Organically Grown: A Hand-built Home in the Southwest

A rural Arizona hand-built house made of adobe, stone, straw bale and native timbers.

| November/December 2002

  • Phil and Sherry spent $88 per square foot on their 1,700-square-foot home. Mostly adobe, the structure also utilizes straw bales, stone, and native timber.

  • Photography by Terrence Moore
  • Phil and Sherry chose nontoxic, plant-based paints from Bioshield (800-621-2591, for the interior walls throughout the home.
  • Built-in, banco seating next to a kiva-style corner fireplace creates a cozy bedroom environment.
  • Large windows framed by adobe bricks provide excellent views and maximize passive solar gain.
  • Unexpected additions to the family made the house a happier, if more cramped, dwelling. From left: Phil (holding Rowan), Sherry (holding Kali), and Piper.
  • The playroom, originally planned as a greenhouse, is a sunny spot for the children’s activities.
  • To offset costs, the couple shopped for bargains on Mexican tiles and slate floors.
  • Vigas from salvaged or sustainably harvested wood support the copper roof over the upper level, which doubles as a rainwater collection system.

“We live what we do,” says Sherry Luna. “For us, it’s about saving the earth.” She and her husband, Philip Ostrom, own New Harvest Organics, the largest Arizona-based marketer of organic produce. Their home is a “nest” that expresses their ecological values. Perched on a hilltop with vistas of rugged red cliffs and gentle green oak trees, the hand-built house of sun-baked adobe, stone, straw bale, and native timber blends seamlessly into the dramatic terrain.

“It was challenging to marry straw bale with adobe with concrete blocks with stone,” explains Phil. But besides integrating diverse materials, designing the house challenged the couple to integrate opposing ideas. Sherry wanted the house sheltered by the earth, but they both wanted windows to reveal the breathtaking views and take advantage of solar gain. Phil wanted a round house. Sherry wanted straight walls. Phil likes small spaces. Sherry hates clutter and wanted expansive rooms for entertaining. Both wanted to integrate the house into the surrounding landscape.

The pair, who has integrated their lives for seventeen years, met the challenge. The curved face of the house mirrors the topography of the hillside. In front, pillars of adobe bricks frame large arched windows while the back nestles into the earth. A few steps down from the open kitchen and great room, a cozy bedroom wing is tucked under a living sod roof supported by vigas arranged like the spokes of a wheel. On the upper level, a copper roof collects rainwater and channels it into underground cisterns. Graywater from sinks and showers irrigates the organic fruit orchard.

A grand adventure

Manifesting this vision was an adventure that spanned four years of ups, downs, twists, turns, and life-changing surprises. After a decade of searching for the perfect place to settle down, Sherry and Phil bought five and half acres crisscrossed by two creeks near Patagonia, Arizona, a town of 980 people surrounded by wilderness. It’s an hour’s drive south of Tucson and eighteen miles north of the Mexican border.

They lived in a 1974 Airstream trailer and put up a yurt to house their office. With the help of local builder Ted Piper, they built a 300-square-foot load-bearing straw bale guest house in the oak trees along the creek and moved into it. They dreamed of building a bigger house and asked permaculturist Kate y Tirion how to site it on the land. She pointed out that the creeks had high flood zones and the creek beds were lush with manzanita and oak, both hot-burning fuel for wildfires. For maximum passive solar advantage, Tirion suggested siting the house above the shade of the trees. As Sherry and Phil considered building on the hilltop, they remembered hikes they took to Native American cliff dwellings near Sedona. “We were sitting in this cave in the cliff dwellings, looking out, and one of us said, ‘This is how we should live,’” recalls Sherry.

Silver linings

They hired an architect and spent a year drawing up plans. During that time, they were gradually talked out of all the elements that were important to them. They ended up with blueprints for a two-story cinderblock house. A day before construction was to begin, Sherry said, “Phil, I just can’t live in this house. I don’t want to build it.” They threw away $10,000 worth of architectural plans, and Piper volunteered to design the house they wanted. He drew the first design on a placemat in the local restaurant. They spent two weeks refining the concept and abandoned the idea of building the entire house of straw bale. Adobe proved better for marrying the large windows with the earth-sheltered area. Straw bale was limited to the entry and to infill in some bedroom walls.

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