge variety and physical size of communal space and the carefully constructed organisational structure certainly emphasises the collective nature of Columbia – it is more of a collective enterprise than many of the other eco-build communities I visited and this is certainly one of its great strengths.

In terms of cost the units here are not really low cost. When sold in 2009 a studio unit cost US$150,000 (£100,000) and a the largest three bedroom, two bathroom units were $330,000 (£220,000). They were a reasonable price for the area but cannot really be considered ‘affordable’. Although the actual costs of creating Columbia were dramatically reduced by retrofitting and creating small units, the initial buy-in costs are quite high. This is likely to have had an effect on the demographic at Columbia which is older than somewhere like Kailash eco-village. However, there was clearly demand for the type of co-housing that Columbia offers – with a quick uptake of units and the few that have resold have done so easily. Those that I spoke to also enjoyed the lack of immediate responsibility for a large dwelling and garden all to themselves. In other words, although they had obligations to community work this was a shared responsibility they enjoyed rather than the worry of owning and dealing with a place all to oneself.

My visit to Columbia was brief but inspiring. Very different to many other places it mixes an emphasis on permaculture and collectivity with a design and feel which is more likely to have a broader appeal. As such it is a useful model which could be replicated elsewhere and adapted as required to potentially become more affordable.

For further information about Columbia see their website:


Kailash Eco-village, Portland, Oregon, USA April 24, 2011

Filed under: Cost of housing,Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs,USA — naturalbuild @ 7:06 am


I had the great opportunity to stay at Kailash Eco-village for ten days in August last year. It was the last stop on my trip around eco-buildings in the USA and it did not disappoint. Kailash shares some similarities with Los Angeles Eco-Village – in that it is a deliberately urban project which enables people to rent eco-units and participate in some collective activities. What was most appealing was the explicit focus on affordability – using a rental rather than owner model.

Situated in south east Portland in what a realtor might call an ‘up and coming’ neighbourhood (Creston-Kenilworth), Kailash took over an old 32-unit apartment building built in 1959 on a one acre site. Bought by Ole and Maitri Ersson in 2007 they explicitly wanted to create an affordable and accessible way for those on low incomes to participate in a sustainable community. In effect it allows people to try out community living without the risks (or barrier) of capital investment.

All the units are one-bedroom apartments with a typical living area of 565 square foot. Units can be rented at approximately $650 a month in 2010, low for the area. They have also added a dorm room “as not all residents are able to afford their own private unit” ( There are currently 48 residents, ten of whom were resident when the block was bought. Those who have joined since the Ersson’s took over have had to pass a selection procedure and agree to certain stipulations.


Inside a refurbished unit and a typical floor plan

Each apartment is gradually being remodelled using ecological principles in order to increase energy efficiency – using eco-materials, fitting low-flow shower heads, installing water metres in each unit, adding extra insulation and double-pained windows. They are experimenting with materials, trying to balance low cost with ecological properties. For example, they trialled using carpets but the wear has been too high and so have moved to using laminate flooring (which uses more glue but is likely to last longer). Fundamentally however the very act of retrofitting rather than demolishing has proved both ecological and cost-effective.

There are a great many other future projects which Ole and Maitri would like to do as Kailash is only three years old; including rainwater harvesting and an exterior make-over. The whole block faces south and so benefits from passive solar but they are hoping to install external blinds to prevent overheating in summer.


Bike racks and communal compost

Kailash have deliberately tried to create lots of different types of communal space. There is a community meeting room with a large kitchen and another next to it. There is a laundry room which has storage spaces, post boxes, recycling bins (including items not normally recycled like plastics, styrofoam and shredded paper), and communal equipment like a vacuum cleaner. There is also a separate garden and tool room. There is collective bike storage and composting. Other areas like the balconies and walkways are also explicitly considered communal and this is used for things like a ‘freebie’ shelf where people put things they no longer want for others to use. Community is encouraged through people encountering each other in these spaces, getting to know their neighbours, a weekly community night and work parties. Perhaps most interestingly, however, was the decision by Ole and Maitri to not have collective decision making. Instead Maitri is the Community Manager and they make all decisions. This has simplified and speeded-up their ability to get Kaliash off the ground and to make renovations.


A variety of communal spaces: balcony and walkways, garden seats, community meeting room

Gardens space is segmented into individual plots (ten are available in total), with communal tables and chairs. Gardens are important here to the extent that one of the first changes was to turn an old swimming pool into a new terraced garden area. Encouraging gardening is core to the eco-village and with this is mind they made the choice to limit the amount of communal garden – instead hoping that individual plots would encourage people to be creative and invest time in their own space. It seems to have worked. All lawn (bar one tenants) has been turned into active garden and despite being small the gardens are a wonder of colour, production (strawberries, tomatoes, bees) and calm retreat from the city. This emphasis on creating a beautiful place is evident throughout the site and is an important part of Kailash – making eco-living seem attractive and appealing, a ‘shining example’ for others to follow.


The whole site is arranged to encourage tenants to participate, to encourage people to get involved, but not to penalise if they do not. There is an interesting balance here between rules which might enforce ‘green behaviour’ and the benefits of people deciding to take green actions themselves. The eco-village has mission and values statements which encourage residents to value ‘the diversity of our community’, ‘regular community gatherings’, ‘common facilities’, ‘frugal use of energy and resources’ and ‘human powered transport and its infrastructure’ among many other things. There is a monthly pot-luck vegan meal and veganism is encouraged but not enforced. Likewise ample bike storage is offered, external clothes lines and wooden clothes dryers are communal, and car parking spaces limited. It is a subtle process of leading by example.

On the other hand individual unit water metres are gradually being installed to encourage reductions in water use, and tenants have to commit to recycling as part of their rental agreement and agree that all communal spaces are vegan (including the garden which excludes the keeping of chickens). Overall, the emphasis is on behaviour change rather than relying upon the ecological features of the building to reduce energy use. Many of these changes are also low-cost, so cycling rather than driving, not using a tumble dryer and reducing water use all save money.

When I first arrived at Kailash I had struggled to understand how it was a ‘village’ or a ‘community’ in the sense that I had understood other eco-projects I had visited. But after ten days I really began to value the different approach taken here. Everyone I had met had been immediately welcoming but there was also a beautiful slowness in getting to know Kailash and understand it’s perhaps more subtle sense of community. Its emphasis on affordability has also opened it up to a more diverse range of people than other projects, and although the small size of the units might ultimately limit who can stay (as in there are limited possibilities for large families) this also creates a much needed space for singles, couples and the younger and older generations.

There is also merit in not using all the collective energy of a place to make each decision and allowing others to take the lead. It opens community to those who are busy and committed to work or projects elsewhere. Perhaps this does lead to a slight sense of disengagement for some residents, but it is unclear to me whether the lack of engagement in work parties (for example) is an effect of the lack of individual ownership, or participation in decision making, or simple reflects the slow process of growing a community. My experience of Kaliash suggests that this divergent form of being an eco-village opens up sustainable living to more possibilities and far more people.

For further information about Kailash eco-village see their website:

[23rd April 2011]


Ampersand Learning Center, Cerillos, New Mexico, USA March 8, 2011

“In a quality life, the sense of fulfilment comes from connection. Look to your rain, look to your land, look to the magical seasons of this earth. Listen to the wind, dance in the mud, then plaster your house with it … living intimately and comfortably with the basic elements brings a deep sense of fulfilment” (Amanda and Andy Bramble, 2010, p.154)


Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center is an intriguing mixture of teaching space, collective building, embryonic community, and a remote eco-home. Situated south of the small town of Cerrillos in New Mexico, Ampersand is at the end of several tracks snaking into the hills. In construction since 2003, the buildings here are mostly hybrid, a mixture of straw-bale walls, adobe and earth bags. Many things have been fashioned from reclaimed items such as salvaged windows, reusing wood, or using an old swivel office chair as a base for a solar oven (thus being able to move it to best catch the sun).


The main house

There is a main house – the home of Andy and Amanda Bramble – and then other more collective spaces such as a straw bale guest house, an outdoor kitchen for guests and another guest building to which a new bathroom was being added. There is also an outdoor solar shower. All the spaces are compact – making use of sleeping platforms, open plan design, and careful placement of furniture – and there is a beautiful simplicity to many of the rooms. There is enough for comfort but not clutter and certainly not an excess of things.


The straw bale and a plaster wall design

This simplicity is also evident in the way everything is designed to be efficient and minimise waste. For example, the solar thermal hot water panel is just outside the bathroom meaning it does not have to travel far to the point of use, and they feed used water into the indoor planter to water the growing vegetables – making multiple uses of what they have.


The outdoor shower

Ampersand is completely off-grid – generating all their electricity from photovoltaic panels, using solar thermal to heat water, collecting all their water via rainwater (into a 2,500 gallon tank) and using a solar oven for cooking. They also warm and cool their house passively. The back of the main house is built into the ground with only a couple of very small windows looking north from the pantry. To the front they have a greenhouse, as this heats up they let heat in through internal windows and when it is cold outside the greenhouse acts as a barrier while still letting the sun in. Their water use also is extremely low, about six gallons each per day. Water is then filtered through a Big Berkley system ready for drinking.

Growing food out here is difficult so they have built a large greenhouse to the front of their house with an indoor planter and created a large storage space – a pantry built into the ground at the back of the house. Refrigeration is limited, they “we harvest ice from an open-topped cistern in the winter to keep our food cold” (p.154) but have to use a propane powered fridge at times in the summer.

Ampersand aims to demonstrate “low-tech sustainable systems which people can do themselves, so that they are not reliant on experts” (Amanda Bramble). There is an emphasis here on having the skills and courage to do it yourself and key to this is starting small and simply learning through the experience of building small structures. It is also about building as a collective endeavour.


Inside and outside a straw bale house at Ampersand Learning Center

I can’t help but fall in love with the simplicity of some of the design and materials used here. In the straw bale guest house there is everything you need and no more or less. Everything is low cost, reclaimed, salvaged, adapted and yet it all has a beauty too. When I asked Amanda what barriers might exist in getting mainstream society to understand and value a place as eclectic as Ampersand she argued that the main obstacles are the “mental constructs of what is acceptable beauty and lifestyle”. Of course it can so easily come down to one’s own choice of aesthetics, but to me this is a place made for the future.


Off-road track to Ampersand Learning Center  and the straw bale house

If you are interested in visiting Ampersand they run classes in the spring and summer, volunteer days, have open house visit days, and occasional internships. Details are on their website:

There is also an article written by Amanda and Andy in Sustainable Sante Fe (2010) ‘On being a beneficial influence: Off grid at Ampersand’


Regenerative design in eco-building February 26, 2011

Filed under: Politics of building,USA — naturalbuild @ 8:42 am

While in the USA several people refered to the concept of ‘regenerative design’, a term I had not heard used in Britain. Regenerative design is when the process of a build takes into full account the people and environment in which it is situated. It becomes regenerative when choices of which materials are used enable other renewable resources which might be depleted to recover. In other words by using appropriate materials it provides time for other renewable resources to regenerate. Such an approach intends to reduce waste and increase efficient use of resources. In this way it owes much to holistic understandings of the environment, and to the philosophy and practice of permaculture.

Akihan also defines it as “regenerative architecture, and the regenerative mode of thinking is to move beyond the linear throughput model of inputs-consumption-waste that characterize all of our current development. Beyond being zero energy or being carbon neutral, it is a fundamental repositioning of the question. Regenerative seeks to go beyond doing no harm – it is the co-evolution of human and natural systems, to design to actively heal the environment”. Thus it is a proactive and all encompassing approach to building design which argues that we can make a positive contribute to the environment.

If we were to adopt this approach we should think carefully not just about what renewable materials are local, but what supply is available. this is probably best understood in relation to the increasing use of wood in eco-building in Britain and our need to be careful to replenish it. As such it raises fundamental questions about our choices of build materials beyond simply what we might conceive as being ecological or natural.


Thom Wheeler’s Adobe Studio and House, Taos, New Mexico, USA February 18, 2011

Filed under: Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs,USA — naturalbuild @ 11:19 pm

It takes a while to absorb and understand the scale of Thom’s adobe house and studio in Taos, New Mexico. If at first glance from the outside it looks like an ancient castle, with its large tall entrance ways and wooden beams, then stepping inside is like entering the great hall. The high ceilings, giant fire place, and Thom’s amazing art everywhere overwhelms the senses.


Thom Wheelers adobe house, Taos, New Mexico, USA

I came to see Thom’s place because I wanted to understand the possibilities of contemporary adobe building. Although not intended as a low cost or particularly ecological build it does help illustrate the creative potential of adapting ancient techniques for new environments. Thom said he chose adobe for aesthetic reasons but has found the house to be ideal for retaining heat in winter and being cool in summer (his main heat source is radiant under floor heating). It is the ability to mould and shape adobe that is particularly appealing here – the curved sculptural look and as Thom says ‘you can’t get a perfect finish with adobe and that imperfect look makes it wonderful’.


Art everywhere

Completed in 1985 it was built using 3,600 adobe bricks from Ohkay Owingeh (previously known as San Juan Pueblo) and local wood for the beams, and its floor footprint is a total of 4,200 square foot, though 1,000 foot of that is just for the porches. Most unusually compared to other contemporary adobe builds it is two storey with 16 foot (almost 5 metres) ceilings. There is something to be said for the robust safe feeling that a house this size made from adobe gives you. With walls 30 inch (76 cm) thick there is a solid and secure feeling to the structure and of course its historical precedent in this region of New Mexico helps it sit in the landscape. It is also exceptionally long lasting and has been designed to last 1,000 years.

Adobe, especially on this scale, is expensive and Thom argues that ‘adobe is the most expensive way to build a new house. It is very labour intensive and you have to maintain it. It takes a long time and most people don’t have two years to build a house’. He has tried to mitigate some of these requirements by using stucco on external walls to reduce the amount of maintenance needed. Stucco is a render which was traditionally made from lime, sand and water, but now tends to use Portland cement instead of the lime, making it less than ideal environmentally. It is a difficult compromise given that adobe buildings need recovering every few years which is labour intensive and thus expensive. As a result many contemporary buildings in New Mexico might be designed to look traditional but in fact are only partially adobe.


Inside Thom’s adobe house

But Thom’s house teaches us that innovative design and majestic aesthetics can be created from ostensibly ecological materials. Thus perhaps encouraging people who might have little concern for the environment to experiment with these methods and materials purely because of the aesthetics (and the reduced heating bills) could broaden the appeal of green building. In other words it is not always necessary to advocate green building as being about the environment or saving money, but sometimes it is worth celebrating that eco-houses are often simply more beautiful. The more I looked around Thom’s house the more there was to see, not just because of his amazing art, but the building as a whole felt like an adventure into the amazing possibilities of what a home could be.


Porch and upstairs balcony detail

For further information about Thom Wheelers House and Studio see his website: and an interesting article about his build by Kate Winslow. His studio in Taos is often open to the public. Further information on the use of adobe in New Mexico is available in the excellent book by Carol Crews – Clay Culture: Plasters, Paints and Preservation  (2010) published by Gourmet Adobe Press.

[18th Februray 2011]


Lama Foundation, San Cristobal, New Mexico, USA February 4, 2011

Filed under: Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs,USA — naturalbuild @ 7:19 am

Dancing on a wooden floor in an adobe dome built the 1960s was not really how I had envisaged my visit to the Lama Foundation . Yet this collective moment of fun somehow helped connect me to this community in a way I had not expected.


Open day dance inside the dome (built 1968) and the dome from the outside at The Lama Foundation

Clutching to the steep hillside of the Sangre de Cristo mountains north of Taos the Lama Foundation has been building since 1968. Principally a spiritual centre – following the teachings of Ram Dass and his infamous Be Here Now book which was compiled and published onsite – it has an eclectic mixture of eco-houses. These houses have changed quite radically over the years not least because on 5th May 1996 a fire destroyed the majority of the site, leaving rather miraculously the central dome and the old wooden octagonal kitchen. As much loved as the initial dwellings were there was a view that many had been in poor repair (much of the wood had rotted) and ill-equipped to cope with the extremes of the New Mexico climate (long winters, heavy snow and constant winds).


The old wooden kitchen and carved wooden door

Now the range and diversity of the houses is inspirational. There is a log cabin, a straw-bale house, a new base for their cottage industry being made from straw-bale and adobe combined, some yurts for visitors, small vault homes, a hybrid house and many more. Over the years different visitors and residents have experimented with a variety of methods and styles – particularly hybrid approaches. This is when different methods such as straw-bale are used alongside adobe blocks or stone walls. Thus they make use of straw-bale in the north-facing walls (to keep the place warm) and adobe in a south-facing wall (because it allows a building to heat up more quickly than straw).


Hybrid eco-house at The Lama Foundation, and a inside wall – half adobe half straw

Use of adobe on site was originally inspired by the nearby Pueblo constructions in Taos and many local Indigenous Americans came to the site in the early years to teach the newcomers how to build with earth. The adobe prayer room near the main done is particularly interesting – with a very small entrance (you have to crawl inside) and a sunken circle in which to sit it is completely peaceful. Many of the houses are also deliberately small – such as the vaults designed by Shay Salomon – which are thus cheaper to build and easy to heat. The vaults are straw-bale with aluminium shingle roofs which hang over to the ground each side. Moreover under New Mexico building code very small buildings do not have to comply. The community setting encourages the building of small individual houses and the collective use of the large communal space. There are communal bathrooms, kitchen, library, music room, winter meeting room, and outdoor sheltered eating area.


The adobe prayer room and communal bathroom


The small vault houses

Building here is a collective process and part of a spiritual practice for many, one resident said they ‘build with clay, mud and love’. Another noted ‘building a house is so human and it has been taken away from us … it is so satisfying being able to build a house’. Some of the ‘special places’ like the stone hermitage have been built in silence and others such as the two vaults were built just by women. In fact Lama has hosted several women-only build workshops which were deemed necessary in order to create a safe space in which women could experiment in building and expand their confidence without the intrusion of men. Nevertheless the majority of building on site is still done by men.


Straw bale house at The Lama Foundation and prayer flags

The way in which the Foundation has been set up limits residents to a maximum stay of seven years. Resident numbers are limited to the number of houses available on site (currently eight) and the site is most active in the summer months when a large number of volunteers (summer stewards) come and stay. However because the main focus of the site is spirituality rather than eco-building then the co-ordination of building or the skills available is very much dependent on who happens to be around. This has created maintenance problems for the core full-time residents who are there all year because of the sheer number of buildings and the use of natural materials which require regular attention and patching. This tension between a lack of time and skills and the focus being primarily elsewhere has led to the use of concrete and stucco in recent buildings which is not very environmental. They have had at times to make compromises. These compromises have been less about saving money and more about reducing labour requirements.

One resident noted that permaculture principles which were increasingly being integrated into community life suggest ‘you should start small and then work your way out, and so we should make sure we can cope with maintaining the buildings we currently have before we build more’. Thus the place seems to be in a constant flow of moving forward and correcting earlier mistakes. The main dome is quite cold (lacking insulation) and some damage to buildings is the result of a lack of sufficient roof overhang or ‘boot’ and the harsh weather. But more recent structures learn from these mistakes and a new straw-bale house has a foot stone boot to protect it.

The whole community is off-grid; generating electricity through photovoltaic cells, using compost toilets, wood for heat, and water from an on-site spring (and some rainwater is collected). Water is heated in the main through a propane heater because their solar capacity is limited.

Solar power in the roof

There is undoubtedly something magical at the Lama Foundation, less in a spiritual sense for me personally, but something about its location and the freedom in which eco-building has been experimented in. I left longing to stay and to move into my own little vault house on the mountain side.

The Lama Foundation regularly hold open days and events. Please see their website for further information:

Also see Cobb, A (2008) Early Lama Foundation, published by Lama Foundation and Salomon, S (2006) Little House on a Small Planet, published by The Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, USA.

[4th February 2011]