Author Spotlight: Thinkenstein



Few of our authors are as committed to the environment and doing it oneself as Bill Birdsall. Thinkenstein, as he is known on Instructables, lives in the jungle in Puerto Rico in a home he built himself. His skills range from architecture to music, and I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his living situation, his music, and his ideas for sustainable living.

How did you discover the site and what inspired you to start posting projects?

An e-mail friend sent me the link to Instructables. I had an urge to share some of the things I do, but I live alone in a jungle. There's nobody to teach out here. Thanks to the Internet and Instructables, I got things out that are important to me.

How is life in Puerto Rico?

Life? Is this 25 words or less?

The experience one has of Puerto Rico would probably depend on where you landed and who you are. I gravitated to the back woods, not the big city. The locals were friendly and I love the nature that surrounds me.

I have been here about 40 years and have had lots of good experiences. I am a creative person and the freedom I have had here to invent things and experiment with unusual building techniques has made life very interesting.

Can you describe your living situation in a bit more detail?

My living situation: I live alone in a jungle. I'm a happy camper.

I bought my land about 35 years ago from Farmers Home Administration, a federal agency that makes loans to farmers. My neighbor defaulted on his loan and I got it in a closed bid auction -- $2,001 for a little less than 10 "cuerdas", which was cheap even then. A cuerda is a little less than an acre. I later added on another 15 cuerdas from a neighbor. My land is mostly forest.

For about 8 years, before working with cement, I lived in a 12 X 16 ft. plywood cabin. The cabin is now preserved inside a larger cement dome room of the main house. I had no electricity and used candles, kerosene lanterns, or gas lamps at night. There was only a radio telephone in our barrio, with loads of static during the day. Eventually, we all got line telephones, but since service goes down frequently in rainy season, and it usually took the repair men about 2 weeks to get here, I switched over to a cell phone a few years ago.

I planted for subsistence, not commercially, mostly a variety of fruit and nut trees. Now, I also do trellis vines, but I have cut back on the amount of land I cultivate. It used to be all machete work on hillsides. Now, I mostly just maintain the ridge with a trimmer. A pressure sprayer is another of my favorite tools, for cleaning the cement. There is a lot of maintenance work on the farm, but the cement house is pretty low-maintenance. I find I have plenty of time for Playstation therapy.

I'm a sloppy vegan. Although the farm provides a variety of food, I still buy much of what I eat -- a lot of nuts, for one thing. I like the idea of being self-sufficient, and am a Jack of all trades. I seldom get sick, probably from not living surrounded by people with infectious diseases, or having kids that pick up things at school. My health is pretty good, and I haven't been to a doctor in several years. I get good exercise just walking up and down hills, and maintaining the farm.

I've never owned a new car. My latest vehicle is a 1986 Isuzu Trooper. My favorite was probably a 1965 Willis Jeep that I converted into a flatbed cargo vehicle. I only go to town about once every week, or two.

I have very few mosquitos here, which I credit to being super careful about trash that might collect water. There are tarantulas, centipedes and scorpions, but they are seldom seen. My house is pretty open to animals -- they come and go. Frogs and lizards are common visitors. There are also occasionally non-poisonous snakes. For the most part, wild animals don't seem to like living around humans. Rats used to be problem, since the woods are full of them, but since I got a cat I hardly ever see one. My bed hangs from the ceiling by four cables, so rats don't get on it, even though the "windows" are always open upstairs.

I piped in public water. My meter is 1/10 mile away, where my neighbors live and where the paved road used to end. I make trips every month or so, to a local spring to fill plastic jugs with drinking water.

I've got good relations with my neighbors, and the public in general. People sometimes drop in for the free house tour, there have been occasional school groups, and the house has been on local TV four or five times. I consider this a little piece of customized paradise and I enjoy sharing my ideas.

Tell us a little bit about your termite nest city idea. What are some smalls steps that people can take to lessen their impact upon the environment?

We could reduce the pressure on the environment by having fewer children and reducing our population. Treating ourselves like toxic waste and encysting ourselves in compact cities to take up less space, would also help. Dome-shaped termite nest cities, or termitopias as I am beginning to call them, might be a way to condense our cities into the smallest area.

I made my nylon-cement home with irregular dome and tunnel shapes. The design flexibility of the material is incredible, and one can satisfy a lot of needs with it. It has a lot of artistic potential for making fascinating and fun cities.

One could continue building with the same curved shapes, building over the top of past generations of architecture, making an upwardly expanding city over time.

Such a city would resemble termite nests found here. They are light-weight for their size, like a foam material, and relatively strong for their weight.

Termite nest cities might grow over old cities. It is not necessary to tear down the old before building the new. The old buildings could act as scaffolding for making big domes over them. The weather-protected old structures might last a lot longer, and give more service before they had to come down from within, leaving huge domed rooms.

I'm starting to call termite nest cities termitopias. I could see them on mountain tops, perhaps, where there is less topsoil to waste than in the agricultural lowlands. Maybe they could ride the mountains, like saddle bags on a mule, instead of needing massive foundations like skyscrapers have.

One possibility would be to use concentric domes with free-form termite nest construction between them. That would incorporate the proven strength of domes into the structure along with the unproven strength of the free-form material.

The architecture doesn't necessarily influence political structure, but it could be interesting to have the whole city be communal property. I could see monorail tracks, used for materials delivery in construction left hanging from the ceilings for transporting goods and people after areas were finished.

Well, I dream in terms of immortal materials. Nylon-cement is long-lasting, but it is probably not immortal. Its longevity can be extended, to some extent, through protective measures such as painting the rebar, and using a good cement-based roof sealer. (Stay away from elastomeric sealer; cement won't stick to it later.)

I think a termitopia experiment would be fascinating. It's flexible design would be a great setting to live in. It would also be an interesting background environment for movies and novels.

Of all the projects that you have posted, which is your favorite?

Of the music oriented instructables, my favorite is probably the "tiny tootophone" ( ). I see it as a possible people's instrument of the 21st century. It has given me a great deal of pleasure playing it, and other tootophone variations, like my sax tooter, and trumpetooter. It is an intuitive, play-by-ear instrument that anyone can afford.

I have attached "Coqui Chorus", a recording I made last night of the sax tootophone against the background of frogs and insects I hear most nights. It has no melody to speak of; just talking back to the frogs.

[Editor's note: to listen to the rest of Thinkenstein's recordings, check out his website at]

Of the architecture ones, "Trash Rocks" ( ) and "Zipper Stairs" ( ) are two of my favorites.

OK, that's 3 favorites. I like them all for different reasons.

Your musical projects have done quite well on Instructables. Do you have a musical background?

I played the alto trumpet in high school band -- mostly unmelodic "um-pahs". Then I got into vagabond travel and carried a harmonica. Other instruments followed, such as the concertina, violin, flutes, keyboard and percussion. I just play by ear, not from sheet music.

I love improvisational music. Why play somebody else's music when you can play your own original music? Both approaches have their value and rewards. I lean more toward taking a risk and maybe finding something new and exciting through improvisation.

If you could give one piece of advice to all of the other authors on Instructables, what would it be?

Take criticism with honest consideration. Strive for clarity.

Are you working on any projects we might see on Instructables soon?

I am documenting a cement dome garage project for a future instructable, and might do one on a hammock variation using curved end bars.

I feel kind of like I have caught up on sharing most of my past creations and techniques. As of late my flow of new instructables has dried to a trickle. I make no promises for future production, but I have enjoyed contributing in the past.

I also feel honored to be a featured author. Thank you for your attention.