Natural Life Magazine

Sustainable, Green, Country Living in an Earthship

Editor Wendy Priesnitz talks with Annie Warmke of Ohio's Blue Rock Station
about their life on a green living, sustainable smallholding, and their house built of tires, cans, bottles, and straw bales.

Annie WarmkeAnnie 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 well.

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 the world.    

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 environment issues?

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?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.

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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.

Warmke familyNL: 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.

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