March 2015

UNM-Taos: Skills Development in Sustainable Design


Asha Stout


Within a half-hour drive from the University of New Mexico-Taos Construction Technology Department’s Green Trades Training Center, one can find more than 900 years of living architectural history ranging from the historic Taos Pueblo—a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site—to the Earthship Biotecture compound across the Río Grande Gorge Bridge.

Even before the Chevron mine in Questa closed last year, jobs in Taos County were scarce. To best serve the local population, UNM-Taos acts as both a community college for northern New Mexicans, providing traditional vocational education (now called career technology), as well as a pathway towards upper-division and graduate coursework through UNM’s main campus in Albuquerque. Housed in the old vocational technology building at the downtown campus of Taos High School, the Green Trades Training Center has a unique and varied program designed to facilitate the development of 21st-century job skills.

Like Earthship Biotecture’s founder Michael Reynolds, Construction Technology Department Chairman and Program Director Mark Goldman considers the Rocky Mountain Spine—the bioregion that spans from the Pecos River in north-central New Mexico to the headwaters of the Colorado—an ideal place to design and test solar housing prototypes. This extreme environment requires special design considerations. Its harsh winters, hot, dry summers, steep mountain valleys and exposed plateaus require reliable heating and adequate cooling, sometimes on the same day.

To address these challenges, Construction Technology students can gain specific skills, from welding, plumbing and carpentry to introductory courses in more complex disciplines such as sustainable agriculture, green building and solar hydronic systems. Earthship Biotecture is partnering with UNM-Taos to offer a popular new class on Earthship housing. Students can also register for Intro to Green Business, Computer-Aided Drafting and other courses.

This spring, the UNM-Taos Sustainability Institute green-building class will be engaged in a collaborative design-build project on campus. After studying affordable-housing challenges in Taos County together in the Green Trades Training Center, they will design and build a mobile, tiny house. Materials under consideration include conventional stud framing and dense-pack cellulose insulation, as well as radical alternatives such as inoculated mushroom building blocks that literally grow together around a waste-fiber substrate to form insulation and walls. For those interested in following the institute or this project, a link to a video blog will be posted at

The institute is developing intensives both for local residents and for those interested in “destination learning” in Taos. Last August, a new venture, the Humanitarian Design Seminar, featured presenters from India, the Philippines and the United Kingdom. More than 250 individuals attended four days of lectures and field trips. Keynote speaker Brian Bell, executive director of Design Corps and the Public Interest Design Institute, told the audience that, in his opinion, nearly every problem in society can be viewed as a design issue. Participants explored topics from acequias and local agriculture to upcycling and economic development. The Trimble Corporation, which owns SketchUp, a radical new 3D-design platform, sent one of its top trainers to teach tips and tricks. On the final day, some of Earthship Biotecture’s global leaders gave an overview and tour of Taos’ trademark off-grid development. The seminar ended with a locavore feast at the Farmhouse Café.

With the successful rollout of the UNM-Taos Sustainability Institute, the Green Trades Training Center is starting to get national and international attention. This year, the institute will offer one- and two-week hands-on intensives with evening gatherings and featured speakers in a lecture hall. There will be plenaries, discussion groups and collaborative design charrettes to synthesize, cross-pollinate and expand on the core content. Tentatively scheduled for late June, subjects will include sustainable agriculture, tiny-house design and construction, Earthship Biotecture, 3D drafting with Trimble SketchUp, and electrical theory. Check for details and to confirm exact dates.

Mark Goldman said he is excited that there is so much interest in these issues. A veteran of over 25 years in the construction industry in New Mexico, the Distinguished Alumni of Boston Architectural College member noted that “we are in the perfect time and place here at UNM-Taos to seek new solutions for a variety of housing ideas that link the best of the old and the new. We are developing a unique higher-education hybrid that is intended to be highly inclusive to anyone interested in joining us.”

Information on summer classes will be available on the UNM-Taos website: later this spring.


Asha Stout serves on the faculty UNM–Taos, where he teaches hands-on building and design courses in green technology. He views “safe” housing as an unalienable right, ecological restoration as a grave necessity, and is passionate about the pursuit of Lomakatsi, or life in balance.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Related Articles