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Home Work:
Handbuilt Shelter


Bill & Athena Steen
Pages 74-75
Pages 76-77
Pages 78-79
Pages 80-81

Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter

Bill & Athena Steen
And Their Houses
of Mud & Straw

The image below is a two-page spread (pages 74-75) from Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter. Click on any of the photos on the image to see a larger popup window of that photo (close popup window before clicking another photo). Page text is included below the spread.

Ongoing and never-ending remodel of early 1900s adobe ranch/farm house Shade screens made by laying water reed mats over prefab livestock panels used for fencing View of main guest and bed/breakfast building, looking across Turkey Creek
Ongoing and never-ending remodel of early 1900s adobe ranch/farm house Arizona sunrise. Clay baking ovens; one on left is hand-molded clay and straw, Quebec style; one on the right is in traditional southwestern "horno style" and made of adobes.
Kitchen fireplace, handcrafted from molded clay, straw and pumice
Tiles by the Mexican artist Davalos, bought on one of their tequila, blanket, papaya, and taco runs to Nogales
Multi-functional corner bed in living room. Remove mattress and it becomes a desk. Bug (the two-year-old) has a playroom complete with window underneath and little step often gets used as seat.
Kitchen sitting area, corner seat of adobe, walls painted with homemade casein paints
Fish pond from galvanized metal stock tank, effortless and beautiful Bug with salad bowl hat Kalin (Bug), 2
Athena, Yoshio, and Bill.

More Sample Chapters:

Louie Frazier
The Inspiration for Home Work

Natural Buildings
Photography by
Catherine Wanek

Michael Kahn
Sculptural Village in the Arizona Desert

The Yurts of Bill Coperthwaite

Mongolian Cloud Houses
How to make a Yurt & Live Comfortably

Page 74 Text: 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.

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.

Page 75 Text: 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 all day, barefoot and bare-assed, 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.