Mother Earth Living

Design For Life: The Green And Winding Road

Carol takes a road trip through the Southwest, living out of her Casita fiberglass trailer.
By Carol Venolia
November/December 2007


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Ever since my first book was published in 1988, I’ve dreamed of a cross-country book tour. Now I’m driving the highways of the Southwest promoting Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006), which I coauthored with Kelly Lerner.

Instead of dealing with strange hotel beds and lousy road food, I’m carrying my home with me—complete with eco-friendly bed and kitchen. I’m pulling a tiny Casita fiberglass trailer (about 60 square feet of efficient living space) with a Tacoma pickup—a combo that gets better gas mileage than any recreational vehicle (RV) I’ve heard of.

Before the trip, I outfitted my trailer bed with a Shepherd’s Dream “wool surround”—mattress topper, comforter, pillows and neck roll—made of sustainably grown wool and organic cotton.

Prescott , Arizona

I spend the night in my rig just outside town at Point of Rocks RV Park, which is nestled amid rock formations and pine trees. The next day, I head to the Ecosa Institute—which offers educational programs in ecological architecture and design—and to Prescott College’s environmentally responsible Crossroads Center for an afternoon talk with students, faculty and community members. Afterward, I tour the Center, taking in rammed earth walls, interior walls finished with salvaged marble chunks and antique bottles, a living roof and solar-panel shade structures.

Nearby, students and faculty are restoring a stream using salvaged rubble to stabilize the embankment. More projects flank the stream: rainwater catchment, handrails made of salvaged metals, natural building experiments and water-efficient gardens.

As a bonus, I tour Prescott’s Eco-Hood, an affordable-income neighborhood where one resident is inspiring neighbors with his permaculture landscaping, rainwater catchment, methane digester, solar panels, reused salvaged materials and food gardens. One by one, folks living nearby are opening up backyard fences and building a sustainable community (For more on the Eco-Hood, see "Natural Home Earth Mover: Andrew Millison.")

Tucson , Arizona

I park in front of the home of straw bale pioneers Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox. Entering through an ocotillo gateway in a straw bale fence, I pass a series of garden rooms and arrive at the backyard ramada, where a party’s in progress. I chat with a peak-oil activist, a building-code-change champion, natural builders, and artists whose handiwork is evident throughout the home.

That night, I sleep soundly in the straw bale guest house behind Matts’ and Judy’s home. The thick walls create a snug, quiet hideaway that’s insulated from the day’s heat. In morning’s sunlight, I wander into the gardens for breakfast, thinking I’m in heaven. The beautiful oasis is both lush and water-efficient, through clever use of rainwater, graywater and drip irrigation.

Edgewood , New Mexico

Near Albuquerque, my friend Chris Meuli lives in a dome with sculpted interior adobe walls, recycled-bottle walls and salvaged wood railings and trim. He’s also remodeled a garage into a 400-square-foot passive-solar guest house, where I get to stay.

In the morning, we enjoy mesquite-flour pancakes before people arrive for a tour of Chris’s permaculture projects. Having owned several acres for 30 years, he’s had time to experiment with swales, mulch berms, native plantings and other methods of slowing and directing the water and wind on his site. He also collects rainwater from his roof, stores it in a cistern and drinks it straight. I also learn of several local efforts, including an urban ecovillage, a healing center and a park for rescued wild animals.

Tesuque , New Mexico

I’ve long wanted to experience the Eco-Nests that Paula Baker-Laporte and her husband, Robert Laporte, design and build—timberframe structures with earth-plastered walls of clay-straw (loose straw coated with clay, then packed into forms). Paula shows me their hillside compound: workshop, architecture office, guest house and home. In each building, I’m moved by the abundant natural light, multilayered spaces flowing into each other, handcrafted details, gentle heat of the central soapstone woodstove and solar warmth of the sunroom.

Bandelier National Monument

The Visitor Center here is a beautiful example of building in visual harmony with stunning natural surroundings. The complex was crafted by the Civilian Conservation Corps of local tuff stone, enhanced by wooden details and punched-tin lamps.

I hike to Tyuonyi, a circular Ancestral Pueblo village. Nearby cliff dwellings were made by building rock walls to extend natural caves; facing south, they were heated by the sun. Seeing how the ancients built homes makes an interesting juxtaposition with the contemporary natural building projects I’m visiting on this trip.

Silver City , New Mexico

I love this town—the funky charm of old downtown, the high level of environmental and community awareness. My talk draws a large crowd to the Silco Theater, originally built in the 1930s and now being revived as a community project. The audience ranges from seasoned green builders to homeowners hungry to learn all they can, and the post-slideshow talk lasts well into the evening.

Homeward bound

It’s been a wonderful trip. Everywhere I went, people were hungry to live in harmony with nature. I’m inspired by all the green projects I experienced. Having hopscotched from one eco-home to another, I can imagine what an entire sustainable culture would feel like. A groundswell of hope is gaining momentum, and I love being part of it.


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