Steve Baer, Beatnik Engineer

Steve Baer

Excerpted from an unfinished book about regional solar pioneers. 

Mountain Gazette was born in 1966 (as Skiers’ Gazette), the same year TIME Magazine discovered The Hippie and explained why Captain Stone and Sunshine were dropping out of Pig Amerika and going the other way from LBJ. In Drop City, a legendary commune near Trinidad, Colorado, 28-year-old Steve Baer, the commune’s architectural mentor, showed reporters how to stand atop a junk car and chop its top off with an axe to get panels for geodesic domes, taking care to avoid toes and blade-dulling chrome trim.

In the ensuing years, Baer wandered through colleges, spent three years in Germany in the U.S. Army and ended up in Albuquerque. Following his lifelong interest in math and geometry, he began tinkering with domes and solar gizmos and the hippies from Drop City would visit to help fashion solar collectors out of car windows and rock bins for solar storage. In 1968, at an early solar conference in Palo Alto, Baer was “swept off his feet” by Harold Hay, a pioneering solar engineer who said we should learn from indigenous architecture but add a modern twist. Hay and his associate John Yellot had the previous year built their radical “SkyTherm” test house in Phoenix that, for heating and cooling, employed a pond of water on the roof that could be covered by movable insulating panels.

In 1968, Baer and the Lama Foundation in Taos published the “Dome Cookbook,” the world’s first comprehensive and step-by-step instructions for building “zomes,” structures based on zonahedra shapes. The book sold briskly amid the growing countercultural currents and Baer used the profits to publish “Time Lock,” Buckminster Fuller’s book about his life in the 1930s.

In 1969, inspired in part by the “Dome Cookbook,” Stewart Brand, editor of Co-Evolution Quarterly, published the “First Whole Earth Catalog”, the iconic encyclopedia of counterculture that soon graced nearly every hippie coffee table in the land.

Then the Drop City commune folded and the world changed again. Baer decided to start a business dubbed Zomeworks that started out making domes, playground climbers and various solar gadgets. At Zomeworks, he continued his solar experiments and in 1971 he was ready to build his home in Corrales. The “Zome” was soon a sensation among solar innovators. Refining Hays’ concepts, it had adobe walls to soak up solar heat, enclosed by a sleek moon-station exterior of honeycombed panels. Behind the large expanse of sun-facing glass were “Drumwalls,” stacked 50-gallon drums of water that passively store solar heat. The windows were insulated at night by large panels hoisted up and down with a rope.

In all its industrial neo-funkiness the Zome demonstrated vividly that the home itself is the most important solar device, and it was featured in all the solar magazines. Baer began speaking on the college lecture circuit and teaching solar classes at the University of New Mexico, where he hosted the first Ghost Ranch “biotechnic conference,” which became a lively annual bash for regional solar yahoos. The conference was named after a prescient solar house built in El Rito in 1949 by Peter van Dresser, an early pioneer of modern sun-tempered adobe homes in New Mexico.

In 1973, the Arab oil embargo traumatized America and sparked ever greater interest in alternative energy as the buzzwords of the Granola Generation were being coined: Ecosphere, Macrocosm, Appropriate Technology, Organic, Natural, Soft Energy, Third World, Self-Help, the Environment. Baer and Zomeworks were busier than ever as consultants for a funky, homegrown New Mexico solar-building boom, which soon spread throughout the Rockies as scores of regional architects began to design wild and innovative passive solar trophy homes. Baer’s crew was also perfecting inventions that would become classic Zomeworks trademarks, including the “Skylid,” an insulating panel for skylights that operates automatically, powered by the movement of freon in canisters (using the same principle as the Dipping Bird). Another product called “Beadwall” used a vacuum cleaner motor to blow beads between the panes of double glass windows for night insulation. Zomeworks also innovated passive tracking devices for solar panels.

Government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy began shoveling money at solar energy, which Baer and Hay felt was largely wasted on a useless new bureaucracy that advocated overly high-tech solutions and ridiculed the New Mexico solar experiments as “hippie junk.” Baer was also skeptical of the Jimmy Carter solar tax credits, opining “The poor Mexicans pay for the liberal’s hot tub.” He was also feeling squeezed out by his peers — the Ghost Ranchers were being absorbed by the influential New Mexico Solar Energy Association, which published Solar Age, the dominant solar trade magazine. In 1975, in a book called “Sunspots,” Baer announced that he would go his own way, “an old farmer, farming the sky, worrying about the weather.”

The furious regional flowering of solar innovation would continue a few more years, mostly in New Mexico and Colorado. Dramatic examples ranged from the earthships of Taos to Aspen’s solar airport terminal, solar post office and solar bus stops. Less obvious but more significant were the thousands of high-performance passive solar homes that sprouted up in the coldest and highest corners of the Rockies. A good part of a generation of architects digested the lessons of Hay and Baer and the other pioneers and developed a true regional vernacular that evolved from water drums and solar batch heaters to stately masonry homes that can be heated by candles and cooled by opening windows.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan removed Jimmy Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof, an act that came to be prophetic, as well as symbolic. The solar tax credits were abolished and almost overnight the burgeoning new solar hardware industry collapsed. Since then, we have largely forgotten about the passive solar revolution and today, when someone uses the word “solar,” he or she usually means photovoltaic panels and battery banks. The notion of building homes that respect the local climate and use the least fuel possible has given way to arguments over which fuels we should burn. There may well come a day when 1970s solar hippie homes get historic designations.

MG senior contributor Jon Kovash was an early editor of the Aspen Daily News and KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced “Thin Air,” an award-winning regional radio news magazine. Currently he’s the Moab correspondent for Utah Public Radio. His blog, Mountain Architecture, can be found at mountaingazette.com.

61 thoughts on “Steve Baer, Beatnik Engineer”

  1. Too bad there aren’t more geniuses at work on today’s Zome. We might be getting somewhere by now. It’s interesting how Baer’s skepticism about government subsidies for solar turned out to be true. Now we’re so focused on putting together Solyndra-type packages for massive solar plants that we have completely forgotten the savings value of the simple house.

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