Janet Johnston, Director

Janet_portrait_2.jpgMy dog, two cats and I pulled into Joshua Tree in May 1998, knowing only George Zelenz, whose yard we were going to park the trailer in.  I worked with Skillful Means Design and Construction and was starting construction on Harrison House, the home we had designed for composers Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig.

At this point, I had already spent years living out of the back of my truck on jobsites all over Northern California building on and off-grid homes. My boss John Swearingen and I, plus 20-some others were founding members of CASBA (California Straw Building Association). It is a group of independent but community-minded architects/engineers/builders/homeowners that hold camp-out weekend meetings where building details, whisky, and trebuchets go flying. I was an advisory board member for years, newsletter editor, taught workshops, organized two Professional Training Courses, and was a contributing author of the Detail Book, published in 2019.  The Harrison straw-bale vault was a group effort of testing and engineering, taking much time and determination to get through the County’s approval process, as the first bale building in the county.

I survived the summer of 1998’s heat, storms, and wind. I met some fantastic locals down at the Park Center Deli, hiked and explored the desert.  Halloween meant a party at Todd Gordon’s house. There I met a gorgeous English veterinarian, raised on a dairy farm, who was here rock climbing – George Armstrong.  I was already hooked on architecture, building, and the straw-bale community, and now I was hooked on this desert with its scrappy, quirky, passionate people, and this fantastic man.

We decided to settle and raise our two kids here, while running our small residential construction business.  We have met a wealth of friends amongst our clients, sub-contractors, rock-climbing community, parent groups, schools, sports, and activities across the Morongo Basin.  I volunteered extensively at the kids’ schools and we even coached soccer. The kids are now teens in high school, with one planning to go to Copper Mountain College here in Joshua Tree.

I started attending town meetings around 2004 during the Community Plan update.  One of our clients was involved with the Green Path North fight back around 2005, so I got introduced to local conservation issues and started attending MBCA events when I could.   

Then projects started threatening close to home. The huge Katz development at La Contenta, a solar field just west of Olympic (both now MDLT land), and the Altamira development all hit at the same time. I became one of the leads of the “JT105 Alliance” in the multi-year fight against the gated Altamira development that would have bladed 105 acres of Joshua tree woodland surrounding the kids’ elementary school.  It was a huge effort, but worth it. If all those projects had been built, we would not have the Joshua Tree we know and love now. 

This all rolled right into the County’s Policy Plan update that started in 2016 and is still on-going.  I became a MBCA Director in 2020 and my focus is land use planning that balances housing concerns with economic opportunities that benefit the people that live and work here, while protecting the desert for ourselves and our visitors. It is sad that so much of our collective energy must go to constant “defense” of the desert and of our community.  MBCA wants to help move things in a positive direction by developing a program of local field trips that will benefit our local middle school kids. Watch this space!

DLD| Janet Armstrong Johnston | Ep 104 by Desert Lady Diaries | Free Listening on SoundCloud


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  • Steve Bardwell
    And, Janet is a California licensed architect and California licensed general contractor! A master builder indeed! We are so fortunate to have her intelligent eye on the many issues facing us here inthe Morongo Basin.
    Thank you Janet
  • Laraine Turk