We at D:FR believe that more widespread consideration ought to be given to alternative building methods, especially given the overall cost of current construction methods to the environment, society at large, and the pocketbooks of individual people. Typical buildings are created with more of an eye to the profits of developers, lending institutions, and various corporate industries than to livability, the earth, and long-term environmental consequences. Buildings are sited on their lots without any regard to the sun and its potential to reduce heating and cooling costs. Toxic materials are in widespread, practically inescapable use, and serious lengths must be gone to in an effort to avoid them. Seldom is much consideration given to such livability factors as insulation value, embodied energy costs, carbon footprint, long-term energy operation costs, view sheds, and positioning for privacy. The need to access every home by at least two cars has made the garage and driveway the dominant curbside features, rather than a socially inviting porch or attractive gardens designed to produce food, beauty, and habitat for small animals.
Our interest at D:FR in alternative building methods dates back to General Manager Jan Emming's high school days, when he saw a particular home featured on the cover of Architectural Digest magazine. Now known as the Boulder House, this home is located in Scottsdale, Arizona. What made it so unique was the fact that it had been built in a large outcropping of granite boulders. Not near it, not next to it, not even with just one wall against it, but completely in the outcrop. The rooms of the Boulder House are scattered throughout spaces between rocks in the large outcrop, which covers about one acre in area and towers up to twenty feet tall in many places. Hallways and passages connect the rooms in an extremely organic fashion, and the rock walls of every room were left completely natural. Many of the rooms are at differing levels, connected by a few steps, so as not to cut into the rock below them. The only modifications made to the stones were a few holes drilled for the vigas, which are the large peeled logs that support the roof.
The cover photo that attracted Jan's attention was an exceptionally spectacular and visionary treatment of a window. There was a particular cleft in between two large boulders, irregular in shape and diagonally slanted, that had been glazed in by inserting specially cut glass panes into two opposite but perfectly aligned grooves carved into the granite. What would have been viewed as a problem to be solved with cement or dynamite by most people, architect Charles F. Johnson turned into an utter work of art. The effect is that of being in a cave with a shaft of light penetrating deeply into the interior. The feel of the outcrop is not only maintained by this creatively unparalleled solution, but is actually enhanced by it. How easy it would have been to destroy this delicate effect! Needless to say, the rest of the Boulder House is treated with similar vision and respect. This home provided one of the guiding visions for the next 15 years of Jan's life, and the property ultimately selected for the creation of Destination: Forever Ranch was in part chosen because of the presence of large granitic outcrops. Buildings from the Boulder House mode will be executed in a similarly sensitive and unique fashion.
To view the Boulder House online, visit www.boulderhousepublishers.com
Since we at D:FR are interested in everything different, it only seems natural that we would choose to use one of several unusual construction techniques. We have researched everything from straw bales to rammed earth, adobe to earthbags, polyurethane foam domes to recycled tires, and cob to cordwood logs. All these alternative building systems have their benefits and their drawbacks. What they all have in common, however, is that they make primary use of locally available materials, whether those materials are natural or man-made waste products. (The only exception listed above is polyurethane foam.) The main advantages to locally available materials is that they are either cheap or free, in most cases they are non-toxic and energy efficient, and they tend to give a regionally appropriate look to the structure. These uncommon construction modes do not come without some problems, however. Some issues alternative builders may face include resistance in approval from county or city building inspectors, a lack of financing from traditional lending institutions, and local subcontractors' unfamiliarity with weird buildings and their subsequent reticence in doing work on them.
Here at D:FR we have settled on a method of construction known as papercrete. Papercrete, also known by the various monikers of fibrous cement, fibrous adobe, and cellulose-reinforced cement, is basically an industrial-strength papier-mache made of pulped waste paper (newsprint, junk mail, magazines, phone books, anything papery), Portland cement, and sometimes sand. A special mixer is designed to chop the paper in water, blender-style, into a slurry using a spinning blade in a round tank of some sort, like a 200-gallon stock tank.
Once the paper is thoroughly masticated, Portland cement is added to bind the paper fibers together, and sand adds strength and thermal mass. We've decided to eliminate the sand portion of this recipe, with no apprent ill effects. The final mixture looks much like concrete, but it is much lighter. It pours the same way, however, which is what you do into block forms on the ground. Papercrete can also be poured into slip forms directly onto the walls, or it can be hurled or sprayed onto a wall of another material (such as straw bales). It can even be used as exterior and interior stucco if the cement content is doubled. It is amazingly versatile stuff, this papercrete.
Excess water drains out of papercrete in a matter in minutes, while the rest eventually evaporates into the air. Once fully dry, the resulting material is honeycombed with millions of tiny air spaces, a property that results in marvelous insulation value (at least R2.5 per inch, often more like R3) as well as a relatively light weight. The fibers encased in a cement coat also give the papercrete good strength. Although its compressive strength is only about 10% of the value of ordinary concrete, that still means about 300 psi, which is, in other words, far beyond that necessary for a typical one-story building. No one is suggesting building skyscrapers out of papercrete, in any event.
There are several reasons why papercrete was chosen as our building method at D:FR. One is the fact that waste paper is plentiful and absolutely free given the wasteful nature of our consumer economy. In fact, landfills everywhere are gagging on millions of tons of the stuff daily, enough to build entire villages every week. The insulation value is extremely good, which means much less energy is needed to modify temperatures in either direction from a comfortable range. It is flexible. You can pour it, slap it, throw it, and trowel it. You can make bricks, panels, blocks large and small, make walls, and make roofs.
You can screw screws and hammer nails into it. Forgot to add a window to that room? No problem, just chainsaw one out where you like. Make the walls first and cut grooves later to lay the wire conduit and outlet boxes, using the same chainsaw. Ditto to enlarge the door frame if you haven't decided on single or double. Lay your papercrete blocks in your walls, then mortar them together with papercrete mortar, and then cover your irregularities with papercrete stucco. Make domes, arches, vaults, benches, niches, buttresses, garden walls, and turrets. Seal the roof with silicone-based water sealant or an elastomeric paint, and you ought to be done. Clean, green, and creative, what more could one ask?
For more information and to see some other great homes made out of papercrete, visit www.livinginpaper.com.
Researching the many alternative building possibilities nowadays made it clear that we need to change our general approach to living and home-building. In American culture, it is now considered the norm to pay for up to thirty years on a single mortgage, and most of us have more than one of those in our lives, so we essentially pay for our homes for our entire adult lives. We are the only species on earth that does this.
Moreover, Westerners are by and large the only cultures that do this. People who live in Mexico, or India, or Turkey do not pay for the necessity of a home by thirty-year mortgages (literally, mort gage, or French for "death pledge"). Some would argue here that most Mexicans live in shacks, or that Indians live in shantytown slums, or that Turkish houses fall down with every earthquake. At least Americans live in comfortable, roomy, modern and convenient houses, right? We have two responses to that argument. One is that no one at D:FR argues against earthquake-proof comfort. We argue against taking a thirty-year death pledge for the privilege of said comfort, since modern conveniences and technological advances do not by definition need to be paid for for what effectively amounts to the rest of your life. Two is the fact that most of the "Third World" lives in grinding poverty because of a vast system of economic injustice, not because they don't deserve or want or "can't afford" earthquake-proof comfort.
Besides, is spending $450,000 on an interest-bearing mortgaged house that was listed at $150,000 when you bought it (and that could have been built for $50,000 or even less if you'd learned to do it yourself and taken the time) really a good definition of a quality life? We really tend not to think so. Convenience? Inconvenient is working a job you hate in an area you can't really afford for decades on end trying to keep up with the Joneses. Inconvenient is not learning how to do at least some things in your own life for yourself and instead paying everyone else to get it done for you. Yes, it may take us at D:FR a few years to build a home. But can we afford not to? Three is better than thirty, no?
We recommend at least two books out of the dozens available on independent home ownership and its philosophies. They would be Mortgage-Free!: Radical Strategies For Home Ownership by Rob Roy, and The New Independent Home: People and Houses that Harvest the Sun, Wind, and Water by Michael Potts. Both books have revolutionized our thinking about how to best own a home in the 21st century. Be prepared to have the same event occur to you if you decide to buy them. Do some homework (pun half-intended). It may save you a half-million dollars over the next forty years.
In doing our recent research on home-building, we found the site at Boulder House Publishers (see link above) and ordered the book. In garnering a deeper understanding of the creative vision that went into the genesis and execution of this remarkable space, we learned that the Boulder House is now on the National Register of Historic Places, despite the fact that the house was completed in 1982, only about 20 years ago. The reason for this designation was that the Boulder House was sited amongst rocks that were covered in ancient Native American petroglyphs, a fact that was not divulged to the larger world until very recently, after studies of the site had been completed. (A petroglyph is art and symbols carved into the surface of a rock; a pictograph is painted onto the surface, not carved in.)
The rock cleft window gracing the cover of Architectural Digest referred to earlier is made even more special by the fact that on the equinoxes (March 21 and Sept 21, approximately), and only then, a shaft of sunlight penetrates the cleft near sunset and strikes a spiral petroglyph carved into the granite surface of another rock on what is now the opposing wall, thereby marking the exact halfway point in the sun's annual journey to the north in summer and back south in winter. The amazing cherry on top is that no one, not the owners, not the architect, and not the builders, knew that this is what the petroglyph on the wall now inside of the house was designed to mark. They were all careful not to destroy the petroglyph, but think of how easy it would have been to cement in the seemingly problematic gap and thereby eliminate sunlight from ever reaching the petroglyph ever again. How fortunate that this was not done!
The point here is that there is often more than meets the eye in any given space or situation. Our culture gives us little training in how to see past the immediate obvious, and instead trains us into becoming "producers" and "consumers" in a relentless and unsustainable perpetual-growth economic machine. In an organism, this is called a tumor, or a cancer, or morbid obesity. But we digress, slightly. Somehow, forces at the sacred petroglyph site at the Boulder House spoke to the key players involved, and a tenuous and fragile sacred place could have been irreparably altered through simple ignorance if not willful malice. But it wasn't. Although the stones at D:FR are not covered in petroglyphs (we've checked and are pretty sure of this), we still approach this land as if it were sacred, which in fact, all land is. Sacredness gives power to life. This is what we aim to achieve in the creation of a life at Destination: Forever Ranch and Gardens.