Mother Earth Living

Kiva Style: Former Tipi Residents Build a Rammed-Earth Home

Working with earth, wood, glass and crystals, Tom and Flame Lutes have created a truly sacred space in the Colorado high country.
By Robyn Griggs Lawrence
January/February 2001
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The home is built using fourteen-inch rammed earth bricks and finished with Elastomeric stucco. Twenty-four photovoltaic panels provide for all the Luteses’ power needs.
Photo By Laurie Dickson
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When Tom and Flame Lutes moved into a tipi on the 160 acres near Bayfield, Colorado, that they had just purchased with twelve friends, they had no idea that they would stay in the tipi for more than four years or that it would prove inspirational as they designed their dream home. But they found that the direct connection with nature and the way sound, light, and heat moved through the tipi space were pleasures they weren't willing to give up when they moved to a permanent abode.

"The tipi as a structure was an interesting thing to pursue,'' Tom says. "It's a cone. The energy in that kind of structure is so different from a square or a rectangle, where the energy is constantly getting trapped in the corners. If you think of energy as heat, sound, or vibration, it all moves much better in a circle, all the way from playing the stereo system to circulating heat.''

During the four-and-a-half years that the couple lived under canvas, they reveled in feeling the movement and sounds of the wind, of rain changing to sleet or sleet to snow. They knew, to the hour, when the migratory birds had returned to their piece of the mountain. "And I thought,'' Tom says, "so now I'm going to spend a lot of money, go into debt, and work my butt off for many years to live behind thick walls and be removed from nature?''

But Tom and Flame needed permanence, a sense that they were truly planted in the community they had set about creating with their longtime friends. So they took cues from their tipi and designed a round living space with vast expanses of glass that let sunshine pour in and open up to 180-degree mountain views. Bancos, sculptured adobe benches, rim the perimeter of the open room, and a radiant-heat fireplace anchors the southeast corner.

From this space, Tom and Flame can watch as an ominous hank of steel-gray clouds arrives to spit flurries of snow at their ridge. They can linger with the Colorado sun on a long June day. They can bask in the awakening orange sunrise or the low golden sunset. "We have an outside experience while we're inside,'' Tom says. "I don't have that experience of being removed from nature.''

Earth and wood 

Veterans of adobe houses, Tom and Flame knew all along that they wanted to build their house of earth. After toying with the idea of building an Earthship, they settled on rammed-earth bricks fourteen inches thick, made on site from dirt gathered twenty miles south at Navajo Lake (their own soil had too many rocks and not enough clay for proper brick composition). The couple worked alongside the building contractor, making and laying bricks and providing general grunt labor.

For structural and finish work, they used Ponderosa pines that had blown down on the property or had been felled to make roads. “We had a big thing about not cutting down trees,” Flame says. “But we found that we needed to, both for the road and to thin the forest. That was part of this land’s gift to us.”

Just Enough Space

For about $150 per square (or round, as the case may be) foot, Tom and Flame packed an abundance of thoughtful details into their 1,750-square-foot home. “A lot of choices come down to how big your house is going to be,” Tom says. “In almost every big house I’ve ever been in, there was a tremendous amount of dead space—dressed-up rooms with no life in them. For us, a balance of 1,750 square feet meant every part of the house is a place where we would, literally, inhabit. We could have a totally functional house—every part of it we actually have a need for.”

The one-story floorplan includes one bedroom, two baths, an office area, a much-appreciated wood-burning sauna, and a sleeping loft. (The bank insisted on a second bedroom—thus the sleeping loft—before it would give Tom and Flame a loan.) A 1,400-square-foot deck made of Trex composite decking nearly doubles the living space.

While not sparse, the couple’s home is spare—possessions are kept to a minimum. “One of the things we learned from living in the tipi is that we have nothing in here that isn’t absolutely necessary,” Flame says.

Off the Grid

One stipulation everyone in Tom and Flame’s community agreed upon before building was that the homes would be ­heated and powered with solar panels. Based on that decision, the national chain banks and Fannie Mae refused the Luteses a loan. “They said, ‘It’s not about your credit; you don’t have permanent electricity,’” Flame scoffs. Adds Tom: “At this point, I got pretty belligerent. I said, ‘You’re saying the sun isn’t permanent, but your little electric grid that goes out all the time, that’s powered by fossil fuels, is?’ They just have prehistoric values when it comes to loans.” A local bank in nearby Durango, Colorado, did eventually give the Luteses a mortgage. Solar-heated hot water runs through a radiant system in the floor, keeping the home toasty in the nastiest weather that Colorado’s high country can offer.

Personality Reflections

From wall sconces made with molded plaster and turquoise rock to bits of crystal embedded deep in the home’s foundation, Tom and Flame’s home reflects the couple’s deeply spiritual nature and artistic personalities. Throughout the building process, they refused to settle for off-the-shelf fixtures or “can’t-do” attitudes from contractors. “You have to have the confidence that you can design something you like instead of just taking someone else’s ideas,” Tom says. “But that’s the hardest thing—unless you’re an artist, you don’t necessarily have the confidence that you’ll be able to do that.”

The Luteses’ belief in crystals led them to “program” more than 100 small ones (a process that entails implanting the crystals with positive thought forms through ceremonies) and cement them into the foundation, into holes drilled for rebar to hold the house to the mountain, and into the bond beam (the ring of cement at the top of the adobe walls that keeps the house from twisting). Flame convinced a skeptical subcontractor to intersperse crystals in the rock wall of the sauna, “and he took the whole bag and really got into it,” she says.

“We eventually got some of the most uptight, conservative construction guys to say, ‘Oh, I see what you’re doing here,’” Tom adds. “And then they would get really creative.”

Tom and Flame, who entertain both friends and clients of their professional consulting business in the home, understand the importance of these personal touches in creating a warm, welcoming space. Tom says, “In our minds, you can thank the crystals in the walls, or the dirt, or whatever—but it’s a sacred place. What we hoped to make is really a modern-day kiva—
a ceremonial living space.


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