Green Home

breaking ground with a green pioneer

A forward-looking professor transforms his home into an ongoing experiment for researching sustainable systems.

This article first appeared in Summer 2008 Su Casa

Web-exclusive photos

For many years, I drove past Paul Lusk’s house on the way to my own and wondered what, exactly, a pond with cattails was doing in a front yard in Albuquerque’s South Valley. In our neighborhood of 1970s brick ranches and frame stucco “faux adobes” with lawns and driveways and fences, Paul’s house was an anomaly.

What passersby see from the street is one of many working experiments by this University of New Mexico professor of architecture and planning—marsh and pond, water lilies and swamp reeds, a treed oasis. Wooden towers rise above the house set back among the trees.

The pond is not merely a decorative water feature. It is designed to receive up to 200 gallons of treated potable water from the house and provides a habitat for bullfrogs, koi, mosquito fish, the Rio Grande valley’s migratory birds, and “some birds that aren’t even supposed to be here.” Lusk says the couple that lives in the two-story house across the street bought it for the excellent bird-watching from the upstairs windows onto Lusk’s three acres of fields and ponds.

Before I knew him, I’d often see Paul driving down our road in his 1966 Dodge truck. He refers to the Dodge as “the new one,” compared to his 1950 Chevy flatbed, which no longer runs. We met for the first time during our community’s efforts to save a piece of land adjacent to our street, one of the largest remaining pieces of farmland in Bernalillo County. Lusk guided our efforts, drafting environmentally thoughtful four-color alternatives to a Lowe’s or a Home Depot (the fate of this parcel is still unknown). And it was during this time that I began to know Lusk’s approach to house, land, and all things “place” as an intricate, multidecade experiment in sustainable, least-impact living. His home is an ongoing research project of “an interconnected living system, not just as human-made artifacts placed on inanimate land,” as Lusk writes in the chapter “Ethical Architecture” in the forthcoming University of New Mexico Press book entitled Building to Endure: Design Strategies in Arid Lands.

Long before “green living” became part of the lexicon, Lusk was experimenting with sustainable systems. Early New Mexico projects focused on energy efficiency, both at home and in various Albuquerque locations. At home he added an insulated adobe wall and five and one-half inches of polystyrene roof insulation to his one-bedroom home (four sons lived in the property’s original farrier’s shed out back). He then added a south-facing sunroom, opened the roof with clear panels, and installed a water tube for passive solar heating in the living room.

Over three decades, Lusk has built a black water system with the objective of treating all of the wastewater from the house; grown a one-acre forest on his land to provide wood for heat; built an additional solar cooling and heating system; dug a pond stocked with bass for food; milked goats; grown vegetables in a year-round compost-heated greenhouse; and built rainwater catchment systems so the home has zero runoff. That’s a partial list.

Lusk is quick to laugh about his mistakes—it’s part of the learning experience—and quick to encourage others to try and, if necessary, reengineer a project until it succeeds. When I told him of my plans to duplicate his compost heating system attached to his greenhouse, he told me it “warmed his heart to hear that.” A born teacher (with a mythic reputation among architecture program graduates), Lusk has found that University of New Mexico students working as paid help have been integral to many of his projects.

The most visible project on the property is the rock marsh black water system. Lusk began researching alternatives to traditional septic when the system at his home failed in 1990. Lusk had read an article about William Wolverton, who has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering and worked on ways to grow food, recycle wastes, and produce potable water during space flight. Wolverton worked with NASA on the problem of closed-system recycling and black water regeneration. The result of his work was the development of constructed wetlands, the first of which was built in 1975 and remains operational today.

Alternately called artificial marshes, rock/reed filters, and phytoremediation, the concept was a starting point for Lusk, who took Wolverton’s basic ideas and went to work on his own septic problem—the shallowness of the water table in the Rio Grande valley and the already-fragile system of aquifer and acequias used to irrigate the valley’s fertile farmlands. A rock marsh and evaporative pond, as outlined by Wolverton’s research, prevents contaminated runoff by cleaning the water with the root systems of aquatic plants that use the contaminants as nutrients.

Lusk says he wanted to build a self-contained system to treat all of the wastewater from the house. He trenched a pond, lined it with a ferroconcrete shell, and filled it with gravel and plantings. A second pond, trenched and lined in similar fashion, contained earth and gravel pockets to accommodate plant life, which would put the finishing touches on the water after traveling through the marsh’s plant roots and gravel bottom. Lusk planted both the marsh and the evaporative pond with native and imported plant life in the beginning, but the pond became self-sufficient quickly. He learned that pathogens created by human waste live outside the body only 5 days; Lusk’s design was based on a 10-day flow from house to marsh to evaporative pond. The system can process about 200 gallons a day, but with Lusk and his wife, Millie, alone in the house, they’re only using about 50 to 100 gallons a day at most. County health department testers noted during the first two years that the water is “suitable for delivery to a potable stream,” according to Lusk.

To enter the parallel, interior version of the marsh system, which Lusk calls “the green room” inside the house with its banana trees, umbrella palms, papyrus, flowering rush, and taro, is to enter the tropics on a microcosmic scale. Pupfish, among others, live in it—“the canary in the coal mine, as it were, because they are sensitive to contaminants,” Lusk says. A magical place, it was engineered to be a quarter the size of the outside system. Lusk designed it as an experiment to see how to build a gray water system that could apply to cluster and urban housing. Along the way he made a fresco of migrating sandhill cranes on the ceiling—an art he learned from a Mexican man skilled in stucco techniques—when Millie complained that the new room closed off her kitchen window view of the annual migration. Ceramic fish on the floor, salvaged sea green and sky blue tiles, the density of the humid air, and the tinkle of water moving through the system transport visitors (Lusk frequently hosts school groups) to a place far from Albuquerque’s windy, dusty desert qualities.

Rising from the roof, two 12-foot towers provide a swamp cooling and space heating system only without the modern-day fan. The wetted air is cooler, he explains, and drops down into the green room. The system works stunningly well: “The temperature difference is 20 degrees cooler as it comes into the house than outside in the summer.”

Behind the house, one of the property’s original buildings served as a bunkhouse for Lusk’s four boys. The structure, built from sod from the adjacent field, was the original blacksmith’s shop. Lusk built the tractor and drying sheds, and he later added a salvaged windmill and built a greenhouse based on an English style country potting shed, where compost packed against the south-facing walls serves as the heat source.

“We are concerned with minimizing our footprint, reducing the burden on the planet. While we wanted to be self-sufficient, we weren’t completely,” Lusk says of the earlier days when they farmed extensively. “We grew wheat and separated and ground it and baked our own bread. This was a huge task. It was an idealistic thing, but this is just one of the chores you need to do as a sustenance-level farmer.” It’s difficult for Lusk to estimate the percentage of food the family grew versus what they bought. “You produce less than you think you can,” he says. “We canned some, and we dried apricots and grapes on a screen in the drying shed for preservation.” They also kept goats and chickens and fished a second pond at the back of Lusk’s three acres, which provided large-mouth bass—some as long as 16 inches. The Lusks even have an outdoor room in the tree field that provides a retreat. “The goal of the tree field was to provide wood for heat, and food, water, and shelter for wildlife,” Lusk says.

Certainly it isn’t a perfect system. All would have been nearly impossible to execute without imported plants, fiberglass or metal tanks, PVC pipes, valves, insulation, glazing, solvents, fasteners, and myriad tiny and not-so-tiny elements brought in from outside. But it’s a start. Lusk wasn’t striving for perfection but instead education—to learn for himself and to teach others how to meet environmental performance criteria. The living case study that is his home proves that these projects—whether installing marsh and pond water systems or heating a greenhouse with compost (an easy and effective project)—are valuable and applicable to individual homes or larger municipal projects. “The most basic criterion for any project . . .” writes Lusk in his book chapter “Ethical Architecture,” “is that each project must make some measurable improvement in the existing condition of the site it occupies in order not to degrade the shared environment we all inhabit.”

A journalist and editor for 20 years, Emily Esterson survived her own home renovation adventures. She’s written for many national publications on topics as varied as small business strategies, art, and architecture.