Natural Home & Garden has never shied away from featuring homes that push the conventional edge. Over the years we’ve featured many wonderful, whimsical homes that it takes a certain kind of pioneer (one who refuses to listen when people start talking about “resale value”) to build and live in. These folks built exactly the homes they wanted to build, and they don’t care if people think they’re too colorful or too weird or too cave-like (because one of these is literally a cave). I applaud these homeowners for expressing themselves in their homes. They reap huge rewards.
These are five of my favorite funky houses featured in Natural Home & Garden over the years—and you can bet there are more where these came from.
McElmo Canyon, Colorado
Dan Petersen took a cue from the Ancestral Puebloan People who once thrived in southern Colorado’s high desert locale when he built his home into a south-facing cliff overhang. Dan wanted his home to be one with nature, designer and stylist Arlene F. Bernard explains. “There’s a sacred feeling to the land here, and we wanted to integrate that feeling.” Photo by Laurie Dickson
Before construction, Dan water blasted and buffed the water-carved, wind-weathered cliff wall. After framing the house, he sprayed the rock with water-based sealer used as a preservative for old brick buildings. To prevent water from leaking in where the roof and rock meet, Dan designed a shed-style roof made of corrugated heavy-gauge steel. The cliffside serves as the back wall to Dan’s 650-square-foot home. 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. A wide front porch, fully covered by the home’s shed roof, is ideal for sitting outside on hot summer days. Photo by Laurie Dickson
In the bathroom, Dan installed the showerhead in the wall and enclosed the bathing area with a shallow circle of sandstone rocks found on the property. Photo by Laurie Dickson
Photos by Povy Kendal Atchison
Most people don’t believe me when I tell them that this cute little house is made from garbage. But I have the 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 walls. The bales were tested in a laboratory for fire resistance, compression, and insulation.
For the home’s foundation, Rich paid two cents per pound (about $20 per bale) for 28 bales made of postconsumer PVC trash: toys, laundry baskets, shampoo bottles. (He used these because they were readily available at the time, but any kind of plastic materials will work.) These he laid into a five-and-a-half-foot-wide foundation trench prepared with compacted Class C road-base stone to act as a footing. The bales were stacked on top, wire netting was stapled directly onto the bales and stucco was applied.
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, which is not structurally sound because it compresses—would work. He encourages everyone to give it a try, although he admits you have to be up for some challenges. “Traditional builders told me I was really nuts, but when I was finished, they came back to admire the craft of the project,” he says.
The thick bale walls give the home a nurturing, cozy feeling, and Annie says they do wonderful things to candlelight.
Photos by Laurie Dickson
Architect, artist, professor and author Gernot Minke’s home in the quiet suburb of Kassel, Germany, has an unobtrusive entry that opens into a 13-foot-high, light-filled dome built from clay bricks. From this central dome, the 700-square-foot home includes six other domed rooms in a honeycomb design. Widely regarded as the European expert on clay and earth construction, Gernot 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, providing thermal insulation and protecting the loam from the elements while providing vapor diffusion to regulate humidity. Photo by Laurie Dickson
In the bathroom and the sunroom, Gernot coiled clay so that it snakes around the rooms to form the walls. He fed lightweight loam through a pump into a cotton hose that he gently squeezed to form coils that could be easily shaped into sculptural designs.
Photos by Paul Bardagjy
A friend drove me by Casa Neverlandia while I was visiting Austin. I prayed that it was built green, as I desperately wanted to feature it in Natural Home. 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 original—perfectly Austin.
James bought the single-story bungalow, built in 1917, for $13,000 in 1979. Over the years, he and Kay have turned the home into a three-story chalet using salvaged materials and scraps. Thick, heavily insulated walls are covered with plaster, and an air space between the ceiling and the roof deck along with a reflective barrier funnel warm air up and out of the house through a ridge vent.
Numerous windows and doors invite breezes, eliminating the need for air conditioning. A lookout tower houses the home’s 16 solar panels, offering a cool place to sleep on the hottest summer nights and a beautiful view of downtown 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,
Talbot and Kay give paid tours of Neverlandia because “we like to share what we’ve done, and we hope there’s something to learn in terms of how to live uniquely and responsibly,” Talbot says. “We feel we’re giving people permission to play with their spaces.”
Photos by Povy Kendal Atchison
Alice and Karel Starek’s magical home built of Cempo, blocks made of recycled Styrofoam, was truly a work of art. Alice spent six years creating the castle-like passive solar home in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado. Alice, an architect, explained it this way in 2007: “It follows universal laws of harmony and balance: patterns found in mathematics, music and the natural world. It loosely follows the Golden Mean, the form of a chambered nautilus and the shape of our galaxy.”
Tragically, the home burned to the ground last fall during Boulder’s Fourmile Canyon Fire. This is a tribute to its unbridled creativity.
The Stareks used local yellow sandstone for many of the downstairs walls 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. Clay floors made of local 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.
Along with the house, works by scores of local artists were lost in the fire. Boulder-based artist Jean Pless, who painted a free-form sculpture that winds around the kitchen, said the house helped a lot of the artists who contributed to it “think outside the box.”
Word around town is that the Stareks will rebuild—somewhere. When they do, I want to know about it. It's hard to imagine that Alice could top this house, but I'm absolutely certain she will.