A Home Built for Solar Mass
It sounds too good to be true. An elegant Southwestern-style home surrounded by dramatic mountain views, able to maintain the optimally comfortable temperature year-round, with neither heating ducts nor air conditioning. Sometimes in the winter, it may get a little warm with the low rays of the sun streaming through all that south-facing glass, but then Dennis Weaver simply opens a few windows.
“It’s a wonderful feeling, that surrounding warmth, with a cool, fresh breeze,” says actor and activist Weaver, his voice familiar as an old friend’s from his years in such popular roles as “Chester” on Gunsmoke and the cowboy-in-the-city detective McCloud. For the house in question is Dennis Weaver’s home in Ridgway, Colorado–his “Earthship,” to use the terminology coined by architect Michael Reynolds, who designed not only this ship and several others surrounding it, but a whole community of the homes in Taos, New Mexico.
And the too-good-to-be-true aspects of Weaver’s home don’t stop there. Rather than gobbling up some of the earth’s precious resources as one would expect from a luxurious two-level home encompassing nearly 10,000 square feet, this self-sustaining, energy-efficient retreat actually helps solve an environmental problem: The walls are made of used automobile tires.
Weaver acknowledges that it sounds strange, and that people sometimes picture unsightly treaded black-rubber walls, but nothing could be farther from the truth. His wife of more than 50 years, Gerry, calls in from the other room, “We do not advertise for Firestone or Goodyear,” and Weaver laughs as he explains that the tires are never visible. Laid in courses of dense “tire bricks”–tires each rammed full of 400 pounds of earth in a labor-intensive process–the finished structure is covered with adobe to create lusciously tactile curvilinear walls two and a half feet thick.
While the textured results would delight the most discriminating interior designer, it’s the environmentally sound concepts underlying the lovely surface that excite Weaver, who was converted to the Earthship way of life nearly ten years ago.
“We were looking to build a home that was more energy efficient and more solar,” says Weaver. “We were lucky enough to be introduced to Michael Reynolds, who we’d heard was building solar-use houses. He was using discarded automobile tires. He’d found a way to make an asset out of an environmental problem, and it excited us.”
Weaver explains that while most people understand the basic concept of solar power, which converts the sun’s rays to electricity, not as many people are aware of the properties of solar mass. “Solar mass is the most interesting part,” says Weaver, his well-known drawl quickening as he warms to his topic. “Mass holds energy and temperature. It’s like being in a cave: It’s warmer inside when it’s cold outside, and cooler when it’s warm.”
Hardly cave-like, except in its consistently comfortable temperature, the Weaver house is terraced up a hillside, in two levels to take the best advantage of both the passive solar windows on the sunny south side and the earth’s own thermal massing. “We carved out the room spaces with a backhoe,” says Weaver. “The north-facing walls of the house are actually part of the hillside.”
Beyond his intellectual fascination with his Earthship’s earth-friendly workings, Weaver has a hands-on, physical relationship with the structure as well. “It took 15 months to build,” he says, “and I did a lot of the work. It was great–a lot of fun. We used dead-standing, beetle-kill trees for the vigas,” he explains, referring to the exposed roof supports common to Southwestern-style building. The logs for vigas are traditionally hand-peeled, for a rustic, textured effect, and “beetle-kill wood has a beautiful bluish tint to it,” says Weaver, who can point to the numerous vigas in his home with the pride that comes from healthy sweat. “I got very familiar with a draw knife.”
Like his home, Weaver, too, can seem a little too good to be true. A prolific and versatile actor, he has appeared on stage in such classics as The Glass Menagerie, on the silver screen in films that include Orson Welles’s 1957 classic, Touch of Evil, and in more recent made-for-TV movies such as the Steven Spielberg-directed Duel, as well as his beloved Chester and McCloud roles. He has served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and, in 1981, was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Beyond this professional career, he has dedicated a large part of his life to numerous environmental and humanitarian organizations, including helping to found L.I.F.E.–Love Is Feeding Everyone–which earned him the 1986 Presidential End Hunger Award. Most recently, he founded the Institute of Ecolonomics, dedicated to bringing innovative environmentally friendly technology to the marketplace–in other words, to creating an environmental industry–and is working toward getting an Ecolonomics bill presented before Congress.
Scratch the surface of his public persona, and Weaver’s nature-centered beliefs run soul-deep. Longtime vegetarians, Weaver and his wife have adapted the sunny front windows of their Earthship to an indoor garden. “We have planters along the whole south side of the house, which we use like a greenhouse to grow food year-round–tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers–all the vegetables that really like the warmth. We’ve got red, ripe tomatoes in the middle of winter,” he says.
“We have a greenhouse on our property as well as the window boxes,” adds Weaver, who sees growing food organically–and seeking out and purchasing organic foods–as a crucial means of helping ourselves and the planet on many levels. “The dollar bill is a very powerful thing. People should support organic growers; it saves our health and it saves the land. Take the pesticides used to kill so-called varmints: Over time, the pests become resistant to the chemicals, and stronger and stronger chemicals are required,” Weaver warns. “Those pesticides finally end up on our tables.”
Weaver discusses why Americans are slow to move toward a more sustainable lifestyle. “Americans are very consumer oriented. What people are afraid of is that their pleasures will be taken away from them. People are willing to take their pleasure today and their profit today–grab it now and let the next generation worry about it. But we really are the next generation,” he says. “We’re a very short-sighted species to destroy the very thing that allows us to live. Sometimes I wish I could take Americans and just shake some common sense into us. There’s an old Chinese proverb: If we do not alter our course, we’re going to wind up where we’re headed. Any thinking person knows we’re headed toward environmental suicide.”
Frustration, and even cynicism, can be occupational hazards of fighting to save the planet. So how does Weaver maintain his cool on a day-to-day basis, reigning in the famous passion of his acting roles, and channeling it in positive directions? One big secret to his centered demeanor is a commitment to daily meditation–a life’s necessity for Weaver that inspired the original heart of his Earthship home.
“One of the problems we humans have as a species is we’ve developed too much, too fast, technologically and intellectually, but not emotionally or spiritually. The proof that we’ve developed intellectually is technology itself. The proof that we haven’t developed spiritually is the way that we use that technology,” he says. Practicing what he preaches, Weaver eased the way toward work on his own spiritual side by prioritizing space for meditation.
“Originally the first room we built was a meditation room,” he says. “But over time, we found the consciousness in the house was a little too restless for meditation, with the telephones ringing, guests coming and going, the grandchildren visiting. So eventually we turned that room into a library”–equally appropriate as the home’s center for this prodigious reader–“and built a separate building for meditation.”
The new, freestanding meditation building is like the main house in miniature–complete with its own tire-and-adobe construction. “People ask me, ‘What’s that little house by the big house?’ I tell them it’s the big house’s baby,” Weaver says. Indeed, it feels satisfyingly right that the great goodwill, positive energy, and physical labor that went into the Earthship’s design should spawn this serene mini-Earthship: “The meditation house is very quiet, very still,” Weaver says. “It has worked out very well.”
The Good Life
Weaver is a man who “walks his talk” as Native Americans say, his dedication to the planet’s future permeating every aspect of his life. But if you pin him down to his most basic philosophy, it’s not
so much the bitter pill of denying pleasures that Weaver says so many people fear in association with environmental activism. After all, Weaver himself is living the good life–a life energized and directed by a commitment that springs from the basic generosity of his nature.
“It all boils down to shifting–to changing our consciousness away from greed and fear and toward peace and kindness and oneness with nature,” Weaver says, his voice calm now as the honeyed drawl of his Joplin, Missouri upbringing reasserts itself. “That’s the big shift that has to take place,” he adds. “A shift toward love.” NH