Steve Baer, Beatnik Engineer

Steve Baer

Excerpted from an unfinished book about regional solar pioneers. 

Mountain Gazette was born in 1966 (as Skiers’ Gazette), the same year TIME Magazine discovered The Hippie and explained why Captain Stone and Sunshine were dropping out of Pig Amerika and going the other way from LBJ. In Drop City, a legendary commune near Trinidad, Colorado, 28-year-old Steve Baer, the commune’s architectural mentor, showed reporters how to stand atop a junk car and chop its top off with an axe to get panels for geodesic domes, taking care to avoid toes and blade-dulling chrome trim.

In the ensuing years, Baer wandered through colleges, spent three years in Germany in the U.S. Army and ended up in Albuquerque. Following his lifelong interest in math and geometry, he began tinkering with domes and solar gizmos and the hippies from Drop City would visit to help fashion solar collectors out of car windows and rock bins for solar storage. In 1968, at an early solar conference in Palo Alto, Baer was “swept off his feet” by Harold Hay, a pioneering solar engineer who said we should learn from indigenous architecture but add a modern twist. Hay and his associate John Yellot had the previous year built their radical “SkyTherm” test house in Phoenix that, for heating and cooling, employed a pond of water on the roof that could be covered by movable insulating panels.

In 1968, Baer and the Lama Foundation in Taos published the “Dome Cookbook,” the world’s first comprehensive and step-by-step instructions for building “zomes,” structures based on zonahedra shapes. The book sold briskly amid the growing countercultural currents and Baer used the profits to publish “Time Lock,” Buckminster Fuller’s book about his life in the 1930s.

In 1969, inspired in part by the “Dome Cookbook,” Stewart Brand, editor of Co-Evolution Quarterly, published the “First Whole Earth Catalog”, the iconic encyclopedia of counterculture that soon graced nearly every hippie coffee table in the land.

Then the Drop City commune folded and the world changed again. Baer decided to start a business dubbed Zomeworks that started out making domes, playground climbers and various solar gadgets. At Zomeworks, he continued his solar experiments and in 1971 he was ready to build his home in Corrales. The “Zome” was soon a sensation among solar innovators. Refining Hays’ concepts, it had adobe walls to soak up solar heat, enclosed by a sleek moon-station exterior of honeycombed panels. Behind the large expanse of sun-facing glass were “Drumwalls,” stacked 50-gallon drums of water that passively store solar heat. The windows were insulated at night by large panels hoisted up and down with a rope.

In all its industrial neo-funkiness the Zome demonstrated vividly that the home itself is the most important solar device, and it was featured in all the solar magazines. Baer began speaking on the college lecture circuit and teaching solar classes at the University of New Mexico, where he hosted the first Ghost Ranch “biotechnic conference,” which became a lively annual bash for regional solar yahoos. The conference was named after a prescient solar house built in El Rito in 1949 by Peter van Dresser, an early pioneer of modern sun-tempered adobe homes in New Mexico.

In 1973, the Arab oil embargo traumatized America and sparked ever greater interest in alternative energy as the buzzwords of the Granola Generation were being coined: Ecosphere, Macrocosm, Appropriate Technology, Organic, Natural, Soft Energy, Third World, Self-Help, the Environment. Baer and Zomeworks were busier than ever as consultants for a funky, homegrown New Mexico solar-building boom, which soon spread throughout the Rockies as scores of regional architects began to design wild and innovative passive solar trophy homes. Baer’s crew was also perfecting inventions that would become classic Zomeworks trademarks, including the “Skylid,” an insulating panel for skylights that operates automatically, powered by the movement of freon in canisters (using the same principle as the Dipping Bird). Another product called “Beadwall” used a vacuum cleaner motor to blow beads between the panes of double glass windows for night insulation. Zomeworks also innovated passive tracking devices for solar panels.

Government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy began shoveling money at solar energy, which Baer and Hay felt was largely wasted on a useless new bureaucracy that advocated overly high-tech solutions and ridiculed the New Mexico solar experiments as “hippie junk.” Baer was also skeptical of the Jimmy Carter solar tax credits, opining “The poor Mexicans pay for the liberal’s hot tub.” He was also feeling squeezed out by his peers — the Ghost Ranchers were being absorbed by the influential New Mexico Solar Energy Association, which published Solar Age, the dominant solar trade magazine. In 1975, in a book called “Sunspots,” Baer announced that he would go his own way, “an old farmer, farming the sky, worrying about the weather.”

The furious regional flowering of solar innovation would continue a few more years, mostly in New Mexico and Colorado. Dramatic examples ranged from the earthships of Taos to Aspen’s solar airport terminal, solar post office and solar bus stops. Less obvious but more significant were the thousands of high-performance passive solar homes that sprouted up in the coldest and highest corners of the Rockies. A good part of a generation of architects digested the lessons of Hay and Baer and the other pioneers and developed a true regional vernacular that evolved from water drums and solar batch heaters to stately masonry homes that can be heated by candles and cooled by opening windows.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan removed Jimmy Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof, an act that came to be prophetic, as well as symbolic. The solar tax credits were abolished and almost overnight the burgeoning new solar hardware industry collapsed. Since then, we have largely forgotten about the passive solar revolution and today, when someone uses the word “solar,” he or she usually means photovoltaic panels and battery banks. The notion of building homes that respect the local climate and use the least fuel possible has given way to arguments over which fuels we should burn. There may well come a day when 1970s solar hippie homes get historic designations.

MG senior contributor Jon Kovash was an early editor of the Aspen Daily News and KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced “Thin Air,” an award-winning regional radio news magazine. Currently he’s the Moab correspondent for Utah Public Radio. His blog, Mountain Architecture, can be found at mountaingazette.com.

Mountain West News: Reporting on the Rockies

Shellie Nelson, sole editor and employee of Mountain West News, taking a second to pause from reading what's relevant. Photo, Jon Kovash.
Shellie Nelson, sole editor and employee of Mountain West News, taking a second to pause from reading what's relevant. Photo, Jon Kovash.

Where do you go for daily-breaking news from the mountains, besides our brain-dead local TV news outlets, with their vacuous cops/sports/weather formats and abhorrence for crossing state borders?

Mountain Gazette and the Paonia-based High Country News are among the small handful of print media that specifically address themselves to the American Rocky Mountain region. Both are largely literary and investigative efforts that require long lead times and long shelf life.

But there are a lot of people doing good reporting on the Rockies every single day that most people never become aware of. They write for the few city dailies in the region, for scores of small town weeklies and sometimes for prominent national publications.

On any given day there might be a great story in the Casper Star-Tribune about fracking, a story in the Santa Fe Reporter about living wage laws, maybe a story from the Salt Lake Tribune about water rights for nuclear power, a story from the Crested Butte News about High-Country global warming research, a story from the Silverton Standard on the current avalanche danger, a story in the New York Times about the “red snow” phenomenon in ski country and a report from the Aspen Times on a newly released forest plan.

Such a daily reading regimen would contribute greatly to one’s sense of neighborhood, and to, borrowing a Tom Wolfe phrase, the “shock of recognition” that comes from realizing that our little far-flung communities have much in common. But what a hassle that would be! Imagine the hours it would take to pore over 50 or 60 publications every day and winnow out what is important and interesting to Rockies dwellers.

In fact, Shellie Nelson, up in Missoula, is paid to do exactly that, and she says it’s “the best job I ever had.” For five years now, Nelson has been the sole editor and sole employee of Mountain West News (mountainwestnews.org), which has since 1999 been the only website that presents a daily aggregation of news from across the Rockies.

Nelson’s workday starts at 4 a.m. in her living room, where she begins scanning headlines, speed-reading stories from all over the Mountain West and finally deciding which ones will get a link on today’s Mountain West News edition. She also has to rewrite headlines, fashion story summaries and intros and somehow marshal it all into a coherent presentation. To that end, there are sections that offer both a guide and a tip-off to the Mountain West News editorial agenda: Community, Environment, Western Perspective (regional essays), Tribes, Public Lands and Opinion. The end result is obviously the work of a seasoned and thoughtful editor, and it illustrates how even a modest human staff can easily outperform the notorious algorithms that govern sites like Google News. Nelson has noticed that “When you Google ‘grizzlies’ or ‘wolverines,’ you get sports stories.”

Mountain West News gets about 200,000 hits a month and has a subscriber list of 4,000. These are small numbers by internet standards, but the subscribers include a lot of influential regional decision-makers, from both government and industry.

These days, this kind of journalistic effort rarely comes from the private sector. In this case, the enabling benefactor is the O’Connor Center For The Rocky Mountain West, a regional humanities/education think tank based at the University of Montana. The Center came to be in 1992, thanks to a large endowment from actor Carroll O’Connor (“Archie Bunker”) and his wife Nancy, both U. of M. alums. Most Mountain Gazette readers would resonate with language from the guiding principles that were declared: “ … this mountainous, trans-national region of North America is unique … and requires special attention and study.”  News is the Center’s longest-running continuous program because it addresses that notion squarely, simply and effectively, and on a daily deadline to boot. The website is friendly to occasional visitors, but a daily visit is considered mandatory by many who just want or need to know stuff: journalists, teachers, environmental and social activists, civil servants, local office holders, CEOs and small business owners.

Funding comes from the University, grants and individual contributors. Nelson says in response to “staff compression” at the region’s larger newspapers, she has had to depend more on the smaller weeklies. In the future, she hopes that grants will be found to pay freelancers and regional reporters for longer, investigative pieces.

Senior correspondent Jon Kovash once produced the award-winning syndicated radio show, “Thin Air,” which was produced at KOTO in Telluride. His blog, “Mountain Architecture,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. 

Why Our Public Buildings Suck

or

How To Hustle Small Town Taxpayers, or

Eliminate The Middleman Before He Eliminates You

It would be a perfect plot for a movie on the Comedy Channel: A vain and acclaimed business leader who writes cheesy biz-advice books, admires Bucky Fuller and conducts feel-good seminars for corporate titans, turns out to be a common hustler on the public teat who endangers schoolchildren and hospital patients. Lawsuits and hilarity ensue.

In January, a series in the Denver Post revealed that at least 15 schools built by a prominent Colorado contractor had structural problems, some serious enough to keep students out of buildings. Two school buildings in Alamosa must be evacuated if a foot of snow accumulates on the roof. A school in Monte Vista must be abandoned if winds exceed 25 mph (which they do frequently). Spring winds in Kremmling lifted the roof of a new gym by several inches. The contractor for these schools faces similar complaints about other public buildings: A new hospital in Granby has to keep snow shoveled off its shaky roof, and a new county fair complex in Loveland quickly succumbed to winter storm damage. Perhaps the most egregious example is the new elementary school in Meeker, which held 350 students for a year before being declared too unsafe to occupy.

Meeker School

Looking more like a budget housing complex, the generic and bland new Meeker Elementary School sits unused while undergoing massive repairs.

For the Meeker School District, where the drilling boom had created a desperate need for more elementary classrooms, it all started when school principals were schmoozed at a Colorado Association of Schools conference by reps from the Fort Collins-based Neenan Company, a.k.a. “Neenan Archistruction.” Billing itself as a “design/build” firm, Neenan targets rural and small-town school districts and improvement districts that lack know-how for big capital projects. The Neenan website assures school districts it will provide “better designs, less risk, lower costs, better communication, tighter schedules, fewer surprises,” and most important of all, a “single point of responsibility.”

That’s the hard sell: Nothing is more intimidating to most volunteer school board members than being charged with construction of a new building, which could potentially result in a smoking pile of lawsuits and asbestos, with fingers pointing back and forth among dozens of architects, consultants, contractors and suppliers. Thus, it’s tempting to put all your eggs in one basket with a company that declares it has “re-engineered how the construction process works” with its “leading edge design principals” and “innovative people approaches.”

Neenan Archistruction, now the 72nd largest design/build firm in the nation, has in the past decade built or upgraded nearly 100 Colorado schools, along with scores of new buildings for local governments and tax districts. Neenan tells school officials it can take over nearly every vexing aspect of the process, and get them on the inside track for state grant money to boot. The Post revealed that, since 2008, the company has built $158 million worth of schools funded through Colorado’s BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) program, and that two of Neenan’s rival school builders have seats on the BEST board that bestows the state grants. The Post also revealed an elaborate network of kickbacks from builders and subcontractors that makes a mockery of school bond elections in Colorado. Neenan and other contractors have poured tens of thousands of dollars into bond campaigns, and Neenan offers free “pre-election services” IF it gets the bid, which include “Identifying community movers and shakers,” mailing brochures, recruiting volunteers, identifying donors, registering voters, walking precincts and making calls to voters.

David Neenan is a regional business guru who has given seminars for Disney, Hilton, AT&T, Hewlett Packard and the U.S. Army on how to “build wealth with integrity.” He writes biz-advice books like “No Excuses: Be The Hero Of Your Own Life.” An Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Colorado State University College of Business, where he’s also been a commencement speaker, Neenan explains how he approaches construction “as a group of artisans working together.” The Archistruction portfolio prominently includes the green and cutting-edge New Belgium Brewing complex.

Neenan’s cost-savings pitch gained adherents on the Meeker School Board, which decided that previous bids for the new elementary school were too high. After some debate, they hired an owner’s rep with a potential conflict — the rep had worked for two other Neenan projects. Ultimately, Neenan got the contract with no further bids taken, and the new elementary school was built and occupied by 350 students in the fall of 2010. Soon thereafter, ominous indications of structural problems were observed: cracks, bulging walls, moving slabs and failing connectors.

Gary Howell seemed to comprise most if not all of the Neenan structural engineering staff. Initially, Howell tried to discourage the Meeker School District from seeking an evaluation by independent engineers. When the district did so anyway and the problems were found out, he creepily warned against “impugning a fellow engineer.” In December 2011, Howell’s state license was suspended. A school year had elapsed before it was confirmed that the building was unsafe to occupy.

Investigation revealed errors (and carelessness) of almost unbelievable proportion: the structural specs had been based on seismic standards meant for unoccupied storage sheds. Independent engineers likened the structure of parts of the building to a “giant teeter-totter” resting on undersized footings, which in turn rest on a deep fill of unique local soils that are highly compressible. Most of the exterior walls in fact mimic storage sheds, comprising steel studs, 24” on center, skinned by ½” of gypsum and ½” of fiberboard, with no “good path” to distribute wind loads.

Neenan has now promised all its clients that everything will be made good, which could cost a considerable amount. But the point of recounting this story is not to cast David Neenan as a singularly venal, hypocritical or spectacularly sloppy builder, compelling as the case may be. More likely and more alarmingly, these practices are typical of companies that target taxpayers. Equally worrisome is the absence of effective building inspections — a 2007 state audit declared Colorado has “shockingly poor” oversight of K-12 construction. Ben Serratto, the state’s inspector for Meeker Elementary, frequently never showed up for work, falsified reports and inspections and should be fired, according to Serratto’s superior.

Ultimately, this is an apt parable for how bad architecture has come to play a central role in the plight of our public schools. Here in Moab, where there is no boom in population, we are grumpy because we just built these expensive new school buildings (not really “we” — it was all out-of-town contractors) and then had to lay off already underpaid teachers. It’s the same everywhere: bricks and mortar (nowadays gypsum and waferboard) trump education, although nobody ever admits it’s an either/or situation. So, all of you members or wannabe members of school boards faced with new construction, here’s my list of recommended practices, in roughly descending order of importance, that will result in functional, sustainable, community-appropriate and economical new schools:

  1. 1. Proceed essentially as an owner/builder. Your district is now more solvent than anyone you might have turned this over to — you have just passed your bond issue and have $20 million in fresh credit. Hire an experienced local construction manager who will serve as the “single point of responsibility.” Hire your own staff and consultants as needed. Choose local architects and contractors. If your remote little town has a lot of small firms, encourage architects to partner up. Break up the construction into smaller contracts that locals can handle.
  2. 2. Conduct community meetings to solicit input, but don’t just go through the motions. Ensure that the final designs reflect the input as much as reasonable and possible.
  3. 3. Do your own research and be wary of experts, including state regulators, inspectors and bond salesmen. If there are architects or builders on your board, do not cede them undue influence — the district is not their client, and like you, they are there as adherents.
  4. 4. Have a real debate on whether you really need a new building. Would a remodel do? Often, ridiculous reasons are presented for giving an existing building the death sentence. I recall how, years ago, Gunnison avoided a costly new bond with a community barn-raising of new modular classrooms.
  5. 5. Have a real debate about the general concept: does it have to be a custom, potentially award-winning monstrosity, hastily sketched on a laptop by some far-off intern? Does it have to be surrounded by acres of asphalt and bluegrass? Does it have to be built like a prison so that students can’t sneak off and smoke and parents have to go through Homeland Security checkpoints?  Say again why we can’t have opening windows, or classroom doors to the outdoors, or solar panels, or community gardens, or any number of innovations that speak to a unique, one-of-a-kind community?

You’ll get an immediate outcry from the enforcers of conventional wisdom: Schools have to be like this, and you have to hire someone who has built other schools like this. Besides, nobody locally would have the expertise, the esoteric knowledge, the resources, the bonding, the licensing, the insurance, ad infinitum, and we can’t afford the extras you speak of.

None of this is true, and you are being hustled. In every way, superior results can be achieved, at less cost, by staying local. And, if something does go wrong, you can seek redress no further than your fellow citizens and neighbors, rather than some superintendent furiously churning through the punch list so he can pack up the construction trailers and get back home to Fort Collins or Provo.

The same holds true for all of our new town halls, libraries, museums, police and fire stations, hospitals and clinics, senior centers, rec centers and government-owned housing projects. Small towns and tax districts are being hustled by companies who promise lower costs, yet their bids are padded with the not-insignificant expense of relocating serious human and mechanical resources to your far-flung little burg. If you are repelled by the WalMarting of your local retail economy, you should be equally repelled by the WalMarting of our schools and public buildings. In an era where individual consumers are pulling their money away from the big banks, it would be nice if our local movers and shakers could start resisting the hustles of the “experts” and carpetbaggers. If local institutions start granting their host communities more respect, I believe good karma will flow back.

Flip This Burger: Remodeling on Reality TV

This Old HouseBob Vela started it all with his rich yuppie remodels, which featured salt-of-the-earth Yankee contractors and swarms of sagely nodding architects. Vela’s “This Old House” was the first show to latch onto the inherent drama of a structure in process — the “see through” phase where it’s still hard to tell which room is what.

You mainly saw the dramatic shots, like the moment a wall goes up, or a window gets popped in. Then Bob would explain how this nifty, expensive cornice molding is going to be placed — dissolve the shot — and it’s all done, and, by god, done right. The show was all about doing construction right, construction that is, for the upper middle class. During the go-go years of real estate speculation, the genre evolved into a swarm of new shows where there’s not an architect in sight. Instead, we are introduced to every conceivable grade of house hustler, charlatan and wannabe, all convinced that they know “what people want these days.” “Sell This House” and “Flip This House” and ‘Trading Spaces” became the closest thing we have to a national conversation about the buildings we live in.

Realtor“Flip This House” was the show I especially loved to hate. On a typical episode, Charley, the sleazeball realtor/speculator/amateur contractor, stands in the living room of a glorified California tract house, which he has just purchased for $1.2 million, and hopes to sell soon for a hefty profit. “First, I’m gonna tear out these walls (he sweeps his hand) and make this one big room. Over here, I’ll gut this bathroom and replace everything except maybe this granite counter.” Charley then has a protracted argument with his wife Lydia over whether to toss the granite. In the month that follows, massive cost overruns reveal Charley’s lack of construction experience, but in the end he still pockets $45,000 for his dubious services, which consist mostly of ineffectually harassing his Mexican contractor.

Owner/flippers are the most cocksure of their choices, the least likely to consult with a pro and the most consumed by the shopping element — you pick out the granite, the electronic faucets, the hot tub and the chandeliers. Then guys come and install them. To me, it’s an interesting contrast to other shows with a more populist bent, where Junior Decorators are all out on the lawn with staplers and glue guns, happily creating DIY décor out of foam, plywood and bolts of cloth.

“Sell This House” was not about flippers, but aimed at regular folk who just need to sell their house and move on. Jeb and Dorine want to move closer to their jobs and to Dorine’s ailing mother, but they are clueless about how to sell their frumpy old ranch style, which has been on the market for nine months. The show’s crew of interior designers starts by stuffing most of their tshochkes into the garage. Then they show the couple how to paint over their hideous walls and hide the crack in the kitchen linoleum. The $160/Home Depot jiffy spiffup does the trick and the house sells in a flash.

To add some dramatic tension there’s always a remodeling deadline, which happens to be the day of the realtor open house party (“Well Miguel, looks like you’re pulling an all nighter”). It’s a telling detail that it is the realtors, not the owners, who set the deadline, and the realtors, not an architect, who are finally led through the rooms to view and approve the grand transformation.

Those looking for definitive tips or design statements were baffled — on one show, the green walls were painted brown and the ceiling fan was taken down. On the next show, brown walls were painted green and a new ceiling fan was installed. The “After” kitchen cabinets always looked pretty much just like the “Before” kitchen cabinets, minus the grease and clutter. Inexplicably, since the great real estate crash, these shows have not only continued, but proliferated geometrically on cable TV. To name a few, there’s been “Moving Up,” “My First Home,” “Property Ladder,” “Property Virgins,” “House Hunters,” “My First Place,” “Hidden Potential,” “Buy Me,” “Design to Sell,” “The Stagers,” “Sleep On It,” “Kitchen Crashers” and “The Unsellables.” One TV exec observed, “The myth dies hard.”

One show that gets past the myth is “Holmes on Homes,” based on a wizened veteran contractor and home detective who actually fixes stuff. Holmes (and his large crew) disdainfully rips out the work of fly-by-night amateurs and, step by step, shows how to do it right, that is, if your budget is virtually limitless. In that sense, it’s the spiritual heir to “This Old House,” but with a more real-world bent. Where Vela would preside over large and lavish additions with every amenity, Holmes works on houses where the basement floods, or the roof leaks, or the heating doesn’t work, or you can clearly hear your neighbor’s conversations through your party walls. His clients have no grand delusions; they just want the house they thought they paid for.

Hopefully, the era of the skin-deep and hurried makeover is ending. Commodified and Home Depofied, we have endeavored all these years mainly not to build better houses, but more expensive houses, and we got what we deserved — a market burdened with personal fantasies that either nobody wants or nobody can afford, and an architectural ethic in a perpetual state of adolescence. One has to think of old Europe for contrast, where, over the centuries, mistakes are corrected, not just face-lifted. In America, the market has dictated that a home is more likely to be demolished than truly improved.

What would be most welcome is a new round of reality shows aimed at real people who have to survive in our brave new economy:

Squat That Shack: A retired realtor and loan shark helps homeless people spot repos and move into them.

My First Tent: A guide to living on public lands without a permit.

This Old Van: How to fix up your camper to live rent-free in an urban environment.

Slum Sluts: Two designing women advise clients on how to keep their property taxes down by placing derelict cars and appliances in the yard and voting down school bonds.

Trophy Hotel: A design team from Holiday Inn helps destitute owners convert their ski town McMansions into employee housing to pay the mortgage.

Ski Fences

About twenty years ago, I wanted to build a fence made out of skis and bicycle wheels along my small Telluride back yard. Permission was denied by the town Historic and Architectural Preservation Commission. They said it wasn’t historical. But I’ve always liked ski fences, which seem kindred with fences made from surfboards, bowling balls, toothbrushes, bikes and bras. In ski country, they seem as natural and authentic as license plate houses. You get that great picket effect, and they’re bound to last decades longer than any wooden planks, without the aid of paint or oil. I’ve long seen many examples in Colorado, but I see that recently ski fences have also become a craze in Russia.

If you live in a ski town, you can amass old skis with a perusal of ski swaps, free boxes and dumpsters. Most prized are skis without bindings because the bindings are a pain in the ass to remove. If you want a tall fence, with the advent of short skis, the old 200s will be harder to find. For colors, I prefer just going with the random cacophony of industrial day-glo, which gives you a kind of happy camo look, but you can also look for matches or color groupings.

Unless you’re an experienced metal worker, it’s best to avoid designs that require cutting the skis — metal ski edges are very hard and difficult to cut through with home tools. To erect the pickets, you just drill holes through the ski bottoms to accept screws or bolts. Many artisans are also making everything from ski benches and ski Adirondacks to ski coat racks.

Noise in the Mountains: Why do we have to shout in our public buildings?

For the last 30 years, I have lived in passive-solar homes that I designed and constructed. They are all different, but they’ve all been blessedly quiet, allowing us to create our own aural space with conversation or music or silence. It was when I began producing stories for public radio that I became aware of how noisy most buildings are, including buildings that by definition should be quiet. It’s one of the first things you learn when you try to record people “out in the field.” Microphones can amplify unwanted noise: Heating and cooling blowers sound like a B-52 flying through the room. Fluorescent lights emit an urgent, high whine. All sorts of industrial gray noises lurk in between. I ended up conducting many an interview on the back porch.

Make it stop!A few years back, the Town of Telluride was preparing to build a gazillion-dollar new library. The chosen architects held what is known in the trade as a “charette,” (sha-RETT n.: “A meeting where architects pretend to listen to the public, and then follow the path of least resistance”). A few literary types and I showed up and sat in the old library around a table on which was placed a model of a big, fat domino of a new building. I had come to make trouble. I shined my flashlight on the model to simulate how winter sun would penetrate the interior spaces. For starters, half the building was an underground parking garage that would get no sun at all. And they were going to heat this big box with a standard HVAC (Heating/Ventilation/Air Conditioning) package, which is noisy, and libraries are supposed to be quiet. I even pulled out my little cassette recorder and passed around the headphones so everyone could hear the din of the old library’s heating system. Most of the time we don’t notice the noise because our ears are marvelous biological machines that can tune it out, but on a physical level, we are still stressed and strained.

Too LOUD!I could see the architects were unmoved. They already had their bid from the HVAC guy. They were stressing that their design had a “feature” (n.: “a (relatively) interesting little shape stuck on top of the big honkin’ domino”). It was a vertical tower, shaped kinda like a mineshaft, that had no function but  “to pay homage to Telluride’s heritage.” And that’s the way it got built, with a Victorian brick façade that failed to disguise the domino.

In these pages, I have previously scolded architects for their overeager acquiescence to convention and failure to educate the public. In their defense, the ’70s are long gone and they have to make a living dealing with a fickle public. Design it fast. Build it fast. Build it cheaply, and maintain every cubic inch of interior space at an even 71 degrees. To accomplish the latter, use tried-and-true 1940s technology that gulps fuel, rattles, creaks, groans, hums and whines. Provide seizure-inducing industrial light fixtures in rooms that could have been day-lighted by the sun. Blow room air through mold-friendly ducts and crawl spaces. Finish interiors with an indiscriminate array of toxic fibers and goo. In general, give as little thought as possible to the physiology or psychology of the room’s human occupants.

You’re supposed to be quiet in a library, but in churches, schools, theaters, courtrooms and halls of government, you’re supposed to talk, and the building is supposed to be quiet. Noisy examples abound across the Rockies, even in landmark-grade buildings in affluent resort towns. My tape recorder will attest that the worst acoustics in the mountains can reliably be found in city council and county commissioner “chambers.” If I had the archives and Jon Stewart’s editors, I could get a great montage of some of the thousands of times as a reporter I heard the phrases “we can’t hear,” or “we can’t hear in the back.”

Masonic Lodges and other such local gab halls generally also lack the charming acoustics of the Sundowner Room at the Holiday Inn. And many a downtown mountain bar or restaurant has the curse of being located in an old Victorian Boxcar space (long and narrow) with hardwood floors and big windows (any sound roadie will attest that boxcar gigs are the worst).

ZOOOOOOOOM!In the 21st century, small towns in the mountains, resort or not, often have downtown bottlenecks where snow plows, snow making, garbage trucks, recycling trucks, buses, Harleys, cops, ambulances, train crossings, honking drivers and barking dogs all converge, producing, it seems a safe bet, historically high decibel counts coming from the streets.

It’s harder to get away from the noise in our homes too, especially smaller homes with open floor plans, and there are unanticipated scenarios — Mary’s playing the piano in the living room, Bob’s watching NFL in the kitchen, Dutch is singing in the shower and lord knows what Alice and Pierre are doing in the bedroom. The mechanical cacophony adds new sonic layers: furnace whoomping (or swamp cooler huffing), fridge droning, dishwasher whooshing, doors slamming, toilets flushing, drains draining, washers and dryers buzzing, telephones and doorbells ringing and sometimes the shrieking of smoke and burglar alarms.

No wonder we’re reduced to noise-canceling headphones competing with LOUD home-theater systems. Indoors or out, sonic privacy gets harder to achieve, and many of us resort to individual electronic immersion. So just a little nudge, next time you create or reform a space for humans, think about noise.

NOTE TO READERS: A basic premise of this blog is that MG readers spend a lot of time being their own architects. Whether it’s converting your old Volvo for camping, designing a chicken tractor, building a greenhouse, a tree house or your dream house, we are all creating an authentic regional vernacular. The intent is to share personal experiences, trials, tribulations and critical opinions, always looking for ways that everyday life can be better for everyday people.

I hope this blog includes the encouragement of excellence in design of public space. Readers: What are examples in MG country that you like? I admit to liking the new Salt Lake City Library, Yellowstone Lodge, the Taos and Santa Fe plazas, both the old and new Denver Art Museums, Crested Butte’s “Butler Building” theater in the park and KPRK’s art deco radio station in Livingston, Montana.

Hope to soon have a Gmail address for sharing JPGs.

Quonset Physics

I have long been skeptical of the current “alternative” building fads: mud walls, dirt-bag walls, straw walls, tire walls, compacted trash walls, ad infinitum. My standard rap, which falls on deaf ears because it is free advice, goes something like this: You are using techniques appropriate for a third-world village in an American (suburban) context. Walls constitute only 15 percent of the cost of most houses, and such alternatives do not save money, trees or concrete. Rather, the extra-thick walls add up to significant extra square footage, which results in bigger foundations and bigger roofs. And what do all these PC ramblers have for roof structure? Big, thick old-growth timbers and wood planks! For such reasons, I hope the now-fashionable eco-castles don’t become an enduring prototype.

I pray as fervently as the next hippy builder for the end of “balloon framing,” which is what modern wood framing was first called, because it looked so light and insubstantial that it might float away. It’s a ridiculous waste of trees, but persists because it’s a standard that can be estimated with accuracy and erected with moderately skilled labor. I have spent decades slicing wood — it’s the only construction trade for which I can claim master or journeyman status. But wood is subject to the ravages of fire, water, sun, mold and termites, and this old wood butcher thinks more and more about steel. I know I’m not alone — there’s a whole new generation of designers who scour the country for steel artifacts and industrial detritus that can be adapted to residential construction: shipping containers, grain silos, giant culverts. I myself had always wanted to erect a classic American form, the “Quonset” hut. Back in 1941 the U.S. Navy decided it needed a lightweight building that could be shipped anywhere. The now-familiar half pipes were first manufactured in Quonset Point, RI and have since, like the Airstream camper, become part of the vernacular. After World War II, they were mostly sold to farmers, as attested to by construction manuals that still advise you can “use your hay wagon” as a scaffold.

You’ve seen the commercials on TV — get a big steel barn and say goodbye to mini-storage rent! I thought about how sorry I was to see the old Quonset torn down in Telluride, after humbly hosting decades of basketball games, roller skaters and KOTO Halloween parties. But nostalgia aside, I began to see a nifty alternative to the suburban garage. What could be more ideal for an unheated outbuilding than a single skin that serves as structure, sheathing, waterproof membrane and finished, maintenance-free surface, topped off with an aluminum-alloy finish that will probably take centuries to rust out? Little did I know that this project would become a Christo-like exercise in process art, an absurdly simple plan requiring a gymnastic and sometimes frustrating execution.

So how do you buy one? I began by perusing the scores of websites selling steel buildings, many with testimonials like “Uh, me and Bill, we put up this thing in three days.” What I still didn’t know was that everyone’s selling the exact same steel arches, which are made in a handful of factories in the U.S. and Canada. But when I began calling the actual purveyors, you could see smoke coming out of the phone as I was hustled by a homogenous array of ex-carneys, ex-Amway sellers and ex-used-car dealers. Most employ a variation of the same pitch: “You want a 30-foot-by-40 foot-building? So happens I got this building that this guy in Florida didn’t pick up — we got it sitting on the dock here, and I’d love to get rid of it. I’d let you have it for say, $12,500, but you gotta buy it today.”

It took me weeks to sort through the hype and begin to understand the basics of steel arch buildings. The next hurdle was simpler but more mysterious. I had decided to erect my first Quonset in Taos, New Mexico, a town that in modern times has enforced a ruthless architectural conformity. Every last KFC is nothing more than a rectilinear, flat-roofed waferboard box sporting brown stucco and a few decorative timbers. However I could find no local code or covenant that forbade prefab or steel buildings, so I applied for a building permit and crossed my fingers, remembering how, many years ago in the Aspen valley, a snooty architectural control board had denied my request to erect a geodesic dome.

While salesmen continued to call me on an almost daily basis, I developed my shopping list: From the manufacturer, I would buy the steel arches, the steel base plates that attach the arches to the foundation, and a couple of curved, fiberglass skylights. I would construct my own end walls out of wood, with standard entry doors and sliding windows, and the splurge de resistance: two gorgeous, 8-ft.-by-8-ft. aluminum framed glass garage doors, aka service station or firehouse doors. This heavily glazed garage door wall would face southeast and gulp morning sun into the building.

After the slab was poured, we had to drill holes along the two long edges for expanding anchor bolts that would attach the steel base plates. This was a piece of cake with a big honkin’ rental store drill. The building parts came on a flatbed truck, all nestled together like long, steel Pringles. Next would be the fun, dramatic part: Like on the advertisements, we would construct each complete arch on the ground, and then raise it in place with a couple of ropes. We would use a two-level section of staging for the high work. Each arch is two feet wide and has six pieces that bolt together. In no time at all, a building would appear.

We set to work on the first arch, which was unexpectedly heavy when completed. Four of us strained and struggled to lift it up alongside the staging, at one point dropping it and denting a panel. This was my second glitch: when buying the arches, I had discovered that, for a relatively modest cost, I could upgrade to a heavier gauge of steel. Taos gets heavy snowfall, thus I reasoned this is no place to skimp. But the result was that it would take a crane to lift these monsters, and even then you would need a stout custom carriage to keep the arches from deforming under their own weight.

Our solution was to put up one panel at a time. It takes two people to work on each panel, especially up in the air. We used hand ratchet wrenches and cordless drivers. One person has to hold the nut on the inside to keep it from spinning, while the other person drives the bolt tight from the outside (sometimes hanging from a rope). The weather tightness of each arch depends on simple mechanical flashing: the bottom of each segment rests on TOP of the next segment down. We learned the hard way that you have to concentrate to remember this, or it takes tedious unbolting and rebolting if you get a panel flashed wrong. This process took, not “a weekend,” but a whole damned week. Not insignificant were the stoppages due to summer squalls blowing through, when nobody wanted to cling to a giant lightning rod.

Finally the big half pipe was done. It felt impressively solid when we walked on top. The immense, unobstructed and airy interior space became apparent. One surprise: with all that smooth concrete and steel, the acoustics inside are truly awful. They sell insulation kits for these babies — basically you just clip plastic-faced fiberglass bats to the arches. But then aesthetically you would be inside of a big, white bag instead of that clean, geometrically precise steel vault.

One day as we neared completion, an immediate neighbor walked over to tell me I had constructed an abomination that flouted local codes. This same neighbor’s own garage is a box troweled with tan stucco, and he was convinced I had brought his property values down. He seemed to back off a little when I responded that, yes, I had read the county codes calling for the preservation of rural character, and I could think of nothing with more rural character than a Quonset hut — in remote parts of New Mexico, I have come to regard distinctive Q-huts as mile markers. (And to tell the truth, I think outbuildings should be exempt from the style police and it should be okay for a garage to look like a garage.)

The first clue that I was part of a Quonset revival movement came when, on impulse, I sent a photo, with Taos peaks in the background, to my sales rep at SteelMaster Corporation. She informed me that she entered it in their new photo contest. Looking at rival pics on the contest web page, I was amazed by the creativity, intricacy, ingenuity and craftsmanship among the finalists. Ultimately, I finished 5th among Internet voters for cutest new Quonset in the land, and was awarded a nifty SteelMaster coffee cup and some pens that look like bolts with nuts. They are my most cherished professional awards.

Lost GPS Drivers: Alarmed and dangerous

GPS route-finding has been enthusiastically accepted by drivers who don’t want the drudgery of piloting their vehicles or the tedium of orientation and navigation. Begging the question of why they don’t just take mass transit, most of us have heard really great stories that involve use of a GPS route finder, flat unbelievable cluelessness and acutely stressful motoring experiences. One blogger suggests that, since GPS is most prevalent in high-end cars, a good Google search is “Mercedes” plus “River” plus “Crash.”

I chose to try “GPS” plus “Idiots” and immediately struck gold — there are friggin’ doctoral papers and commissioned studies on the subject, and I soon learned that the Brits had long coined the more genteel term “satnav mishaps.” It turns out that the Euros, with their ancient, narrow streets and lanes, have been longest-vexed by satellite-misled drivers. Lorries are crashing into fences, sideswiping ancient stone walls, mowing down trees and sinking into muddy farm roads. Signs at the edge of besieged feudal villages plead “No Satnav.” English railroads cite a surge in damage by GPS-led trucks striking low or narrow bridges, and insurance companies in the UK say hundreds of thousands of crashes have been caused by “over reliance” on GPS.

A 2006 study suggested that watching a route guidance display is more “disruptive” than trying to read a paper map at the wheel. Other studies have found that drivers straining to hear and understand robo-spoken audio commands are equally distracted. As a result, many of the planet’s 800 million vehicles are driven into buildings, into rivers, along train tracks, into oncoming cars, forging against one-way traffic and making illegal turns. That’s before they get lost:

• July 2008: A Syrian lorry driver leaving Turkey went 1,600 miles in the wrong direction, arriving at the Gibraltar Point Natural Nature Reserve in England instead of his intended destination, the Rock of  Gibraltar.

• A German motorist, when ordered to “turn right now” by his audio satnav, executed an immediate right turn into a building site, up a flight of stairs and into a portaloo.

• January 2008: “The Shropshire village of Donnington has suffered repeated invasions by 70-ton tanks and other armoured vehicles.” (A nearby military barracks has the same name.)

• June 2008 headline: “U.S. Tourist Stoned by Palestinian Mob After GPS Gives Incorrect Directions.”

• May 2006 headline: “Couple Arrested For Asking For Directions” (You  can’t win!)

It’s a complete reversal of the old saw, “you can’t get there from here.” Now we each follow our own personal Star of Bethlehem and, yes, theoretically there is an ideal route from anywhere to anywhere. Part of the problem is summed up by another old saw, “garbage in, garbage out.” The GPS routes are devised by companies like Tele Atlas and Navteq using intelligence that can quickly become outdated: businesses move, new roads are built, old ones closed for repairs, and frequently, with no dialogue between global user and local inhabitant, the data is deficient or just plain wrong.

In my own neck of the woods, the southeast Utah desert, our satnav mishaps tend to have their own unique character and usually involve caravans of rental SUVs full of vacationing tenderfoot flatlanders being swallowed up somewhere in the Grand Staircase.

ABC 4 News: A group of 20, including 10 children, left Bryce Canyon for Kanab at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night in four shiny Renegades. They decided there is a short cut: “We have, like four GPS systems, and they all told us the same thing, that we were closer going ahead than backtracking.” After three hours and 75 miles on a remote and rugged dirt road, they cliffed out. Kane County Sheriffs said the group called 911, lucky to get a cell signal, “panicking to the point that they were really lost and no one was going to find them.”

Then there was the Pennsylvania couple stranded on Smoky Mountain Road for four days, and the family from Belgium on Four Mile Bench that was reduced to licking condensation off their mini-van’s windshield.

It takes me a while to wrap my head around the notion that visitors to the Utah outback would assume that each little dirt two-track is on some kind of systematic grid and eventually goes where they want to go, and their rented Cherokee will, like in the commercials, just sail over the peaks and canyons. But this obviously isn’t just a wilderness thing, case in point being the time I tried to drive the coastline of Los Angeles — an oriented person just knows that sometimes you really can’t get there from here. In surveys drivers say GPS makes them feel “more in control,” but they really want to just check out, and when they get the directions, most admit they are still confused. There has been much speculation as to why so many people seem geo-impaired.

Bats, cows, mole rats and all sorts of critters can sense the earth’s magnetic field, but apparently not Homo He Wrecked Us. Some psychologists believe that in fact many humans are extra-spatially twisted with an affliction they have named “Transient Directional Disorientation,” not a phrase easy to yell out at an intersection.

Senior correspondent Jon Kovash lives in Moab, where he plays saxophone in a band called Phil Dirt.

Potholes on Journalism’s Dead-end Road

Over the last year, we’ve seen a spate of hand-wringing articles on the death of journalism, prompted chiefly by the recent demise of some venerable American daily newspapers. To us unemployed and underemployed journalists, both print and broadcast, this is an old, old story, one that we have followed intensely for years (because we have nothing better to do). Across the board and as predicted, media conglomeration was the beginning of the end of the newsroom as we have known it, and certainly the death of journalism as an activity largely engaged in by trained, experienced and allegedly dispassionate professionals.

Anyone who has ever been a beat reporter knows the full truth: there’s no easy, cheap or free, robotized way to replace us, and Americans are going to become even less informed than they are now. We have progressed from “57 channels with nothin’ on” to a formidable millions of channels, containing a vast amount of (unverified) information, but the news hole has shrunk right along with broadcasting and newspapering. Everyone knows that reporting, which is characterized by research and facts, continues to be replaced almost wholly by punditry and advocacy.

The pundits are stumped on how to save journalism now that it is no longer a center of employment that the private sector is eager to support. Government funding would be rejected out of hand as un-American. Besides, do we need another tepid national McDigest like NPR? It does look likely that any renaissance will have to happen in the nonprofit world, but that begs the question of where the money comes from. I remain generally skeptical that journalism will survive without paid journalists, but I came across a hopeful piece of the puzzle right in my own back yard.

It’s an email “list serve” called the Moab Area Progressive Network, or MAPN. It was started innocuously enough back in 2005 by local members of MoveOn. From the beginning, the content on MAPN was impressive. Moab already had a number of local activists who were used to backchanneling lots of time-sensitive content. They had to, because our sleepy local weekly paper does not. So MAPN readers are regularly offered new and real information, like the agenda of the council meeting that didn’t get in the paper, blow-by-blow accounts of crucial local political battles, links to “outside” stories of local concern and endless links to newly discovered government documents. There is plenty of rumor to be sure, but I’m amazed at how often, Wikipedia style, a string of messages will quickly zero in on the truth or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

It was an event in the spring of ‘09 that convinced me of the considerable reporting power that MAPN can generate on deadline. On April 15, an eerie and massive, post-global-warming dust storm blew through town. The unprecedented brownout was confirmed by DOE air quality monitors at the tailings cleanup site, and old-timers said they’d never seen anything like it. It was easily the biggest local story of the week, and the local paper ignored it altogether, while residents joked about the “brown rain” spots on their cars. So I posted a quick question on MAPN, something like, “Where the heck is all the dust coming from?” In the ensuing hours, the closest suspect was analyzed: large tracts of land south of town that were scraped for development and now abandoned in recession. Perps were identified, names were named and carnage described, but it didn’t add up to being the cause of the Armageddon-like dust event we had witnessed. Soon, other posts provided links to another related and under-reported regional story — the recent brown snow phenomenon at Colorado ski resorts. The readers were zeroing in. Then someone found links to satellite photos from April 15 that actually tracked the dust storm from northeast Arizona to Moab. In a day, the group, which numbers less than 100 members, had done for free the research the local paper should have done. The biggest still unanswered question: What is causing the dirt of Arizona to go airborne in such unprecedented volume? Is it some combination of land abuse and global warming? Not too many years ago, those questions too would have already been answered by curious, enterprising and competitive beat reporters and editors.

Like our dwindling quality print media, information on the Internet flows mostly to a relatively small and affluent elite that has computers, broadband accounts and ample leisure time. To access the MAPN content, you have to also pass a political litmus test. Through some makeshift democracy, the group has created a system whereby basically an impromptu kangaroo court is e-convened to confirm an applicant’s progressive/liberal bona fides (so far a handful have been rejected). I’m sure if it were put to the group, the members would not approve of this story being written, so I also have to pass on introducing some of the colorful characters.

MAPN has another trait that serves as a reminder that this is not a website and not mass media, but a hybrid: Like most reporters, I have resolved any anxieties I may have had about the potential implications of shooting off my mouth. We tend to be type-A/Gemini/windbag/argumentative hams anyway. But many MAPN members wouldn’t think of sending a letter to the editor and would not contribute emails to MAPN if they thought they could be read by non-members of the choir. Knowing the speed and power of the local grapevine, I find this to be naïve but understandable. There is real intimidation here — Moab’s conservative power brokers have long practiced the art of the boycott, both formal and informal, against local businessowners who endorse green positions.

One of MAPN’s crucial functions has been to smoke out and support progressive candidates for local office. Moab’s old-guard Republicans have duly taken note, and some have publicly labeled MAPN a “special interest group.” But at annual potlucks and in online surveys, the members have repeatedly rejected the notion that MAPN should essentially become the town’s Green Party, and they’ve affirmed that they want a userdefined safe haven and clearinghouse with few rules (one being that you can’t pass on or quote content without the author’s permission). Whether the list serve is a safe haven remains to be seen — I suspect that if you trash someone on MAPN, you are just as vulnerable to a libel suit or even arrest (Colorado and Utah still have criminal libel/“speech crime” statutes).

Like most worthy Internet endeavors, the MAPN list serve takes up too much of your time. I never erase a MAPN-labeled message until I’ve at least scanned it, so there’s an unread backlog on my mailbox that goes back for months. I know I’m not alone, because, every so often, I see someone respond to a months-old message.

Like most Moab residents, MAPN readers can be fickle in unpredictable ways. Often a thread is launched by a relatively obscure aspect of a town hall skirmish, which somehow triggers a raucous debate over, say, affordable housing, that rages for days until the next juicy topic presents itself. Recently, one activist member castigated the group for its poor showing at a hearing on the proposed nuclear power plant at Green River. What ensued was not a discussion of nuclear power plants, but soul-searching treatises regarding Just How Many Goddamned Meetings One Person Can Go To.

It’s a quirky system, but simple and cheap (thanks to a volunteer administrator), and if it can work in a town with 5,000 souls, the MAPN concept could surely be adapted elsewhere. It’s not The Solution to the death of journalism, but it’s at least a promising piece of a part of the solution, and I’m guessing MAPN will still exist long after Facebook and Twitter have become quaint anachronisms.

Frequent contributor Jon Kovash lives in Moab.