Mother Earth Living

Organically Grown: A Hand-built Home in the Southwest

A rural Arizona hand-built house made of adobe, stone, straw bale and native timbers.
By Marsha Scarbrough
November/December 2002

Vigas from salvaged or sustainably harvested wood support the copper roof over the upper level, which doubles as a rainwater collection system.
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“We live what we do,” says Sherry Luna. “For us, it’s about saving the earth.” She and her husband, Philip Ostrom, own New Harvest Organics, the largest Arizona-based marketer of organic produce. Their home is a “nest” that expresses their ecological values. Perched on a hilltop with vistas of rugged red cliffs and gentle green oak trees, the hand-built house of sun-baked adobe, stone, straw bale, and native timber blends seamlessly into the dramatic terrain.

“It was challenging to marry straw bale with adobe with concrete blocks with stone,” explains Phil. But besides integrating diverse materials, designing the house challenged the couple to integrate opposing ideas. Sherry wanted the house sheltered by the earth, but they both wanted windows to reveal the breathtaking views and take advantage of solar gain. Phil wanted a round house. Sherry wanted straight walls. Phil likes small spaces. Sherry hates clutter and wanted expansive rooms for entertaining. Both wanted to integrate the house into the surrounding landscape.

The pair, who has integrated their lives for seventeen years, met the challenge. The curved face of the house mirrors the topography of the hillside. In front, pillars of adobe bricks frame large arched windows while the back nestles into the earth. A few steps down from the open kitchen and great room, a cozy bedroom wing is tucked under a living sod roof supported by vigas arranged like the spokes of a wheel. On the upper level, a copper roof collects rainwater and channels it into underground cisterns. Graywater from sinks and showers irrigates the organic fruit orchard.

A grand adventure

Manifesting this vision was an adventure that spanned four years of ups, downs, twists, turns, and life-changing surprises. After a decade of searching for the perfect place to settle down, Sherry and Phil bought five and half acres crisscrossed by two creeks near Patagonia, Arizona, a town of 980 people surrounded by wilderness. It’s an hour’s drive south of Tucson and eighteen miles north of the Mexican border.

They lived in a 1974 Airstream trailer and put up a yurt to house their office. With the help of local builder Ted Piper, they built a 300-square-foot load-bearing straw bale guest house in the oak trees along the creek and moved into it. They dreamed of building a bigger house and asked permaculturist Kate y Tirion how to site it on the land. She pointed out that the creeks had high flood zones and the creek beds were lush with manzanita and oak, both hot-burning fuel for wildfires. For maximum passive solar advantage, Tirion suggested siting the house above the shade of the trees. As Sherry and Phil considered building on the hilltop, they remembered hikes they took to Native American cliff dwellings near Sedona. “We were sitting in this cave in the cliff dwellings, looking out, and one of us said, ‘This is how we should live,’” recalls Sherry.

Silver linings

They hired an architect and spent a year drawing up plans. During that time, they were gradually talked out of all the elements that were important to them. They ended up with blueprints for a two-story cinderblock house. A day before construction was to begin, Sherry said, “Phil, I just can’t live in this house. I don’t want to build it.” They threw away $10,000 worth of architectural plans, and Piper volunteered to design the house they wanted. He drew the first design on a placemat in the local restaurant. They spent two weeks refining the concept and abandoned the idea of building the entire house of straw bale. Adobe proved better for marrying the large windows with the earth-sheltered area. Straw bale was limited to the entry and to infill in some bedroom walls.

When Sherry and Phil took their blueprints to the bank, they were refused financing because Piper wasn’t a licensed contractor at the time. Because they valued their working relationship with Piper and knew he shared their aesthetics, they decided not to borrow money. Their business, New Harvest Organics (www.newharvest organics.com), is subject to the cycles of nature. “If the growers have a bad season, we have a bad season,” explains Sherry. “We can make huge chunks of money, but we also lose huge chunks of money.” They opted to pay building costs out of pocket when they were flush and put construction on hiatus during the lean times.

In 1997, construction began. Sherry’s father, Gilbert Luna, who operated earth-moving equipment for the railroad, excavated and leveled the site. Piper completed the retaining wall and footings. Then storms hit. Crops failed. Money ran out. Construction stopped for a year. Phil and Sherry used the time to build a plywood model of the house on the slab and observe sun and shadows during different times of the day throughout the year. They tweaked their plans by increasing the height of windows to maximize views and extending eaves for greater sun and rain protection. Phil says, “We made subtle changes that made huge differences. If we’d been on a fast track to get it done, we wouldn’t be enjoying these changes.”

Brick by brick, stone by stone

When construction resumed, Piper handled most of the carpentry work using recycled lumber and sustainably harvested vigas from the Fort Apache Timber Company owned by the White Mountain Apache people. Local artisan Perfecto Monge joined the team as maestro of adobe and stone masonry. For a year, Phil and Sherry spent every weekend gathering rocks throughout southern Arizona. Monge transformed the rocks into walls for three rooms, a rustic fireplace, and massive retaining walls in the terraced garden. Neighbors Bill and Athena Steen, authors of The Straw Bale House (Chelsea Green, 1994), offered advice about earth plasters.

The house went up brick by adobe brick. Sherry reminisces, “I came out every night and watched the house grow. The roof was put on last because the walls had to be built beneath it one brick at a time. When the vigas were up, I’d come up and sit on top of them and watch the moon rise over the red cliffs. The mesquite trees made all these amazing shadows that would dance across the cliffs. I’d sit here and marvel at the house.”

In late 1998, Phil and Sherry moved in. According to Sherry, “We were living in the downstairs bedroom before there were any counters in the kitchen or the tile was done upstairs. I was so anxious.” But the thrill of moving into their dream house was about to be topped by an even more exciting event. Days before her thirty-sixth birthday, after almost fourteen years of marriage, Sherry found out she was pregnant. Floors were installed and finishing work was completed just before Phil and Sherry’s daughter, Kali Maia Ostrom Luna, was born on February 29, 2000. Because the house was designed without children in mind, Phil and Sherry began to rethink living spaces. The process accelerated when their son, Rowan Adair Ostrom Luna, was born on July 21, 2001.

For now, the family sleeps on organic wool mattresses on the floor of the main bedroom. What was intended as a greenhouse room has become the children’s toy room. Sherry observes, “The house is not the best design for toddlers. Everything is hard, and it’s on different levels. If I knew I was going to have kids, I would have done a few things differently.”

Keeping costs down

Phil estimates the cost of the 1,700-square-foot house at $150,000. That translates to a very reasonable $88 per square foot. One key to keeping costs down was shopping around. The couple found bargains on windows, the copper roof, and slate floors. They crossed the border into Mexico to buy tile and fixtures at a fraction of U.S. prices. They bought used materials whenever possible, including oak floors from century-old houses being demolished in Tucson. Phil reports, “Big timbers were actually cost-effective to recycle as well as satisfying to know that we’re not wasting trees.”

Saving dollars also required spending hours. Phil explains, “Even though we weren’t doing any hands-on construction, it was still pretty much a full-time job. Sourcing alternative appliances and paint from Europe just takes so much time.”

Piper adds that involving the builder early in the planning process also keeps costs down. “A builder can see illogical things. Of course, that works best when there’s a lot of respect for everyone else’s opinion.”

Sherry and Phil did learn some hard lessons. They originally installed composting toilets. Because of odors, noisy fans, and insufficient capacity for large groups of people, they replaced them with flush toilets. Although they had plumbed with the option to go back to flush toilets, proper vents had not been installed. Phil believes that hiring licensed contractors to handle plumbing and electrical at the outset could have prevented problems that haunted them later. Although they have a washing machine in a small utility room, Sherry longs for a real laundry room. Phil and Sherry both regret not excavating a walk-in pantry off the kitchen.

The biggest lesson they learned would require a fundamental change in the orientation of the house. As it is now, the downstairs bedroom opens out onto the garden. The kitchen and great room are on the upper level. In warm weather they often dine outdoors, so they must carry food and dishes downstairs to the garden. “I would have put all the living spaces of the house down below off the garden and put the bedrooms up above. It’s a basic element of permaculture to have your kitchen on the level where the food is produced.”

Despite these inevitable regrets, Phil and Sherry enjoyed the adventure of building their dream house. And, best of all, Phil, Sherry, and Piper are still close friends. Sherry concludes, “Building a house definitely tweaks your buttons. I think because we started out as friends, we were able to work through all the issues. In an owner/builder house, you always have so much help from other people... like Ted, Perfecto, and Kate. It’s such a collaborative effort.”


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