Rebekah Zablud Azen

The factor of land in home affordability has been discussed in preceding articles with emphasis upon the Community Land Trust as the most efficacious means of securing permanently affordable homeownership for this and future generations. We now turn to housing and the factors that make it affordable.

There are three fundamental and integrative concepts involved. The first is the house itself or the building, the second is labor, and the third is intelligent design for resources and energy, including infrastructure. When these three factors are properly analyzed and stitched together, a house will not only be uncommonly affordable, but will prove to be the most environmentally harmonious among all green building approaches, and the most self-sufficient, free of dependency-producing, external inputs.

“Affordable homeownership” should fulfill some very fundamental conditions, and if it does not, then perhaps it is not worthy of the designation. Common sense, intelligence, and information – not high tech, compelling advertising, or high investment, are what are required to ensure true affordability.

Small is Still Beautiful

With as much surety as death and taxes, home size has been increasing in an unrelenting march towards obesity. Prior to the bloated era of SUV and Hummer homes reaching a median of more that 2,500 square feet in 2008, homes were much smaller historically. The first North American homes were very small, one-room, one-story structures averaging less than 450 sq. feet. Bedrooms were an invention of the late 18th century and only the well-to-do could afford such luxuries. Early 20th century bungalows were between 600-800 sq. feet. By 1950, the average home size in the US was 983 sq. feet. In just over five decades between 1950 and 2008, the median square footage of a typical home jumped 150%.

Despite the fact that less room was needed as society modernized and domestic production was removed to the factory for food, clothing, energy and other necessities, homes continued to grow ever larger. Paralleling these changes in domestic production, households were growing ever smaller as families had fewer children. But home size did not decrease. Homeownership, like nothing else, symbolizes success in America, and there are now excess rooms available for every possible want: home offices, computer rooms, media/entertainment centers, bars, saunas, laundry, hobby, guest, and exercise rooms.

Concurrently, land and lot sizes have diminished as land prices have gone up. The two-story home was an invention which increased house size while decreasing the need for land. Overall, house size continues to increase while land size contracts, like some comic strip character with an oversized chest on spindly legs.

Parting ways with the bigger-is-better McMansion trend is the arrival of the Small House Movement, a refreshing new development. Their professed mission is to promote simpler, more sustainable living with less use of resources, and less impact on the planet. They promote awareness of the “ecological, economic, and psychological toll that excessive housing takes on our lives,” and support the credo, “live simply so that others may simply live.” They promote housing that is downsized, beginning as small as 140 sq. feet, but there is no “right number,” just a smaller square footage.

It is disconcerting that what is so obvious about affordable housing should need to be pointed out; that size matters and that we should be attending to this most basic tenet. How much room does one really need? If 600-800 sq. feet was sufficient in the early 20th century, why not today? Doesn’t size, more than most anything else, contribute to affordability, not only in terms of materials and labor, but also energy use? Why do we overlook this most basic condition for affordable housing? We need to become smaller and minimize, not just with affordable housing but with all housing as a first principle of green building.

Build only to the extent that is necessary. It saves on materials, labor, and energy. There are many ingenious ways to conserve space and still make a home livable and comfortable. Just recently it was reported that in Los Angeles, apartments of 350 sq. feet are a growing trend due to the ever-increasing escalation of land values. Ordinary, middle-class Americans are having to adapt to less space and use it more constructively, which ironically enough, due to the limits of land privatization, is producing at least one beneficial result.

Building on the idea of a smaller house is the practice of incremental building, as commonly seen in “third world” countries. The central part of the house is built to support all living functions, and as money becomes available, rooms or extensions are added. In this way, building can proceed as money is earned, without having to wait 30 years to save enough, or take out a monstrous loan that keeps the borrower indebted for life.

Affordable building materials are natural, local in origin, with low embodied energy and low transport costs. Straw bale, adobe bricks and mud are perfect examples of inexpensive resources that we have locally in abundance or can produce easily. The cost of adobes for a 500 sq. foot home is so minimal it’s shocking. Just 1620 adobes or less would be needed. At .97 for each, that amounts to just $1,571. If I made my adobes, it would cost $22 for the dirt to make 75 bricks, for a total cost of about $475; less than a week of work on many a salary. Straw bale is just as inexpensive. These figures put affordable within reach of anyone.

Used building materials such as fixtures, tile, wood, sinks and faucets can be purchased through places like the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store at a fraction of the original price.

High tech is endlessly and shamelessly promoted because it serves green industries, but the way to go for affordability is low tech, from passive solar design for heating and cooling, to rainwater catchment for indoor (and outdoor) water use, solar batch water heating, compost toilets, window ventilation, natural shading, natural solar lighting, a small wood stove for backup heat, and more. These systems not only cost less to implement but are also much easier and cost-effective to maintain.

A Liberated Context for “Organized Labor”

Next to land, labor is another major expense. Very simply, the bigger the home, the more labor is required, which raises the price of the home. Labor costs can be substantially reduced by staying small.

The joy of building one’s own home is certainly a natural human endeavor but like so many things in modern life, has been “abducted” by professionals. We’ve given over control of so much: our health to the medical, pharmaceutical and insurance industries, our food supply to industrial agriculture, our education to pedagogic bureaucrats, our housing to developers, and even our dying to the merchants of death. But building a home is not rocket science. It’s been done for millennia with materials of the earth: hides, brick, sticks, stones, mud and mortar. Building codes can be intimidating but they needn’t stop us from assuming control. Professional guidance can be employed where needed.

The great thing about Community Land Trusts is that they can supply a ready labor force, as they have at Tierra Madre for example, in Sunland Park, NM. The homes, selling on average for $23,000, are affordable not only because the land is held in trust but because the labor comes from the people and families of the CLT. Members’ contributions of labor help one another as a community. The old barn raising idea is ancient but can still serve us well today. Traditional, cooperative, home building efforts break down where land has been commoditized and privatized, but can be resurrected when land is returned to communities.

Mirroring and emulating the natural world, our ancestors engaged in mutual aid to obtain all they needed, including shelter. We, on the other hand, live in an economic order based on competition and have forgotten that the web of life is sustained because of mutual aid. “Survival of the fittest,” is not the first dictum of life, but rather “mutual aid,” as discovered by Alexander Kropotkin, the 19th century scientist and social philosopher. The natural world is organized toward interdependence in a billion-zillion ways from the Earth’s relation to the Sun, Moon and stars, to the largest organisms and the smallest atom. Darwin’s discoveries have been blown entirely out of proportion to serve powerful interests. They are only valid when placed within the larger context of mutual aid. We would do well to return to the natural order, assisting others and discovering the benefits that accrue, not only to the whole but to oneself as well.

An Earthship State of Mind

Intelligent design for resource and energy use is really simple. Work with nature. Harmonize with the natural elements. Use what we are given from the sun, slope, shade, earth and wind to conserve resources and use energy wisely, so that outside inputs are either minimized or non-existent. This is the bedrock for quintessential affordability.

Mainstream society uses the resources of this planet like we are on an extended luxury cruise ship and have the right to endless amenities brought from the other side of the globe with no thought as to the limits of the natural world. This entitlement mentality pervades homeowners of traditionally built homes and green homes. “Green” homes can easily compete with the most inflated, excessive, indulgent, exorbitant, and extravagant buildings on the planet. Substituting green technology for traditional technology is not a panacea. Allowing market forces to dictate the agenda leads to our collective detriment. What really needs changing is our fundamental relationship to the natural world, a restored sense of natural limitation and balance, reflected in the homes we inhabit. What we need is a new environmental ethos for green building.

Instead of looking outside of what we are given for what we don’t have, a sure sign of the entitlement mentality, we need to refocus and see all that we do have, and use those resources appropriately.

Right here in NM, we have everything needed to radically revise this whole green building equation and we have a model from which to work. It’s called the Earthship. Michael Reynolds, an architectural visionary from Taos, NM, developed the Earthship model over 40 years ago. He wasn’t looking to build affordable housing. He was looking for a way for people to survive a planetary crisis due to human exploitation of the earth’s resources; when peak oil, peak water and peak resources of every sort have run their course. What he discovered was a new design for human habitation, housing that aligns with limitless natural phenomena. The Earthship concept is a dwelling that rides the earth’s “wind” and “waves.” As Reynolds says, this is about “riding the earth,” not harnessing, capturing or exploiting. He says that our space module is the earth, and we are born out of its systems and rhythms. The earth can sustain us if we but learn how the systems work and properly align ourselves.

Reynolds devised an architecture that aligns with the earth rather than the earth having to align with us; a formula for sanity and a return to environmental harmony. But there is more. The earth alignment concept manifests as a self-contained, self-sufficient home that provides for all of its own needs without any outside life support systems for heating, cooling, water, light, power and sewage treatment.

What could be more affordable than a home that doesn’t require our supporting it, like we support the government, the military, the corporations, the bankers, the landowners, the car, the education we need to get a decent paying job, paying monthly on a gas bill, an electric bill and a water bill? An Earthship is a home that produces everything it needs, not this year or next year, but every year over its entire earthly life. This isn’t a modest reduction in crippling energy expenses. This is freedom!

Building science has evolved systems that go beyond and improve upon what Reynolds originally designed, but the primary components still apply. What we need to do is take the primary components and upgrade them where it is warranted. For example, space heating and cooling in the Earthship are achieved with passive solar design using correct siting, accurate orientation to the sun, thermal mass, ventilation, and shading. Minimal backup heat is required even in very cold temperatures. Today it would make more sense to combine thermal mass in the floors with superior insulation provided by straw bale in the exterior walls to reduce fluctuations in temperature and hold heat or cool air in more effectively. We could also insulate under the floors and in the roof, rather than using dirt, which is not a good insulator. Other measures would include vertical rather than slanted glass to mitigate excessive summer heating, and better use of overhangs, ventilation and shading. The massive amounts of dirt that are piled over an Earthship are designed to keep the temperature from going below the constant earth temperature of 58 degrees about eight feet underground. A sound idea, but here again, straw bale is a superior insulator, requires less labor, and there’s no risk of radon exposure. Backup heat requirements would remain very minimal to nonexistent. A small woodstove or a fireplace in a well designed, passive solar, thermal mass home would be all that is needed on occasion.

Earthships collect all their water for indoor use from rain/snowmelt catchment, and they do not have underground wells. If one is conservative with water, the rain that falls from the sky is plenty enough, even in high desert, arid country. Throughout most of NM, about 10-20 inches of rain/snow fall annually, with the higher elevations typically receiving more. Climate maps show exact figures. An average American uses about 100 gallons a day or an astounding 36,000 gallons a year. One should be able to get by on 20 gallons a day or less by remaining vigilant about water use; by bathing a few times a week instead of daily, using composting toilets which are water-free, eliminating dish washing machines, running clothes washers weekly or bi-weekly, and hanging clothes out to dry. A 600 sq. foot roof on a small house located in Mora County where precipitation is around 20 inches per year can catch 7,476 gallons per year, enough for 20 gallons a day. The formula for determining how much water can be caught is the following: square footage of roof x annual average inches of rainfall x .623.

The amount of water to be obtained can be extended by utilizing the rooftops of sheds or barns for catchment. Water can also be extended by reusing it. Earthships recycle water four times. It is first used for bathing or washing and then fed to indoor plants. It is used a third time to flush ultra-low-flush toilets, and a fourth time to water outdoor foliage. The beauty of water catchment is that it forces us to become aware of water as a precious resource and to live within our means. It also safeguards water in the aquifers and allows them to replenish. As for affordability, the costly expense of drilling a well is eliminated.

Hot water can be readily obtained from simple solar batch heaters that capture the sun’s heat. These units contain both the heating element and the tank in one, and use gravity to operate. They are low-tech systems that are easy to operate and maintain, and can be custom built without great difficulty. One can utilize these systems effectively by conserving hot water and by remaining flexible as to when hot water is available due to the sun’s appearance, but in NM that is normally not an issue.

As for power and electric; again, as in space heating, lighting and hot water heating, the most sensible option is the sun, an abundant and underutilized free source of energy here in NM. Electrical needs are really minimal for anyone who has simplified one’s life and living arrangements. The only appliance that needs constant electricity is a refrigerator. Electrical lights can be minimized with natural lighting obtained from proper passive solar house design. The stove and perhaps a clothes washer are the only other appliances that require electricity. All the appliances and lighting should be energy efficient. The only other electrical need is for water pumps to push water and perhaps a few other sundry technical devices. In all, electrical needs are reduced substantially because all of the systems discussed avoid the use of electricity (space heating/cooling, lighting, hot water), and combined with judicious use, the need for photovoltaics are minimized.

As with systems that do not depend on electricity, a similar savings in water can be obtained though the use of composting toilets. There is no polluting black water to contend with that requires treatment. Composting toilets can be purchased or built from local materials for near nothing. The caveat with composting toilets is that they need to be utilized properly to avoid the spread of bacterial contamination. The solar composting toilet engineered by Reynolds eliminates this possible hazard. The toilet is in effect a solar oven. It heats human waste to such a high temperature that there is nothing left but a handful of harmless ash.

The Sustainable Development Testing Site Act

Earthships, or some modification on the theme, are self-contained and self-sufficient. They do not require any inputs from an infrastructure or grid for water, gas, electric or sewage. Infrastructure costs are not only substantial in fiscal terms, adding to the unaffordability of homes, but require massive amounts of energy to construct, maintain and deliver resources, and inflict huge energy losses. As an example, coal-fired power plants provide about 65% of our electrical energy. About 2/3 of that energy is lost at the power plant, so the system is only 33% efficient (this is what accounts for a large proportion of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere). Of that 33%, most of the energy is lost a second time in delivery to the homeowner so that only about 10% -14% reaches the home.

It’s a crying shame that these archaic, costly, polluting, resource depleting, energy inefficient, unnecessarily burdensome infrastructure systems are required by state and local law in every jurisdiction in the US.

But New Mexico stands alone in birthing an alternative. The Sustainable Development Testing Site Act (SDTSA), enacted by the NM Legislature on July 1, 2007, is watershed legislation. This amazing, one-of-a-kind law, brought to fruition through the unceasing efforts of Michael Reynolds and Rep. Bobby Gonzales (D-Taos), defines a sustainable development as “a live-in environment composed of structures and systems that inherently produce utilities and life-support systems free of existing conventional grids and disposal systems.” Under the Act, sustainable development includes the provision of onsite energy via renewable resources, provision of water while minimizing withdrawal from ground and surface water, provision of sewage treatment with zero discharge, reuse of materials discarded by modern society, and the development of organic foods and fuel.

The intention of the Act is clearly stated as “approval of areas for non-industrial research and testing designed to reduce the consumption of and dependence on natural resources by residential development.”

It allows any parcel of land of two acres or less, outside of municipal boundaries, to be designated as a sustainable development site, obtainable with a permit from a county planning commission. The testing site permit allows for, a) sustainable development research that can be conducted within the site, and b) county codes, ordinances, rules or permits that are not applicable to the permittee and the research. A person desiring a testing site permit submits an application to the planning commission where the proposed development testing site is located. A public hearing follows and the planning commission hears comments from all interested persons. Following the hearing, the planning commission makes a decision on whether or not to issue a permit.

A two-acre parcel of land for residential development sounds small for a sustainable community but actually quite a number of homes can be situated within that amount of acreage. Historically, villagers throughout the world lived in close proximity for reasons of safety, assistance, social well-being, community cohesion, and intelligent use of resources. Here in NM, Pueblo people traditionally lived in apartment-like dwellings. At Earthship Village Ecologies (EVE), one of the Earthship sites in Taos County, they are in the process of building residential homes for 25 people on a 2-acre SDTSA parcel. A Community Land Trust could have any number of acres and devote a 2-acre parcel specifically for residential use, while the rest of the land is used for farmland, wilderness preservation, open space, etc. With a larger parcel of CLT land, perhaps it is possible to use another 2-acre parcel in some other location for more residential and community development. The law is not clear as to how many two-acre parcels could be designated a SDTSA site within a larger parcel of land and where these sites might be located in proximity to one another. As with any new development of great significance, it will take the efforts of many people utilizing the new law to test and expand the boundaries. But surely, in time, as resource and energy constraints continue to mount, the two-acre limitation will be but a memory and the skeletal remains of infrastructure grids a shocking testament to a bygone era.

In summary, truly affordable homeownership can be obtained by putting the pieces together. The formula is simple: small, Earthship-type, self-sufficient homes located on SDTSA sites within a Community Land Trust. The end result is exceedingly splendid: the resurrection of affordability, self-sufficiency, independence, community, sovereignty and environmental sustainability.

* If anyone has land to donate for an emerging rural, self-sufficient, sustainable CLT, please contact Rebekah (contact info below).

To be continued next month. Part 6, the finale, will be a summary of the Kidnapped series, touching on some of the profound and far-reaching implications for our future. This article is also available online at The Santa Fe New Mexican website

Rebekah Zablud Azen is a long-time student of traditional indigenous lifeways, non-revisionist history, economics, and land tenure issues – passports to understanding humanity’s present predicament and enabling us to identify practical solutions for survival and restored balance in a new era. Rebekah can be reached at 505.424.9475 or