Visiting Barbara Kerr, solar cooking pioneer

by | Aug 24, 2010 | Columns, DIY Organic Homestead, Featured | 4 comments

by Julie Genser


Kerr-Cole Sustainable Living Center


Kerr-Cole Sustainable Living Center crewEarlier this summer I got to meet Barbara Kerr (in wheelchair, right, with helpers Jim and Berta), a local woman who invented the solar wall oven and pioneered the use of other forms of solar cooking. I have been wanting to meet her since I moved here two years ago and finally had a chance to visit her at her home. Barbara was one of the founders of Solar Cookers International (SCI), originally called Solar Box Cookers International, a California 501(c)(3) nonprofit, non-governmental organization that spreads solar cooking awareness and skills worldwide, particularly in areas with plentiful sunshine and diminishing sources of cooking fuel. Solar cooker designs based on Barbara’s early work are now widely used in developing countries, including in refugee camps and remote areas of the world. Barbara co-founded the Kerr-Cole Sustainable Living Center in Taylor, Arizona, the town just next door to me. I spent an hour and a half touring the outside grounds and interior of the center and learning about all the ways one can conserve energy using passive solar home design principles and solar appliances. This was of special interest to me since I struggle with how to heat and cool my home without the use of electrical machines due to my severe chemical and electrical sensitivities.

The center’s objective is to “live in harmony with life, using sustainable living skills” and they use knowledge accumulated over 30 years towards this effort. Their current homemaking methods include solar cookers, solar food dehydrators, organic gardening and other practices. They live off the electricity grid and off of community water and sewage connections. Car use and shopping are minimized by preparing home grown meals, using stored bulk foods, and home preserved foods.

Solar ovens

Solar wall oven and small solar heater

Some of the indoor features of this demonstration home included:

• Passive solar house designed by Barbara Kerr using eave overhangs and the “high five”: mass, glass, orientation, insulation, ventilation.

• Clearstory windows that provide the rear room with heat and light.

• Solar wall oven (invented by Barbara) that provides highly convenient access to the cooker from inside the kitchen.

• Greenhouse: four-season, solar heated. Provides ventilation, plant starts, winter veggies and herbs, ornamentals, sunspace, and home heat gain.


Solar food dryer (side) Solar food dryer (front)

Solar crop dryer


Solar hot water heater

Solar hot water heater

Some of the outdoor features included:

• Solar crop dryer (food dehydrator) with a downdraft design and multiple heat collectors.

• Humanure bins that produce compost for the garden.

• Root cellar to store grains, dry legumes, and garden crops.

• 2,500 gallon rain harvesting system.

• Solar hot water heater with a freeze-proof box design.

• Solar water distiller that provides up to 2 1/2 gallons of water on a sunny day.


Solar water distiller Solar water distiller

Solar water distiller system


It was so inspirational to meet this beautiful woman who had the strength of character and vision to be a pioneer in sustainable living practices. As a person challenged by severe chemical, electrical, and other environmental intolerances, some of the methods she was using were not things I could do myself due to either health reasons or financial concerns. Nonetheless, I was so excited to tour her home and see the culmination of all the wisdom she had gained over the years about sustainable living put into practice. I left with many ideas brewing in my head of how to apply her methods in a manner that would be tolerable for my own health requirements.

The center conducts tours by appointment and sells various publications, videos, and products (such as solar ovens and water pasteurization indicator). To contact them, call (928) 536-2269 or email kerrcole@frontiernet.net. Learn more at solarcooking.org/bkerr.


  • Earthwalker is the username that PT founder Julie Genser created for her online interactions so many years ago when first creating Planet Thrive.

    Julie's (Earthwalker's) life was derailed over twenty years ago when she had a very large organic mercury exposure after she naively used a mouth thermometer to measure the temperature of just-boiled milk while making her very first pizza at home. The mercury instantly expanded into a gas form and exploded out the back of the thermometer right into her face. Unaware that mercury was the third most neurotoxic element on Earth, Julie had no idea she had just received a very high dose of a poisonous substance.

    A series of subsequent toxic exposures over the next few years -- to smoke from two fires (including 9/11), toxic mold, lyme disease, and chemical injuries -- caused catastrophic damage to her health. While figuring out how to survive day-to-day, and often minute-to-minute, she created Planet Thrive to help others avoid some of the misdiagnoses and struggles she had experienced.

    She has clawed her way over many health mountains to get to where she is today. She is excited to bring the latest iteration of Planet Thrive to the chronic illness community.

    In 2019, Julie published her very first cookbook e-book called Low Lectin Lunches (+ Dinners, Too!) after discovering how a low lectin, gluten free diet was helping manage her chronic fascia/muscle pain.

4 Comments

  1. Laurie Tumer

    Julie, Thanks for the article! What a remarkable woman. It’s really inspiring and giving me all kinds of new ideas!

  2. earthwalker

    Ooh, I’m so glad Laurie! You have always been so inspiring to me, so I can’t wait to hear how you translate her ideas in the future. Please let me know!! xx

  3. Sanu Kaji Shrestha

    Dear Julie,
    Thanks a lot for featuring Barbara in Planet Thrive. I went through the article. FYI, I was intern in Kerr-Cole Sustainable Living Center for a month in December 2001 to January 2002. I learned a lot from Barbara and Jim mainly on solar and sustainable life skills. For more information on my efforts after internship with Barbara, please visit http://www.fost-nepal.org or write me.
    If you are interested to feature of our efforts in Nepal, Afghanistan, Cambodia, India and Cyprus, please let me know.
    Thanks

  4. Lynn Snyder

    On Saturday February 18, 2012 the Kerr-Cole Sustainable Living Center in Taylor / Snowflake, AZ is having a tribute for Barbara Kerr, Sherry Cole (recently deceased) and all the people whose lives they’ve touched. I hope you can come. It’s free, but we hope you’ll register on-line so that we can have an idea of who is coming. There will be great speakers, an open mic to share your tribute, and opportunities for networking. Please see http://kerr-cole.org/index.php/tribute for details. Thanks!

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