Zach Horton

Author: zhorton (page 1 of 3)

Summer 2017 Dome Building Plan

It’s that time of year again: time to get outside and build something!  And that something is, for my sister Jess and I, The Domes.  Yes, the same as last year.  This June, new friends and old are invited to join us in our little utopian project to construct a dwelling and community that preserves our core values for and in an increasingly dark future.  Energy self-sufficiency, space for creative thought and practice, communal work and gathering, re-integration with larger ecosystems, thinking and building for larger timescales… the project continues!  Join us during the month of June to help waterproof the domes and cover them with earth.  We’ll also be working on the electrical system, installing an array of solar panels, and stuccoing the front wall.  It will be exciting to finish the exterior!

For more information about the Domes, see our updated project page.

Why Trump’s Electoral Victory is an Opportunity for the Left

In my social and professional circles, the election of Donald Trump, perhaps the most hateful candidate ever to grace a major party ticket in the U.S. for the office of President, has occasioned mostly shock, despair, and depression. I would like to briefly share some reasons to view Donald Trump’s victory as a significant opportunity for radical politics.

There is no question that Trump’s presidency itself is a horrible step backwards, an already-extant disaster for people of color, women, Muslims, and the environment, and a potential disaster for world peace, prosperity, and safety. I am not arguing that Trump’s presidency is a good thing, but I am arguing that Trump’s electoral victory has and will produce many new opportunities for an invigorated politics of the left. Not the same opportunities that always exist in the form of opposition to right wing rule, but something entirely new, something to which we must become freshly and uniquely attuned lest it slip away. This opportunity takes the form of invaluable lessons that will help us re-assess America’s political situation with eyes wide open, the removal of powerfully conservative forces that have hitherto prevented any radical change from percolating through mainstream politics, and a political and social landscape that will be ripe for the creative application of unconventional political leadership.

In the liberal and left-leaning group that generally make up my social networks, the most oft-expressed opinion on social media feeds the day of the election was some variant of “thank god the election is here, so we can finally make Trump go away.” The sentiment here was that an electoral defeat would finally give Trump his comeuppance for his raciest, xenophobic, misogynistic campaign rhetoric and hateful fear mongering. The conventional wisdom, shared by liberals, leftists, and media commentators, was that no one as deeply bigoted as Donald Trump could ever be elected President. I shared this view, and it ensured that I was completely blindsided and unprepared for Tuesday night’s result.

However, the naïve view that Trump’s hate-filled discourse could be defeated with the victory of Hillary Clinton was the first sign, for me, that something was terribly wrong. This was smug, wishful thinking that not only ignored the strength, breadth, and tenacity of Trump’s populist movement, but also framed the magical solution as a return to establishment politics. How had the left painted itself into this corner?

All we could really see of Trump was his bigotry, and that made a democratic victory literally unthinkable and ultimately inevitable (whether in this election or the next). Our complacent reliance on the Democratic Party was already doomed. Here are some of the things that, in my view, we got so wrong, and why it’s better that they came to light sooner rather than later:

1. Our analytic categories were too narrow.

Racism, sexism, misogyny, and Islamophobia are categories that progressives, and especially academics, are well-trained to spot, analyze, and combat at the discursive level. Trump and his most egregious followers (the “basket of deplorables”) lit up this radar with such overwhelming regularity and intensity that the analytic machinery behind it was saturated and failed to function properly. Not much else got through.  Here we were our own victims of an essentialist and inflexible analytic framework. We have become perhaps too good (and too reflexive) at recognizing certain patterns at a certain scale, and could no recognize larger ones and larger scales, let alone entirely new shapes emerging in our cultural-social-medial assemblages. When it turned out that Trump’s support on election day stretched far beyond the basket of deplorables, that just didn’t compute for most of us. But the issues (speech and representation) that are most salient to us are not necessarily the most salient or important to the voting public at large. This should have been obvious, but we were blinded by our own proficiency, by habit and by…

2. Smugness.

Liberals have been winning in U.S. politics for awhile, and tend to view themselves as far more enlightened on social issues than their political adversaries. This contributed to the narrowing of our analytic categories and policy concerns (see below) and convinced us that Hillary Clinton couldn’t really lose, because the Trump camp was so in the wrong. But it is clear now that however despicable Trump is, many of his followers had good reasons to vote for him other than expressing their hatred of women, people of color, etc. More white women voted for Trump than Clinton, and Trump garnered almost 30% of the Latino/a vote, which seems inconceivable if race was the primary issue for voters. Most significantly, the voters that handed Trump the election were rust belt working class whites that had voted for Obama in the past, and had now switched to Trump (without the Democratic party even noticing). This is what turned the map red and handed Trump the election.

To sum up: bigotry seemed to liberals, radicals, and mainstream pundits to be the most salient issue of the election, and it turned out not to matter to at least half of the voting public. This is in and of itself deeply troubling from a social justice perspective, but the important point here is that the biggest drivers of voter behavior in this election trumped bigoted speech acts (no pun intended). A lot of this is just about priority. As Connor Kilpatrick argues persuasively in this article, racism is fungible: some voting communities in the U.S. have historically flopped multiple times from racist to progressive and back. This suggests that it is a subsidiary issue for many independent voters: when racial anxiety can be made to align with their biggest concerns, racism flares up; when liberalism can be made to align with their biggest concerns, they become progressive. On the left, we have tended to essentialize racism, which makes it far more difficult for us to understand this phenomenon and identify the most important issues to these voters. (Note: race is the most important issue for some voters, and they unquestioningly constitute Trump’s most rabid base, but those aren’t the voters who handed him this election.) This is not to downplay the significance of racism or suggest that it wasn’t an important aspect of Trump’s campaign, but only to note that the issue has been approached by liberals and radicals in a manner that is simplistic, essentialist, and  self serving (when discourse places you in the position of the morally righteous and makes you feel superior to your opponent, this should send up a huge red flag).  Liberal moralizing on this issue not only failed to sway half of the electorate, but actually made the problem far worse: it signaled a deep misunderstanding and disconnect between liberals and the concerns of the working class, and heaped insult upon injury by morally condemning voters for voting in their own economic interests. What could have been a stronger message to the effect that liberalism had abandoned the working class? That message was heard loud and clear, as was Trump’s message of radical change.

What, then, was the issue that turned the rust belt voters from Obama to Trump?

3. Neoliberalism

The left has had neoliberalism in its crosshairs ever since it appeared on the scene, but liberals—who have been in the driver’s seat of mainstream politics for the past quarter century—have embraced it so thoroughly that it has become orthodoxy in the Democratic Party. Neoliberalism, implemented as a set of policy objectives by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s, was a right-wing platform until Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council mainstreamed it in the 1990s. The core philosophy of neoliberal economics is that all dynamics are best rationalized and optimized if they can be driven by and as markets. Those markets should therefore be “free” in the sense of self-governing; any external force that constrains markets prevents them from fully optimizing the underlying dynamics into which they have been unleashed. This means that public property (such as water, land, infrastructure, utilities, universities, etc.) should be privatized, government regulation should be scaled back or eliminated, and every possible market should be opened up for exploitation.

In other words, capitalism should be spread to every aspect of life on this planet and any impediment to free markets should be eliminated. In policy, this is done through free trade agreements, international lending (through the IMF and World Bank) to countries in trouble in exchange for drastic changes to their laws and the privatization of their resources. Trade agreements preempt other laws such as those ensuring social and environmental protection, weakening signatory governments vis-a-vis global corporations, which can actually sue a government for doing anything (such as protecting some part of the population or element of the natural environment) that would hamper business. Neoliberalism is essentially a grand tuning of the world to transform it into a capital (monetary surplus) producing machine. The benefactors are the corporations, companies, investors, and their political allies who reap the profits. The losers are just about everyone else. However, in particularly wealthy countries, the biggest (human) losers are the working class, because neoliberal policy ensures that labor will be outsourced to the regions of the world where it is cheapest, and labor is always cheapest in regions in which laborers can be most exploited. So while the upper classes in all countries benefit from this arrangement, the working classes get the short end of the stick. The resulting disparity of wealth and lack of employment in formerly productive regions of the U.S. (e.g. the rust belt) has disenfranchised a lot of people. Trump spoke to those people. Partly he blamed Latinos for stealing what jobs remain, but mostly he blamed free trade agreements that moved those jobs out of the U.S. in the first place. That message resonated with those disenfranchised by neoliberal policy. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party didn’t even put up a fight.

4. A Compromised Democratic Party

To prevail electorally against Reaganism, the Democratic Party sold its soul. The Clintons lead that pivot, and three decades of rabid neoliberalism created, as Naomi Klein argues here, the very conditions that swept Trump into power. The Democratic Party became so rich and complacent through this platform, so corrupt, and so complacent, that it not only couldn’t see this coming, not only abandoned the very class that had at one time made up its core constituency (the working class), but actively quashed all attempts within the party to re-connect with its roots. Its leadership conspired to thwart democracy and ensure that Hillary Clinton received the nomination, despite her many flaws and vulnerabilities as a candidate. As perhaps the most neoliberal candidate available in the Democratic party, she was the worst possible one to field against Trump. Even though this was obvious, the overwhelming neoliberal power bloc within the party, along with corruption from the top, conspired to quash a candidate who could actually pull the rug out from under Trump: Bernie Sanders. This is particularly tragic because as I noted above, the left has long attacked neoliberalism; it simply hasn’t been able to breach the firewall within the Democratic party to mainstream the issue. Bernie Sanders attempted to do just that, and he was crushed by the Democratic Party machine. If he, or another non-neoliberal candidate (possibly Elizabeth Warren) had been fielded by the Democratic Party, the left could have claimed the very ground that Trump took to the ballot box.

Moving Forward

For those who feel, as I did, shocked, dismayed, and depressed (or worse, for many: targeted and scared) by the results of this election, I think the first step is to learn these four lessons. The left has failed America, and we need to understand why and how. On the day after the election one of my students noted, “we did everything we could, and it didn’t make any difference.” Yes, we worked hard to combat the racism, xenophobia, sexism, and ignorance that Trump exuded, but I think we can take heart, perhaps paradoxically, in the fact that we could have done better. We are not helpless. In fact, we can and must not only continue to do all we have in the past… we need to step up our game. We need to widen our understanding and analytic categories for grappling with this election. If you’ve found yourself coping with the election results by concluding that half of the electorate is composed of hopelessly racist, xenophobic, misogynistic people hell bent on recovering a position of white supremacy, then you’re still living inside what Michael Moore called, even before the election, “the bubble.” This conclusion is not only wrong in important ways (see my colleague Iza Ding’s post here on the limitation of generalization and the importance of nuance when identifying voting blocs in electoral politics), but also hopelessly self serving.  Instead of choosing the narrative that makes us feel superior to the white working class, lumping all of their concerns into a single category, we need to consider the strategic as well as ideological role of racism, acknowledge its contingency, and effectively analyze its relationships with other ideologies and practices.  To do so is not to back down on the fight against bigotry, but to deepen and nuance it.

It is time to take some responsibility. Hope starts with knowledge and wisdom, and this election has provided that for those who are wiling to accept that they were shortsighted and smug. I’m guilty as charged, but I soon realized that my own attitude and analytic categories were contributing to my blindness and depressed affect. Regaining political agency means grappling with these hard truths, but the affective payoff is great: instead of despair at an imagined onslaught of bigots that we cannot defeat politically, realizing that we face (among other things) a populist movement against neoliberalism opens up a path forward. This is a battle we can win, if we take off the blinders. This certainly does not mean backing down from social justice struggles—on the contrary, we must continue to fight against hatred and prejudice in every possible way. What this does mean, however, is an accurate characterization of our enemy, and in this case, it turns out that one of our biggest enemies was in our own midst in the form of neoliberal policy and philosophy. The Trump voters who turned the election in his favor, the portion of the working class that supported Obama but got little from the Democratic Party in return, aren’t really our enemies at all, and can be turned into our allies.

Creative Politics

Having Donald Trump as our president is unquestionably a disaster in the short term. But the forces that he unleashed were already there, had to explode at some point, and weren’t going to go away even if Clinton won the election. Now, instead of deluding ourselves, or patting ourselves on the back for being so morally superior, we can have a conversation about neoliberalism. Trump’s opposition to free trade started a movement that should have been lead by the left. The good news here is that Trump’s anti-NAFTA stance is hopelessly compromised by his own interests (his wealth was the result of neoliberalism) and other pro-neoliberal policies (deregulation, tax cuts to the wealthy, exploitation of U. S. coal and oil reserves, etc.) That means that the fight against neoliberalism can still be taken back by the left, and will in fact become far more potent when coupled with a broad-based platform of social and environmental justice. The forces that prevented this from happening in the past—the bipartisan consensus of the political class that neoliberalism was axiomatic and the influence of the Clinton dynasty within the Democratic Party in particular—have now been dealt a fatal blow by Trump. The coalition that I’m imagining here, should it materialize (and we can certainly make it materialize) now has more space to breathe than any other time in the past thirty years.

On a more general level, Trump has shaken up the establishment, making a return to business/politics as usual in either of the two parties a lot less likely (even if his administration morphs into a traditional Republican one). The political possibilities are, for the first time in my lifetime, completely open ended. This is not, then, a time for depression or helpless anger, but rather a time for creative imaginings. The worst thing we can now do is to double down on our old assumptions and habits. Our affect should be positive, not negative; active, not reactive. We should be building—not rebuilding, but building… something new, something better. A lot of women and girls (and men) saw their dream of a female president heartbreakingly deferred this past Tuesday. But this dream will have its time soon enough, and that time will be so much more. Facing a Trump presidency, we should not be downsizing our goals, losing the gleam in our eyes, but dreaming bigger, working together toward something that, like Trump’s presidency, was unthinkable so very recently.  We lost an election, but gained something far larger, less defined, more dangerous, and more challenging.  I’m willing to wager, however, that in our current cultural context, any opportunity to write the rules of a new game is far more valuable than an advantageous move in the old one.

Introducing the Mercury: An Infinitely Extensible, Open Camera System


machining the Mercury prototype

Machining the original Mercury prototype

After over two years of development, I’m very excited to announce the debut of the Mercury, a fully modular, open, universal camera system. For years I’ve been tinkering with cameras, machining custom parts, modifying existing designs, and generally experimenting with the technical possibilities of still photography. Eventually, a “maker quest” took shape, for purely personal reasons: the fabrication of the perfect camera. For me, at the time, that meant a relatively small, compact, hand-holdable camera capable of shooting a full 6x9cm frame on 120 film. That’s standard medium format film, which has a fixed height of 60mm but no fixed width: it is up to the camera and lens system to determine how much width to use for each frame. Most common today is 645, which uses only 45mm of film width, utilizing it as the vertical dimension of the frame. Older but stouter cameras, such as the venerable Hasselblad, Pentacon 6 (about which I’ve written extensively here) utilize a square 6×6 (cm) frame. Some professional cameras from the end of the 20th century shoot even larger frames, 6×7, but are themselves so enormous and heavy that they are often referred to as “boat anchors” by photographers. I wanted to do 6×9, a format popularized by Kodak in the 1920s (for which they invented 120 roll film). 6×9 “folders” were popular through the 1940s as amateur cameras, before being replaced by the new flood of 35mm film cameras once film stock became “good enough” to shoot on such a small negative. Folders were very limited, with only one lens and an often awkward mechanism by which they would fold out and lock together into their final form when you wanted to shoot—a delicate state not conducive to protection or focus accuracy. I love these cameras, but they would not satisfy me: I wanted my camera to be able to take nearly any lens, and to be rugged.

The Mercury, in medium format film mode.

The Mercury, in medium format film mode.

Professional cameras that could shoot 6×9 were made by Graflex in the USA, Linhof in Germany, and Horseman in Japan, but their heyday was in the 1960s, and they mostly faded away after that. And most of these cameras were fairly large and heavy, invariably made of metal, and contained a lot of options and controls that, for me, added too much bulk. Plus, most of these cameras were too thick to take ultra wide, non-retrofocal lenses. These special lenses, for the ultimate in wide angle photography, require an extremely thin camera; they are made for so-called “technical cameras” that generally cost multiple thousands of dollars. So I set out to make my own. I machined various parts from various cameras, but to make everything fit together, I ended up having to 3D print a number of components. When I was done, I ended up with an awesome prototype, and a revelation: I could create a version of this camera entirely from plastic components and it would be far more flexible, extensible, and lighter, as well as sharable by a community of users. So I set out to make a fully modular, open camera system based upon standard components that anyone could modify, replace, and upgrade for new functionality.

medium format rear right

The Mercury, in medium format film mode, sporting a classic Horseman 6×9 roll film back.

Slowly, a system began to come together that was, I hoped, truly revolutionary. On one hand it was a camera that could do anything, theoretically: any module could be modified or replaced to allow compatibility with some past or future part that already existed (19th century lenses, 21st century digital backs, new and old instant film formats, Hasselblad film backs, etc.). This was truly a rhizomatic camera: it could connect anything to anything else. But it was, I felt, more than that: it was also a form of hardware development that was fundamentally anti-corporate. It was meant to follow an open source software model of open community development coupled with new distributed manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing and low-volume injection molding with innovative materials, and the collective potential of crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, etc.) and social media. This would be hardware development for the 21st century: distributed but centrally organized, driven by the very dynamics that make a community vibrant, without profit motive or exclusionary intellectual property (the double helix of contemporary capitalism). In short, the Mercury was a unique photographic tool, a platform for hardware development and creative experimentation, and a socially driven, user-innovator system with hardware, software, and social components inextricably linked.

The Mercury, in medium format film mode, sporting a Mercury modified Instax Mini back.

The Mercury, in medium format film mode, sporting a Mercury modified Instax Mini back.

Along the way, I started working with Andrew Duerner, a robotics engineer in Goleta who is a true master of 3D design, printing, and assembly. He developed our breakthrough focusing helical unit, which takes nearly any lens and allows the user to focus it if, like view camera lenses originally made for bellows cameras, it lacks a built-in helical. For lenses that have a build in helical but lack an internal shutter (such as many medium format “system” lenses by Mamiya, Pentax, etc.), we have adapter kits that adapt the lens to a standard large format shutter (either the Ilex 4 or Copal 3), and then adapt that shutter to the camera, at the correct flange distance for that format.

The other members of the team include my dear friends Joe Babine (a veteran machist and master craftsman) and Alexandra Magearu, who has extensively tested, evaluated, and re-designed the camera’s ergonomics and aesthetics.

The Mercury, in Large Format (4x5 inch sheet film) mode.

The Mercury, in Large Format (4×5 inch sheet film) mode.

As I write this, we have one week left in our Kickstarter campaign. I do not yet know if the campaign will result in the project being funded or not. If it isn’t, we’ll reach out to users in other ways. If it is, we’ll be able to afford the tooling to create injection molds for the most common parts, which will bring the cost and manufacturing time down to the necessary level to make this system available to users on a significant scale, as well as optimizing the system itself so that each part is made in with the best method, imparting the optimal characteristics (surface finish, flatness, and strength for molded parts, flexibility and customizability for 3D printed parts).

Already, the Kickstarter campaign has been incredibly rewarding. I’ve received messages from photographers all over the world, with all sorts of wild use scenarios: adapting nineteenth century lenses for medium or large format, using their favorite lenses to shoot Instax, coupling non-Hasselblad lenses with Hasselblad backs, shooting high-end digital, etc. It has been incredibly rewarding to hear about all of the things folks want to (and will) do with the Mercury: this is what has made it truly open and universal.

The Kickstarter campaign can be viewed here. Your support is greatly appreciated!

A photograph taken with the Mercury on large format sheet film: Kodak Portra 400, with a vintage Kodak Ektar 127mm f/4.7 lens.


It’s been an exciting week up at Oakridge, where Jess and I, along with both professionals and other amateurs, have been forming the foundation of our eco-retreat house.  As the last post revealed, much of the floorplan involves curves (domes and arches).  This makes for an odd foundation and a lot of curved forming boards!  Let me tell you, those aren’t easy to bend!  Each is accurate within an eighth of an inch in vertical and radial dimensions (to achieve the latter we measure from the vertex or center of the dome to every point along its curve). Working with curved materials has forced us all to work and conceive of the construction process in new ways.  Rectilinear forms have a certain logic that can be satisfying: right angles, straight lines, corners… these reassure us that there is solidity to a nailed form, a joint, an edge.  Curved shapes are more difficult to measure, seem more fragile, more indeterminate.  Difficult to nail down. Of course this is just a psychological prejudice: curved forms are significantly stronger (varying with the direction of the force) than rectilinear structures.round foundation forming

On our second day of forming, a sudden hailstorm erupted out of nowhere, sending us scurrying for shelter!  This was followed by torrential rain the likes of which we normally only see on a few of the craziest days of winter.  The result: footings filled with water.  Our clay-thick earth percolates very slowly, so we had to pump the water out with a rented pump.  Another day and a half of intense work followed, only to be interrupted with the sequel: an even-greater downpour of hail and rain.  More pumping.

Working on this site is exhilarating. To spend extended time outside (in a place so beautiful we never want to leave), doing work that is directly measurable, to see our imagined structure sinking into and rising out of the earth–this makes the two years of planning worth it.

On Monday, in between the two storms, we were rewarded with a rainbow rising out of the valley that our site overlooks.  Another curve.




Building, Thinking, Dwelling

As I simultaneously plan my move from Santa Barbara to Pittsburgh and get ready to build a retreat house with my sister in northern California, the notion of dwelling has been on my mind. What does it mean to dwell, to call a place “home”?

In a late essay, “Building, Dwelling,Thinking,” Martin Heidegger links dwelling to thought and building. To build, or to think, one must first dwell, which is to say inhabit a particular relationship with space:

“The nature of building is letting dwell. Building accomplishes its nature in the raising of locations by the joining of their spaces. Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build.” (Poetry, Language, Thought 157) Similarly, thought belongs to dwelling as an ordering of space.

I think this is right. To dwell is to inhabit a place, in body and mind: to be sheltered by it, to be sure, but also to mend it, modify it, shape it, explore it, contemplate it, meld with it. As Virginia Woolf famously proclaimed, every woman needs “a room of one’s own” to properly develop as a thinker and creator. Such a dwelling place affords privacy, or relative protection from the tumult of the world and the thoughts and demands of others. Shelter, in this sense, fosters independence and creativity by providing a break in the affective, material, and ideational flows of our culture, introducing stoppages that allow for mutations. Creativity.

This is not to say that thought develops in a vacuum; to dwell is to engage one’s surroundings and thus also to give up some forms of agency. Dwelling is a being-with. What all should be included in this circle of cohabitation? Physical structures, ideas, affects, animals of many sizes and types (including other humans), plants, pollen, textures, surfaces…


Near the build site.

There are many different possible relationships that one can form to one’s dwelling, and social relationships that can form within and around it. Nomadic peoples trace patterns on a landscape by moving through it; not the individual place or structure, but rather this larger map of habitation, constitutes the home. Nomadic living is also nomadic thinking. Likewise, farmers dwell in part by rethinking the land around them, narrowly circumscribing their resources and range to produce something new.

In the US, at least since the 1930s, the average home has grown steadily in size even as it has housed fewer people. In the 1940s it became a stagnant site of middle class consumption (occupied by a nuclear family, the basic Keynesian consumptive unit in Postwar America) which is being partially restructured today as a neoliberal site of self-improvement and flexible workspace (the home office).

How houses are conceived, built, and dwelled in is determined in large part by the relative availability of energy. The postwar nuclear family dwelling was made possible not only by a particular ideology and economic system, but by the availability of inexpensive (for the consumer) energy. See John Perlin’s Let it Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy for a history of innovative solar programs, technologies, and building materials for the home that were more or less scrapped in the postwar period when vast housing tracks made with cheap, mass-produced, energy efficient materials became the norm. For developers, it made more sense to build large and cheap, and then make up the difference in energy requirements by slapping on complex HVAC equipment to heat and cool the homes in perpetuity. Dwelling in this mode meant being plugged in to a vast system of petroleum extraction, refinement, and burning, ensuring the necessary supply of gas and electricity in exchange for the perpetual flow of money back into utilities. This more or less remains the equation in the US today, despite dawning awareness of our global ecological crisis, economic hardship, and the increasingly high cost of burning post-peak oil, dirty coal, and dangerously difficult to capture natural gas.

Given these conditions, it may seem shocking that the majority of new houses are built for yesterday, not tomorrow. There is something conservative about dwelling, as if our large, empty houses and always-on temperature control will somehow stave off the destruction of the planet, ongoing outside. This is building and thinking cut off from dwelling.


One view from the build site.

With this in mind, my sister and I set out, a little over two years ago, to conceive of a house for the future. One that wouldn’t take energy for granted. One that would serve as a dwelling place in the fullest sense: a place to live in, live with, and think among. Our basic guidelines were that it must serve the future needs of others, at least 250 years into the future, must not rely upon petroleum-based energy, and must be a dwelling place that inspires creativity, not utilitarian grimness or hermetically sealed escapism. With these constraints in mind, we were forced to design far beyond our own needs, and our own lifetimes. Such a dwelling place must be tough to last so long, but it must also be supple, flexible in use, to remain capable of meeting the unknown.

In the end, after a long collaboration, we chose to build two half domes, constructed out of a shell of concrete (dome structures are the strongest possible from an engineering standpoint, and thus require far fewer materials than equivalent rectilinear structures) and mostly buried in the earth. Not wooden boards and siding and shingles to keep the elements out and the heat in, but soil and wild grasses. Building out of wood ensures horrifically poor energy efficiency. What you save (in environmental as well as monetary cost) in the production of materials you lose many times over during the lifetime of the building to petroleum energy production in order to keep it warm and cool. Our structure will require far less energy to maintain, as it will heat and cool itself. One large retaining wall, facing south, will gather through many windows the heat of the sun in the winter. In the summer, the house’s under-soil condition will keep it cool without air conditioning. When additional heat is needed, it will be generated from solar thermal collectors that will turn sunlight (even pale winter sunlight) into hot water, stored in a tank inside and distributed throughout a radiant floor to keep the structure warm. When there is no sun, a powerful electric water heater will make up the difference. A solar photovoltaic system will generate the electricity for such needs. Will all of these advanced techniques cost a fortune. No; this house will cost significantly less to build than a traditional structure.

Most importantly, this will be a space unlike any other. One half dome will have no “walls” at all; it will be a large Great Room for meeting, working, cooking, relaxing, and viewing the beautiful valley below our building site in the mountains of Mendocino County. A short passageway will connect to the second dome, which will provide the “room with a view”: private rooms to sleep, work, contemplate. Fewer flat walls, and almost no conventional ceilings, will provide a new sort of space to think in and with. What sort of thoughts will such a space generate? We cannot yet know.

We are building this as a retreat house, because it only seemed right to share this with a collective of individuals who want to partake in its construction and maintenance. No one person, at least for the foreseeable future, will monopolize this space. It will see a constant infusion of new dwellers, new purposes, and new ideas.

I will always maintain a dedicated page on this site to the house, which can be accessed here. I will also continue to blog about it as we build it (we start on the foundation next week, but the extended process will continue for at least another year) and learn to dwell within it. If you wish, you can join us.

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