Friday, May 24

The Crestone Eagle is a nonprofit monthly newspaper serving Crestone and the San Luis Valley

Owner/builder conversations

by John Rowe

Susannah Ortego and Harun Magnuson were the first friends that Cheryl and I made after purchasing a home here ten years ago. We have enjoyed them immensely over the years and it has been particularly fascinating listening to Harun  talk about building an experimental papercrete dome house and hearing about how he and Susannah scrambled to make a living and put aside enough money to build their off-grid dream home out in the Grants. Their spectacularly unconventional house is a landmark in the eastern Grants, greeting everyone coming down the hill and onto the flat. It is truly a Crestone landmark.

Harun and Susannah came out in the fall of 1996 to visit friends, fell in love with the place and immediately began to look for a lot to build their dream home on. One lot in particular beckoned to them so clearly and strongly and they bought it. And they both remark that they were so drawn by the power of the land that they made a decision to come out and become part of the Crestone experiment with “no jobs, no assets, no savings, and no prospects—just a strong belief that this is where we needed to be and we followed our inner guidance and returned in June of 1997 to begin making the Baca our home.”

Harun had been interested in alternative building for some time and decided on a paper-crete dome house. He found papercrete intriguing for several reasons. The materials were cheap and high in recycled content (newspapers), structurally sturdy and acted as their own insulation, and lent themselves to one-man building with slipforms. He made certain that he had a good power source and a well, as electricity and water are essential to papercrete building. Harun loved the dome idea as it was a beautiful shape, from the inside and out and used little wood. Indeed to be inside this house is to be humbled by the cathedral-like ceiling and soul-satisfying spaciousness. It was an enormous undertaking for one man and I am in awe of Harun for being able to see it through. He built on evenings and weekends around work responsibilities and finally, after seven years, it was finished. After Harun and Susannah had both been working a variety of jobs and living in several different places,  finally they had a home.  In addition to all their hard work and perseverance, their home was made possible by securing a loan from the Saguache County Credit Union (now Aventa). They were the very first alternative builders in the area to receive such a loan. Susannah believes this was all possible because “we were newly together, very much in love, had great energy, and could have moved the world.”

Harun would like would-be owner/builders to be aware that the building process required him to work every weekend for years on end. When he and Susannah were living elsewhere in the valley to make money, Harun would drive up, pitch a tent, and go to it and drive back Sunday evening. Camping out on his land was not an issue for the POA back then and Harun felt at home sleeping on the ground and being out in nature. Harun remembers building being a joyous activity for the first five years and a struggle for the last two.  As other builders have noted, Harun remarks that this home building by yourself is a daunting task and the achievement of a lifetime.

The POA was easier-going back then and Harun remembers paying little in the way of fines. Harun did a stint as head of the EAC and notes that one half of all new homes then were alternative, hand-made, and given allowances for that. For instance, straw bale builders were allowed an extra three months build time to allow the straw walls to settle properly and the eighteen month allowable build time only began after  allowing six months for power, water and waste disposal, and foundations to be installed. 

And what advice does Harun have for the new builder?  He advises that all utilities be put in first when the builder has the cash to do this, as saving this much money during the build is too hard. He advocates getting involved with the community by living sustainably on the land, lending a helping hand, and being a good neighbor. Be aware that alternative building materials are not often cheaper—it is in labor that you will save. Creditworthiness and credit cards are a real asset as is finding a good local place to secure recycled construction materials.

And what advice for the POA? Harun has perhaps a unique perspective on this as having been POA Land Use Director and EAC administrator for nearly four years. He wants the POA to keep the experimental nature of Crestone alive and feels that, as of late, the POA has discarded that mission. He says, “ there is no reason to abandon that approach because it works and there is no place else I am aware of that it is even being tried.” He would like to see the POA create an environment that supports owner/builders; currently he feels that current POA boards tend to be more obstructionist than encouraging and he would like to see them concerned with larger issues. As EAC head Harun remembered organizing work parties and found free design help for those in need.  Harun offered the suggestion that the POA being charged with “protecting property values” can concern itself with larger things than making sure homes are being built quickly.  “When I sit on the front porch in the evening, I need all my fingers to count the things I value here. And the resale value for our house has never come to mind for that list. I would imagine that is the same for most residents, including the POA board members who so arduously insist on the importance of resale value.” Harun thinks that good examples of the community being concerned with a broader view of “protecting property values” are groups that have purchased lots to expand greenbelts, wildlife corridors,  conservation easements, and ones concerned with thoughtful growth initiatives. These all enhance and protect property values and can, at the same time, allow for owner/builders to thrive. Harun would like to see the people that keep our community afloat have a reasonable chance at creating affordable housing for themselves.  He notes  that essential service folk like all Baca Fire volunteers and most Baca Emergency medical staff are seldom the people who buy spec or custom or vacation homes. [Writer’s note: some investigation has revealed that only one emergency responder bought an existing home here and only one other owns their own home] 

Harun finished up our talk with a plea, “to remember that the original Baca failed as a monetary investment strategy. Out of those ashes rose a community that purchased cheap land to live here and build homes and a life without any thought of making money on their investment. This gave birth to a way of living where community values trumped material ones.”

Harun, though 72 now and nagged by post polio pain and muscle weakness, is still very passionate about the “Crestone experiment.”  We talked for hours and actually, I think Harun was still talking when I got up and left. He still believes, and how. My fondest hope is that the community will honor the creation of Harun and Susannah and many like them and give their dream due consideration before moving on to a Crestone which is tidier and more predictable but decidedly less soulful.

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