A couple of California retirees lift bales and mix up plaster for a home so warm and nurturing that they rarely want to leave.
A large bank of windows washes the dining room in sunlight during winter and fall afternoons. At night, carefully placed lights create a soft glow on the clay walls. The room is furnished with an old Spanish-style dining set and curio cabinet, which is set into a recess in a lime-washed wall. The recess’s interior was washed with lime colored with Venetian red and French yellow natural mineral ochres.
Susan and Saul Frommer have a long and admirable track record as environmentalists. Susan established one of the first native plant nurseries in southern California and is a well-known designer of native and xeriscaped gardens. Saul was curator of one of the finest entomology collections in the world, at the University of California at Riverside.
Upon their semi-retirement, the Frommers undertook the creation of their dream home in the chaparral and oak woodland hills of Murrieta, California, just a stone’s throw from the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve and the Cleveland National Forest. Naturally, the couple wanted a house that would be both attractive and environmentally sound.
A home for the house
“We chose this property mainly for practical reasons,” says Susan. “We wanted a place that was out of the valley so it would be cooler. We wanted a place where we could be surrounded by people who cared about the way things look, who wouldn’t trash the environment, and someplace with lots of nice, existing, natural vegetation. But it also needed to be within a reasonable distance of the university.” Treading lightly on the environment was an extremely important consideration. “For one thing,” says Susan, “it just makes economic sense. If you have mature growth that is suitable for a domestic landscape, to clear it out and replant is just stupid. The plants that are here grow naturally, so I don’t have to pamper them. They can be pruned up and make lovely landscape specimens, and they provide food and shelter for the wildlife. The whole reason we’re up here is for the natural beauty, so why scrape it all away?”
The original owner of Susan and Saul’s land had already cleared an area for a house that was never built, so the couple simply had to enlarge it slightly for their own home. “I was on site when this work was being done, and I threatened them with death if they strayed even a bit too far,” Susan laughs, recounting her admonitions: “Don’t touch that oak! Don’t bury those rocks! Here, let me dig up that plant before you go there.” Even more clearing was required after construction was complete to meet local fire codes. This was done by hand so that the soil would not be disturbed, which would have made room for non-native, invasive weeds.
Working with architect Erika Goetz, the Frommers settled on post-and-beam construction with straw bale walls as the best building method for their site. The mass and insulation provided by the straw bales allow the Frommers to get by without a central forced-air heating or cooling system. During the hot, dry summer, the house remains pleasantly cool. In the evening, well-placed windows—which also provide ample natural light—can be opened to make use of the prevailing breezes. Southern California winters are relatively mild, but on rare cold evenings, a high-efficiency wood-burning stove provides plenty of heat. Overhead fans help circulate air for uniform temperatures throughout the house. A radiant heat barrier in the attic and low-e, double-pane windows add to the comfortable indoor climate. A solar water heating system provides hot water.
In a nod to the genius of native architecture, a portal runs along the front of the home, enclosing a patio area that includes a Mediterranean-style wall fountain and a large collection of potted cacti and succulents. This area provides a perfect place for the Frommers and their guests to enjoy the Mediterranean climate while taking in Susan’s gardens and the oak-covered hills beyond.
The portal provides shade for the entire front of the house. Even on the hottest days, it is a pleasant place to be. Visually, the portal frames views, with the columns creating “pictures” that can be enjoyed from inside the house. The low wall makes a subtle separation between the enclosed, private space and the greater garden beyond, without being too intrusive or confining. “One recent evening,” recalls Susan, “we had some guests here for dinner out on the patio. They said that they imagined this is just what it would be like in Tuscany, sitting outside on a beautiful evening and enjoying the Mediterranean gardens.”
Labors of love
The Frommers acted as contractors and enlisted the help of friends for much of the construction, including the building of the straw bale walls. Their personal effort was important, for practical reasons of artistic control and economics, and for the pride and sense of accomplishment that they both feel in abundance.
But it wasn’t always easy or fun. Susan and Saul, who are both in their sixties, remember many days when exhaustion and body aches took their toll—even though they are in excellent physical health. “I think it was serendipity that we both happen to have led lives that enabled us to stay in reasonable shape,” Saul says. And Susan, who would rather lift rocks in the garden than weights in the gym, actually reveled in the arduous building process. “Lifting the straw bales for these walls wasn’t all that different from loading all that alfalfa into the barn all the time for our horses,” she says. “In fact, the straw is lighter because it’s drier than alfalfa. But that’s not to say we didn’t get tired; we did. The plastering was very exhausting. It involves a lot of bending, lifting heavy buckets of sand, mixing in large tubs. Hours and hours of that is just plain tiring.”
The interior perimeter of the home’s bale walls are coated with plaster made with local clay, sand, chopped straw, and a little lime. The interior partition walls are plastered with a hand-concocted lime plaster made of clay, finely sifted, with silica sand and powdered milk. Four coats of white lime wash top off the plaster.
In an ongoing labor of love, Susan has made and installed all of the home’s decorative details. She’s crafted hundreds of ceramic tiles featuring leaf impressions, imitation fossil impressions, artistic representations of animals, Native American art motifs, interpretations of ancient cave paintings, and embedded semi-precious stones, which serve as a decorative trim at the base of the walls throughout the home’s common areas. Susan’s handmade sconces, crafted of the same ceramic material and utilizing the same artistic themes, cover the living room wall lights. In another inspired decorative touch, Susan made the kitchen cabinet and drawer pulls using greasewood branch prunings from the garden, irregularly and artistically cut, sanded, and varnished to produce beautiful, smooth, golden wood handles affixed to the cabinets with legs of heavy copper wire left over from the electrical wiring of the house. Outside, she used bits and pieces of brightly colored tile to create a large, stylized, mosaic rattlesnake that crawls up one side of the house.
Throughout the house, niches have been left in the walls and columns for the Frommers’ collection of utilitarian objects used in the daily lives of people from cultures all over the world, ranging from African milk jugs to Navajo weavings. These artifacts represent a chronicle of the Frommers’ world travels—driven by an intense interest in folk dances and dance-related costumes that has taken them to Yugoslavia, Romania, and Turkey—as well as their scientific curiosity. Germany and Israel are just a few of the places they’ve traveled in their studies of entomology, biology, and tropical ecology. (During one such trip to Israel, Saul discovered a new species of crane fly; it’s called the Tipula frommeri, in his honor).
Garden of delights
Susan’s artistic genius extends to her gardens, which contain primarily heat- and drought-tolerant California native, Mediterranean, and desert plants including scrub oak, greasewood, California lilac, manzanita, acacias, palo verde, flannel bush, California fuchsia, Mexican marigold, salvias, lavenders, and bunch grasses. Most of the plants that were on site before the home was built have been incorporated into the gardens.
The Frommers are installing a water-harvesting system that will catch and store additional rainwater for use when necessary. Frequent morning fogs roll inland from the ocean, about fifteen to twenty miles away, producing ample condensation on the standing seam steel roof. The resulting runoff keeps a small natural water hole, called a tenaja, filled year-round, even through the heat of summer.
The tenaja and a stone birdbath, along with the plant selections Susan has made, create perfect conditions for native wildlife. On any day, a visitor sitting under the portal might observe numerous species of songbirds, hummingbirds, roadrunners, quail, raptors, rabbits, coyotes, and bobcats. There are also numerous species of lizards and snakes, as well as several butterfly species and many native bees and other insects.
Home to stay
Susan and Saul plan to live out the rest of their lives in this dream home. They have designed the house to accommodate wheelchairs, should that be necessary, and they admit that the house has mitigated their wanderlust. “I love this place,” says Susan. “It’s like having my own wonderful little resort that I live in. It’s my refuge.” Saul says he may love the surrounding environment as much as he loves the house. “There’s always something to enjoy,” he says. “This area is well known botanically and somewhat known entomologically, so I have the opportunity to observe and document species. Plus I have my library, my music room—I can’t think of much I want that I don’t have here.”
The Frommers both feel this project has been a life-changing, life-affirming experience. But they do have some practical advice for anyone considering a similar project. “You shouldn’t undertake this kind of work lightly,” Susan warns. “You need to be in good physical shape if you plan to do a lot of the construction yourself, because it’s very taxing.” Saul interjects, “This will certainly keep you in shape.” “Or kill you,” continues Susan. “Don’t kid yourself. You’re going to be tired. And you had better make sure your marriage is in good shape before you start, because you’re going to get extremely short-tempered when you’re tired and hungry. All of life still goes on. After you finish eight hours or more of heavy labor on the house, you still have to cook dinner, do the laundry, clean house, make phone calls...”
But, in the final analysis, Susan and Saul believe everyone should aspire to the kind of life a home like this can provide. “Being in this house is almost like residing inside a living thing,” Susan says. “It’s self-regulating, a part of the earth, almost organic. This has made me very optimistic about our lives. I feel almost anyone can have a better quality of life by trying to create a living space that is more ecologically friendly and beautiful. There is really nothing so unusual about this house. There’s no reason a home similar to this can’t be duplicated, to some degree, even in a subdivision. As a society, we just need to alter the way we think about our homes.”
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