Kiva Style: Former Tipi Residents Build a Rammed-Earth Home

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Flame embellished the couple’s fake fur bedspread with silk ­flowers, a whimsical touch that turns the ordinary extraordinary. To make the bedspread, simply find fabric you like; because you need only a couple yards, you can even look for remnants. Stitch on the decorative element of your choice, be it silk flowers or beads.
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For about fifteen years Tom and Flame had been carrying around a burled piece of redwood that they'd found in Northern California, simply because they liked the shape of it. When it came time to find a support for the breakfast bar, they slid the redwood underneath, and it fit like a glove. "It required no cutting at all," Tom marvels.
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During his sojourns in the woods, Tom gathered tree roots misshapen by growing through rock cracks. This collection turned out to be the perfect hardware for the couple’s cabinets—another tribute to the land that adds texture and depth to their home. Tom had a picture in his mind of exactly the twig he wanted to use as a handle for the refrigerator—and when he took a walk in the woods near the house, nature delivered. To make the handles, Tom trimmed the edges to make them flat, then glued the roots into place on the doors. When replacing a refrigerator handle, you must utilize the same screw holes for the new handle as used for the old. Otherwise, you will create holes in the insulation of the refrigerator door that make it less efficient.
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In their bedroom, Tom and Flame display a collection of sacred items, each embodying a reminder of their spiritual path. The home is too small for a designated shrine or meditation room, but placing this altar in the corner of the bedroom creates a spot that reminds the couple of their dedication to spiritual wakefulness first thing in the morning and as they go to sleep at night.
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Glass doors open onto a 1,400-square-foot Trex deck, which ­greatly expands the Luteses’ living and entertaining area. Tom and Flame spend a lot of time basking in the Colorado sunshine, taking in mountain and pine forest views, and listening to the birds. “So much of what we need to live our lives is outside,” Tom says.
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During his sojourns in the woods, Tom gathered tree roots misshapen by growing through rock cracks. This collection turned out to be the perfect hardware for the couple’s cabinets—another tribute to the land that adds texture and depth to their home. Tom had a picture in his mind of exactly the twig he wanted to use as a handle for the refrigerator—and when he took a walk in the woods near the house, nature delivered. To make the handles, Tom trimmed the edges to make them flat, then glued the roots into place on the doors. When replacing a refrigerator handle, you must utilize the same screw holes for the new handle as used for the old. Otherwise, you will create holes in the insulation of the refrigerator door that make it less efficient.
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The home is built using fourteen-inch rammed earth bricks and finished with Elastomeric stucco. Twenty-four photovoltaic panels provide for all the Luteses’ power needs.
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In this Russian stove, evolved from an age-old European design, bricks surround a cast-iron stove to hold the heat inside seven interior chambers. By the time it leaves through the chimney, the heat from the fire has been reduced from 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and all of that warmth has spread inside the home. “This is a very efficient use of wood,” Tom explains. “One fire a day, and the thing keeps cranking with radiant heat.” Tom and Flame had planned to plaster the fireplace, but while they waited for that to get done, they grew to like the rustic look of the exposed bricks.
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In the kitchen, Flame broke dinner plates to create a one-of-a-kind custom backsplash. Tom watched in semi-horror as she cracked the thirty-dollar plates and in true horror when the initial design looked awful. “But it’s like a puzzle,” says Flame, who eventually did find the configuration that works. “You just keep trying until you get it right.” Flame chose a matched set of dishes for her backsplash, but remnants or singles will also work. To make the backsplash, break the plates using a rubber-tipped hammer and experiment with arranging them against the wall until you find a design that pleases you. Then apply mastic and adhere the plates to the wall. Fill in cracks and crevices with grout, which adds to the plates’ staying power.
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“I cut down two ponderosa pines purely for the sake of view and because I didn’t think they were very ­pretty,” Tom says. “I went through a lot of agonizing about it—‘what gives me the right to do this?’ But I cut them down. And then we were looking for a way of framing up the bedroom in a natural way and holding the roof up, and I thought, ‘What about those trees lying down out there?’ I hauled them in, and they became structural supports for the roof—and they’re gorgeous. They’re a headboard, and they’re bearing the whole roof. It was a good life lesson—what I had pushed away as ugly, later I had to bring back into my life and embrace as absolutely beautiful.”
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Skylights are designed and configured so that winter sun pours through and heats the south-facing adobe walls and bancos. As the home cools off in the evening, heat is drawn back out. The living area’s circular shape stems from Tom and Flame’s previous living quarters: a tipi. Rough-cut slabs of wood frame each window, creating a textural relief to the smooth plaster walls and adding depth of field to the panoramic room. This gives the house a sense of the profound. “When you look at nature, nothing’s flat; the eye has to constantly focus and refocus,” Tom says. “In our house, all these different surfaces fade into each other, and the eye catches a lot of movement because of that depth. That has a lot to do with why people come in and say, 'Wow, this feels so amazing.’”
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In the mountains, where the snow is deep and the spring muck even deeper, a “mud room” is essential. Tom and Flame opted for an easy-to-clean tile floor in their entryway and placed a bench near the door for removal of boots.
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Tom and Flame chose crystals as a spiritual alternative to store-bought towel hooks. “Whether or not you believe in the energy of crystals—we do—is irrelevant, really,” Tom says. “They’re very practical, beautiful towel holders.” Whether you’re doing the tiling yourself or have hired a professional, incorporating crystals or other natural, symbolic elements into your design is easy. Attach the crystal to the mastic as you would a tile, then continue to tile around it. Once grouted, the crystal remains firmly in place.
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In the bathroom, Tom and Flame worked side by side with a con­tractor, adorning a free-form bathtub with tiles and stones collected from the property and during their travels in San Diego, Santa Fe, Mexico, and Greece. They cemented crystals into the mix to act as towel and robe holders.
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Married for twenty-three years, Tom and Flame represent the union of two very diverse cultures. Flame grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and her mother, Virgie Nash, was involved in the first Watts Riot in the summer of 1965. Tom grew up in San Diego with a family heritage that includes two mayors of San Diego and a U. S. ­Secretary of the Treasury.
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Not ones to settle for off-the-shelf fixtures, Tom and Flame formed wall sconces with chicken wire, then extended the wall plaster (Structo-Lite) around the wire for a seamless look. They “dressed up” the sconces by embedding bits of turquoise in the wet plaster.
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Tom liked the rough edges of the exposed adobe bricks. Flame craved the sleek, smooth feel of hand-troweled plaster. Their compromise? Most of the walls are plastered with satiny Struct-o-lite plaster tinted with earth pigments, but the bricks remain exposed in select areas of the hallway. This solution not only satisfies both husband and wife, but also adds a unique, sculptural element to otherwise plain-jane walls.

When Tom and Flame Lutes moved into a tipi on the 160 acres near Bayfield, Colorado, that they had just purchased with twelve friends, they had no idea that they would stay in the tipi for more than four years or that it would prove inspirational as they designed their dream home. But they found that the direct connection with nature and the way sound, light, and heat moved through the tipi space were pleasures they weren’t willing to give up when they moved to a permanent abode.

“The tipi as a structure was an interesting thing to pursue,” Tom says. “It’s a cone. The energy in that kind of structure is so different from a square or a rectangle, where the energy is constantly getting trapped in the corners. If you think of energy as heat, sound, or vibration, it all moves much better in a circle, all the way from playing the stereo system to circulating heat.”

During the four-and-a-half years that the couple lived under canvas, they reveled in feeling the movement and sounds of the wind, of rain changing to sleet or sleet to snow. They knew, to the hour, when the migratory birds had returned to their piece of the mountain. “And I thought,” Tom says, “so now I’m going to spend a lot of money, go into debt, and work my butt off for many years to live behind thick walls and be removed from nature?”

But Tom and Flame needed permanence, a sense that they were truly planted in the community they had set about creating with their longtime friends. So they took cues from their tipi and designed a round living space with vast expanses of glass that let sunshine pour in and open up to 180-degree mountain views. Bancos, sculptured adobe benches, rim the perimeter of the open room, and a radiant-heat fireplace anchors the southeast corner.

From this space, Tom and Flame can watch as an ominous hank of steel-gray clouds arrives to spit flurries of snow at their ridge. They can linger with the Colorado sun on a long June day. They can bask in the awakening orange sunrise or the low golden sunset. “We have an outside experience while we’re inside,” Tom says. “I don’t have that experience of being removed from nature.”

Earth and wood

Veterans of adobe houses, Tom and Flame knew all along that they wanted to build their house of earth. After toying with the idea of building an Earthship, they settled on rammed-earth bricks fourteen inches thick, made on site from dirt gathered twenty miles south at Navajo Lake (their own soil had too many rocks and not enough clay for proper brick composition). The couple worked alongside the building contractor, making and laying bricks and providing general grunt labor.

For structural and finish work, they used Ponderosa pines that had blown down on the property or had been felled to make roads. “We had a big thing about not cutting down trees,” Flame says. “But we found that we needed to, both for the road and to thin the forest. That was part of this land’s gift to us.”

Just Enough Space

For about $150 per square (or round, as the case may be) foot, Tom and Flame packed an abundance of thoughtful details into their 1,750-square-foot home. “A lot of choices come down to how big your house is going to be,” Tom says. “In almost every big house I’ve ever been in, there was a tremendous amount of dead space–dressed-up rooms with no life in them. For us, a balance of 1,750 square feet meant every part of the house is a place where we would, literally, inhabit. We could have a totally functional house–every part of it we actually have a need for.”

The one-story floorplan includes one bedroom, two baths, an office area, a much-appreciated wood-burning sauna, and a sleeping loft. (The bank insisted on a second bedroom–thus the sleeping loft–before it would give Tom and Flame a loan.) A 1,400-square-foot deck made of Trex composite decking nearly doubles the living space.

While not sparse, the couple’s home is spare–possessions are kept to a minimum. “One of the things we learned from living in the tipi is that we have nothing in here that isn’t absolutely necessary,” Flame says.

Off the Grid

One stipulation everyone in Tom and Flame’s community agreed upon before building was that the homes would be ­heated and powered with solar panels. Based on that decision, the national chain banks and Fannie Mae refused the Luteses a loan. “They said, ‘It’s not about your credit; you don’t have permanent electricity,'” Flame scoffs. Adds Tom: “At this point, I got pretty belligerent. I said, ‘You’re saying the sun isn’t permanent, but your little electric grid that goes out all the time, that’s powered by fossil fuels, is?’ They just have prehistoric values when it comes to loans.” A local bank in nearby Durango, Colorado, did eventually give the Luteses a mortgage. Solar-heated hot water runs through a radiant system in the floor, keeping the home toasty in the nastiest weather that Colorado’s high country can offer.

Personality Reflections

From wall sconces made with molded plaster and turquoise rock to bits of crystal embedded deep in the home’s foundation, Tom and Flame’s home reflects the couple’s deeply spiritual nature and artistic personalities. Throughout the building process, they refused to settle for off-the-shelf fixtures or “can’t-do” attitudes from contractors. “You have to have the confidence that you can design something you like instead of just taking someone else’s ideas,” Tom says. “But that’s the hardest thing–unless you’re an artist, you don’t necessarily have the confidence that you’ll be able to do that.”

The Luteses’ belief in crystals led them to “program” more than 100 small ones (a process that entails implanting the crystals with positive thought forms through ceremonies) and cement them into the foundation, into holes drilled for rebar to hold the house to the mountain, and into the bond beam (the ring of cement at the top of the adobe walls that keeps the house from twisting). Flame convinced a skeptical subcontractor to intersperse crystals in the rock wall of the sauna, “and he took the whole bag and really got into it,” she says.

“We eventually got some of the most uptight, conservative construction guys to say, ‘Oh, I see what you’re doing here,'” Tom adds. “And then they would get really creative.”

Tom and Flame, who entertain both friends and clients of their professional consulting business in the home, understand the importance of these personal touches in creating a warm, welcoming space. Tom says, “In our minds, you can thank the crystals in the walls, or the dirt, or whatever–but it’s a sacred place. What we hoped to make is really a modern-day kiva–
a ceremonial living space.