Warmke (left) and her husband Jay live and work on a 38-acre tract in the
foothills of the Appalachians in southeastern Ohio that they call Blue Rock
Station. Over the last decade, they have slowly developed a tourist destination
that was created when they built the first Earthship (a house built out of
tires, cans, bottles and straw bales) east of the Mississippi. As part of their
green living strategies they share their ever-growing knowledge of sustainable
living skills by hosting a variety of workshops and other events. But they
didn’t start their lives together knowing that in order to have a high happiness
factor they would teach people how to build trash buildings or to make bug
repellents out of Indian spices. Their vision of Blue Rock Station and the
community at large has changed greatly since they first started construction of
the Earthship in 1996.
NL: Where did you live and what did you do for a living
before moving to Blue Rock Station?
Annie: One of the things I like to tell people when they ask
questions about our previous lives and careers, or why we bought this particular
38-acre tract of land, is that I’ve been walking to this place all of my life,
and I think Jay agrees that he’s been working to get here for a long time as
We both grew up in Ohio, and then after we married we moved to Florida in
1982 to try to make a living because making a living here was next to impossible
in those days. We both worked as executive directors of non-profit groups – Jay
built the organization BICSI, a telecom association for engineers from a few
members to over 30,000 with five offices around the world. My work was more as a
community organizer creating projects to change how family violence was dealt
with in rural areas and then, after getting burned out, helping to found a
couple of women’s funds to raise money for the causes I believed could change
NL: So why did you buy the property? Were you looking for a
more sustainable back-to-the-land sort of lifestyle, or just a summer property
or retirement retreat?
Annie: From practically the moment we settled in the south
we felt like some part of us was missing – a big hole in our lives was created
when we lived in town in the south. Then, in 1993 our granddaughter was born in
southeast Ohio and life changed forever. The week she was born we bought our
land with the goal of creating a retreat for our family. In my work with wealthy
women, I could see the value of having a place that brought everyone together at
various times of the year and my initial goal was to create a similar setting
for our family.
But then, when Catlyn, our granddaughter, was two weeks old we became her
parents. Our plans for the future took another big turn. When she was about six
months old she was taking a nap on my belly when I heard Michael Reynolds, the
Earthship architect, talking on community radio (WMNF) in Tampa, Florida. I
remember telling that little sleeping cherub that day that we were going to
build an Earthship – I was sure she agreed.
Prior to learning about Earthships, I had just been thinking that it would be
a sin to build another conventional house, since we already had a beautiful home
and lots of folks in the world didn’t even have one house to live in. Life in
this part of Ohio can be mighty rough – between the economics and the weather –
so it felt like we ought to use the resources we had at our command to build
something that had the potential to make a difference for more folks than just
our family. The idea of a building made out of garbage appealed to me for
various reasons – mainly because I loved building things with discarded stuff
when I was a kid growing up in urban Columbus and that kid is still alive and
well and driving many of my decisions.
NL: Did you have country living or self-employment
experience at the time?
Annie: Jay and I had lived in various country settings when
we were young – but he was more of a city boy than a country boy. My experience
was through the school of hard knocks in the 1970s when lots of folks were going
back to the land, and I married a farmer. It was those farm experiences as a
young farm wife that constantly called to me during the years we lived in the
south. We’ve both been entrepreneurs and leaders in our own right during our
careers, so self-employment opportunities and ideas seemed perfectly normal when
we began to think about living at Blue Rock Station full-time.
NL: Have you always been concerned with sustainability and
Annie: We’ve both always been frugal people – we come from
good German/Norwegian/British stock so our conservative economic views run in
our blood. Being frugal is what really brought us to want to conserve in all
aspects of our lives. We’ve also treated our relationship as a business –
holding an annual retreat to create short and long range goals for all aspects
of our lives.
Living a greener life takes time and it takes many little steps to achieve
the goal. We started out by reducing what we consume and moved on to repairing,
reusing things, or re-inventing them for other purposes, and recycling – but it
all took time. As our awareness grew, we found that there was real comfort in
consuming less, reusing things and basically having a lot more control over our
lives by living in a simpler way.
NL: Why did you decide to build an Earthship instead of
another unconventional type of house?
Annie: Earthships appealed to me initially because it seemed
like we could actually build a house without being certified contractors. It was
a good thing that I was right about that thinking because when we first started
exploring the construction of an Earthship all of the contractors we talked with
thought I was crazy. Our solution was to go to Taos and work on a couple of
projects so we could learn the basics. Then I became the contractor and Jay was
the cheerleader. In 1996, when we started construction, Catlyn and I lived in a
shack with a dirt floor over the course of the summer, and Jay would visit every
three weeks or so to help with carpentry or just to keep us going with emotional
support. I am sure I spoke to him on the telephone a dozen times a day to bounce
off ideas or work through solutions. We definitely built the house together –
just not exactly in a conventional way.
NL: How did you acquire the skills required?
Annie: Over the course of the past 14 years, we’ve attended
workshops, spent time with farmers who knew what we needed to know, lived in
different parts of the world where new ideas were introduced and also just
jumped in and tried until we achieved our goal. One experience stands out when I
think about skill building. In 1997, I was all ready to begin construction on
the face of the Earthship. We had saved the money to hire some workers from the
architect so we were sure we were getting it right. I think I was extra uneasy
because by now it was clear that lots of people wanted to see what we were up to
with our “trash house.” When we tried to finalize the schedule and costs, the
fee had more then doubled from $15,000 to $35,000. That seemed so outrageous to
us and since we did not mind paying a living wage to the folks who worked for
us, we just could not justify paying the majority of that money to a business.
The money wasn’t going to be invested in our community and that didn’t feel
right to us. Jay, the cheerleader said, “Annie you can do this and if you don’t
do it now it will never happen. There will always be an excuse.” So we set up a
schedule that allowed for Jay to be with us for a week and the front of the
house got built for $1,500 and almost every dime of that went to the local
workers, who gave us their best efforts.
NL: How did the locals – neighbors, building officials, etc.
– react to the idea of an Earthship?
Annie: People constantly showed up to see our progress –
even though we are in the middle of nowhere. One time, I came back from a supply
run to town to see four sets of neighbors standing over the dug out portion of
the construction. They had all gathered together from opposite sides of our
property to join forces and trek to the Earthship. I always believed that
secretly they were scared of us.
The health department was our main stumbling block. I tried educating them,
but that seemed more frustrating then helpful to both sides. On my last visit to
the health department, I was made to wait quite a long time but I had the good
fortune to overhear one of the officials tell a woman – over the telephone –
that unless there was raw sewage running out of something and someone was
complaining to the health department no one cared. Our goal was to have wetlands
and a composting toilet so I packed up my bag and off I went with the idea that
we would create conventional plumbing in our house and the plumbing we required
for our plans. We hired a licensed plumber and he installed everything – adding
only about $150 to our costs for the conventional plumbing. He charged nothing
to meet with the inspector the day that everything had to be signed off on for
us to be legal.
We also knew we were on the right track when we held our first open house in
1997 and over 400 folks visited to look at the tire walls and the new windows.
People couldn’t get over how the walls looked or how the tires could be used to
create a building. The visitors would leave and bring more people back – I was
sure we were on to something.
NL: Tell me more about the construction phase.
Annie: Initially, we created a ten-year plan that required
me working on the house in the summers, and Jay visiting as often as he could to
do odd jobs. From 1996 to 2001 we followed this plan. After 9/11, we moved to
Europe for three years where we were able to develop more skills for green
living. Jay returned one of the summers we were living abroad and did a lot of
carpentry work. From the beginning of our adventure here, Catlyn and I have
lived on the property when it was warm weather. Our luxuries included an
outhouse and a solar shower in the field by the dirt-floored shack. We got
flooded out a couple of times from water running down the hill, and we battled
coons, snakes and coyotes off and on every summer. If we visited during cold
months, we stayed in relative luxury at local farms or a local inn – we’re not
crazy after all.
During the construction phase we did employ locals to work with us to lend
their backs to the labor of pounding rammed earth tires and mud plastering. We
required the workers to read the books on alternative architecture; each day we
fed them so there was time to discuss the construction. These people were
learning a new trade and they often provided amazing insights into the
construction. Several times these men quit their winter jobs to come back to
work with us over the summer.
When the workers didn’t want to work on weekends, I advertised on the Web
offering workshops on the techniques I had developed for tire pounding,
canned/bottle wall construction and mud plastering. Each workshop weekend was
full – people from all over the U.S. paying us $75 to practice developing their
own set of skills.
In 2004, we returned from Europe to live at Blue Rock Station but did
initially rent a house in an attempt to have less mud and mess. We just couldn’t
seem to settle in until we feverishly worked to complete Catlyn’s room and moved
in a year after returning from Europe. Since that time, most of the work done on
the Earthship and each of the buildings we’ve created has occurred through
workshops attended by people from across the U.S. and other parts of the world.
NL: Earthships have mostly been built in the southwest but
it gets pretty cold in Ohio in the winter. How is your house heated?
Annie: Green living is about comfort. The comfort begins by
knowing you have control over a lot of your environment. And Earthships can
provide a huge degree of that control. The technology used in creating the
building – rammed earth tires, south-facing windows, wetlands and cisterns –
enable the building to heat and cool inside with no help from us humans. The
effect of the construction techniques is to create a cave effect – ensuring that
the building stays at a minimum of 55 degrees F even at 10 below zero. Now
that’s control! Then when we add a small wood stove in the living room, we can
bump up the heat to 75 degrees if we want. The bedroom at the other end of the
house stays at around 60 degrees with no other heat source than the passive
solar effect of the south-facing windows and the ability of the tires to collect
and hold heat – radiating it out into the room over time.
NL: Are you happy with the house? Would you do it again?
Annie: This house is our friend in the truest sense. It
keeps us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The energy costs are minimal
even with being hooked up to the grid. Last winter the chimney flue caught on
fire and, between the re-used slate on the roof and the ceiling construction
techniques, the house protected us and refused to catch on fire. A
conventionally constructed house would have burned to the ground and maybe we
would have gone with it. Also, the house is so incredibly quiet and
sturdy-feeling no matter what the weather.
We have amazing views of the landscape with the huge windows and there is a
quiet sense of well-being when we enter the house – no matter how many times a
day. Who could ask for more? I would build this house again with some minor
changes – no slanted windows (too many opportunities for leaks) and a different
pitch on the roof, but we’re not going to start over.
As for the cost, I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily cheaper to build – in
the short term – but I believe that over the life of the building, which
promises to be endless if we take care of it, it is an inexpensive structure to
create and maintain.
NL: What other types of alternative construction methods
have you used on the property?
Annie: All of our outbuildings that house chickens, goats
and llamas are built with rammed-earth tire foundations, straw ales, vaulted
ceilings, cans, bottles and re-used slate as well as other materials. In 1998,
we took apart nine barns and that became a wealth of material for us to use in
the structures, both as framing wood and for finish work on cupboards and
moldings. We also used some of the wood to build a small barn and a shop we call
the “garage” but it has seldom held a motorized vehicle.
NL: Do you have time to garden or farm in order to produce
any of your own food?
Annie: I am a master gardener but I would hardly call my
garden an example of something that would appear in a gardening magazine! We do
grow a lot of our own food and the food we feed visitors, plus we also have
chickens for eggs and a goat for raw milk. Our system incorporates the idea that
everything has to live and eat out of the garden – not just the humans. We use
plants to attract the good bugs because we know they eat the bad bugs. A couple
of years ago I wrote a little booklet about my philosophy, called Natural
Gardening Blue Rock Station Style, because I found it incredibly exciting to
have so many beneficial bugs living and working in the garden. I love the idea
of companion planting and using herbs and spices as bug repellents – it is like
one giant easy science experiment.
NL: How do the llamas and other animals fit into your lives
and your work?
Annie: The llamas and other critters here provide us with
poo for the garden and compost, and they take care of each other in various
ways. The chickens eat lots of bugs plus the slugs that can harm the llamas. The
llamas guard the chickens from predators and carry packs for our llama treks.
The goat provides food for the chickens (they eat her poo) and she and her kids
eat the parts of the plants that the llamas don’t like. The cats kill the
rodents that can harm every mammal here and Rosie, our French-speaking dog,
guards all of the critters from roaming dogs, coyotes and other dangerous
animals. And we provide them with what they need to do their jobs. It’s a
wonderful co-existence with each part contributing to the whole picture. Each
needs each other.
You call this place “an experiment in green living.” Tell me about some other
sustainable aspects of your lifestyle.
Annie: We compost everything possible – some of the
composting is done in worm bins, some happens with the toilet system and some
happens when we just dump garden waste into various bins around the property. We
can never have enough good dirt. We grow food in the winter outdoors and in our
indoor wetlands. Each building collects water from the roof for use with animals
and garden plants. More and more, our energy to create lighting is being
generated by tiny solar panels located on each building. We eat locally grown
and produced food, and take every opportunity to promote that strategy to
others. Our goal is to eat lots of raw food…and our dog and cats eat a strictly
raw diet. And we are finally moving towards changing our modes of transportation
so that we can produce less carbon dioxide and consume less of everything.
One of the things we learned early on in this way of life is that we are not
alone in our thinking, and that our community can benefit from green living in
many ways. Since over 3,000 folks will visit us this year, we know that our
community has the potential to benefit from our visitors. We helped organize a
local farmer’s market and a chamber of commerce with a goal of getting local
businesses online. When tour companies or families contact us to book a tour of
Blue Rock Station or to attend a workshop, we try to make sure they know that
there are a number of great places to visit and stay right here in our little
corner of the world. Sharing resources is at the heart of green living.
NL: Sharing your knowledge also seems important to you….
Annie: Jay and I come from a long line of storytellers and
we are fascinated with the current need for our culture to peer into other
people’s lives. Our visitors often come here looking for answers in a search for
a simpler life or to learn skills that they feel they will need to create their
own sustainable way of life. We hold workshops on a variety of subjects that
hopefully send folks home with a new sense of confidence about what they want
out of life. Our booklets are one way we can give information – simple and to
the point. Tours offer information as well. In the larger community, we do this
through working with our local fifth graders who visit us several times
throughout the school year, and through our newest adventure at the local junior
high school – the League of Extraordinary Girl Scientists (LEGS). All of this
and so much more is necessary if we want to inspire others to make the changes
they want to make in order to lead happier simpler lives.
NL: Did you start to develop Blue Rock Station with a
business vision of any sort – ecotourism, education center, etc. – or was it
just an innovative house that people were curious about?
Annie: When we held the first open house and 400 people
showed up, I began to think about how this place could become a business for us.
Jay thought I was crazy – well maybe not completely crazy but at the very least
thinking too far into the future. Eventually, my time here in the summer was
taken up with lots of visitors so I started charging money…and then they arrived
by the busload. That showed me that we could make a living if we were focused on
what we needed and on how to translate that to others. During the time we lived
in Europe, we created our business plan because it was clear to us at that point
that we did not want to go back to our old lives. And Blue Rock Station was
calling to us to come home.
NL: You call this part of what you do “micro-tourism” What
exactly does that mean?
Annie: This is a geographical area that has lacked
leadership and a vision. The land and the people have a long history of
exploitation – through mining, forestry and factories. The future wasn’t
something that folks seemed to have the luxury to think about. When we came back
here in 2004, we decided to create a little map of things that visitors could do
if they spent the day in our area. We called it “The Blue Rock Region.” Locals
were surprised to see so many little places to visit – and they admitted they
hadn’t visited a single one of things on the map. We worked with local
businesses by bringing their owners and their customer service people to Blue
Rock Station – right in the middle of construction – to eat a fresh, tasty,
locally grown and produced lunch. Our goal was to talk about what they wanted
for the future and what we hoped would take place. This formed an amazing
partnership with our neighbors that led to the formation of the farmer’s market,
the new chamber and a growing sense of real community. Over the course of the
past two years we’ve partnered with the local college to hold workshops on
“Marketing for Micro-tourism.” Many small “mom and pop” businesses have attended
to learn how they can market their efforts with little or no money. All of our
efforts have been incredibly rewarding, yet none of these efforts took money –
instead it took the willingness to take the lead.
NL: How would you sum up the philosophy that underlies your
lives and Blue Rock Station?
Annie: “It takes bad bugs for the good bugs to survive.” And
through this thinking, we’ve come to understand that we all need each other –
and we cannot lead happy lives without a sense that all things bring some value
to us. In the past, our culture has lived as if there is only good or bad or
that our way of life can go on forever without any thought to what we are doing
to live that life. Along the way we’ve sacrificed what we call “the happiness
factor.” At Blue Rock Station, we do the things that bring quality to our lives
and the happiness factor follows right behind our sense of accomplishment. And
when we invite visitors for tours or workshops we are offering a moment of
sharing our lives with others. At the end of the day, our hope is that they will
go home renewed in their spirit and eager to pursue the future – whatever that
means to them and their families.
Blue Rock Station
1190 Virginia Ridge Rd, Philo Ohio 43771