There was nothing really out of the ordinary when we contacted the Reents family in Jefferson, Colorado through warmshowers.org. We emailed them, they called back, and we set up the time and date that we could come through and stay at their house. They offered us whatever space they had, and we were grateful for anything they could provide on our stop between Fairplay and Denver.
It wasn’t until we got a day from Jefferson that we learned they were building an Earthship, which is a home built with natural and recycled materials that utilizes sunlight and a tire-filled berm to regulate the indoor temperature. Yes it sounds fancy, but trust me, it’s not. However, the house LOOKS quite fancy, and you’d never know that it was built with old tires, and bricks made of mud and straw.
This was the opportunity we’d been looking for since before we even started our trip! Being environmentalists and very interested in sustainable/green living, what better opportunity would we have to learn about how it all works than by meeting a family involved in it and picking their brains about the Earthship? We would be able to see how you can turn tires, straw, old sliding glass doors, recycled bottles and cans, and even dirt from your front yard into a gorgeous place to live!
You could feel the warmth (both literally AND figuratively) of the fully sustainable, off-the-grid home of the Reents from the minute we walked in the door. There was Peggy, an excitable and sweet woman who is always happy, and always a positive influence to the world around her, and often sounds like she’s out of breath from her excitement; Jo, her Thai husband, and oracle of all things that involve natural building, who has a great smile and a great way of making you feel at home and part of the family; and Nate, a soft-spoken, burly lumberjack of a man who is incapable of harming even the smallest fly, and who is also incredibly patient, considering we had no idea what we were doing when he was teaching us how to mix the adobe for the Earthship’s floor.
As a bit of back story, Peggy, Nate, and Jo all live in Chiang Mai, Thailand nine months out of the year with other members of their family, where they’re working on an ongoing project, Pun Pun Thailand, an organic farm, seed-saving operation, and sustainable living and learning center. After working with adobe building in Thailand for several years, the family decided to push their skills a step further by building a sustainable compound in the extreme environments of Colorado. The family bought 42 acres in Jefferson, Colorado several years ago and built their own sustainable, off-the-grid home (to code, despite many efforts by contractors to thwart their project–but more on that later), and every summer for the past five years have come back to America to build an Earthship a couple hundred feet from the first sustainable home. The parents stay in the big house, the kids stay in the Earthship and everyone enjoys it together.
Much like the Earthship, the first house was built with straw bale, plaster, adobe bricks, and various other repurposed materials. Do you have a picture in your head what this place looks like? I can guarantee you that you would have no idea this house was built with these materials by the look of it.
Once we got in the house, we chatted with Jo (Nate and Peggy were on their way from Denver and had not arrived yet) for a long time about everything and anything that had to do with natural building, sustainable living, building in Thailand versus building in America, and positive ways of being. Jo was glad to share his insight and his knowledge of all of the above, and we listened, riveted on his every word. Not only is Jo incredibly smart, but he is also a natural in front of the camera. Jo’s wisdom and depth of knowledge on the subject has made him a kind of guru in Thailand. He is often interviewed by Thai newspapers, tourists, and other various people with cameras about how he teaches families and communities the proper techniques for constructing and designing their own self-made home.
He has been a part of a countless number of projects, and is a wealth of information on how to build and live to better suit their community and their life. There is even a website for all of their projects with instructions how to do it yourself! Are you getting the point that this guy is amazing?
Peggy and Nate returned, and it was like we already knew them. We hung out and talked some more, shared stories from the road, and learned about what it was like to buy 42 acres in Jefferson, Colorado and create your own sustainable compound by yourself. It was exciting and informative, and we couldn’t get enough!
In exchange for their hospitality and kindness, we volunteered to help them pour the living room floor of the Earthship. The next day the sun was shining brightly, the wind was only slightly blowing, and we were eager to get started. I’d say this combination was perfect mixing up a floor! We begun by learning about how the floor is made. By mixing a ratio of 4:1 parts water to sand and clay, you create the natural mix of adobe that hardens and creates a great floor for the Earthship. Jo and Nate showed us how they were mixing, and after a few minutes we were in it! One of us would mix, another would add the sand, while one would add clay, and then we would do that over and over again, until the mix was adequate for application.
We listened to some tunes and had some great conversations as the day went on, and we really made some good progress while understanding just how big a task we had before us. Jo, Peggy, Nate, and the rest of the family had taken five years to get this far, and the work was nearly complete. And to be honest I think they were as pleased to have us there as we were to BE there! They were excited to see the floor come together, and we were absolutely thrilled to have the chance to experience it with them, and even though it wasn’t even our house, we still felt like we were a part of the family, creating this house for ourselves and our friends. The work was tough, the buckets of sand were heavy, and the water was ice cold, but we were diligent and ended up completing the entire floor in about seven hours!
I can’t emphasize enough how much we learned that day. We learned about mixing and pouring adobe obviously, but we also learned how much it really takes build one of these houses. ESPECIALLY when you’re doing it by yourself. They design the house, they buy/find the materials, and they put those materials on the house all BY THEMSELVES (and sometimes with friends/cyclists!). It doesn’t get more personal than that. The house is unique. The house is made BY them FOR them. It harnesses what the Earth creates, and uses only what it needs to operate. Does it need to be more complex than that?
Sure, this may be far out on the “hippie” scale for some of you, but I can assure you, as someone who loves all the greatness electricity and running water provides, this place is awesome. Imagine living in the fort that you built when you were a kid. Now imagine that fort having electricity and running water, all which is given to you by nature, that you never have to pay for!
It may not be the most modern, art-deco house on the block, but it’s definitely the one with the most personality. In a world with cookie-cutter houses and McMansions in gated communities, the Earthship is the cool, 50-year old bar in the sketchy part of town that everyone goes to because of the great beer selection and antique pinball machines.
When we were done busting our humps, we realized that it was great giving back to someone. We have spent our whole trip getting pampered and spoiled by hosts and onlookers helping us out in any way they can, and this was our way of giving back in the way that we could.
By now Peggy and the boys are in Thailand, where they live the other, more tropical part of their lives, while we peddle our way towards the colder parts of our journey. Even know they are on the other side of the country, we will forever take with us the lessons we learned and the laughs we shared on the Jefferson family compound, and hopefully encourage others to live a more simple, self-sustaining, fulfilling life like Peggy and the boys.
To learn more about the amazing work Peggy, Nate, Jo and the rest of the family are up to check out Pun Pun Thailand.