The Earth Berm House
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. Ecclesiastes 3:1
In 1982, I toured a West Davis, California community that reminded me of a European village. With nearly 70 acres of what used to be tomato fields, this world-famous community began as one couple’s pioneering experiment in ecological living. Michael and Judy Corbett dreamed of building an environmentally-sound residential subdivision. Innovative planning and solar design were paramount for its future residents’ desire to live a better life—more in harmony with the lush landscape and each other—while using fewer non-renewable resources.
The construction of the community, called Village Homes, was completed in 1975. The houses were built in clusters and oriented to get the most sunlight possible for solar water and space heating. The village’s narrow streets meandered east to west, allowing the 225 homes and 20 apartments, built in clusters, to maintain a north-south orientation making use of solar energy for heating and cooling. (In addition, the streets were named after places and characters from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit). Although some of the original active solar homes remain today, most are now passive solar and there are few traditional homes.
The homes opened onto shared backyards, with limited fencing, where neighbours enjoyed meeting. Fruits and vegetables were part of the edible plantings around all the homes, and rainwater was drained from slopes that irrigated the orchards and gardens. There was also a large community room, solar-heated swimming pool, child care nursery, play fields, two large gardening areas, and a restaurant.
Village Homes soon attracted architects, students of landscape planning, social scientists, tourists, and politicians from around the world. First Lady Rosalyn Carter came to visit in 1979 and toured by bicycle. In 1984, French premier François Mitterrand, arrived in an enormous helicopter to pay homage to the internationally-renowned residential project that was way ahead of its time and in a class of its own.
Village Homes also had an extensive system of paths for walkers and bicyclists running throughout, linking with adjacent city pathways. Bridges crossed small streambeds, which allowed rainwater to percolate into the ground. Thus, eliminating the need for underground pipes, and the impacts on the city’s storm drain systems were minimal.
But my biggest surprise on the walking tour was a cave-like, solar-powered, earth berm house. The earth berm surrounded three sides of the house, protecting it from summer heat and winter cold. The berm was designed and built by its architect owner, who lived there with his family in this tiny, earth-sheltered, solar powered, 1,025 square-foot house for more than 20 years. The house’s exterior was built of treated wood, and wrapped in manufactured rubber to block out moisture. Water was heated mostly by an in-ground “breadbox system,” a solar water heater that combined collection and storage. A wood-burning stove heated the rooms during cold winter months. At the time, this berm home was one of the most energy-efficient houses in northern California.
Outside, I climbed the railroad-tie steps set into the side of the berm house onto its ‘roof’—a garden growing in eight inches of soil. And just as in most gardens, I saw a patches of dandelions and clover, growing well in the rich soil amidst rosemary bushes, orange California poppies, and sunflowers!
Crabgrass and weed patches were treated by residents with a homemade easy-to-prepare solution of vinegar, sea salt, and soap, safe for use around children and pets. A team of professional gardeners was contracted by the homeowners’ association to maintain the shared common area which included the vineyard and fruit trees, sprayed with organic solution. With more than thirty varieties of fruit trees, the common area included peaches, grapes, figs, pears, apricots, pomegranates, and almond trees. There was always something for the Villagers to harvest on the honour system.
Almost immediately, I fell in love with nearby Davis, a friendly university town with endless farmland, and Village Homes’ avant-garde mode of living. I also bought a cosy, 634-square-foot cottage in the middle of edible landscaping with tomatoes, basil, corn, artichokes, eggplant, zucchini, cantaloupe, and much more. And I planted English lavender, geraniums and begonias to beautify and add colour to my flowerbeds. The monthly newsletter, full of the latest village gardening tips and other scoops, was delivered by a neighbour teen and also posted at the community centre and on outdoor bulletin boards.
During the week I joined the thousands of bicyclists for a scenic, three-mile commute to my office at the University of California, Davis. To avoid traffic jams and accidents, I learned to plan on arriving after 8:00 a.m. or scheduled super-early meetings. During the rainy winter days, however, I waited at a nearby bus stop for a ride to campus on British double-decker buses, owned by the university and driven by university students.
After retiring from academia, wanderlust and love to travel took me around the world to gather material for my children’s stories. Many years earlier, some UC-Davis colleagues and I had collaborated on a project with researchers at the University of Hawai’i in Manoa. The exotic landscapes, sunsets, and dancing palm trees of the Hawaiian Islands beckoned, so I kept returning to vacation. On the return flights home, I’d ask myself, ‘Should I sell my Village cottage?’ But as time went by, the answer would present itself when the Hawai’i Sea Grant Hanauma Bay Education Program invited me to train as an Interpretive Guide volunteer.
In 2006, properties in Village Homes were in high demand with a 4-year waitlist, so I sold my cottage. Now I was a children’s writer, embracing my island dream with the charmer of my life, Mister Keeper, a Yorkshire terrier, and living near my nephews in Kailua and Hawaii Kai, the home of Hanauma Bay State Park, a popular snorkelling spot with the locals and visitors alike. It’s fun hanging out at the beach with the volunteer team sharing a passion to protect Hawaii’s marine environment, snorkelling along the coral reef and whale watching from mid-December through April.
Nonetheless, I still miss walking with my canine companion along the Village’s orchards, harvesting organically grown fresh fruits and veggies in season, stopping along the way for quick peek at the Berm House, and a catch-up chat with the community’s neighbours. AQ