Natural Home returns to past homes to ask natural homeowners what they’d change and if they’d build the same way again.
Jan Johnson’s cast earth home has a distinctive creative edge as well as an energy efficient design. The front door to the left has attached copper plates; some oxidized and some retained their original color.
Photos By Terrence Moore
Ever wonder what happens to the houses featured in Natural Home after the writers close their notebooks and the photographers pack up their gear? Are the dwellers still smiling? Did the earthen houses dissolve in the rain? What’s working—and what’s not? We’ve wondered, too. So to celebrate our fourth year of publishing Natural Home, we picked several homes from past issues and contacted the owners.
Snug in the straw
Joy and George Matthews are still smiling in the Charlottesville, Virginia, straw bale home they built in 1999 (“Shelter and Serenity,” March/April 2001). “It’s peaceful, quiet,” says Joy. The ambient temperature is always pleasant. It’s a gentle house to live in.”
“The massive walls make me feel protected,” adds George.
In Charlottesville’s cold, snowy winters, the straw bale walls, well-insulated roof, and solar-assisted, hydronic radiant floor heat keep this home snug and warm. “There’s nothing more delightful than getting up in the morning when it’s ten degrees outside and putting your feet down on a warm tile floor,” says Joy. “Part of that’s the radiant heat, and part of it’s the lack of drafts.” In previous homes, forced air gave Joy sinus problems and wood heat triggered George’s asthma; neither has any unpleasant reactions to this heating system.
In the hot, muggy summers Joy and George can sometimes keep the house cool all day by opening it up at night and closing it in the morning. But on nights when the temperature and humidity stay unbearably high, they turn on the air conditioner—less often than their neighbors do, however.
Joy and George took great care to keep moisture from the bale walls while they were building, and they haven’t seen signs of trouble. In fact, the only change they’ve made was to fine-tune the controls on the solar water-heating system.
Joy is pleased at the wider impact their home has had. “Our house was on a sustainable home tour, and the Natural Home article brought people from all over the country. It’s really nice to share it with people; builders and ordinary people need to know it can be done.”
At peace with the earth
Jan Johnson loves her poured-earth house in Prescott, Arizona (“Cast and Character,” May/June 2001). “I’d build another one in a flash,” she says. “These thick walls feel safe and secure. The house looks beautiful, and it’s wonderfully quiet. Because it’s passive solar and has thick earthen walls, the temperature stays even. You never feel a draft.”
Since she moved four years ago, Jan has improved the house’s natural cooling abilities. Her bedroom overheated in summer because of a west-facing patio door, a south-facing Trombe wall (for passive solar gain), and the absence of operable windows. She installed a retractable awning on the west side and a transom over her front door for night ventilation. She plans to replace the upper fixed glass on the Trombe wall with operable windows to let in cooling night breezes.
Jan finds an unexpected advantage to living in a passive solar earthen home. “When you go away from a wood-frame house in winter, you’re concerned about the pipes freezing. But my house will never drop below fifty-three degrees.” More money goes into building a house like this, Jan says, but there’s less to worry about later, “especially after retirement, because utilities and maintenance cost so much less.”
Inside the box
Rich Messer and Ann Douden are even happier with their paper bale home in Fraser, Colorado, than they expected to be (“Classy Trash,” July/August 2002). Working with an unproven building material—huge bales of compressed soap boxes—they were prepared for cracking, settling, or moisture problems, but none have emerged after four years.
“Probably the biggest difference between this and a stick-frame house is how tight and quiet it is,” says Rich. “The house simply doesn’t change temperature, summer or winter. There’s no draft anywhere, partly because of the thick bale walls and partly because we insulated the roof well and used high-quality double-pane windows.”
Rich calls Fraser “the ice box of the nation.” At 9,000 feet above sea level, their property is too thickly wooded for passive solar gain, but even with electric in-floor radiant heat, their average monthly electricity bill is only $60.
Straw and earth together
Robert Laporte built his first straw-clay home (a wall system involving clay-coated straw tamped into forms) in Fairfield, Iowa, twelve years ago (“A Fine Nest,” July/August 2001). After building numerous straw-clay homes for others, he teamed up professionally and personally with architect Paula Baker, and they built their own home in Tesuque, New Mexico, four years ago (“A Breath of Fresh Air,” March/April 2002).
Robert has altered his construction technique; whereas it once took three weeks to build the straw-clay walls, it now takes three days. Instead of mixing clay slip by hand, tossing it with straw, and moving it with wheelbarrows, he now throws everything into a tumbler and delivers the product with a forklift. His timber frame structure once dictated the form of a building; now he uses timber where it functions best and wall trusses elsewhere for greater design freedom.
“The clay, the straw, and the wood give the house its soul,” says Robert, “and they keep us cool in summer and warm in winter.” Paula adds, “There’s a sense of well-being, of groundedness, serenity, appreciation of nature. There’s a constancy of climate because the mud plaster absorbs and releases moisture, and the massive walls moderate temperature swings.”
Paula and Robert have learned a few things about natural finishes. A few cracks appeared in the interior plaster—an easy fix using mud. And in two locations—the high gable wall of Paula’s studio and the bumped-out wall on the side of the house where storms hit—the mud plaster began to erode. In the latter case, the couple erected a trellis to calm the storm winds; in the former, they plan to repair the plaster, but they no longer use straw-clay and mud plaster on unprotected gable end walls. Where possible, they add a roof to protect the wall. Otherwise, they use board-and-batten wood siding or another type of exterior finish.
Living in the round
Tom and Flame Lutes have lived in their round earth-block home (“Kiva Style,” January/February 2001) for four years. “The felt experience of living inside a nonsquare shape is great,” says Tom. “It’s hard to imagine the difference until you experience it.”
Since they moved in, the Luteses have rebuilt the earthen bancos that flank their fireplace. “Because we didn’t take the time to think it through and build them right, they weren’t comfortable. Tearing them out was a mess, but they’re fabulous now. The lesson was that whenever we took our time and did something well, what we created is still satisfying. And when we didn’t, it’s less than that.”
They also connected their solar-electric system to the power grid. For three years, they relied solely on their photovoltaic array, batteries, and backup generator. However, the generator was noisy, polluting, and required maintenance. Although they still primarily use their solar panels, now an automatic switch draws power from the grid during off-peak hours if the batteries need recharging.
Tom says nothing can compare to building his own home. “Every day, you see your creation all around you. Everywhere we look, we see our energy and perspective externalized.”
Jay Shafer’s home, Tumbleweed, is built of wood, but he probably used less than the other homes mentioned here. Jay’s contribution to ecological living is a tiny footprint. After two years of living in 130 square feet, he still loves it and plans to live there until he’s too old to climb the ladder to his sleeping loft.
“It has a homey feeling,” he says, “more than any place I’ve ever lived in. I designed it and built it, so it’s geared to meet my needs without extra clutter.”
Jay never gets cabin fever, but he leaves home to exercise outdoors, to visit his girlfriend, to hang out in cafés—and to use the bathroom. “There’s nothing wrong with my little bathroom, but the gravity-fed water system takes work,” he says.
Tumbleweed is built on wheels to bypass Iowa City’s minimum-size regulations, but to park it permanently, Jay had to buy a house to park behind. “A friend rents the front house, and it’s easier to share his bathroom,” Jay explains. “I have an extension cord running to his house, too, since a wire broke in my photovoltaic system. I’ll fix that some day.” Meanwhile, his friend pays the mortgage, and Jay lives rent-free for the $15,000 in materials that it cost to build the house.
“A lot of people who come to my house say that, as much as they like it, they could never live in a place this small, but a surprising number leave saying, ‘I could actually do this,’ or, ‘I couldn’t live here, but maybe I don’t need 3,000 square feet.’”
If he had it to do again, Jay wouldn’t include a composting toilet because he doesn’t garden. And he’d wire his house for AC, with an inverter from the photovoltaic panels, to give him more choices in appliances and to make it easier to plug into the power grid.
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