In an audacious and healing feat, a single woman builds a feminine and earthy straw bale house on raw, remote land in northern California.
Nestled into a northern California knoll, the elegant arch of a wavy roofline graces an artful straw bale cottage. A bountiful garden blesses this earthen plastered retreat with flowers and organic food. Inside, curves and color create a feminine ambiance. An art studio shimmers with mica-containing clay paint. The watery blue bedroom’s French doors open into a walled garden where fragrant herbs and blossoms surround an outdoor shower and bathtub. Hummingbirds whir through the air.
“It’s as if the door to my home opens into the real me,” says holistic healer and artist Linda Drew. “I made it really personal.” Throughout the construction of her home, which is possibly the first permitted earth-plastered straw bale house in California, Linda’s background as a ceramic artist served her well. “My house was one big pot,” she says. She sculpted sensuous nichos and shaped art nouveau-inspired bas-relief. She made all her interior wall paints out of kaolin clay, wheat paste, and natural pigments in a vivid rainbow of hues. “This house is truly handmade,” she observes.
In addition to its artistry, the home is environmentally practical. An array of photovoltaic panels supplies Linda’s electricity, a cooling tower keeps the house comfortable during sizzling summers, and radiant-floor heating and a wood stove warm the house in winter.
A pioneer and her posse
“Oasis Ranch” is what Linda calls her home on thirteen acres of oak-dotted hills in Lake County, the wine country between Calistoga and Harbin Hot Springs. “It’s an oasis of harmony and quiet,” she explains. She also admits that building her oasis totally off the grid on raw land in a remote location was nearly the antithesis of the finished product, especially because Linda acted as her own contractor. “Being a single woman who had never done this before was really hard,” she says. “Every day was a huge learning curve.” The work was so demanding, in fact, that her friends labeled her “pioneer woman of the sustainable West.” Pete Gang of Common Sense Design in Petaluma, one of her two collaborating architects, adds that often “the pioneer is the one lying face down in the dirt with arrows in his or her back.”
From the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, Linda traveled the globe. During her odyssey, she apprenticed with an architect in Washington and kept notebooks about what she liked and disliked about houses she lived in. In Tucson, she stepped inside a straw bale house for the first time and felt the sensation of being “house hugged.”
While visiting her mother in Oregon, Linda attended a straw bale wall raising with Gang just across the California border. The two hit it off immediately, so when she bought her Lake County acreage six months later, she called him. He suggested they collaborate with architect Kelly Lerner of One World Design in Spokane, Washington, who had just returned from teaching straw bale building and sustainable technologies in China and Mongolia.
Linda, Gang, and Lerner walked the land together. “I wanted to build on the top of the hill,” Linda remembers. “They both looked at me and said, ‘The tops of hills are sacred. We cannot build on top of the hill.’ I was humbled.”
“We didn’t want to ruin that perfect, wonderful hilltop by putting a house on it,” Lerner explains. “Another consideration is that fire can come up the back of the hill. When you’re right on top, you’re exposed to wind, fire, and all the elements. Instead, we wanted the house to be cradled into the hillside—less a hilltop castle and more integrated into the landscape.”
Berming the house would also take advantage of the earth’s natural cooling and allow Linda to step out her front door onto the earth rather than onto a deck. She agreed to tuck her house into the south-facing side of her “sacred knoll.”
Linda presented Gang and Lerner with a floorplan she’d drawn, complete with measurements, based on her years of observing the houses she’d lived in. It was a rectangle divided into a large living/dining/kitchen area with a bedroom on one side, an office/studio on the other, and storage space at the rear. Lerner and Gang refined the design and gave it a life in three dimensions. When they showed Linda their drawings of a cottage with a pitched roof, she told them, “Those angles hurt my body. I need curves.”
“Linda kept saying, ‘Curves, curves. I want curves,’” recalls Lerner. “She was also working within a budget. We were trying to figure out how to introduce curves without adding too much expense.” Gang’s solution was to keep the walls themselves rectilinear but satisfy the desire for flowing lines within the roof structure. He also came up with a design in which curved roofs flank a central hip-roof pavilion surrounding a lantern-like cooling tower. Linda loved it.
Construction began during the high-tech boom when every contractor was booked solid. Hiring a contractor, even if it had been Linda’s choice, was not an option. Linda lived in a trailer on her land so she could be a hands-on owner/builder. Her crew consisted of a changing cast of workers and interns with widely varying levels of experience. “The job was bigger than I dreamed and overwhelming most of the time,” Linda admits. “There were people to oversee, materials to find and collect, decisions needing constant attention, and finally work that I did with my own two hands.”
The foundation was excavated in August 2000. Framing, especially the curved roof structure, took longer and cost more than expected. Fortunately, the straw bale walls went up during a weekend workshop taught by Gang and Lerner. “Twenty-five people raised the walls in just two days,” Linda says. “That part of the project was easy and fun.”
Earthen plaster was applied to the exterior walls during two more weekend workshops. The clay from the site was hard to dig, and the wheat straw mixed into the plasters required renting a chipper/shredder. “The straw is messy and dusty,” Linda says. “You have to make piles and piles that need to be protected from rain in winter.”
Just when Linda thought construction couldn’t get any more challenging, it did. While applying earthen plaster to an exterior wall, she fell off a ladder and shattered her ankle. The injury required surgery and left her on crutches. Living in her trailer and hiking over the hill to the outhouse became impossible. Her neighbors insisted that she move in with them. Looking back, Linda sees that her hardship ultimately led to personal growth. “My life has been about being alone and independent,” she says. “After breaking my ankle, all the ‘I can do it myself’ just crumbled and cracked. Foundation, bones, feet. My neighbors and workers all pitched in to help. It warmed my heart and healed me.”
Interior plastering and painting proceeded slowly. Interns and artisans camped on the land and learned on the job. Cob expert Tracy Calvert came from Canada and taught two cob workshops to create the dining bench and woodstove surround. The exterior walls were finished with a thin coat of natural hydraulic lime plaster during a workshop taught by straw bale plasterers Shahoma and Prasad Boudreaux of Our Helping Hands. The house was finished a year and a week after construction began.
Total construction costs were $288,000 for 1,800 square feet of living and storage space. Depending on how the figures are calculated, the square-foot cost ranges from $155 to $210. In addition, Linda spent another $100,000 developing her land. She drilled a well, built a road, and installed a septic system and a 1,600-watt photovoltaic system. She built a separate wood-frame structure to house the storage batteries and a back-up generator. “On so-called ‘raw’ land, I find that the cost of constructing the building is about two-thirds of the total costs, more or less,” Gang explains.
A healing haven
Now Linda shares her straw bale house and garden with a horse named Maggie and two cats, six chickens, five species of hummingbirds, and friendly bats who fly down the cooling tower on hot summer nights to eat moths and mosquitoes. Life at Oasis Ranch has changed her approach as a holistic healer. “In the past, I healed through herbs and lots of counseling, writing books, and creating self-awareness tapes,” Linda says. “Now with this home, I realize I’ve created a healing haven. People come into balance and harmony just by being here and breathing in the essences of clean air and the aliveness of the land. I no longer heal though remedies and therapy, I heal with my home and the fun we create in it.”
“Everybody who showed up and worked on the house contributed something, so when you go inside and feel its wonderful warmth, part of what you sense is the spirit of community,” Lerner observes. “Most of the credit for the house goes to Linda, but it really is a product of the many hands that worked on it.”
Gang adds, “Although there were frustrations, it was fulfilling to help Linda succeed with her ambitious project. When you think about it—a single woman on raw, undeveloped property out in the middle of nowhere, pulling together all the infrastructure and building a house—it’s an enormous undertaking, and she did it!”
The admiration is mutual. “Working with Pete and Kelly was like a creative dream,” says Linda. “They held me and this house in their cupped hands.”
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