A Hand-Built Sustainable Home
Many thanks to Neville and Tammy Slade for allowing me to tour the environmentally-friendly home they are building just east of Apple Valley. Having only read about, seen photos of or viewed YouTube footage of sustainable housing projects, I was thrilled to be able to experience one in person…and in my own backyard, no less! A special shout out to all of Mr. Slade’s Sustainable Practice students from Victor Valley College– who the tour was actually arranged for and I was merely a grateful tag-along.
What I witnessed during my time on the sprawling 7.5 acre property was nothing short of inspiring. From the natural beauty which surrounds the home to its mostly hand-built construction, it is an astonishing display of what we can all accomplish with barely any disturbance of the environment at all.
I’d Call First, If I Were You
The Slade’s home is nestled only slightly beneath one of many hills which embrace the land surrounding Highway 18 en route to Lucerne Valley. Anyone hoping to find this masterpiece on their own, however, is advised to wait for an invitation and a detailed set of directions first. Save a few handwritten posts, there are zero street signs or even paved roads to guide a would-be visitor. Folks, when I tell you that this home blends into the landscape, I’m being nearly literal as there is very little else that surrounds it.
Simple, Smart, Stewardship
As longtime environmentalists, the Slade’s live by a three-fold creed that is summed up as ‘simple, smart, stewardship’. The home absolutely reflects this, as well. Simple in structure, smart in materials used and architecture, and good stewardship in making use of what is naturally at hand. In fact, Mr. Slade defined the latter as one who is a ‘good manager’ and who, “uses the resources given and expanding their use as opposed to tearing it all down”. This is evident in the vintage Airstream RV that has been repurposed to support an outdoor kitchen (where we enjoyed the plentiful sunshine during our lunchtime visit), the old cast iron sink that was installed in the home’s interior kitchen and the recycled indoor cabinetry no longer used by Habitat For Humanity.
Other highlights of this well-planned, environmentally conscious two-bedroom home include:
Metal roofing, which is 60% recycled
Windows made of recycled glass
Flooring made from natural materials
Large straw bales used to make the home’s walls are stacked in brick-like formation and are temporarily held together by nails and rebar. While straw walls are cost-effective, environmentally friendly and easy to build with, Mr. Slade shared that bare straw walls don’t stand up too well against water. Completed walls, however, are covered with sand and polyurethane, which effectively guard the home against water.
For those of you who are as in the dark as I was about straw bale construction, here are a few facts that may interest you:
Walls made of straw bale…
Are proven to stand up well against earthquakes and fire
Provide excellent insulation
Are celebrated as green building materials
More information on using straw bale to construct walls can be found on Neville and Tammy Slade’s Sustainable Learning Center Blog and in California’s Health and Safety Code, Section 18944.40-18944.41.
The home has its own well, which is pumped to an uphill storage facility and provides a downhill run of generated water only when needed. Very little is wasted here as grey water is used to for plant irrigation and will eventually also be used to irrigate future vegetable gardens and fruit trees. The Slades are also planning a living roof (garden) atop the repurposed container featured below, which provides an additional structure detached from the home and currently overlooks the community garden being regularly tended to by students of nearby Apple Valley Christian School.
Everything Becomes New Again
And speaking of no waste, the Slade’s not only use waterless composting toilets, but the couple also have an area for composting non-meat organics. In fact, instead of filling trash barrels after our lunch, leftovers were dumped and buried in the composting center, which is made from the manure of the sheep that the couple tends to at their temporary residence.
A Cool Place
When the Slade’s finally do move into their home, there is no doubt as to the comfort they will enjoy. Having put much thought into the house’s construction, it has been built in ways that optimize the natural resources around it while enhancing the home’s comfort and appeal. Eventually, it will rely only on solar energy for heat and for much of its electricity, and it is built in such a way as to deflect the hot desert sun, which would normally overheat a home in the desert via its southern and western walls. Since it is a desert residence and hot sun is a hallmark of this area, additional cooling may be needed, which is why the Slade’s plan on installing an energy-efficient system that will be programmed to only run during periods of sunlight and will automatically disable as soon as the sun sets.
A Place to Retreat
As much as I enjoyed learning about all that the Slade’s home had to offer in terms of energy-efficiency and resourceful planning– and I mean no disrespect to the hard work invested in bringing this hand-built home to life– I do want to go on record with saying that its most striking feature is the surrounding acreage. The fragrant creosote and sage bushes that ramble throughout the property alongside noble, statuesque Joshua trees, and a vast array of colorful cacti and wild desert flowers are, without a doubt, a large part of why the Slade’s chose this particularly remote area of the high desert to call home. With natural fauna that includes owls, roadrunners, bobcats, jack rabbits and (ever-adorable) kangaroo rats, one begins to feel an overpowering sense of serenity and awe after just a few minutes outdoors.
A Yucca Moth busy pollinating the area
High Desert Pioneers
Having grown up on a farm in South Africa, Neville Slade appears solidly connected to the beauty surrounding his Mojave kingdom; and with a deep respect for the environment, he is a dedicated advocate of disturbing as little of it as possible. During the tour, I overheard one of Slade’s students quietly expressing her admiration for Tammy Slade, a remarkable woman eager to embrace her husband’s minimalist ideals. As she so effortlessly served our lunch in the outdoor kitchen equipped with fresh well water and makeshift countertops, her joy, peace and contentment were clearly evident. As high desert residents with the same resources within our collective reach, we could all stand to learn quite a bit from these modern pioneers in our midst.
Owners, Neville and Tammy Slade, Built the Sustainable Learning Center by Hand
See For Yourself!
For more information about Neville and Tammy Slade’s Sustainable Learning Center or to donate time, items or materials to the site, please visit their blog at www.SustainableLearningCenter.com. Be sure to also check out Neville Slade’s YouTube videos to watch the home’s progress on the Neville Slade channel.
Neville Slade enjoying the cool shade of his porch overlooking Lucerne Valley
That little structure in the distance is the property’s 400-foot well
Well water is pumped uphill and stored in a special shed. When needed, its downhill flow provides adequate water pressure for the property's needs.