Christopher Reinhart discovered his passion while digging a ditch.

In the late 1990s, he dropped out of Indiana University after five semesters and, convinced that academia didn’t hold his answers, hired on with a construction firm in Bloomington.

“I was doing landscape installation—a lot of ditch digging and such, which gives you plenty of time to think and plan and plot,” says Reinhart, '13.

So, while sweating away beneath the central Indiana sun for more than half a decade, he realized a couple of things:

First, he’d grown increasingly fascinated by the idea of building affordable homes out of the same earth he’d been moving around for his landscape work.

Second, he figured it might be time to give college another look.

As a result, Reinhart took a different path: He built his own earthen home near Bloomington, completed two years of training at Ivy Tech Community College, and enrolled in Ball State’s architecture program.

Oh, and one more thing: In April 2012—at the age of 34—he learned that he had been awarded one of the nation’s most prestigious environmental honors: a Udall Scholarship. He is the first Ball State architecture student to be so recognized, although the university has had students from other disciplines win Udalls over the years.

“I am not surprised that Chris was chosen,” says Mahesh Daas, chairman of the Department of Architecture. “He has been an embodiment of the kinds of values that we hope permeate our institution—he is passionate about environmental issues and sustainability, he has shown great leadership, and he has shown great application through his work.”

Trash into Building Materials

Plus, Reinhart is not afraid to get his hands dirty.

A spring semester project for one of his architecture classes is a case in point. He is installing a wall made of earth and discarded wine bottles in a courtyard behind Be Here Now, a pub near Ball State’s Muncie campus.

One morning over breakfast in a busy coffee shop, Reinhart opens his laptop and calls up a row of digital photos that show dark squares of clay infused with bursts of brilliant green—sunbeams shining through inset wine bottles.

“Last week, I was in an experimental phase where I was just making these panels, something to contain the earth so I could look at these different designs,” Reinhart explains.

He points to one picture with a vertical column of inset bottles, glowing with emerald warmth. “This is my favorite one,” he says. “What’s amazing to me—what I love about it—is that it’s beautiful, but it costs virtually no money. The bottles are just trash, so the only money it cost was the energy it took to move the soil here.”

Earthen House

Those qualities of beauty, affordability, and sustainability, he says, are precisely what drew his interest to earthen building in the first place. During his construction days, he began researching earthen building techniques—including self-sustaining projects known as Earthships, designed by New Mexico architect Michael Reynolds.“He builds largely in the desert,” Reinhart says, “and the idea is that the house collects all its own water, filters all its own wastes, grows all its own food, and produces all its own energy.”

Reinhart drew on such concepts when he began to build his own house of earth, straw bales, and salvaged materials on property he’d purchased near Bloomington.

“The earthen building part of it was easy to learn—it’s sort of low-skill, although lots of plain hard work,” he says. Other aspects were trickier. Reinhart had to draw on his construction background when attaching the roof to the walls, for example.

At first, the house took shape without electricity or running water, but Reinhart has since added those. “When I originally moved in it was like camping,” he says, “but now it’s really livable.”

As he put the finishing touches on his house, Reinhart says he knew he wanted to share his experience—and further develop his expertise. “I realized this is what I wanted to do for people,” he says, “but I also realized how little I knew about the things I was trying.”

Back to School

So, he decided to return to college and learn the principles of sustainable architecture and design. After a two-year training program at Ivy Tech, he realized he wanted to go further and applied to Ball State—which had a well-known architecture program reasonably close to family in Bloomington. A few months later, he found himself starting life in his early 30s as an undergraduate in the College of Architecture and Planning.

Sharing classrooms with students more than 10 years his junior has proven to be little problem, Reinhart says, partly because—with his beard and longish sandy brown hair—most people figure he’s in his late 20s.

At first, he was reluctant to talk much about earthen building or his house because he wasn’t sure of the reception he’d receive. In 2012, though, he decided it was time to start sharing his passion—and even created poster presentations about his house—for a couple of campus symposiums.

Turns out, he needn’t have worried. “I got lots of support and encouragement,” he says.

Perfect for a Udall

Reinhart got the same when he met with Barb Stedman, Ball State’s director of national and international scholarships, in early spring to discuss a program he was considering.

She was both impressed—and puzzled.

“When I saw his career goals and experiences, I asked, ‘Why in the world aren’t you applying for the Udall Scholarship?’ It was just obvious—he was a perfect fit for it,” Stedman says.

The two quickly decided Reinhart had to apply, and then hustled to make sure his application was submitted in time.

Then began the wait.

“It was really just a month, but it seemed like forever,” Reinhart says. Finally, at the end of March, 2012 he found himself seated in an architecture history class and listening as his professor asked if anyone had heard of the Udall Scholarship.

“I didn’t even raise my hand—I was wondering, ‘Where is he going with this?’”

He soon found out, as the professor announced he’d won, and the class burst into sustained applause.

Now, as Reinhart completes his undergraduate studies, two things seem abundantly clear:

There will be plenty of earth in his future—but precious little ditch digging.