Building a Life on the Land
This is the story from Mark and Ellen Coleman's solar pioneering days, but we'd love to hear many more stories. If you would like to share your own story let us know and we'll put it up.
In the late ‘80’s (Ronald Reagan was president; the B-52's, Tom Petty and Madonna were riding the top 10), my husband Mark and I had our first really tough lessons in economics. The economic stimulus plan of the time was to negotiate lower oil prices with the Middle Eastern oil producing nations. Oil prices dropped so low that Texans couldn't afford to even pump theirs out of the ground, much less sell it. Within a period of months, the real estate and housing markets crashed. Our lovingly remodeled, older house turned into a mortgage we couldn’t live with and couldn’t live without. Our newly-expanded cabinet business was suddenly near bankruptcy. Couldn’t sell ‘em...couldn’t keep ‘em......lost ‘em.
From Texas to California to Pay Off Our Debts
Seeking greener pastures, we moved west to Southern California, land of milk and honey....and brown air, two-income families, kids in day care and ear infections. After a couple of years we were once again squeezed by the nose-dive in the economy as Californians reacted to Bush Senior's "liberation of Kuwait". Good friends and learning experiences couldn’t satisfy the need for a calmer, saner lifestyle. We felt trapped.
Just as other families across America, we were working harder and harder just to maintain the same lifestyle. We knew we couldn’t keep moving every time the economy plunged, so we started looking for a way out. We set our sites on building a house we could afford, wherever that might be. A story in Mother Earth News on visionary architect Michael Reynolds of Taos, NM, turned us on. For 20 years,Reynolds had worked on a house design that was energy independent, did not contribute to the destruction of the planet or its resources, made good use of recycled materials, could be built by people with little building experience, and allowed for food production inside the house. Earthships are designed to catch and use rainwater and incorporate electricity produced by solar panels and wind generators.
What we saw in Reynold’s design was a house which could shelter us comfortably on undeveloped—and therefore affordable—land. In California we had sometimes found ourselves powerless, disconnected from home-building opportunities. Here, in Reynold’s design, was an opportunity to regain control over our home-building experience and the costs of it.
Making Choices in Alignment with Our Dream
When you're in a hole, the hardest thing is to imagine being out of it. When you're working 8 - 5 and caring for young children, there seems to be little time for planning or dreaming. But somehow we managed. We made a plan to save as much money as we could for one year, then to wrap up our work commitments, and sell everything we didn’t need. We intended to build a small 900 sq. ft. home, basically an open room with private lofts for bedrooms. We knew we’d be anxious to add on soon but were determined to refrain from begging a loan from the bank. With the two of us supplying labor, we would build only what we could pay for.
The winter of that final year in Ventura, we bought acreage at 7,500 feet about 30 miles north of Taos, NM. Northern New Mexico was attractive to us for several reasons. We liked the altitude and cooler climate, for one. For another, land prices in undeveloped areas are extremely reasonable: we bought 20 acres for $19,000, owner financed. Finally, building regulations were loose enough for us to build what we wanted to build, so we weren’t forced into a design we couldn’t afford. As it turned out, we inherited a small sum and were able to build a larger house, and we just kept expanding, out of pocket until we had exactly what we needed.