Our Mountain Home: Fingerprints on a Mountaintop

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These stairs were hand-hewn.
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The guest house/studio, made of metal lathe and Surewall, ended up through happenstance with a roof resembling a giant toadstool.
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The south face of the authors' mountain home features a curved wall and lots of glass for passive solar heating.
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The garden wall was built from pottery shards contributed by neighboring craftspeople.
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The carport also functions as a woodshed and—with the cupola on top—a home for bluebirds.

Reprinted by permission, from the June/July 1981 issue of American Craft, published by the American Craft Council.

Our first responsibility when we undertook to build a mountain home was to understand the mountain meadow where it would be located. We began to ruminate quietly upon the land, to study its personality, its idiosyncrasies, its will, its contours, its soil, its watershed, its juxtaposition to neighboring mountains, and especially its exposure to sky and weather. We needed to know the strengths and directions of its prevailing winds, to record storm patterns, and to plot the path of the sun as it warmed our soil.

Moving to Penland, North Carolina was easy for us. It was a little like coming home, since Penland lies in an extraordinary natural landscape and is the home of the Penland School of Crafts, which has long served as a crossroads of creative energy. This growing crafts community was where we wanted to be.

Our backgrounds are very different. One of us (Louise) has lived both in the suburbs and in a city, while the other (Don) has spent years in rural Scandinavia. But we’ve both been teachers: one in the classroom and workshop, the other through writing books. We wanted to translate theory into practice.

We each, in our own way, have long been professionally committed to a celebration of personal space. Our challenge was clear: to create a personal, handmade living environment. What kind of space did we have in mind, and what were our priorities? First, we had elected to build on a totally exposed mountaintop, so warmth was a major consideration. Next, we wanted our interior space to feel limitless, like the sky above our meadow. We wanted to eliminate those right-angled hiding places where energy gets cornered. The form had to flow, to feel organic. But how do you go about translating an abstract idea into an environment?

Initially we tried sketching our ideas on paper, but the sketches were only an extension of the abstract. There was no way of capturing in them the reality of what we wanted. We tried to disengage ourselves from our intellects and trust our intuitions. That was when we came up with the idea of the rope.

We bought a 200-foot rope and used it as an actual line drawn upon the meadow. It made more sense than a pencil mark on paper. We could relate to this line, stand within its circumference, and feel its scale. We could make believe it had walls and let it give us flexibility, a chance to lengthen, shorten, and curve our form at will. The rope helped us to decide where to prepare and eat our meals, where to sleep and, most important, what our views would be. However, we were so carried away with the potential of the rope that we did not predetermine its shape. Our rope form resembled a giant caterpillar lying on its side with a bubble on its head.

And so the house was born. It grew from an idea, from a rumination on the land, and from a rope. No architectural or building plans were used. Decisions were made primarily by putting our two bodies in the proposed spaces and making judgments based on direct physical confrontation rather than theory. It seemed right that the form should grow like a living organism. We were dealing with a form that rejected traditional solutions and ready-made materials.

The footings were dug by hand with shovels. We did not want complex machinery violating our trust over this earth. The shovel is a very exacting tool and does not chomp off an extra foot or two, as a bulldozer or backhoe might do. The meadow grass remained undisturbed throughout construction, growing within one inch of the first tier of blocks. It insured a clean, mud-free working area, and it is now our lawn.

The walls grew in place, not on paper, as we literally tried them out on the given piece of earth. The curved concrete block that we used was originally intended for building farm silos. After construction the blocks were covered on both sides with a “skin” of Surewall, a cement and fiberglass product which can be used instead of mortar. This technique of laying block “dry” (without mortar) was uniquely suited to our style: it was like building with Lego blocks or Lincoln Logs. Surewall construction makes it possible for changes to be made without spoiling materials, and we were able to “play” and proceed freely by trial and error. The Surewall concealed the segmented construction and allowed the curved areas to flow without visual interruption.

We employed as many passive, energy-efficient principles as we could. The curved south side of the house is mostly glass wall with three skylights above, allowing sunlight to enter the structure from morning to evening. The northern exposure is protected against wind and heat loss by a built-up earth berm, a means of passive insulation.

From the outset we decided to build three separate structures. Between us we have six grown children. We wanted a self-contained space for guests and children, so they could be free to follow their own schedules and inclinations without feeling bound to the main house and its activities. Space for studio and guests became a mushroom-shaped building. Another structure, a woodshed/carport. The presence of vehicles on our hilltop seemed a violation of its spirit, so we planned the driveway to end about 300 feet from the house, thus keeping the vehicles from view.

We worked with the assistance of one full time helper for 14 months on the main house. We accomplished a great deal through barter: a bathroom sink for a pair of curtains, a countertop for an environment of pillows, electrical wiring for labor. We had access to a potter friend’s studio in the evenings. There we wrote poems with iron oxide on stoneware tiles for the walls and floors … poems to be read at the sink or in the shower.

Everyone who helped was invited to contribute something personal to the house. We learned to loosen our control. We realized that if we asked our children or friends to lay a rock window, compose stones for the floor, or do any other work, we had to allow them freedom and accept what they did even if it did not agree with our aesthetic sense. One daughter painted purple-and-orange-striped gates, another painted creatures on top of our pasture fenceposts. Our son fabricated a revolving copper and iron butterfly to serve as a lightning rod above our sleeping loft, and another daughter inlaid stone mosaics on the outside walls. Hundreds of flat stones were lugged up from the nearby Toe River, and the heart-shaped stones were embedded into the entrance.

We both share a commitment to and enthusiasm for natural, organic, and “feely” surfaces and textures, and we both love textiles. If we had been thinking standard construction, we could have easily purchased standard doors, cupboards, drawers, or closings. But these are areas in which we have a special interest and, indeed, a special authority by virtue of our many years of experience as craftsmen. We wanted to represent our particular concerns and skills. Louise has spent a lifetime working with handmade textiles, so it was natural for her to translate her skills into architectural solutions. She made textile closings for all the cupboards, doors, and partitions. The kitchen cabinets have textile fronts, and a coat closet has a velvet applique coat which opens up to give access to the closet. The “lace-lady” dressing room door is made of black velveteen appliqued with old lace. The back side of the piece is a freehanging textile of pockets in varying sizes and shapes which hold socks, underwear, jewelry, and belts. The interior has become our dance of fiber.

We started the second structure as a shelter for firewood, but with time and whimsy it grew into a woodshed/carport, as well as into an apartment village for bluebirds. Like the main structure it has a curved roof, topped by a cupola birdhouse.

The third structure was an experiment in Surewall. We troweled it on over an armature of metal lath until we arrived at a roof form that looked something like a giant toadstool. The bubble roof is cantilevered over a rectangular base which is set four feet off the floor. Inside, it is like being in a floating dome.

We planted a huge vegetable garden, but spring winds uprooted a few of the tender shoots. We decided to protect our vegetables with a friendship wall made from shards contributed by neighboring craftsmen. Parts of ceramic bowls and teapots, glass goblets, bits of enamel and metal–even a piece of antique silver all found their way into our garden wall. We were given so many shards that some of them were used for mosaics on walls and floors of the house, while others went into a countertop. Like the vegetables, the garden wall is still growing.

On April 1, 1980, 14 months after we received land title, we moved in with a celebration for the house complete with cake, song, and champagne sprinkled on each of the three thresholds.

There is so very little in this life that two human beings can accomplish in concert. Structures are the giant fingerprints of those who build them. In creating our personal environment, we were striving for such a fingerprint, the mark of a sensitive touch.

There are more than a dozen bluebirds living on top of our hill. We talk to them. Sometimes it seems as if we recognize each other for what we are: endangered species.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Don Willcox was the leader of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ recent Scandinavian Crafts Tour. His New Design in Crafts series (including Vol. 1–Ceramics, Vol. 2–Stitchery, Vol. 3–Weaving, and Vol. 5–Jewelry) ispublished by Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1969, at $6.95 each. Don’s Modern Leather Design (Watson Guptill Publishers, 1970) Costs $16.50.

Mr. Willcox’s delightful book of poems, If I Can Taste Your Brussels Sprouts, You Can Taste My Leek, is available directly from the author, as is Don’s and Louise Todd Cope’s new book, Two Craftsmen, Two Perspectives ($13).Both of these prices include shipping and handling.