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

  • 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
  • Frerking’s wife, Joanne, a fabric and watercolor artist, consulted with Jan on color before adding pigments to the cast earth mix that resulted in the rich earth tones in these walls. The windows were set into openings in the cast earth walls and anchored with drywall covered with similarly pigmented earth plaster.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • Contractor J. W. McShane etched a dark, wave-like pattern into the curved, exterior cast earth wall using a high-pressure hose. Jan went over the design with iron oxide and a wet sponge to add color.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • Architect and builder Michael Frerking used a power saw to cut these nooks into the cast earth wall, but he says that putting removable inserts into the wall when it is poured would be easier. The small books in the nook on the right have been passed down through Jan’s family.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • To create the feel of a cast earth without the cost for the low interior wall, above, drywall was soaked in water until uniformly damp, drip-dried, wrapped around a curved frame of wood studs, and, when dry, nailed in place. Earth plaster, a form of cast earth, was then applied to the wall to create a rough, earthy look. The wall is topped by a piece of flagstone from a local quarry. Above the wall, dancing figures suspended on wires hold small lights. One of Jan’s current creative projects is to enhance the shadows that the figures cast by painting them on the white wall in subtle shades of white and champagne.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • Contractor J. W. McShane etched a dark, wave-like pattern into the curved, exterior cast earth wall using a high-pressure hose. Jan went over the design with iron oxide and a wet sponge to add color.
  • The head of Jan’s bed rests against a cast earth Trombe wall, which acts as a passive solar heating device to stabilize the room’s temperature. Above the Trombe wall sit hats that belonged to Jan’s family, including a top hat that Jan’s great great grandfather wore as a pallbearer at President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.
    Photography By Terrence Moore
  • This breakfast bar, above, is Jan’s favorite place to read the paper and get ready for work. Jan’s grandmother’s 1932 Wedgewood stove was restored by Gentleman Jim’s of Sheridan, Oregon. The flooring is wood recycled from warehouses along the Columbia River in Oregon.
    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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