My friend Ashley recently asked me to blog about how we live here in relation to the sun and the environment. (Her husband is one of those awesome people dedicated to developing the best solar technology and making it available for everyone.) It is also super inspiring for me hearing what people are doing to help the environment, from Katherine + Martin, loving stewards of their animals and land, to friends like Pennelope + Colin, people conscious about living greener and greener (check out this post along with all the wonderful comments on what others are doing, too). There are so many cool things I’ve learned about since moving here–like organic/biodynamic farming, canning, greenhouses/cold frames, energy-efficient houses, permaculture, xeriscape, passive and active solar, natural building, and harvesting rainwater–and I thought it would be fun to share about them. (I know that’s a whole lotta links, so just save them for when you have time to look.)

When I moved to the high desert mountains six years ago, I was pretty wowed by how people were living here. There were houses made out of adobe, strawbale, pumice, etc. (all materials that are kinder to the planet). There were community gardens, organic/biodynamic farms, and the alternative schools all had these, too, run by the kids. Neighbors had well shares. Communities had toy libraries (how cool is that). People here were very conscious about how they lived in relation to the land and the environment and to each other. I was so inspired by all of this. I wanted to walk gentler on the earth and do more to care for it, and people here had something to share about just that, including Patrick.

Then, two years ago, we bought a house on a few acres of forested land in a rural community. It is quite an honor to be the sole caretakers for even just a little piece of the world. Plus, we scored. Our house is awesome! We love it. It is a small, 650 sq ft studio with a tall ceiling (which makes the house seem bigger than it is) and a sleeping loft. Some (like my family) say our house is a nice “closet”, but it suits us well. Here is the layout:

Yes, it’s challenging at times—no built-in closets (not sure why!) and I have my studio in the house, so we are always in check with what we own. We can’t hide much or collect junk. Everything we see is what we own, so we have only what we need. Nothing more–that’s the goal anyhow. And when we do get frustrated with space on occasion, we simply get more creative and organize our space better or pare down more. We’ve talked about owning only what would fit in our car…we own more than that, but not too much. And it feels good.

Our friends Shay and Nigel recently published a really great book (SO inspiring and creative!) called SMALL HOUSE ON A TINY PLANET. (Shay has taught natural building workshops for women at the Lama Foundation, which I really hope to take some day!) I highly recommend this book! It might even change the way you think about your house. Their book asks simple questions like, “how much do you actually need?” and “why are people trying to keep up with the Joneses?” It also offers a wealth of ideas and knowledge from actual people who live in or who have built small houses. (It has layouts, problems, solutions, stories, etc.) Smaller homes are more more affordable (then you have $/time to travel more!), energy efficient, create less waste, encourage less consumption, and are kinder on the environment. So, while there are moments when we think about building on, we pull back and ask, “but do we really need to?” Not now, is the answer. And if we ever do feel the need, we’ll be doing it in a way that is also in sync with the sun and with the least impact on nature.

We always dreamed of buying land and building a strawbale or rammed earth-n-clay home, but we were having a hard time finding affordable land and saving enough money to build. But things turned out great still–our house was affordable and is SUPER efficient. Our house is made with rastra block, a mixture of concrete and recycled materials, and has a very high insulation value. It’s a passive solar design with 5 trambe walls (see ‘trambe’ on my drawing above). Trambe walls are basically concrete sections in the wall with painted black glass over them (so from the outside they look like dark windows, but on the inside you just see the wall). They are like magic. In the winter, when the sun is low in the sky, the sun shines directly on the southern wall of the house. The sun heats up the trambe walls, storing the heat and slowly releasing it on the inside of the house throughout the evening. Ahh, brilliant! eh?

Also, with the passive solar design, we have 5, large south-facing windows that allow the sun (and heat) to flood the house during sunny days—which, in NM, is 300+ days a year. We had a few days in November with 20 degree to minus-10 degree weather, and still it remained 60 to 70 degrees in our house without ANY heat. I’m totally serious. (It is the reverse in the summer. When the arc of the sun is high, it doesn’t shine in our house, and it stays nice and cool inside while in the 90s outside.)

And, what about those snow storms when we have 2-3 consecutive days with no sun? Brrr, with low temps? We installed a tiny (but very efficient) cast iron Morso wood stove (with a 15 ft stove pipe). On those days, the fire is cookin’ most the day/night. (but, we only use about 1 1/2 cords of wood for our long winter, which is so little, that we cut down ourselves with permits used to thin dead/overgrown parts of the forest.) And we installed a ceiling fan that we set to reverse in the winter which helps to circulate the heat. This Fall, we installed cellular Bali blinds. By closing them at sundown, it limits the amount of heat from escaping and cold air from entering (and in the summer, the opposite). There is still more we can do (forever learning!), like building a tiny mudroom, so we don’t lose heat every time we enter/leave the house. But for now, these things are working great together.

The passive solar design also makes for a bright house with great natural light which our plants love. Our house is a bit like a greenhouse–some friends tease us that our house is proportionately more plants than humans, animals, spiders, and computers, but hey, we love it. They make us happy, provide great air to breathe, and in the winter, it sure feels sweet to be surrounded by all the green.

Winters are long here, but it gives us time to plan our next big projects: building our growing dome in the spring so we can start eating fresh out of the garden ALL year long. I’ll post about the building of the greenhouse and our conversion to greywater and installment of water cisterns (for our rainwater) in the Spring.

I know that a lot of what I just wrote about is particular to high desert living. (Hope it was somewhat interesting.) I thought it would be interesting since some people don’t know about it–I didn’t know about it before I lived here. AND, I’d love to hear how you live in relation to your winter/environment in your climate and what you do to make your houses more efficient–with energy AND space. Please, share!