- Associated Press - Friday, April 25, 2014

WHITEHALL, Mont. (AP) - For the past 25 years, Christopher Borton and Linda Welsh, the owners of Sage Mountain Center, have spent that time learning how to nearly perfect their vision for a sustainable lifestyle.

The partners moved from California to Montana with the goal of creating an educational center to promote sustainable living and every year since has been a joyful learning experience.

Sage Mountain Center, located in the mountains west of Whitehall, is just what Borton and Welsh hoped it would be: a place for learning about yoga, gardening, straw bale and cordwood home construction, solar and wind energy and much more that has been off-grid since its conception.

“Our goal was to build an education and demonstration center for people to see this in action,” Borton said.

When Borton and Welsh were just 25 and 23, respectively, they didn’t know much about sustainable living or building, but they were determined to figure it out. That was before the Internet and easy access to information about anything. So they checked out books from the library and rolled up their sleeves.

“The construction of this place evolved by necessity,” Welsh said. “We wanted to do it with as small an environmental impact as we could. We had the idea and all the Thoreau phrases. The ‘what’ we wanted to do was clear, but the ‘how’ was not.”

The pair looked at land all around the country, but when they visited Montana, they knew they’d found the place. The land was affordable, the soil was good, the sun shone bright and the water was fresh.

Borton and Welsh both grew up in California living conventional lifestyles in big cities. They’d never seen any of the building techniques they were trying. With the help of a hand-typed manuscript from Canada about cordwood building, Borton and Welsh set out to begin their own education, and through it, educate others. They felt free to explore building and gardening techniques with no one to tell them it couldn’t be done.

Welsh is a nurse with Rocky Mountain Hospice, and her steady income has allowed them to build their business. Borton is a fourth-generation builder, but the type of structures he has built are different from what his father, grandfather and great-grandfather built.

“(Chris) had the ability to translate the concepts into actual things,” Welsh said.

The partners built “Tilting Tree Cottage,” a $1,900 one-room cord straw bale and cordwood house with a view of a tree that leans conspicuously to the left - the last of the old growth timber on their land. Straw bale homes use high-quality bales covered with stucco or plaster, while cordwood homes, which originated in Scandinavia, are built using 16-inch logs and mortar, with a sawdust center for insulation purposes. Both building types boast significantly higher insulation values than conventional modern construction.

“Everything was done as an experiment to see what worked and what didn’t,” Borton said. “We wanted to create something that inspired people. We’re blending the old world and the new world - high tech, in photovoltaic solar panels, and low tech, in straw bale construction.”

After the cottage came the guest house, a $19,000 multi-roomed, two-story structure crowned with a still-functioning 50-year old solar panel. Welsh and Borton learned a lot about passive solar heat with the guest cottage. They used old sliding glass doors as windows. The rooms are sunny, but tend to get a bit too warm. This knowledge meant when the pair built the main house, where they now live, they oriented the windows horizontally instead of vertically as they had done in the guest house.

Borton and Welsh acknowledged that some people have a hard time visualizing how living in an off-grid house powered by solar and wind can be comfortable.

“When people hear about us they think they’ll find a couple of dope-smoking hippies,” Borton joked.

But, Welsh said with a smile, the pair hasn’t had an electric bill in decades.

“(A visitor) expected we’d be living in a dark, smoky hovel cooking with cow dung,” Welsh said, while motioning to her Sears Kenmore Elite front-loader washer and dryer and standard stainless steel refrigerator. “But while having mud walls, we’re using less power without sacrificing amenities people want to have. It’s about efficiency, not sacrificing.”

Borton and Welsh worked with NorthWestern Energy to develop its green energy program and have toured the country teaching people about sustainable energy and living.

In recent years, the pair has, with the help of Warren Hill VI, a longtime friend and fellow Sage Mountain Center inhabitant, built a large, beautiful garden and greenhouse. They’ve used the plot to learn about what types of vegetables, fruits and trees can grow at high altitude in a cold climate with a 60-day growing season so they can share the knowledge with others.

“Sustainability doesn’t look just one way,” Welsh said. “It’s sustainable to buy an LED light bulb or recycle. This is a place where you can see trial and error, take notes and observe. People have been living sustainably on this planet for thousands of years. We hope to cultivate a sensibility of learning how the natural world works. There’s an exquisite intelligence we’re surrounded by.”

To visit Sage Mountain Center or participate in a sustainable living course, visit sagemountaincenter.org.

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Information from: The Montana Standard, http://www.mtstandard.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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