neighborhood: Westwood Park
neighborhood: Anaheim Colony

book review: Living Homes

book-iconSuzi Moore McGregor & Nora Burba Trulsson's Living Homes profiles the design and construction of twenty-two homes - all constructed using the various principles and techniques of sustainable building - throughout the Western United States. 7 adobe homes, 5 rammed-earth houses, 5 straw bale structures and 4 reinvented / recycled / high-tech material buildings are examined. The homes are built in a wide variety of architectural styles: contemporary steel and earth constructions, pueblo and spanish revival rancheros, mission and craftsman cottages. All are both an expression of their owners' and builders' character and the philosophy of the green building movement made real.


The genesis of the book, we are told in its preface, was in a 1992 Taliesin West workshop on straw-bale and rammed-earth construction. From the success of the workshop and the structure built in it, the underpinnings of the sustainable building movement crept into the more rarified and elite world of architectural design. No longer the purview of builders embracing the "primitive," Richard Hoffmeister's vision of environmentally and socially-conscious building began to be integrated into contemporary building projects principally in the American west but also throughout the world.

Trulsson and McGregor try very hard to make us see that this type of construction does not have to result in a primitive, rough earthen box in the desert - that the techniques underlying this second coming of the sustainable building movement are just as adaptable to the clean modern lines of much of modern architecture as they are to the hand-hewn craftsmanship of the Arts & Crafts movement.

This trend toward energy-efficiency and environmental sensitivity does seem to be a very potent mother to invention, as we see in Terrence Moore's lavish photographs.

Various essays - Appropriate Technology by David Eisenberg, co-Director of the Develpment Center for Appropriate Technology in Tucson, On Natural Design by William McDonough, FAIA, and the author's own introductions and background information give context to the extensive profiles of each project. These profiles are themselves well-illustrated, sometimes with external elevations or floorplans but most often with large and gorgeous photographs of the properties, furnished to live in. These are not model homes or student projects or experimental spaces, although certainly for some of the builders and many of the owners their production was in many ways (and is, in their use) an experiment. These are homes, not just houses, and are much more than Corbusier's "machines for living in."

The natural roughness of some of the materials does impart a certain rusticity to some of these places, but they are never anything less than comfortable, exciting, livable spaces. Moore's photographs are inviting, pulling us into these homes that we can easily imagine living in, spaces that fit the bodies of real human beings, spaces that we can see our art and work within, see our children playing in and around: they are home. While perhaps not the authors intention to provide such a well-illustrated coffee-table catalogue of comfortable living, the book succeeds on this level as well, and can certainly be used as an idea book for far more than building techniques.

The Craftsman influence could not be any more alive in many of these homes: almost all show the mark of the craftspeople who built them - in the finish of their walls, the wood of their doors, the tile of the kitchens and bathrooms. Lynn McGee's residence, in Durango, Colorado, is a compact and rustic mountain cabin built on three acres in heavily forested hills at about 7,000 feet elevation. McGee combined elements of straw bale and rammed-earth construction into her pleasant mountain home, which avoids the use of any treated or plastic materials that could possible out-gas into the living space or adjacent environment. The result is a simple space, built in the Craftsman tradition, with the toolmarks of its builders both obvious and subtle. It is a home built by hand, less a context for its occupant than a container built to fit a life already defined, as the best Arts & Crafts homes are.

Julie Harding's residence in Tucson AZ is the very definition of a classic bungalow. In the historic neighborhood of Armory Park (originally the primary home of the region's Southern Pacific Railroad employees), home styles run the gamut - Queen Anne, Mission Revival, bungalow & Colonial Spanish Revival motifs are still obvious at least in the details they left behind to be subsumed by new and renovated structures. Harding's house, however, is not the seemingly perfect example of a carefully-restored historic bungalow, but is rather a new structure, built using straw bale construction techniques that were both economically viable and environmentally sensitive. The pared-down Mission Revival character of her home is a perfect match for the mix of rough-hewn folk art and furniture and the "beautiful necessity" of Harding's craftsman furnishings.

The horizontal lines and blurring of the divide between indoor and outdoor that are the hallmarks of the Prairie school are evident in many of Living Homes' examples, such as the sprawling and unorthodox Wiggins-Logan home in Longmont, Colorado; Susan Billings' and Duncan Ferguson's home, in Norwood, Colorado, and the anonymous "Indoor/Outdoor Residence" in Tucson. These more modern plans embrace the form of the graceful hillsides, flat meadows and high desert that they populate, reflecting characteristics of the landscape in their own lines. In these cases, materials and finishes are picked often just as much for the ability to blend into their surroundings as they are for strength and efficiency. Here, the photographer has put even more effort into showing the homes from the outside, and making very clear their inextricable link to the lan. Again, Moore's wonderful photographs are exciting and inspiring.

Unfortunately it is hard for me to agree with the authors suggestion that this movement towards sustainability is gathering enough steam to challenge the poorly-made and wasteful technologies of modern tract home building; I am a pessimist and I don't see much getting in the way of profit, certainly not while many of the techniques illustrated in this book are still expensive and rare. However, I do recognize that the movement is probably the only chance that new home builders who have even the slightest amount of environmental sensitivity to live consistent with their values; that is, this movement is no longer the sole territory of the hippy back-to-the-land movement, and is firmly positioned to (someday!) challenge the short-term-profit-based industry of suburban modern homebuilding.

The book is far more than simply a pithy coffee-table meditation on sustainability and the importance of environmental variables in home design, illustrated with pretty pictures. The pictures are beautiful, however, and stand on their own, just as the text does; the authors' simple interrogation of these structures is moving and will spark any builder's or planner's imagination. This is an excellent manual for anyone thinking of building their own home, even if sustainability issues had not previously been paramount, and it also succeeds in asking that more complicated question of why we do not yet live in the same harmony with our own surroundings that the owners of these homes do.