Local family creates sustainable life on Basalt Mountain
October 15, 2010
BASALT – While living in a tepee on Smuggler Mountain, their lights and radio powered by a small solar panel and a car battery, Robb and Ginger Janssen kept their Ideas Book – an actual volume of lists, sketches and hopes that created a tangible vision of their future. One section was devoted to the place they wanted to live someday. And after three years of tepee living, they found their dream property, a good ways up Basalt Mountain.
“This place had everything,” Ginger said one day last week, standing on that piece of land.
To the ordinary eye, the place actually had very little. There were no electric or phone lines. The small, musty, old cabin that was the property’s living space had no heat or plumbing. Basalt itself was a few miles’ drive away.
But after their tepee experience near Aspen, and several similarly off-the-grid years in Flagstaff before that, the Janssens had an uncommon way of considering their resources. In searching for the perfect place to live, they weren’t seeking a spacious master bathroom and walk-in closets. They were more interested in the raw materials from which they could build a house, and a way of living. To them, the property boasted numerous selling points: a south-facing orientation, abundant space, natural flowing water, isolation from neighbors – all things they had specified in the Ideas Book. In 1997 they bought the property, built a bathroom with a composting toilet in the cabin, and for 10 years, even as their family grew to include two daughters, the cabin was their home.
Today, the Janssens – Robb and Ginger, both in their mid-40s, and their grade-school girls Lily and Laela – live on that same property in relative luxury. Indeed, some of the touches in the house they built (and moved into three years ago), are posh even by Aspen standards. A real estate agent would have a field day advertising it: 2,900 square feet of living space. Privacy. Views of Capitol and Hayden Peaks. A pair of children’s bedrooms that would make your kids the envy of their friends – one of the rooms has an extensive climbing wall. A master bathroom with a tub that, any bigger, would have to be considered a swimming pool. Outside, an apple tree is heavy with fruit, and even this late in the growing season, there are plenty of tomatoes to be picked off the vine.
Having lived in tepees and cabins, any small touch can feel like a well-deserved triumph. “You can’t start out with luxury and get to this point,” Ginger said. “You have to live with nothing to appreciate the comforts of life, because you work so hard to get each comfort.”
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Prominent among those comforts is peace of mind. The house is powered by a hydro-electric system built from the water flowing through the property. The hydro usually generates enough electricity to supply the house, the cabin (which they now rent out), and Rob’s woodshop, with a small surplus. As a back-up, and for the heavy-duty, heat-producing appliances like a clothes drier, they use solar power.
“I think living in the tepee so long, you develop a desire to live independently, and provide for all your needs, and not be a burden on other people or the system,” Ginger said. She noted that she doesn’t stay on top of politics and current events, but one kind of story always grabs her attention. “I like to keep up on power outages. That interests me – that people freak out and don’t know how to handle that.”
Compounding their peace of mind is a sense of accomplishment. The Janssens built their house and property – including several increasingly complex and productive versions of the hydroelectric system, which now features some 1,500 feet of pipe – essentially by themselves, with assistance from friends, renters and the occasional hired hand.
“You read about other people doing similar things. You read about this stuff in Home Power and Backwoods Home magazines – people trying to create something better and different than the city life, trying to create their little heaven on earth,” said Ed Jenkins, a Carbondale chef and river guide who has lived and worked on the property.
In fact, the Janssens have been written about in Home Power – three times, a point of obvious pride for the couple.
As a child, Robb Janssen was generally thought to be dyslexic. He’s a bit cross-eyed, and reading still doesn’t come easily. So he has compensated. For example, instead of learning to build a hydroelectric system by reading text, he studies illustrations and flow charts, watches what other people do, and asks questions.
It’s a different way of looking at the things you have to work with, and in a way, the Janssens have taken that same approach to creating their homestead.
Take Ginger’s observation that the property, as they found it 13 years ago, had “everything.” The Janssens weren’t looking for the customary man-made features; instead, they focused on the property’s natural-resource potential. They saw south-facing slopes and thought of sunlight for growing crops, and warmth – passive solar energy, to those who think of sunshine as a substitute for electricity – that would cut down on their energy needs. Existing water – the property has both streams and springs – translated into the possibility for their own hydro-electric system. An abundance of acreage allowed for a garden of asparagus, tomatoes, beets, lettuces and more, as well as animals: They have 14 chickens, that have been laying seven to nine eggs a day in the warmer weather, and six beehives, which produce just about enough honey to cover their sweetener needs, plus beeswax to make into candles.
Looking to become even more self-sufficient, the family plans to add a 1,200- square foot greenhouse, terraced and built into the hillside, in the coming weeks. In addition to growing vegetables and tropical fruit, they plan to raise tilapia in the greenhouse. Next year they hope to add goats to the landscape, covering their milk needs. And Robb is learning to hunt, a skill that should cut down on their meat bill.
The Janssens took a parallel approach to their not-so-natural resources. Instead of going to a store for building materials, they looked at what the landscape – in this case, the landscape of the valley’s construction scene – had to offer. Through friends, clients of their landscaping business, and Rob’s contacts in construction, they became efficient scavengers.
In the Janssens’ kitchen is a commercial Wolf stove that was rescued from a tear-down, and a sink found in an Aspen dump. Robb paid an estimated $50 for all the metal siding on the house and woodshop. The 15 feet of glass in the master bedroom was left over from construction at the Maroon Creek Club. The tile and slate for their master bathroom came from unwanted scraps that a friend salvaged from various projects.
“They knew we were scavengers. They said, if you can cart it off, you can have it,” Robb said. “This valley is a great place to be a bottom-feeder.”
But bottom-feeding – living off someone else’s efforts – is basically the opposite of what the Janssens do. Even more than the natural resources and the found objects, their house is marked by the abundant human resources they employed – particularly their own intellect, muscle and willingness to be challenged.
Both Robb and Ginger brought critical experience and do-it-yourself background to their home-building project. Growing up in Missouri, Robb was a tinkerer: “I took a lot of things apart. I didn’t put too many of them back together,” he said in a typically self-effacing way.
By the time he got to the University of Missouri, he had already developed his habit of questioning the standard way of doing things, and thinking in more holistic ways. In the school’s forestry department, he said, “They wanted to do nothing but grow trees in squares, so you could cut them down. They weren’t interested in the health of the forest. I figured with the stuff I was learning there, I’d just learn to be stuck in Missouri.” He switched his studies to geography and geology.
Ginger grew up in a five-bedroom house that her father built himself. Studying at Missouri, and at the University of Colorado, Boulder, she earned a degree in environmental design. She put that education to the side while spending a decade as a competitive rock climber – a period that conditioned her to living in a spartan environment. After moving to Aspen and working for a landscape architecture firm, she spun off her own company. More serious in demeanor than her husband and far more business-savvy, Ginger has watched her Basalt Mountain Gardens grow to an almost unmanageable size.
On those occasions when the Janssens did hire a contractor for certain jobs on their house, it was often for a single day, and with one stipulation. “The rule when we hired someone was not letting them leave until we learned how to do it. It’s nice to have someone who knows what they’re doing telling you what to do,” said Robb, who also took on construction jobs specifically for the educational opportunities they offered. “I built with logs and straw bale and concrete and did stick framing, all with the idea of learning how to do these things. I feel lucky to have built our own house and have acquired all these skills. Gardening – it’s such a challenge, a different challenge every season. Working with the soil teaches you and humbles you. Life is for learning.”
The Janssens also took an approach to time that is at odds with the prevailing mentality. They knew that building a house would be a long-term endeavor; Robb gave himself three years just to create the plans – “To dream and draw,” as he put it. When it came time to tool up for construction, they opted to buy rather than rent, knowing how long they’d be needing the equipment. From the time they bought the property to the day they moved into their house, a full decade had passed – and the house is still a work in progress. “As any owner-built house is,” Ginger said.
“Unplugged” is a common term to describe the way the Janssens live, at least with regard to their energy needs (and their desire for honey and eggs). But it’s also true that they have plugged into an unconventional array of resources in an effort to build a life they find more dependable, healthful, economical and even communal in nature.
While independence from the power grid and the supermarket has been a driving force behind their efforts, they aren’t seeking to disconnect themselves from society. Instead, they are building a smaller society of their own making.
Their business, for example. Several years ago, Basalt Mountain Gardens had grown to include 35 clients, including major accounts like the Aspen Meadows. But being that size meant skimping on some of the values, like organic growing, that were important to them. “We got to be too much like all the other landscapers,” Ginger said.
So they scaled back, and now work with just 10 clients. All those accounts, however, buy in fully to the Janssens’ program – including the insistence that their clients have a food-growing component to their property. Several have added beehives to their land. Far from isolating themselves with their off-the-grid lifestyle, the Janssens use their house as a means of reaching out to others, and spreading their values.
“We use the house as a model, a testing ground, for clients,” Robb said. “Some clients want chickens or greenhouses – but they want to see us do it first.”
A small part of the business now consists of the removal of bees from houses where they have set up nests in walls and eaves. That aspect of Basalt Mountain Gardens is indicative of how the Janssens operate. Instead of killing the bees with pesticides – anathema to the Janssens, who seemingly would rather do anything than spray chemicals to kill things – they relocate the colonies to their own property. Five of their six hives are made up of these “rescue bees.” Instead of being exterminated, those bees are busy making honey for the family. And in a recent job, the Janssens removed not only the bees, but several bucket-loads of honey the clients didn’t want.
Some of the Janssens’ honey, and some eggs, are used for bartering, another way they create a social network. “Bartering builds community and builds relationships,” Robb said. “You know where things are coming from better.”
Among those impressed by the Janssens’ accomplishments is Spencer Crouch. A ski instructor for Challenge Aspen in the winter, Crouch has spent four summers working on the Janssens’ property.
“It’s amazing when you see people do landscaping and gardening in a completely different way,” said the 40-year-old Crouch. “I’m amazed at Rob, putting this whole system together, this whole off-the-grid, permaculture site up here. And it doesn’t stop with energy. These guys have a bigger picture, a more holistic picture, of what’s happening. It’s a system of food and energy that works together.”
And it is a system, and way of thinking, that grows bit by bit. When Crouch moved into a Carbondale condo recently, among his first chores was replacing the loose dirt by the entryway with scavenged flagstone and, using a technique Robb had taught him, creating a Japanese-style drain of vertically stacked sandstone to catch water off a roof edge. “It’s a really beautiful feature that drains water very efficiently off a gutter,” he said, adding that at his last condo, he tore out the grass lawn to put in a garden with river rocks and terraced beds.
“That’s the next level,” Ginger said. “Helping others have systems of composting, animals, food systems.”