Modern Homestead: A Self-Sufficient California Dream Home

Luxurious and self-sufficient, this northern California house takes advantage of the best of the old—and the new—in sustainable technology.

| March/April 2008

  • In the hallway, light pours through the upper windows. The plaster wall was treated to duplicate the exterior PISE walls.
  • A retaining wall forms the back of the living quarters, which helps keep the home cool and allows the structure to nestle into the hillside. The home’s 96 solar panels are placed on the roof of the garage/workshop and above the covered walkway.
  • Home to an array of wildlife, Mark Feichtmeir and Karen Boness’s property is officially recognized as a certified wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation and listed as part of the National Registry of Backyard Wildlife Habitats.
  • The front gate’s design, by metal artist Amy Blackstone, incorporates symbols from nature that Karen selected from a permaculture handbook.
  • Mark and Karen stand beneath the covered walkway between their house and garage.
  • A kitchen garden on one of the green roofs contains herbs and an espaliered Fuji apple tree against the garage wall.
  • A statue of Kuan Yin, the Buddhist embodiment of compassionate, loving kindness, stands outside the gazebo, gazing across the yard and garden.
  • This uniquely shaped garden uses a permaculture method to create a “keyhole garden.” When two ecosystems come together, the edge where they meet is the most diverse, and the “keyhole” design creates the most edges.
  • In the master bath, designer Deborah Coburn used a moderately priced field tile to line the shower and soaking tub. Tumbled marble adds a lavish accent.
  • Mark and Karen, both serious cooks, love the kitchen’s ample counter space, cookbook storage and built-in banquette.
  • The exterior wall at the right of the master bedroom is PISE with no treatment. The other walls are plaster with integral color veneer plaster to maintain the warm tone and organic look. Karen made the screen that hangs above the headboard from recycled materials.
  • The open great room lets guests mingle—whether they’re sitting at the table or relaxing by the fire.

Eight years ago, when Karen Boness and Mark Feichtmeir got the opportunity to create their dream home, they didn’t know they would end up building an almost entirely self-sufficient house. Unsure of what they wanted, they headed to the bookstore where they found a wealth of information about environmental living. "I’d dreamed for many years of building an ecological home, but I really didn’t know much about it," says Karen, a computer programmer at the time.

The couple’s research led them to the concept of passive-solar design, a variety of green materials, and permaculture—an ecological design practice that creates functional, interdependent systems that serve both nature and humans. Using these principles, they began to envision a modern homestead where they could live off the land and eliminate their need for fossil fuels.

Building with the land

Mark and Karen bought five acres in Sonoma County, California. "We didn’t necessarily want to live in wine country," says Mark, who works in property management, "but we were lured by the oak savannas with all their trees and open space." The property’s southern exposure enables passive-solar design; the strong southern sun warms the house’s thermal mass, which stores the heat and releases it throughout the evening.

The couple enlisted Berkeley architect Todd Jersey, who specializes in sustainable building and has studied permaculture. While Karen and Mark were specific about their goals regarding perma-culture design and energy use, their only aesthetic request was that the home be simple, natural and organic. "We wanted it to blend in with the environment as much as possible," Karen says.

Jersey let the property’s sloping topography guide him in designing a three-bedroom, 2,700-square-foot structure tucked into the site’s south-facing slope. The façade’s series of gentle curves appears to be an organic extension of the hillside. For passive-solar heating, the couple needed walls with high thermal mass. They chose a method of earth construction called PISE (pneumatically installed, stabilized earth), a mix of locally mined earthen material and concrete.

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