by Bob Skolnick Ventanas del Valle Winter 2002
The choice to locate at Lake Valley Ranch and then to build a rammed earth home was a well thought out process for Randy and Anna Gray. Environment, protection of the land, energy efficient green building, and the rammed earth building technique were all priorities in their decision making process. Randy is a Conservation Biologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS). This current position places him in the administration of various wetland and habitat restoration projects for the government throughout the country. He grew up in California where he developed an appreciation for wildlife and their natural habitat. In the beginning his job with the NRCS necessitated he spend much of this career moving around the country and traveling to various locations.
Randy’s most recent operational base was in ranchlands thirty miles outside of Ft. Worth, Texas. It was nice country but both Randy and Anna’s hearts were in the Arizona mountain regions near the Chiricahua Mountains and Bisbee. It was the equivalent of ecological paradise for both of them. Anna was raised in Arizona and had a very fulfilling career as a schoolteacher before retiring. Anna was always fascinated with the Southwest outdoor environment. Field trips into the desert and mountains with her students were done whenever time and budget allowed. She indicated how important it is for young people to gain an appreciation for our country’s wealth of natural resources. Both Randy and Anna share an avid passion for hiking the outdoors. Anna is a daily runner and challenged herself to run fifty miles on her fiftieth birthday (all in one day).
They had already purchased property in Southeast Arizona near the Chiricahua Mountains. Randy remarked, “It is my favorite place on earth, the center of my universe as a biologist. We knew we wanted to live and retire there.” As time passed, development and use of the surrounding land changed their minds. It was important to the Grays to build their home in an ecologically sound and protected area and they knew they had to look elsewhere.
New Mexico had always been a part of the ecosystem Randy admired which he called “The Sky Islands.” The Sky Islands is a proposed wildlands conservation network that encompass part of a 17.3 million-acre region in Arizona, New Mexico and Northern Mexico. It is bounded by the Mogollon Rim on the North and Sierra Madre Occidental Range on the south. The Sky Island region is important because of its biological diversity. At the center of the plan is a “rewilding” approach, which in lay terms, is the restoration of wetlands and other areas. Rewilding also requires the reintroduction of extirpated species, ecological restoration, management guidelines, and compatible economic use standards. Over time these habitats have been wounded and restoration is essential along with the reintroduction of animal species such as the Mexican Gray wolf, which stabilize prey and particularly the smaller predator population. Randy assists the “Sky Island Alliance” in the conservation of the region.
Serendipitously, they got a mailer from Jim Winder, developer of Heritage Ranch properties promoting his Lake Valley Ranch project. Anna requested a video that was offered and after viewing it, they decided to come to New Mexico and hear Jim’s presentation.
They listened and toured the ranch with Jim. The scenic beauty in the foothills of the Black Range Mountains and the unusual covenants sold them. Lake Valley Ranch is located between Hatch and Hillsboro. Another bonus to Randy was Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch, which is just fifteen miles away and a model for conservation. Parcels or homesteads on Lake Valley Ranch run from a minimum of fifty acres to one four hundred acre parcel. The covenants call for only building on one acre of your homestead and the site positioning is mandated so that no other structure will be viewed by you or your neighbors. The ranch is open grazing land for the ranch/developer. What appealed to Randy was Jim’s respect for the land and his well managed grazing practices. Conversely all landowners have access to the total ranch. There are no fences or barriers. Two other interesting items about the ranch are the small lake, which is a stopping point for migrating birds, and a vegetable garden of more than an acre. This is tended by four of the families. Anna regularly helps with some great friends she has made. There is a small herd of community horses that can be ridden on an “as available” basis. The families share in the maintenance and costs associated with the horses. With the open range policy of the ranch riding is a pleasure.
The second condition of making the commitment to move and build at Lake Valley Ranch was to find a rammed earth builder who would come out to their ranch home site and build their house. The also wanted a builder who understands the “green building” concept. Keep in mind that the drive is an easy one and half-hours from Las Cruces. Given all of these requirements and the fact there are just a handful of rammed earth builders in New Mexico, this seemed like a tough order to fill. Randy and Anna researched rammed earth builders and went into Las Cruces to view rammed earth homes built by Soledad Canyon Earth Builders and Pat and Mario Bellestri’s personal home. They were sold on the process and the builder, but could they get Mario to work so far away from Las Cruces? They asked Mario to visit the home site. Randy would not consummate the land purchase until a builder was committed. Mario agreed to the project and arrangements had to be made to house his crew in a neighboring ranch bunkhouse during the construction phase.
The actual placement of the house was meticulously planned to take advantage of the views of the valley but also to make the smallest ecological “footprint” possible. It was important to Randy and Anna that the least amount of natural vegetation be disturbed, particularly during the grading process.
The Grays placed two unique requirements upon Mario. The first was to incorporate a series of stained glass windows with wildlife inlays into many area of the structure. Mario’s method of forming provided for easy assimilation of these windows into the design. The second was the use of standing deadwood for the vigas. This means they were dead before they were cut down – so they have a weathered look which was more compatible with a true ranch house. All of the subcontractors came from Las Cruces as well as the materials with the exception of the vigas.
Now having lived in a rammed earth home for several years, Randy and Anna pointed out the benefits. Anna remarked how quiet the house is due to its structural integrity. “On days with heavy winter and spring winds you can have total quiet.” Another significant benefit is the even temperature regulation rammed earth provides. “Once warmed up it stays that way and in the summer the thick walls keep it cool even on the hottest day.”
Randy now telecommutes from his desk overlooking the beautiful valley in front of their house. They have both found the true center of their universe at Lake Valley.