New Ideas Take Root at Historic Old Ranch

Greg Massé
Post Independant, September 20, 2004

CARBONDALE – An old ranch located in the shadows of Mount Sopris has caught the eye of the Smithsonian Institute.
But it’s no ordinary ranch.
Instead, plans to fix up the ranch’s main house – which was built in 1893 – and integrate green technology could make it a beacon for the future of environmentally minded building practices throughout the world.
The ranch’s link to the prestigious Smithsonian Institute began when New York-based design historian Bess Williamson visited the ranch last winter.
After her initial visit, Williamson received a fellowship from the Smithsonian Institute to research the Thompson Ranch house, located about five miles south of Carbondale along Highway 133, as part of her work toward obtaining a master’s degree in the History of Decorative Arts and Design at New York’s Parsons School of Design.

Williamson’s book details both the history of the ranch, as well as how Sustainable Settings plans to restore the house’s exterior to its past glory and retrofit the inside of the house with the latest in green technology.
That two-pronged approach is what caught Williamson’s attention and spurred her on to write a book entitled, "The Thompson Ranch House: History and Adaptive Reuse."
Williamson’s book has just become available through
The book explores the history of the home of some of the Crystal River valley’s first white settlers, then goes on to tell the story of Sustainable Settings’ plans to upgrade and reuse the existing property.
"What the co-founders, Brook LeVan and Rose L. LeVan, realized was that though inefficient and over 100 years old in thinking, the old structures were the organization’s only opportunity to demonstrate what 90 percent of most people have to do, take what they have in their homes and turn them into responsible energy citizens," Williamson wrote.
Brook LeVan said Sustainable Settings’ plan is to explore environmentally friendly ways of building and living, then teach others how to conserve and generate energy, how to become more self-sufficient and how to cope with the eventual depletion of the Earth’s fossil fuels. LeVan said 90 percent of existing homes can become more energy efficient in one way or another, and those not yet built can be designed with conservation in mind.
"What they’d have to do is take what they’ve got and update it," he said.

The inspiration
LeVan said the idea of starting Sustainable Settings first came to him and his wife while on a months-long river trip in China.
"It was when we realized that a quarter of the (Earth’s population) were gearing up to be like us," he said.
The couple took a trip up China’s Yellow River for close to a year. When they came back, LeVan said there were "noticeably less bicycles and more cars."
"What we saw was a noticeable shift. They want toys and cars and blue jeans just like us," he said.
He said with so many people getting ready to adopt Western ways, the world’s reserves of gas, oil and water will be drained that much more quickly.
"We came back to the States knowing that we were living on a fossil reserve," he said.
That’s when they decided to do something.
"Our goal is, ‘How can we live here sustainably?’" he said.
Some of the challenges of living in an energy-efficient way, LeVan noted, include making toast or baking bread using as little energy as possible.
"Some of our most simple activities are our most energy-intensive," he said.
One way Sustainable Settings plans to generate that electricity is by setting up a row of solar collectors along the ranch’s fence line.
"Also, we will start a solar composting toilet," he said.
LeVan is looking to nature for some of his energy-saving methods, as well.
One idea is to turn much of the ranch’s 244 acres back over to wilder strains of animals. Instead of plowing and fertilizing the ground, animals like yaks, chickens, geese and sheep will dig in the dirt and leave behind natural fertilizer in their wake.
"They’ll manure and regenerate the soil," he said.
Such ideas harken back to the Sustainable Settings motto, "Harvesting nature’s intelligence."
Another part of the Sustainable Settings plan is to build a group of cabins, each utilizing a different – and most likely experimental – type of building material.
The lessons learned from these buildings, LeVan hopes, will be shared and possibly adopted by the homebuilding industry.

"We want to learn how not to destroy the planet," LeVan said.
The ranch is open to the public as an educational facility and visitors are welcome. There are also opportunities to work as a volunteer at the ranch on the first and third Sundays of each month from April through October.
For more information, call 963-6107.
Contact Greg Massé: 945-8515, ext. 511