"Twenty years ago, it was the high gurus of passive solar conferences who were my detractors. They could not understand the gravity convection geothermal solar envelope concept so they joked about it and condemned it to obscurity. It threatens people and it is not me or my responsibility that people are threatened. I am sick of being criticized for having the wrong approach. The world has to grow up and wake up and realize I am just the messenger. "
1995 email to the Usenet Alternative Energy Discussion list
Sources: Interview with wife Jill Andrea Karlin Butler Aerts, interview with NCSU School of Design Professor Henry Sanoff, "Architect Sold on the Good Life from Sun's Rays" by Wendy McBane/News and Observer 4/20/80, California Architects Board, Usenet Alternative Energy Discussion List, Lee Porter Tribute Page, interview with Jim Buie, interview with brother Mike Butler, David Kilian.
Butler started life on a small farm in TN, married, and left home all by the age of 16. He and first wife Ann Thompson Butler raised three children: Linda, Natalie, and Christopher. He got his high school degree at night in Memphis then attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Georgia Tech, UT again, and finally the NCSU School of Design. There his mentor was Henry Sanoff, who Butler personally recruited to teach at NCSU by driving cross country to Sanoff's California house after first meeting him in Raleigh.
Butler was an exceptionally bright and charismatic student, so much so that Sanoff, Vern Shogren, other NCSU professors and even Dean Henry Kamphoefner were his frequent guests for dinner.
Yet as much as Butler loved design, he despised the architectural industry and refused to sit for the exam for many years. "I didn't want the stigma of being an architect. I didn't want to alienate people. Being a licensed architect means subscribing to an informal code of ethics, which includes things like cutting out competition with your colleagues. If you don't follow those ethics, well, you're on their list." Eventually he relented. "When you're designing a $2 million student housing project, you are an architect. I took the exam and passed it." Yet his conformity was inconsistent. In 2004, he was cited and fined in Florida for practicing architecture without a license for a project in California.
After the NCSU School of Design, Butler won a fellowship to Taliesin West for six weeks. Later, he divorced Ann and left Raleigh in late 1966 to begin building and selling homes in Knoxville TN. He married Rhetta Johnson and they had three sons, Yuri, Aaron, and Jonathan David. The next year, he opened two head shops in Gatlinburg and prepared to "drop out" but his genius would prove too restless for that. In 1970, on land from his dad in Medon TN, he designed and built a 10,000 square foot passive solar home with indoor swimming pool, 40 foot high greenhouse, and 14 levels. After an ice storm, he felt a huge warm blast of air outside and began a lifelong quest to understand thermal principles. Daughter Linda would move back to live with Butler and essentially helped raise his two of his sons by Johnson.
Almost by accident, Butler was asked by a developer to design shopping malls and created a small, very successful design firm. After a few years the developer was going bankrupt and Butler had no other clients. In desperation, one day he took two tabs of LSD and asked the universe for the secret to that thermal blast. From this trip, Butler invented the “the gravity geo-thermal envelope,” a concept that would become his life's work. For a discussion, see this Mother Earth article or this video.
Soon after his LSD revelation, Rhetta Johnson left Butler and he left Tennessee for Pacific Heights CA near San Francisco, taking third wife Gail Cook and two of his sons by Johnson. There he wrote the book Ekose’a Homes about heating and cooling without fossil fuels. It was a cult hit and came at the peak of the alternative energy movement. Butler was instantly a new age celebrity, even attracting his own groupies, some of which lived with his family on and off in a communal setting. He taught at the University of California Berkeley and spoke nationally plus the Royal College in London, and was featured in Time, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens, and other design and energy publications.
Butler visited Raleigh in April 1980 to speak on the thermal envelope, his main focus, but his intellect could not be bound to one thing. That year, he filed suit against the Tennessee Valley Authority (eventually thrown out) to prohibit further costly projects. He also publicly announced he would be marketing for group of psychics who claimed to have located Cleopatra's Palace and the Pharaoh's Lighthouse in the Mediterranean Sea. Said Butler then to the News and Observer, "they'll find anything you need for a percentage of its value."
His other grand plans included photoelectric power packs for electricity co-generation and an algae processing plant to generate high-protein food additives. In 1981, Reagan took away the tax credits for alternative energy and interest rates were at an all time high. The public fell out of love with alternative energy. Butler's star waned, Gail Cook left him, and he moved to Florida in 1985 with fourth wife Electra, a young woman from Greece, and his two sons by Rhetta Carter. He was interviewed by New Florida magazine in 1989.
His fifth and final wife Jill Andrea Karlin Butler Aerts described the 6’-4” Lee as "equipped with a messianic complex, a curious mind, a powerful intellect, a “can do anything” attitude, farmer practicality, and an innate understanding of abundance, who went about trying to solve the impending crisis for the earth and humanity." His latter years led to their development of self-sustaining floating home infrastructures called Ekopods, part of their company Ekotecture. He delivered his first paper on Ekopods in 1994 in Tampa. In a 1995 email to the Usenet Alternative Energy Discussion list, Butler showed his genius, frustration, and that messianic complex all at the same time:
Twenty years ago, it was the high gurus of passive solar conferences who were my detractors. They could not understand the gravity convection geothermal solar envelope concept so they joked about it and condemned it to obscurity. It threatens people and it is not me or my responsibility that people are threatened. I am sick of being criticized for having the wrong approach. The world has to grow up and wake up and realize I am just the messenger.
In less than no time at all, I have the whole world talking about me. I have them wondering what I am talking about. It is my time. I am finally in my element. I am a 55 year old architect who has a plan and a philosophy. I have a brain and a mouth. I am good at using both. I am a natural born leader.
Butler died in West Palm Beach FL after years of failing health. According to his brother, complications of frequent serious drug use had deteriorated his heart and kidneys requiring a pacemaker and a transplant, respectively. A lifetime of marijuana and ibuprofen didn't help. Add to this, Butler was manic-depressive for at least 15 years and he would not take his medicine regularly. "Lee had a tortured life. It was like a whirlwind. He functioned in his own world. If you agreed with Lee, he loved you. If you questioned him, he would go ballistic. He would revile and criticize you if you didn't agree with him. Most people, friends, investors just didn't want to deal with him, despite his genius."
Sadly, the Medon TN house is no more. It burned down around 1998. About that same year, sons Aaron and Jonathan David were both killed in separate automobile accidents. Butler in 1997 declared his intention to run for Mayor of West Palm Beach in a press release. In 1982, Colorado's Governor Richard Lamm swapped the executive mansion in Denver for a week in Butler's California house. His chosen spiritual name was Alpha Lee Rainbow Light, under which he frequently wrote.
Butler's brilliant ideas have yet to be discovered by mainstream builders. However, a firm based in Youngsville NC called Enertia has been designing, selling and manufacturing envelope homes as kits for many years. - more
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