Cast & Character: Building a Home With Cast Earth Construction

A well-traveled homeowner lends personality to a home built using the cutting-edge technology known as cast earth.


| May/June 2001



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McShane riveted copper pieces to the insulated metal front door following Jan’s design. The darker sections oxidized naturally, while the lighter pieces, coated with polyurethane, retain more of the copper’s original color. The result is energy efficient as well as artistic.

Photography By Terrence Moore

When Jan Johnson saw a newspaper article on earth houses and decided she wanted one, little did she know that she would end up owning a home in the forefront of sustainable building technology. Jan, a pediatric occupational therapist, cut out the article and tacked it up in her office. Twelve years later, she moved into her dream home, a 2,000-square-foot cast earth house with a 400-square-foot attached guesthouse in Prescott, Arizona.

Having spent time in Africa, Jan is familiar and comfortable with earth structures. She bought property in Prescott in 1997 and told her real estate agent that she wanted to build an alternative home there. The agent referred her to Michael Frerking, owner of Prescott-based Living Systems Architecture and Construction, who has been designing and building earth homes and buildings since 1975.

Cast Earth Construction

When Frerking suggested cast earth, a relatively new building material made with earth and calcined gypsum that requires less hand labor than adobe or rammed earth, only a couple of houses had been built with it. But Jan was drawn to cast earth for several reasons. She liked the rich colors and beautiful patterns that can be created by adding pigments to naturally light-colored cast earth walls. Second, earth for the house could be “harvested” from a local lake that collects runoff sediment. And third, the energy efficiency of cast earth homes can make them less costly to live in than conventional homes.

The design process began in fall 1997. Construction started in April 1998, and the home was completed in November 1998. Some of the design challenges included minimizing destruction of the site’s natural environment, situating the house to take maximum advantage of passive solar gain, and orienting the windows toward peaceful views of nature, not neighbors. The result intrigues and invites visitors without giving away its size or its secrets.

“My house reflects who I am,” Jan says. “I wanted it not to attract a lot of attention on the outside, but to be interesting looking, and then, as you come inside, it gets more interesting the farther you get into it.”

Three striking, curvilinear walls give a sense of peace, stability, and positive energy flow to the one-story floor plan that includes a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and an office.





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