Off grid

The house built by Robert Reines at Tijeras, New Mexico, built in 1972, showing the solar thermal collectors and wind turbine
The house built by Robert Reines at Tijeras, New Mexico, built in 1972, showing the solar thermal collectors and wind turbine

At the time of the energy crises of the mid-1970s, architects, engineers and building scientists started to talk about the idea of ‘autonomous houses’ that would rely solely on local sources of power and water, and would be ‘off grid’. Of course, most houses since men first started building them have been off grid; but the autonomous house would try to provide the levels of comfort, equipment and services of normal modern houses. Meanwhile in the mountains of New Mexico, Robert Reines had pressed ahead and built one. 

Reines came from a scientific background. He had been an engineer in the US Air Force. He was the son of Frederick Reines who won a Nobel prize for tracking down the neutrino, a fugitive fundamental particle that usually passes unnoticed right though the Earth, but could just be detected in large underground tanks of dry-cleaning fluid. Robert called his house and workshop at Tijeras near Albuquerque the ‘Integrated Life-Support Systems Laboratories’. The Labs were built from prefabricated hemispherical steel domes, of which the first was the house itself, completed in 1972. The domes were heavily insulated and had small porthole windows, just 9 inches across, to reduce heat loss. The entrance to the house was via a hallway acting as an airlock. 

Electricity was produced with wind turbines and stored in batteries. Heat was collected with an array of solar panels and stored in a large, insulated water tank. Winters in New Mexico can be cold and harsh. The house, put up in the summer, had to work, since Reines had nowhere else to go. It passed the test: the wind supplied all of the electricity for lights, television, power tools and stereo, while the solar provided nearly all of the heating, with the exception of a butane stove for cooking. The total cost including the wind power system was $12,000.

There was not the spaciousness and amenities of the average American home by any means, and the portholes offered only glimpses of the spectacular New Mexico landscape. Local small-scale wind turbines like Reines’s did not make too much sense, even in the 1970s: the physics of wind power favours large tall machines. One might debate whether energy autonomy for groups of buildings is more workable and economic than for the single house. Reines obtained heat direct from solar thermal collectors: building a house again now he would certainly use solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to generate electricity. But in 1972 he had proved a point. Today the ‘zero energy house’ has become mainstream, does not make great sacrifices of comfort, and is being built in quantity. The precipitous drop in the price of solar PV in recent years is one ray of light and hope in a darkening climate future.

Reines left New Mexico to work in England, and then in India, on small engines driven by biogas produced from agricultural waste. His experiments in England used fibrous material from vegetables, while he himself drank the juice. As well as pioneering the autonomous house, Reines built what were surely the world’s first carrot-powered engines.

J Dreyfuss, ‘Unique Dome Home Harnesses Sun and Wind: New Mexico House is First Totally Heated, Powered by the Elements’, Los Angeles Times, January 1st 1973

Philip Steadman, Energy, Environment and Building, Cambridge University Press 1975 pp.149-150