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Living Homes: Sustainable Architecture and Design by Suzi Moore McGregor and Nora Burba Trulsson

Much more than a beautiful coffee table book, Living Homes: Sustainable Architecture and Design is a well-written introduction to a trend in homebuilding worth following, especially considering the ever increasing need for sustainable living and desire for environmental harmony. The book is full of high-quality photographs taken by Terrence Moore framed by stories of the homeowners who graciously opened up to writers Suzi Moore McGregor and Nora Burba Trulsson. McGregor has become an example and advocate of sustainable architecture, specifically researching desert environments for her previous book, Under the Sun: Desert Style and Architecture. Trulsson, a freelance writer who has written for numerous architectural and design publications, is currently the editor of Sources and Design.

McGregor and Trulsson research and highlight several types of environmentally friendly homes across the western United States, each one unique and aesthetically pleasing. Beginning with adobe homes built in the style of indigenous tribes of the American Southwest, McGregor and Trulsson deliver the architectural and design elements of homes made from adobe bricks, rammed earth, straw bales, and recycled and high-tech materials.

Adobe

One of many homes that McGregor and Trulsson detail is the “Tesuque Rose” designed by Elizabeth Wagner and David Gibbons in the Betty Stewart adobe style. In the village of Tesuque, established in 1740 by the Spaniards just miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, interior designer Jane Smith built her 1,650-square foot home out of commercially made adobe bricks. The roof is made from pitched metal and reverse pitch metal, and “double-hung windows with deep splayed window reveals, shutters and portals are also traditional elements.”  Terrence Moore’s professional photographs, along with the authors’ careful description, bring Smith’s home and surrounding environment to life. The homeowner named her finished home “Tesuque Rose” after the Spanish village and the roses on her creekside property.

In 1968, architectural designer William Tull attempted to build an adobe home in Scottsdale, Arizona, but was prohibited by city codes. Instead, he and his wife built their Pueblo Revival-style home from concrete masonry. But by 1980, he was collaborating with John Mecham on a 20-acre adobe village, Adobes de la Tierra, after Mecham helped to change the building codes in the area. The first house they built served as the Tull’s home until it was sold as a model for more villas to be built on the property. Design elements include rounded forms of plastered adobe and an outdoor entryway fireplace. The homes are complemented by landscape architect Phil Heberts’ additions of arid-region trees, shrubs and wildflowers. The 16 homes in Adobes de la Tierra are individually detailed with domed plastered ceilings or vigas, splayed window reveals, built-in niches for personal accents and several cozy fireplaces.

Rammed Earth

The rammed earth home is an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly construct and its popularity has been growing since the 1970s. According to McGregor and Trulsson:

“Despite this recent resurgence of interest in rammed earth, the building technique dates back thousands of years. Essentially, it involves tamping down a moistened soil mixture under high pressure in a rigid boxlike form to create a rock-hard wall. It is one of the oldest forms of engineered walls known to mankind.”

The availability of lumber, brick and glass at the beginning of the twentieth century brought an end to the interest in building with rammed earth, but the 1970s brought an unforeseen change.

“People became concerned with ecology and the environment, and the Arab oil embargo forced the realization that energy sources were indeed finite.”

As people began to look for nontraditional ways to build their own homes that would be self-sustaining,  the 1970s zeitgeist embraced building styles such as rammed earth. David Easton was one of them.

Having researched, written about and lectured on rammed earth building since the early 1970s, Easton officially formed his company, Rammed Earth Works, in 1975. He met his wife, Cynthia Wright, when he built a rammed earth home for her in 1982. The two now co-own Rammed Earth Works and have built their own Provençal-style home out of rammed earth in Napa Valley, California. The walls are made from a modernized rammed earth style invented by Easton called PISE (“pneumatically impacted stabilized earth”). The process involves “spraying the soil mixture against a form, as opposed to the traditional method of tamping the soil mixture into a form.” The PISE method is an efficient variation which maintains the ecological integrity of rammed earth building while making it more affordable. The design is strong and simple, but the result is an earth-friendly, energy efficient and strikingly beautiful home.

Straw Bale

There are two main types of straw bale building: the “Nebraska” style, in which early prairie homes were built; and a load-bearing style which utilizes post-and-beam construction and straw bale infill. The latter of the two is more widely used today, and involves a process which includes bracing the walls with rebar and applying a breathable coating that allows moisture to escape from the walls. Advocates of straw bale homes agree that moisture can be controlled through careful construction. Surprisingly, the density of the bales actually guards against fire due to the lack of oxygen, and the lack of digestible material in the construction (once the walls are properly sealed) keeps insects and pests out, rendering the straw bale home a practical alternative.

Living Homes highlights a number of straw bale homes including one built by Alison Gannett in Crested Butte, Colorado. Gannett first learned about straw bale while studying and teaching alternative energy. Currently a straw bale consultant and professional extreme skier, Gannett built the first Victorian-style straw bale home in Colorado’s National Historic District. Her 1,288-square foot, two-story home is unique with the living, dining and kitchen areas on the second floor of the home to take advantage of the views. The walls are plastered with two coats of a mixture made of earth and masonry sand, boiled flour paste and handfuls of chopped straw, plus a third layer to which drywall finishing compound had been added to lighten the color. The straw bale walls that insulate against temperatures that average -4° F in January, combined with the steep pitched metal roof and the south-facing windows make the home energy efficient, although a back-up system of hydronic radiant heat and a woodstove provide heat when necessary.

Recyled/High-Tech

Technological advances combined with recycled materials offer more alternatives to traditional homebuilding. The use of Faswell blocks, made from recycled wood chips; rastra, made from recycled polystyrene; and cellulose is being incorporated into a new way of building highly energy-efficient homes.

Inspired by Frank Lloyed Wright’s organic building style after purchasing an eight-acre hillside in the Napa Valley, Phyllis Hunt hired architect Craig Henritzy to design her home. Henritzy chose to build the home with rastra due to its flexible properties. Mixed with cement, the rastra material was shaped into hollow forms that lent themselves to Wright’s circular style while providing a virtually fireproof insulative value of R38.

“Windows were carefully placed to provide light and views, as well as to work with the home’s passive solar strategies. To get the windows just right the architect visited the property often to observe the sun’s path and the shadows created on the building site, then used a computer to calculate the sun’s exact position throughout a calendar year. Inspired by natrive tribes’ primitive calendars, Henritzy designed a solar calendar and had it scored into the center of the living room’s concrete floor.”

In keeping with the Pueblo-Revival styled interior decor, the flooring is acid-stained concrete in varying hues throughout the home. The exterior is made of golden-colored stucco which complies with seismic codes and, along with native rock walls and indigenous plants, fits attractively into the natural landscape. Recognizing “cha” as an Indian term for “community house,” Hunt’s home was appropriately christened Napa-cha.

There are many other simple and elegant eco-friendly homes featured in Living Homes, and the book contains enough beautiful full-colored photographs, design elements and personal stories to entertain everyone. Additionally, its artful presentation of the new “old” ways in which homes are being built will inspire those who are contemplating a move, as well as those who are not, to embrace the concept of sustainable architecture and design.

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