Justin Simpson: The Quest for Autonomous Homes

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Some people find their true calling later in life and after much soul searching. But Justin Simpson, owner of Natural Building and Design, became interested in sustainable practices at a very young age.

“I remember buying a used book on passive solar design in Boulder, Colorado, as a middle schooler,” he said. “I was inspired by it.”

And that has been his passion ever since. Today Simpson is a rammed earth contractor specializing in sustainable housing. His vision is to create affordable, quality homes for families in our community.

A contractor’s journey

Simpson moved to Taos when he was 17 years old.

“I was still very interested in passive solar design, so I checked out every book I could from the library on solar technology,” he said.

There is an old proverb: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” That was the case with Simpson, who found the best mentor he could have hoped for.

“Soon after we moved here, my mom miraculously met and married Mike Reynolds, Earthship inventor and architect,” he said. “He offered me a job and I worked as a foreman on my first build at 18 years of age – for the president of Peoples Bank.”

After such auspicious beginnings, Simpson continued learning and embarked on a journey that eventually took him to design houses “totally made from earthen materials.”

“I traveled a lot and began to develop my own philosophy and designs for sustainable housing,” he said. “I became a licensed contractor and now I run my own business, Natural Building and Design.”

Building philosophy: Back to the earth

Rammed earth (pise de terre) is an ancient and almost universal technique used in many regions of the world, from the Great Wall of China to the Alhambra in Spain. It consists of a mix of sand, gravel, clay and water, commonly stabilized with cement. Rammed earth buildings that date back to the seventh century B.C. have been found in Asia, Australia and North Africa.

Simpson has chosen this time-proven technique to create homes that heat and cool themselves.

“I’ve always been interested in building with earth because it’s sustainable, affordable, healthy and provides optimal thermal mass for passive solar designs,” he said. “After building with adobe and rammed earth tire walls for many years, I wanted to try something new so, I designed and built a monolithic rammed earth home for my family.”

Though some people might think that rammed earth houses are dusty, dirty or primitive, Simpson disputes these claims.

“They can be super modern, clean and high performance,” he said. “Among other benefits, rammed earth houses offer great sound insulation and an aesthetically pleasing look. Rammed earth walls are healthy and can be left exposed or finished in a variety of ways to the owner’s taste.”

Labor and costs

Simpson admits that all houses are labor intensive to build. Sustainable homes are no exception.

“I thought that using heavy equipment would make the job easier, but rammed earth walls are made of rammed earth … and someone has to do the ramming!” he said. “It’s hard work, but the final result is worth the effort.”

He uses a compacted rubble foundation with a steel-reinforced concrete-grade beam on top to save on overall concrete costs. His basic high-performance model is $150/$175 per square foot.

“Using rammed earth is a cost-effective way to produce a quality structure that will last for generations,” he said. “I have perfected a mix and put it through all required testing, and the end result meets and exceeds building requirements.”

Inspired by the Earthships

Simpson’s ultimate goal is to create “autonomous” homes — homes that take care of their owners and allow them to live in a healthy and socially responsible structure.

“I like to use high-efficiency LED lighting and electric appliances with no propane or natural gas so that the home’s electrical usage can be canceled out by renewable energy systems like solar and wind,” he said.

Though he has his own building method now, he has also adopted some systems from his Earthship experience, like water catchment and gray water reuse for gardening.

“I anticipate integrating large-scale renewal energy systems for vehicle charging integrated in my home designs,” he said. “Building homes that don’t rely heavily on existing utilities is a safe, responsible solution to conventional housing. Besides, low-tech features are less costly and more reliable in the long run.”

His most recent project is his prototype for a rammed earth sustainable home.

“This has been the most challenging and rewarding build because it incorporates everything I have learned from building Earthships as well as conventional construction practices,” he said.

Mixing both techniques came naturally to Simpson. For him, it’s not an issue of Earthships vs. rammed earth homes.

“It’s about recognizing that the alternative off-grid Earthship lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but that society as a whole is in great need of sustainable housing,” he said. “My homes offer people the chance to move in a positive direction and to live in harmony with our environment.”

Looking to the future, he sees natural building making a huge comeback in New Mexico.

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