Blacks Crossing Photography and Writing | solar living 101

solar living 101

May 07, 2017  •  13 Comments

This week, Fred and I celebrate the 40th anniversary of our first solar house. Then, as now, we felt strongly about energy conservation, and, on 10 May 1977, we embarked on the construction of our first solar home.  Fred and I built it all by hand, without power tools.  Fred finished building the bed on Thanksgiving day, and put the turkey in the woodburning cookstove oven, while I worked as a DJ at the country radio station in Grants.  That night, we slept in a bed for the first time since the building began.  We had spent the summer in a pup tent.  

But let me go back to the beginning.  Reminiscent of the New Mexico Blizzard of 2017 last weekend, it snowed shortly after we arrived at Bluewater Lake between Gallup and Grants where our land was located.  What can we say?  It was spring in New Mexico.  Our mission was to take care of the most immediate necessity, which meant building an outhouse.  The finest in the county, it was an insulated, two-seater with a Formica bench, and a window. The pit was vented through the roof with a solar chimney and kept the seating area free of bad smells.  It served us well for the next three and half years, despite the fact that at -30 degrees, our body heat had to melt the ice and warm up the seats. Here is the outhouse.  Obviously, haircuts were out of the question at that point.  Our friend, Debra Harbaugh, took this photograph.

The other mission was to finish building the house as quickly as possible and before the next snow, which could have been in October.  Fortunately, it was not.   First in that process was the excavation of the house site to put the floor three feet underground where the natural heat of the earth would help us stay warm.  That was followed by roughly three months of stone work. Shown below is a photograph taken from the windmill of the house footprint after the completion of the stone work.  It was, by far, the most labor intensive part of the building process.  

The framing that followed only took seven days.  It was extremely exciting to see the house take shape.  The first two photographs below are taken from the windmill and show the framing, the house framed and roofed, followed by a shot of the south elevation where a greenhouse would be attached to collect and heat the "trombe wall".  

The "trombe wall" concept of solar heating was, in our opinion, not very efficient, but was tauted as the best solar building design at the time.  They were being used in buildings throughout Europe as well as in America.  But our house frequently felt like a tomb.  It wasn't long before we realized that direct gain of sun through south facing windows onto massive walls and floors was the real answer, and we never turned back.  Our other two solar houses have been made of adobe and south facing glass, which works like a charm.   


The east and west elevations are shown below.

Here is the kitchen, with handmade cabinets, and the hand-carved handle of the door into the greenhouse.


From the beginning, our source of water was from a 120 foot well and pumped by an Aeromotor windmill on a 33 foot tower.  We had running cold water in the house and, on a windy night, it was always reassuring to hear the "kalumpf" of the windmill turning followed by the splash of water filling the inside water tank.  In calm weather, Fred would climb the tower and turn the fan by hand. Since we were off grid, refrigeration was provided by Tupperware floating in the cool well water of the covered stock tank and, in the winter, when it was frozen solid, we had ice. 

  juniper and windmill, Bluewater Lakejuniper and windmill, Bluewater Lake

We were "off grid" in a big way using kerosene lamps, candles, a battery powered radio, and a wood burning stove.  Due to their expense at the time, solar cells were not part of the formula.  It was like an extended camping trip, and as with every adventure, the learning curve was high and expansive and worth it. We could not have done it without our wonderful neighbors, Louise and Jim Watkins, who still live there after building their home down the road from us, and having a baby girl the same summer.  Our gratitude to them is eternal! 

A note on the photographs.  Most of the images included here were taken using a Minolta 200 SLR camera on Kodachrome transparency film and scanned. Others were scanned from prints that have degraded somewhat and the negatives were somehow lost over time.  Yet another reason to have photographs in several different formats and backed up in a number of places.

Thanks for celebrating forty years of solar living with us!

until next Monday,


a passion for the image@




Dianne James(non-registered)
Dear friends,

I remember how awestruck I was, when I first set foot in that sunken home near the lake. I remember, too, the hundreds of matchbooks that adorned the walls of the outhouse, showing all your wonderful travels. Having wanted to be involved in architectural design in my young life, it stirred feelings that I had not had in a long time- the desire to design my own house, using passive solar and underground. I never told you about those dreams, did I? I enrolled in a drafting class, when I left home, but was late enrollment and felt I couldn't catch up. I took secretarial training, instead, got married, and went into radio (where I met you Daryl). Now, I'm planning a lean-to greenhouse with some sort of thermal mass to help heat my home (probably will be in the floor/steps into the house). For a long time, I have wanted to build a Walapini, so this will be a version of one, I hope, with part of it lower toward the south. I hope to have a rocket mass heater in there, too, next to the thermal mass "porch" leading into the house- my dream is to be able to grow vegetables like tomatoes and some citrus/avocados. At my age, that is a lot to chew, but I think it can be done. I cherish the time we spent with you guys. So much fun, and fun working with you at KMIN. My, how the years fly by. I drove south to find your current house, hoping to visit, but never could find the place to turn off. Hopefully we'll be able to get together again before too much time passes. I remember, warmly, our friendship and fun. You did such beautiful work photographing my daughter's wedding. I love all of your photography. Love you both. Blessings. -Dianne
Ingrid upton(non-registered)
Both your butt and the rock wall our so cute.
Love Ingrid
We are so honored to know you now, but, ohhh ... we do wish we could have shared those times with you!! Well, perhaps not the absolute two-seater part, although the structure would have made Frank Lloyd envious. Definitely a memorable, award-winning blog. Congrats to the writer/photographer and the architect/builders. One complaint. I now have ultimate windmill envy!!
Great story and group of photos. As you know, I have one of your shots Daryl of the windmill in plain view in my living room, bringing back rich memories of visits there. Betty and I often recall those trips and share with others your amazing adventures and accomplishments. She never tires of describing the two seater outhouse....although there was obviously a lot more to your homestead than that. Thank you for sharing all your homes with me along the way!
Great story and great story telling! I read somewhere--maybe Homer--that adventures are what you have in the telling of old events.
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