At Home in the Wildgrasses: An Heirloom Missouri Home

Architect Mark Grantham's knowledge and artistry go to work in a home that blends seamlessly into a Missouri hillside.

| September/October 2009

When architect Mark Grantham set out to build a home in rural Missouri, he wanted to create more than just a house—he wanted to use his 30 years of sustainable building knowledge to create an heirloom. The result was Wildgrasses, a 3,200-square-foot home bermed into a hillside that has served as a home—first for the architect and his wife and now for its new homeowners—and as a teaching tool for Grantham’s clients and the community.

“I think a home should have more value than just financial value,” Grantham says. “It should have a personal, nurturing value and kind of an heirloom value. Whether you pass it to your kids or to someone else, you should pass it on with value and be happy someone else will experience living in it.”

The love and skill that went into the home were immediately obvious to Paula and Jason Bellchamber, who bought the house in 2008. “We had two showings on the day we saw Mark’s home,” Jason says. “We saw Mark’s first and were just blown away—floored. So we went to the second house afterward, and it was very nice. If we hadn’t seen Mark’s, we may have put an offer on it. But there was just no comparison.”

Green from the ground up

The home was constructed using straw bales, giving it strong, breathable walls with an R-55 insulation level. It’s filled with reused materials such as salvaged doors from a burned-down area schoolhouse and a local monastery. And, perhaps most impressive, nearly everything in the home was sourced within 100 miles of the site.

Grantham found local straw bales and concrete, locally quarried landscape stone, trusses manufactured within eight miles of the home and slate from southern Missouri. “The combination of old and new is neat,” Paula says. “Many aspects are contemporary, but Mark also incorporated antique embellishments and reused things from the past.”

Years of experience in residential and commercial design taught Grantham that smart building is about a lot more than choosing low-VOC paint. “All around, I was trying to make an effort not only to build a green home and choose materials that were sustainable, healthy and durable, but to consider the whole process, from the design methods to the end user’s lifestyle,” Grantham says.

He had to think that way when it came to the sewage system. Many of the area’s septic systems were failing because of the clay soil, so Grantham began searching for a better solution. He chose a microbiotic system, which relies on a natural method of processing waste. “Instead of dousing everything with chlorine and trying to kill it all, the natural process encourages bacteria and microorganisms to break down waste,” he says. Strategic plantings finish the filtration process.

Though he built the home to accommodate solar panels, Grantham decided not to install them because they weren’t efficient enough to justify the cost at the time. The Bellchambers plan to install them eventually.

A natural fit

Bermed into a hillside, the home appears to rise naturally out of its landscape. “Its low, sloping roofline and low walls keep the wind from hitting a flat wall, which takes more energy from the house,” Grantham says. “I wanted to slide the house into the land and let the terraces  unfold, picking up the natural flow of the hill.”

Grantham worked the landscaping down the hill using a series of flat terraces made into organic vegetable gardens, watered by a 1,750-gallon cistern that collects rainwater from the roof. He replanted native grasses and seeded a variety of wildflowers into aromatic garden beds. “The way Mark has planned the lawn areas, we don’t do as much mowing as before, even though we have a larger property,” Jason says. “For the most part, it takes care of itself, and it’s great because every season has its own color. Even winter has its own color and feel.”

Balance inside

Inside, the home’s centerpiece is a large, stone waterfall that extends from the upper level to the lower, just inside the back foyer overlooking the saltwater pool. “It centers the space, introduces a water element and helps create balance,” Grantham says. Built of stone quarried just 7 miles away, the structure gives the house a focal point.

Grantham also incorporated elements of feng shui and plenty of his own whimsical touches. “You don’t see many hard, straight lines in this house,” he says. “As in nature—we’re round and everything in the world is round and flowing. Every corner has a rounded edge.”

These artistic elements make the home fun to live in. “Mark has built so many treasures into the house. We’re still finding little things,” Paula says. “You walk outside and look down, and there’s some little drawing or inscription in the concrete or artwork he incorporated into the plaster in the wall. It makes you feel as if you’re living in a piece of art.”

The pass-along home

Grantham and his wife lived in the home for five years, developing the landscaping and finishing interior details while he used it to teach community members about green building. “I enjoyed living in this home and it included a lot of what I had dreamed of using at the time,” he says. “I studied from it, learned from it and used it to teach people. Then it was time for someone else to come and enjoy it and live in it. Plus, I’m an old farm kid, and I get bored without a project to work on. I believe this is what I’m here to do.”

Paula and Jason have already seen the home’s use as an educational tool. “People who’ve seen our home see a good example of doing things in an eco-friendly way,” Paula says. “I think they come away with a more open mind about it. Most people have only read about some of these aspects, but they haven’t seen them in real life. We definitely look at things a little differently now. I had an old sofa re-covered instead of buying a new one, for example. We make more concentrated decisions.”

The home’s heirloom quality is not lost on its new home-owners, either, though they hope to spend many years enjoying it themselves. “We don’t intend to leave anytime soon,” Paula says. “We were just joking the other weekend about winning the lottery and what we’d do. It was definitely not that we would move to a bigger home. The idea would be to have more free time to stay here and enjoy this home.”

Swim in saltwater

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