Tell us about your upbringing.
I grew up in Kentucky. I was the middle kid of four. My father was a milkman, and my mother stayed at home to take care of us. I first went to college in southern Indiana and ended up at the University of Cincinnati, where I got a degree in architecture.
My father knew how to build, so I learned from him. The first construction job I had was in what we called a “shotgun house” – a house so small you could shoot through it. We dug a basement under it, so I started literally from the ground up and learned how to build from there. I was interested in art and also good at drawing, so architectural drafting came easily.
You got out of college in 1969. What did you do?
It was chaos then, with Vietnam. During college, I had raced motocross. My crazy idea was to race motocross to get an injury so I wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam. But instead, I came to Taos to see a friend and really liked it here. I got a job teaching drafting on the El Rito campus at what was then New Mexico Technical College. That gave me a 2A deferment, and it was there that I learned to relate to the Hispanic and Indian cultures around there.
How do we get to Earthships from there?
At some point, I noticed stones in the trash and saw deer eat steel cans. Then there was a couple of reports in the news. Walter Cronkite reported on clear-cutting in the Northwest, and Charles Kuralt did a story on beer cans thrown by the side of the road. So I built my first “beer can building block” out of an empty six-pack of Schlitz and adobe-concrete. I was building a home out of garbage.
What other materials and technologies did you add?
Well, the energy crisis came along about then [mid-1970s]. I read up on solar heating, finding out that heat stored very well if you had mass in the walls. I saw piles of old tires thrown out, so I filled them with rammed earth and created the mass in the walls – plus tires don’t rot. Again, the media was reporting on water shortages, so I added catchment and circulating systems that reused the water four times: from the roof to the shower, in planters that cleaned the water and grew food, in toilet to flush and outside to water the landscape. We were fully off the grid.
Where was your first Earthship built?
I was 23 years old when we built on what we called the Rim Road (later Blueberry Hill Road) near Millicent Rogers’ house. Continental Can Company paid for the plans, but their lawyers talked them out of financing the house because there was no can-layers union. So I borrowed money from a Taos bank and, eventually, attorney Steve Natelson bought the house for $11,000. It’s still there, called “The Thumb House.”
You took a lot of heat from other architects and permitting agencies. How did you respond?
I bought 55 acres above Arroyo Hondo on a steep south-facing slope. I was out to prove in a flamboyant way that Earthships work, and this land was too steep to have infrastructure. It became the Reach Community, but it cost me my architectural license. I broke too many “rules,” like having sewage piped through the house to the planters. Officially, I got my license pulled for selling solar refrigerators.
But you kept going.
Yes. I bought 650 acres out past the [Río Grande Gorge; today’s Greater World Community was built on those acres] and sold memberships. For $150 down, we supplied the plans and you could start building on land that cost $1,500. In the late 1990s, the county decided I needed to subdivide, and we fought that for years before we finally became a subdivision. We became the world’s first legal subdivision without utilities.
It’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it?
Sure has. Up and down, up and down. I remember coming back from losing my license in Santa Fe, and it was raining and gloomy, and I was really sad. Then I got a copy of “The Home Book” and found my Earthship in there! That got me going again. We still face challenges, but I’ve never been afraid to make mistakes. I say, 90 percent of the time you make a mistake, but that makes the other 10 percent that much more powerful.