A Tucson Couple Builds Houses of Mud and Straw

Reader Contribution by Lloyd Kahn and Shelter Publications
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The following post is an excerpt fromHome Work: Hand Built Shelter(Shelter Publications, 2004) by long-time Mother Earth News contributor Lloyd Kahn. More than 1,500 photos illustrate various innovative architectural styles and natural building materials that have gained popularity in the last two decades, such as cob, papercrete, bamboo, adobe, strawbale, timber framing and earthbags. If you love fine, fun and/or funky buildings, you will want to own this splendid book.

Ongoing and never-ending remodel of early 1900s adobe ranch/farm house

On a hot day in late July, 2002, I drove south from Tucson, heading up into the high desert to visit Bill and Athena Steen. Bill and Athena, authors of the The Straw Bale House book, a best-seller and precursor of the straw bale building movement, had done an impressive mud/straw/bamboo series of buildings with villagers in Ciudad Obregón, Morelos, Mexico, and I wanted to do a story on it for Home Work.

Another reason for the visit was the chance to meet photographer extraordinaire Yoshio Komatsu, author of the stunning book Living on Earth, who with his wife Eiko was visiting the Steens at that time.

Athena, Yoshio, and Bill

The Steens live on a 40-acre homestead 70 miles southeast of Tucson (15 miles by crow-flight from Mexico) and at the end of a dirt road. They bought the land in 1985 and Bill converted a run-down shack into what is now a gracious and comfortable hacienda, with adobe walls and floors of Mexican tile.

These days, Bill and Athena use their homestead to host a series of workshops on straw bale building, natural wall finishes (main ingredient mud), earthen floors, clay ovens, and harvesting and cooking agave and prickly pear.

What I expected was to work with the Steens on their Mexico project. What I didn’t expect was such an elegant house, set alongside a creek, in a place with Feng Shui up the kazoo, with good vibes, sights, colors, smells — the essence of wonderful shelter — plus there was a series of experimental earth buildings, each one a delight, and with a variety of textures, colors, and construction innovations.

Kitchen sitting area, corner seat of adobe, walls painted with homemade casein paints

Bill, Athena, and their three kids — Benito, 11; Oso, 10;  and Kalin (Bug), 2 — are way out there in the desert. The older boys are home-schooled. Bill and Athena work on their building techniques, writing, photography, and teaching. Bug happily wanders around barefoot all day, whacking a golf ball with a driving iron and amusing himself in amusing ways. One day, he came up to me with a salad bowl on his head, a straight face, and watched for my reaction.

I slept in an adobe-walled bedroom, with two screened doors opening out into a bamboo grove in the garden. The first morning I hiked up on the hill to watch the sunrise, then came down and shot pictures. The second night there a storm hit, and thunder, lightning, and the good smells of the desert came in through the screen doors next to my bed.

Interior of guest cottage, by-product of firsts straw bale workshop/happening in 1990. Adobe wall/seat divides bathroom space from living area. Back side of the wall forms lime-plastered shower.

Lloyd Kahn is a sustainable living visionary and publisher of Shelter Publications. He is the author of natural building books, including Home WorkTiny HomesTiny Homes on the MoveShelter II , Builders of the Pacific Coast, and The Septic System Owner’s Manual (All available in the Mother Earth News Store). He lives and builds in Northern California. Follow Lloyd on his blogTwitterand Facebook, and read all of his Mother Earth News posts here.

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