Rockspire serving as think tank for sustainable eco-development

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In the 40-plus years Dallas architects Mike Johnson and George Myers have been business partners, they would often come up with innovative ideas for sustainable development. They could hardly tell clients, “We have this great idea, but aren’t sure if it will work or not.”

But now many of those ideas are being developed and tested at Rockspire, an intentional community and living laboratory for sustainable lifestyles being developed on 125 acres off Rockhouse Road and Hwy. 221 near Trigger Gap.

They don’t expect every new innovation to pan out, but that’s okay, with them, saying they can sometimes learn as much from mistakes as successes. What they learn will potentially have an impact far beyond Rockspire, as they have developed 10 advisory boards of people around the country interested in serving as a think tank for eco-housing and environmental sustainability.

Initially Johnson and Myers were looking for only 20 acres to build a retreat for their families. They looked all over east Texas and northwest Arkansas.

“We couldn’t find anything that met our specifications until we found this land,” Myers said. “But 125 acres was way more than we needed. We bought this land in 1997 with the intention of letting others get involved. We felt like there were some opportunities here to do something innovative.”

What Johnson loves about the property is that it has so much variety including mountaintop pastures, wooded mountain slopes, a valley and lots of wet weather springs. “There is some nice geology with rock overhangs and a cave,” Johnson said. “We have some great views and the location is convenient to both Eureka and Berryville, yet there is not a lot of traffic out here.”

Besides beauty, one critical characteristic of the property is it has good southeast-facing sites for homes, important for eco-friendly homes to have good orientation for both passive and active solar systems. The property located seven miles south of Eureka Springs also has the advantage of being adjacent to 20,000 acres of The Nature Conservancy’s Kings River Preserve and the McIlroy Madison County Wildlife Management Area.

At Rockspire they are taking great care to leave as much of the acreage untouched and pristine as possible, and have restricted growth to a maximum of 30 homes, clustered together in six groups of five homes in each self-sustaining group.

Myers worked for a large healthcare architectural design-build firm, The Erdman Company, before retiring. At Erdman, they fabricated the structural steel, medical grade cabinets, furniture, etc., in their own factory where they could control the schedule and quality.

The vision for Rockspire is to have similar control by building modular structures and components in a workshop, then assemble on site.

These modular buildings have some advantages over traditional construction. They can grow or be repurposed easily, and the structural components will be made completely from fireproof materials. It gives the potential for these buildings to last hundreds of years.

“In addition to my office in Dallas, I had an office in France when I was younger,” Myers said. “In Europe, I met several people living in 400-year-old homes. In America, we just don’t build them to last that long.”

No ducted central heat and air is planned at Rockspire. Johnson said well-designed, energy-efficient homes don’t need a huge system with ductwork for heating and air conditioning. During winter, the southeast facing windows provide passive solar heat to keep the homes warm on sunny days even when it is below freezing, and an energy-efficient wood burner or propane heater can provide the small amount of heat needed during cold nights.

Shading, insulation and low-e glass can be used to minimize cooling requirements in the summer. A small energy-efficient through-wall air conditioner or ductless mini-splits can provide the humidity control and cooling needed.

There are currently five structures and the two-mile Joan’s Angel Trail on the property. Structures are for community use and include Betty’s Birdhouse Cabin, which is a guesthouse, the MobbyMac Carriage House, which serves as a community meeting house and office, a woodworking shop, a drying shed for hardwoods harvested at Rockspire, and a finishing building.

Myers and Johnson will be building small homes for their families and encourage others who become members of Rockspire to do the same.

“You don’t need a big home when you have the Carriage House for entertaining and the guest cabin for company,” Myers said. “The kind of construction we require is not cheap, so we want it to be more affordable by building smaller.”

Their homes, besides having amazing views of the Kings River, will have two roofs, one to shade the house, support solar panels, and collect rainwater.

Protecting water quality is a critical goal. Currently they collect water off the MobbyMac Carriage House and shops located at the highest elevation, store it in cisterns, then it’s gravity-fed in pipes to the guest cabin that’s 100 feet lower.

Johnson said they are investigating different energy and communications systems, and planning to use a vertical wind turbine to pump water to the top of the hill where it will create a stream flowing down the hillside to generate hydro-electricity.

Involvement at Rockspire is realized through a membership, not ownership. Being a member gives you the right to build a home and participate in developing the principles and direction of the community.

“But you don’t have to be a member to be involved,” Myers said. “We are constantly having meetings and other events. We encourage anyone to come and participate at whatever level they want. What we want is to be a community of friends, not strangers. We have also set up the advisory boards for people who are interested in becoming more involved, yet not live at Rockspire.”

There are ten advisory boards: architecture, art, business, communications, community, education, food, health, nature, and water. These boards meet once a year to discuss what is unique and new in their fields, and give advice on potential innovations that could be implemented at Rockspire. Board meetings held at the Carriage House are open to anyone. More than 300 people around the country subscribe to The Rockspirian, an email newsletter about the work and vision of Rockspire.

They also host meetings for the Eureka Springs Eco Council that includes representatives from other eco villages being planned in the Eureka Springs area. “Perhaps someday Eureka Springs will be known for its sustainable, eco-friendly developments,” Myers said.

Realizing Rockspire’s full potential will take generations.

“We are like Johnny Appleseed planting seeds,” Myers said. “One generation sows the seeds, the next grows the trees, and the next harvests the fruit. It all may not work. That is why we call it a living laboratory. But we hope to set it on its course in a significant way.”

For more information, see the website www.rockspire.com.

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