Veterans Off-Grid in rural Northern New Mexico helps vulnerable veterans get back on their feet in a setting that’s a model for sustainable architecture, community building, and affordable housing.
CARSON, NM—My eyes are met with sagebrush and immeasurable sky during the drive to Carson, New Mexico. Eventually, I dip off the paved highway and onto a dirt road bathed in sand-like, opalescent recycled glass to prevent road rutting. Soon, I arrive at Camp Phoenix, home of Veterans Off-Grid, a regional model for sustainable architecture and a sanctuary for military members experiencing housing instability.
The fifty-acre plot in rural Northern New Mexico exudes community, safety, and environmental consciousness. Structures made from hyperadobe (which incorporates robust mesh tubing similar to the packaging that’s sometimes used for potatoes and onions), earthbag, and sundried adobe brick—many outfitted with rainwater catch systems—were primarily created from local materials and regional know-how. Wooden benches, crafted by a veteran as a symbolic ode to each branch of the United States Army, are sprinkled throughout the lot, which also houses a greenhouse and communal kitchen.
According to a 2021 Department of Housing and Urban Development report, nearly 20,000 veterans of the U.S. military were without shelter on any given night between January 2020 and January 2021. Though the HUD study showed progress in reversing the rate of unhoused veterans—there was a ten percent decline in “sheltered homelessness” among veterans—the mental-health toll of this highly stigmatized population is immeasurable.
“When veterans come back, they feel very alienated,” says Ryan Timmermans, Veterans Off-Grid founder who completed multiple tours to Afghanistan as a soldier and contractor for the U.S. Army. “We take broken people, people who society has cast aside, [who are] imperfect [and] tarnished, and we help them become world changers.”
Timmermans, who felt like he and some of his fellow soldiers weren’t getting the mental-health help that they needed, started Veterans Off-Grid in 2017. In collaboration with students and architects from the University of New Mexico-Taos, the nonprofit’s goal is to help in-need veterans successfully reintegrate into society, all while teaching veterans the art of green-friendly architecture in a region with a history of sustainability and alternative housing.
Soon after Timmermans formed VOG, located approximately thirty-five miles west of Taos, he partnered with Mark Goldman, architect and chairman of the UNM-Taos Green Technology Program. Timmermans and Goldman share common goals related to eco-conscious architecture, community building, affordable housing (which is in short supply in the Taos area), and helping vulnerable veterans heal.
“[The veterans] have physical energy and, psychologically, it’s healthy to be physical and build, so you can build with adobe that’s very labor-intensive and very inexpensive,” says Goldman, who also works with Heart of Taos, a nonprofit that is slated to build a sustainable women’s shelter, and the DreamTree Shelter, which provides housing for unhoused and neglected teens in Northern New Mexico.
Residents of VOG, which continually accepts volunteers, live rent-free in exchange for learning the trade of green building. As far as the building supplies, Timmermans says that VOG constructs its adobe-based dwellings from regional and cast-off local materials such as broken selenite and reused glass. A one-room hyperadobe structure will soon be turned into a loft, making it large enough for small gatherings—along with shelter, Veterans Off-Grid offers gardening and fresh food, instant nature access, art projects, and community workshops.
Goldman remarks that the country is chock-full of buildings that are basically inefficient power plants. “If we’re to survive and live in harmony with nature, our architecture has to reflect this,” says Goldman, who feels that modernism and its emphasis on style is a drain on the environment compared with structures constructed from local materials and techniques.
Locally, Goldman draws inspiration for his architectural philosophies from Taos Pueblo, which has stood for more than 1,000 years. “[It’s] perfectly situated to the sun, sustainable, has a river flowing through the middle of it,” says Goldman. He also looks to Renaissance architects, who Goldman says created a flow of ideas and skills between builders, clients, and designers.
After serving his country, Timmermans says that he, too, experienced unexpected homelessness. It was an impetus to start Veterans Off-Grid, a place where he and his fellow military veterans who face societal instabilities could find a mindful and eco-conscious center to heal, grow, and reconnect to society. “‘Maybe I can be a civilian’ is the thought pattern I want to put in [for veterans],” he says.
Steve Jansen contributed to this story.