In building a sustainable house, at 7,500 feet, out of puddled adobe, strawbales, and earthbags, Kristina Orchard-Hays ’95 drew on the independent spirit and creative thinking skills she acquired at Bryn Mawr.
When I graduated from Bryn Mawr 10 years ago, my short-term goals were simple: to live in and experience a foreign culture; to keep reading and writing as much as possible; and to change the world, not necessarily in that order.
In hot pursuit of my starry-eyed visions, I flew off to Italy for a two-year sojourn, taught ESL students in the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington D.C., clerked in bookstores, edited and fact-checked various manuscripts. Along the way, lifelong friendships splintered and broke into pieces, my siblings disowned me, close relatives died, the specter of mental illness dogged my footsteps, the twin towers fell. In the wake of both personal and national tragedy, I decided it was time to follow Thoreau’s dictum and simplify. Clearly, my life of quiet desperation had to change.
As I sifted through the complexities of my daily routine, I noticed a recurring problem—my struggles to house myself: A three-month quest to find a flat in Milan, an even longer scavenger hunt in San Francisco during the dot.com boom, prolonged yet problematic retreats to my mother’s house in Maryland. I had become resigned to the idea that I would always be a renter, handing over a significant portion of my paycheck to uncaring, even exploitive, landlords. Why exactly were we paying $900 a month for a one-room studio in Santa Cruz, CA, my partner Reid and I asked ourselves. Is this the best we could do? If we did buy a house together, would we be shackled to a 30-year mortgage like many of our friends? It seemed a daunting way to begin a relationship. We decided to indulge in a bit of research. Two alternative living festivals, 20 books, and one lecture later, we hit upon a solution—to buy an inexpensive piece of land and build an environmentally sustainable house with our own four hands. After all, Reid had years of engineering design under his belt, while I was the queen of creative projects. We gave notice on our studio, scuttled our possessions into a storage unit, and hit the road.
“Why northern New Mexico?” our friends and relatives ask. It’s a long way from Reid’s Hawaiian Islands, my East Coast upbringing, our joint California experience. The summers are dry and blisteringly hot, the winters replete with snow and frigid temperatures. It is also the birthplace of Michael Reynolds’ fantastical earthships, constructed of recycled tires and aluminum cans; the home of the Taos Pueblo, an indigenous earthen community continuously inhabited for thousands of years; and an area long conducive to adobe, our building method of choice. I once saw a breathtaking sunset here while enroute to the West Coast. Sometimes it seems as simple as that.
Our first months here were anything but simple, however. After sinking our savings into 20 acres of sagebrush and dirt west of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, we had to figure how to eke a structure from the dust. We had only our reference library and a one-day cob workshop to go by, as well as the pressing issue of water hanging over our heads. Namely, we had none.
We purchased a 55-gallon container and began hauling water from the river in the nearby mountain valley, the bulk of which we used for our puddled adobe mix. Showers became a once-a-week luxury at the local swimming pool or motel room, and the dust stirred up by the daily winds a nuisance we tried to ignore. Our home for the first five months was a tent, our kitchen a one-burner camp stove. “I can’t believe you dragged me to this hell-hole!” screamed Reid the day the tent zipper broke and a cloud of horseflies covered him in painful bites. “You’re such a control freak!” I yelled back, after he rationed the number of times I could open the car doors and criticized my cob mix for the 10th time. I felt very far from the serene academia of Bryn Mawr, the dolce vita of Italy, the everyday conveniences of a standard home.
Our second month in the desert brought some welcome mind shifts, however. I attended a five-day natural plastering workshop at the whimsical mud home of master plasterer Carole Crews and met like-minded people from all walks of life. Lars, a young fisherman from Denmark, was on a months-long U.S. mission to discover as much about natural building as possible. Ruth, an environmental engineering student from British Columbia, shared my delight in throwing handfuls of chocolate-brown mud onto adobe walls. Miranda, a painter from nearby Pojoaque, revealed her own struggles to lessen her ecological footprint and later graciously opened her home to Reid and I during the frigid winter months. As we sat around the dinner table trading political convictions and life experiences, I felt new hope for our besieged planet blossoming in my heart. It did seem possible to change the world, with something as elementary as clumps of mud. My liberal arts education was veering off into exciting new territory.
Kristina Orchard-Hays ’95 stands by her newly plastered cob outhouse.
When I was attending Bryn Mawr in the early ’90s, an environmental science major did not yet exist. My forays into sustainability consisted of half-hearted attempts to participate in dorm recycling programs and the annual cleanup at the Philadelphia Zoo on Community Service Day. I buried myself in Latin translations and English literature and held out the vague hope that one day I could make a useful contribution to the environmental movement. It never occurred to me to make the transition from my head to my hands.
“No more reading!” Reid barks as I dive into a novel during the hottest part of the day, “Time to get back to work!” I sigh and return to the mud pit, where I stomp on a mixture of clay, sand, straw and water until it is firm enough for our walls. The courses go on slowly but dry within minutes under the intense, Southwestern sun. Our house resembles an ancient ruin, the walls uneven and crumbly to the touch, and I’m transported to my semester abroad in Rome, where the Centro (Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies) professor would intone, “if you would orient your maps in this direction and imagine two walls meeting at this corner...” I would squint at the map and then stare at the ruin in question at the forum, valiantly trying to conjure arches and columns and stairways. Now I find myself doing the same thing as Reid whips out drawing after architectural drawing on very spare bits of paper. One fall evening we drive up our rutted road and snag a hulking presence with our headlights. “What is that?” we exclaim in unison, and then laugh as we realize it is our house, sprouted from the earth after weeks of patient labor.
In September, we attend the San Geronimo Feast Day at the Taos Pueblo and watch painted clowns climb up the harvest pole erected in the center of the plaza as we eat Indian fry bread and honey. Again, I have an instant Bryn Mawr flashback, this time to Professor Susan Dean’s Native American literature class. I remember my ambivalence about studying an oral tradition and questioning its place in the written canon, my desire to see the desert landscapes and traditions I was reading about, and my combination of guilt and longing when a visiting Navajo elder enjoined our class to respect our mother earth. I feel as if I’ve stepped into one of Professor Dean’s lectures and am experiencing it viscerally rather than intellectually.
Kristina indulges in an afternoon siesta in the shade of the storage shed.
“New Mexico is the last third world country in the U.S.,” the locals joke, and there is a certain Wild West and maF1ana attitude here. The community consists of an often uneasy Anglo-Indigenous-Hispanic trinity, despite the tourist bureau’s insistence that all three cultures co-exist in perfect accord. At a passionate and controversial community meeting in March, I’m accused of possessing “white liberal guilt” by an angry Anglo man after I question the lack of intermingling between the Anglo and Hispanic cultures. Ironically, I’m seated next to Reid, the sole person of color in the room. The label is one I’ve become accustomed to, as it is often pinned on me when I reveal my privileged, liberal arts education. On many days, Reid and I feel like we have landed in a foreign country, or are part of a rural Peace Corps project as we navigate the local attitudes, resentments and politics. “I can’t believe you’re wasting your two degrees and years of education!” Reid’s mother tells him when she hears about our project. “I can’t respect you for not holding down a ‘real job’,” my sister informs me. Yet, we both feel we are using more of our education than ever, in immediate and meaningful ways. Not a day goes by that we don’t confront a new experience, attitude, or process.
The week before Thanksgiving, we hammer down the last of our ceiling boards minutes before the first snowfall of the season blankets the mesa. The next day finds us shoveling six inches of snow off the roof and swaddling our entire building in a massive tarp. On Thanksgiving Day, we nail down our corrugated steel roof and give thanks for the gift of shelter, which possesses profound new significance.
The winter passes slowly—we install an 80-watt solar panel to power our one lightbulb, and spend the evenings huddled under blankets, reading and dreaming.
The strawbale storage shed with the foundation for the cob studio in the foreground, and a camping tent in the background.
In April, a fellow Mawrter asks to visit our off-the-grid project and I’m wracked with anxiety. Whatever will she make of our composting bucket toilet system, our lack of water and phone lines? I need not have worried. In true Mawrter style, Brei reacts with grace and aplomb and we spend her visit walking among the sagebrush, reminiscing about our college days, and exploring the local hot springs. I feel as if I have passed an important exam.
The same month, we are asked to present our project at the annual Adobe Association of the Southwest conference and again are plagued with stress—what will the building professionals make of our puddled adobe/ cob cottage? We make the case in our paper that puddled adobe and cob are essentially the same and that puddled adobe has potential as a current and future Southwestern building style. Reid and I almost come to blows over the paper and power point presentation. “You’re too descriptive and anecdotal!” he tells me. “This is totally irrelevant. You liberal arts majors!” “You’re too linear and dull,” I retort. “You overuse the passive voice!” Somehow, we manage to meld our disparate styles and a month later, we’re up in a stage in El Rito, stunned by the audience’s avid interest and support. We’re mobbed with questions and comments afterwards, and meet like-minded builders from Italy, Egypt and Mexico. “Your itemized list of expenses reminded me of Thoreau’s list in Walden,” a man who had built a cabin in Canada tells us. The world seems small and full of hope.
The next morning, I’m invited to join a table of international female architects and builders to discuss planetary cooperation and a future exhibition that highlights the connection between women and mud building. I watch a video of female villagers in Burkina Faso joining together to build a newly-married couple their first home. I see slides of a beautiful adobe house in Cairo, home to three strong sisters. I talk to an architect from Milan, who shows me her portfolio of mud furniture and restoration projects. As I gaze at the diverse group of woman gathered around the table, I am once more reminded of Bryn Mawr. “Together we can change the world!” a Mexican woman exclaims. I smile and think of my original post-graduation goals. Two days later at the Taos library, Reid and I encounter another young couple who has just bought a plot of land and is getting ready to mix cob. “I seem to spend my entire time reading novels!” the woman confesses. “Can we check out your building?” the man asks. “This is the hardest thing we’ve ever tried,” they both agree. “Wait a year,” I promise them, “and it will all come together.”
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