One of the best parts of editing Natural Home was finding houses that push the conventional edge—and meeting the crazy geniuses who built them. These are the people who refuse to listen when other people start talking “resale value.” They’re pioneers, living the way they want in homes that fit their needs and tastes. For all of them, furthering the green building conversation is imperative—and their similarities stop there. My favorite funky houses range from a cozy cliffside dwelling to a full-on castle built from recycled Styrofoam blocks (which, sadly, withstands wildfires no better than any other material).
McElmo Canyon, Colorado
Photos by Laurie Dickson
Taking a cue from the Ancestral Puebloan People who once thrived in southern Colorado’s high desert, Dan Petersen built his home into a south-facing cliff overhang. Dan’s intention was to integrate McElmo Canyon’s sacred quality deep into his living space.
Dan’s 650-square-foot home’s main wall is a water-carved, wind-weathered cliffside sprayed with water-based sealer. His “backyard” is a 70-foot vertical patio. “I like living in a compact area and using the outdoors as much as I can,” Dan says.
In the small bathroom, Dan installed the showerhead in the wall and enclosed the bathing area with a shallow circle of sandstone rocks found on the property.
Photos by Povy Kendal Atchison
Most people don’t believe me when I tell them this cute little house is made from garbage, but we have photos to prove it. Using straw bale construction methods, Rich Messer and Ann Douden built their home out of plastic and paperboard bales—strips of hard-to-recycle poly-coated kraft carrier board (laundry soap boxes), bundled and stacked to form load-bearing, insulating, fire-resistant walls.
This is the home’s “truth window,” a peek into its walls. Rich chose laundry soap boxes because their coating makes them difficult to recycle, and many end up in landfills. Any kind of paperboard—except for corrugated cardboard—would work.
The home’s foundation is made from 28 bales of postconsumer PVC trash—toys, laundry baskets, shampoo bottles—laid into a trench prepared with compacted stone. The paper bales were stacked on top, wire netting was stapled directly onto the bales, and stucco was applied.
“Traditional builders told me I was really nuts,” Rich says of his experiment. “But when I was finished, they came back to admire the craft of the project.”
Photos by Laurie Dickson
The unobtrusive entry to architect, artist, professor and author Gernot Minke’s home in the quiet suburb of Kassel, Germany, is deceiving. Once you walk through the door, you’re in a 13-foot-high, light-filled dome built from snaking coils of clay bricks. From this central dome, the 700-square-foot home branches out into six more domed rooms, a honeycomb of earthen construction.
Considered the European expert on clay and earth construction, Gernot has developed a clay building formula that works in central Germany’s damp climate. A grass roof consisting of rock-wool thermal insulation, a water- and root-resistant skin, a light substratum and a top layer of earth is key. This provides thermal insulation and protects the loam from the elements while diffusing vapor to regulate humidity.
In the bathroom and the sunroom, Gernet made walls from coiled clay snakes pushed through a tube.
The home is solid yet airy, with walls that insulate but breathe. It’s like an earthen temple.
Photos by Paul Bardagjy
A friend drove me by Casa Neverlandia while I was visiting Austin. “I sure hope that house is green,” I said. I desperately wanted to feature it in Natural Home—and I lucked out. James Talbot and Kay Pils’ colorful fantasyland is outfitted with solar panels, rainwater collection, fire poles, an elevated footbridge, talk tubes, nooks and hideaways. It’s a true green original—perfectly Austin.
James and Kay have turned a single-story bungalow into a three-story chalet using salvaged materials and scraps. Numerous windows and doors invite breezes, eliminating the need for air conditioning (in Austin). “The way we live is a little old-fashioned, but in the past—before central air and heating—everyone made do by adjusting their lifestyle and their clothing,” Talbot says.
The home is James and Kay’s way of living uniquely and responsibly. “We feel we’re giving people permission to play with their spaces,” James says.
Photos by Povy Kendal Atchison
Alice and Karel Starek’s magical home built of Cempo—recycled Styrofoam blocks—was a work of art. Alice, an architect, spent six years building the castle-like passive solar home in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado. “It follows universal laws of harmony and balance: patterns found in mathematics, music and the natural world,” she told Natural Home in 2007. “It loosely follows the Golden Mean, the form of a chambered nautilus and the shape of our galaxy.”
The home was one of 169 homes lost last fall during Boulder’s Fourmile Canyon Fire. Its originality, creative spirit and soul will never be replicated.
The Stareks used local yellow sandstone for many walls downstairs and reclaimed wood (much of it from storm-felled or beetle-killed trees) in the ceiling beams and furniture, including cabinets, bed platforms and shelves. Floors made of local clay were finished with nontoxic linseed oil.
The dining room was part of an attached greenhouse where the Stareks grew figs, lemons, herbs, bougainvillea and night-blooming jasmine.
Alice orchestrated a symphony of local talent in her home. Boulder-based artist Jean Pless, who painted a free-form sculpture that wound around the kitchen, said the house helped many of the artists who contributed to it “think outside the box.”
I grieve the loss of this house and its treasures. I can’t wait to see what Alice builds next.