The Strawbale Cottage

Building this little structure was our project for the first summer on the land. Datura and Sunsets 035We got it finished just in time for snowy weather. It has endured and enjoyed much experimenting with different earth plasters.

It has passive solar design features such as appropriately sized southern windows, insulated window coverings, thermal mass in the form of stored water to regulate indoor temperatures, and of course plenty of insulation. The roof is supported by a post and beam structure and the ceiling is insulated with straw and sawdust.

The strawbale walls were erected in a weekend with the help of several friends. The inside and outside of the strawbales have been covered with a mud plaster. The interior of the strawbale is 170 square feet.  The interior has many personal touches which have creatively come into being and will continue to, as it becomes ‘finished’ over the years and with the different hands that care for it.

Amanda and Andy lived in this house for 4 years while working on the ‘Mothership.’ Now use it for our Residency Program.

The Yurt

We purchased this from a disreputable company and getting a semi-functional productP2 was like a migraine for over two years. Thankfully it’s finally a decent structure. The wind doesn’t blow in and all forms of precipitation are now kept outside. We recently constructed a functional skylight, just in time for the historic snowfall in this picture. Now we use it for sleeping quarters for interns and volunteers in the summer, as a library, and storage space.

While yurts are somewhat popular for off-grid locations, they require a fairly constant heat input in the winter to keep them warm.  We prefer structures with more thermal mass and insulation that don’t require active heating systems as much.  The yurt is basically a tent, but a little better insulated. But not much better. It is great housing during the internship, however.  With the window and skylight open, the constant draft keeps it cool. We have gone through many home made designs for the skylight, and the current one is awesome.  It has a counter weight on the outside and easily opens with a spiral latch inside.

The Shell

This is our summer kitchen and living room.IMG_0138 It is equipped with running water, a propane stove, and kitchen cabinets that were picked up off the curb in Santa Fe. We used mostly salvaged lumber for this project, just as we did for the Strawbale Cottage.

The Shell was an exercise in timber framing techniques. One post is from a dead pinon tree from the property, and one is a large piece of driftwood which flowed down to us during a flood event. The view can’t be beat, as far as living rooms go. Many an hour has passed under this shelter in the beanbag chair contemplating the curves of sandstone and sky.

The Flicker House

Several dedicated Ampersand family members have devoted time and money to make this structure possible.IMG_1609 It’s the second little strawbale on our land, and is still in process. Knowing these folks, the finished product is going to be quite stylie. The construction consists of framed walls supporting the roof, a south facing sliding door, and other passive solar considerations.  It’s called the Flicker house after the birds who liked to nest in the strawbale walls before they were mudded over.  Now they live in birdhouses under the eves.

The Mothership

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This is the largest building at Ampersand, around 1000 square feet, which includes a small attached greenhouse.  It is a hybrid structure of Earthbag rammed earth, strawbale, and salvage post and beam construction for the south side with the greenhouse.  The main floor is a poured earth floor finished with linseed oil and beeswax.  The interior finish plasters are all earth, as well as the exterior plasters.177

We are quite proud of the passive solar aspect of this building. The structure is earth-bermed, using the stable temperature of the earth for keeping us comfortable. The pantry is built into the northern wall, mostly underground, and keeps wonderful root cellar temperatures during the winter months. The bathroom is along the south side, housing a solar water heating system. The sunken attached greenhouse makes use of greywater from the kitchen and bathroom, and acts as a solar heater as well as a food garden. There is a small wood stove in the house for additional heat during winter storms, but it hasn’t seen much use.

Amanda and Andy live in this house and use it to host workshops and other events as well.

Designing with Natural Patterns

In Northern New Mexico, most rural folks heat their homes with wood. Winter conversations can revolve around where you got your wood, how well it burns, and how much is left. We politely listen during these exchanges because it is impolite to brag. We rarely need to start a fire in our hearth. Our home is designed to capture the heat of the sun and store it, even through a cloudy day or two.

By designing around natural patterns we have created a living structure where the systems interact seamlessly. Heat rises, water falls, the earth’s temperature is fairly stable. We can count on these things. So this is where we started with our house design.

It is built into the Northwest side of a hill. The roof has 14 inches of blown cellulose for insulation (R51), and the attached greenhouse acts as a heater in the winter. The South facing greenhouse is slightly sunken, helping not only with heat circulation but also with utilizing our greywater without pumps and filters. We are very careful about what we put down the drain, and all our greywater drains into a processing bed which grows food year round.

We kept the hot water system small and localized around the south of the house where the naturally thermosyphoning solar water system is located, requiring no pumps or heat exchangers. Our water systems draws rain caught from the roof, stored in a 2,500 gallon cistern, into the pantry for pressurizing(the rest of our site is pressurized just from gravity) with a pump and tank. Our ceramic filter sits on the side of our kitchen sink and we fill it whenever we are waiting for the hot water to arrive.

The things that make us happy are fairly simple. We like to be warm (but not too warm), dry, and well fed. Meeting these basic needs without making major impacts on the Earth and it’s inhabitants is an accomplishment in itself for humans of this era. This brings a peace of mind that not many folks have these days. Any comfort and convenience beyond that, we consider a luxury. These are some examples of the luxury we live in:

Freshly picked vegetables from the attached greenhouse year round.

Solar oven accessible from inside the house via the Solar Wall Oven design.

Solar hot water nearly all the time- our storage tank is located in the house and well insulated.

The root cellar/pantry is conveniently located just off the kitchen and tucked into the North hill for winter food storage.

Rainwater passed through a ceramic filter makes delicious clean local drinking water- a rarity in our area of wells that are hundreds of feet deep and water thick with minerals.
Our house is made with earth, strawbales, and salvaged wood. The walls are round and finished with fine earth plasters. It has a cave/womb-like feel but with plenty of light. Our earth floor is sealed with linseed oil and beeswax and is always a favorite aspect for our visitors.

As we see it, our task as humans now is to reclaim our place as creatures on this earth. We can be part of a healthy ecosystem, not destroyers of it. Our house helps us retrain ourselves to cultivate our attention towards the immediate environment. The comfort of our home depends on our interaction- a far cry from the common ‘climate controlled’ standards. Sure, we designed and built the house to be comfortable; it’s soft, round, earthen, bright, cool in the summer, and warm in the winter. But it’s also designed to encourage intimate relationships with our resources. The tank gauge on our cistern just outside the front door keeps us in touch with our most scarce resource. Our thermometer in the greenhouse and in the main house are large and easy to read. That helps us decide when to open or close the doors to the greenhouse for ultimate efficiency. Our voltage meter is easy to read, encouraging informed and quick decisions about our solar electricity usage. Integrating these feedback systems into our home has helped us stay in touch with the sun, the rain, the sky- the elements that are essential to our survival.

We made this house so it would use resources efficiently- not just in the building process, but in the systems we use once it is built. We have focused on simplicity for easy maintenance, and natural materials for our health and sanity. It is customized to our environment. We have a lot of sun, so we use it as much as possible. We don’t have a lot of water, and our infrastructure reflects it’s preciousness. All of these factors make our home the most comfortable human habitation we have ever experienced. It not only reflects our values, but also all the sweat and love we put into it’s creation.