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Steamboat Magazine

A Home In Concert With Nature

12/01/2002 01:00AM ● By Deborah Olsen

Winter 2002:

A Home In Concert With Nature

by Deborah Olsen

   A pair of greater sandhill cranes forages for its evening meal across the meadofrom the dining room of South Routt County residents John and Liane Eastman. As the couple sits down to dinner, Liane points to the birds and John hurries to get the binoculars. While the Eastmans eat, the birds make their way slowly across the field toward an old stock pond.   The prehistoric-looking birds appear to be courting, the male spreading his wings to their full six-foot span, bowing to his mate and taking off at an awkward run. Finally airborne, he swoops over the female’s head, dipping first one wing and then the other in her direction.    About the time dessert is served, a pair of blue herons settles onto the treetops by the pond. A lovely sight to the Eastmans, their presence is obviously disturbing to the sandhill cranes, which make noisy objection to the herons’ presence. Some evenings, elk, deer, bear, coyotes, fox and even an occasional pine marten join the show.   The Eastmans live in concert with the natural world, in more ways than one. Their rammed earth home, nestled into the hillside, is one of several Steamboat-area residences that can be lumped into a loosely defined category of “natural homes.” The Eastmans’ home was originally designed to be totally “off the grid,” independent of public utilities. At the last minute, however, the electric company offered them affordable access to power, and the home nois wired for electricity.Otherwise, the house is self-sufficient. Water collects in a holding tank on the roof and is stored in a cistern, which occupies a stairwell from the entry way to the main living level. Cleverly camouflaged by a colorful quilt, the cistern holds enough water to keep the household going for 3 1/2 to four months. Thanks to water-efficien tappliances, the Eastmans use an average of 500 gallons of water per month.   Only once since they moved into the home in 2001 has John had to order a truckload of water. One good rainfall is all it takes to top off the cistern.   Passion flower vines crawl up the side of the greenhouse that opens onto the living room. Gray water supplies enough moisture that tropical plants thrive in their south-facing glass house.    John brings a strong engineering background to his work at the Routt County Regional Planning Department. He has long known the nature of the home he hoped one day to build.   “This house was my hobby for years before it became a reality,” he says. “It has always been my goal to build a home that is affordable – built in part with my own and other people’s labor – to make it environmentally friendly and to make it nicer than your average house. I think we got there.”    To help John acheive his goals, he hired architect Steven Eggleston with SCE Studio, which specializes in environmentally friendly designs.   Indeed, those people who expect a dark, cavelike dwelling when they hear the words “rammed earth house” could not be more wrong. Virtually the entire south side of the house is windows; sunlight streams through the rooms. “The whole idea is that the house is one big thermal battery,” John explains. “Winter is the warmest time of year. Passive solar provides the majority of our heat. Our electric bills run about $25 per month” (not including the cost of heating a hot tub – John’s present to himself for having moved close to 250 tons of earth, which make up the adobe-like walls of the house).    The concept of using rammed earth in construction is at least as old as the Great Wall of China. In modern times, it can take the form of adobe; “earthships,” the walls of which are comprised of old tires packed full of dirt; strawbale walls, which combine strawith wood for weight-bearing walls, and a host of other options.    John selected a technique which involves stuffing fabric tubing with a mixture of soil from the excavation site and adobe-type clay. The tubing comes in a long roll similar to a fire hose. John and his cadre of volunteer laborers cut off 10- to 20-foot sections of tubing and packed them with earth.   “When John first told me he wanted to build our house out of dirt, I though he was insane,” Liane recalls. The amazing thing to John was that after having spent four years building the home, Liane confessed that she had not been able to visualize it as anything but a glorified bomb shelter until it neared completion.   Liane deserves a large share of the credit for the Eastman home. A visiting nurse during the work week, she spent weekends and holidays doing the bulk of the plaster finish work on the walls, plus much of the tilework and almost all of the interior design – with help from her mother, artist, gardener and the quintessential “earth mother,” Cathy Ciavarra.    “Our kitchen is a ‘Cathy kitchen,’ modeled after my mom’s,” Liane says. Rich, saturated hues highlight the home. The cement floors were sprayed with a chocolate brown and trimmed in a golden beige, leading to comments from guests about the luxurious “leather” floors.    The pieces de resistance in the home were supplied by John’s aunt, longtime local artist Joan Hoffmann. A woodblock of a prowling bear is the focal point of the entry way. Other pieces by Joan are displayed throughout the 1,000 square feet of living space.   The artwork, combined with a feselect pieces of fine furniture and Liane’s sophisticated  decorating touch, lend an air of elegance to the home that belies its affordability. Including the $8,000 cost of the property, which John spent summers searching for during long mountain bike rides, he estimates that the completed home cost the couple $140,000.    In an area with some of the highest building costs in the West, John’s claim that he has fulfilled his goals of affordability, environmental friendliness and livability is a modest one.