Newberry House

Carl VanderZanden lives in "The Mud Hut" he helped build at Newberry House in Portland. He helped build the earth-bag-and-cobb structure with Scott Howard in 2009. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2012)

One of the most interesting assignments I received recently was to photograph Carl VanderZanden and his home. VanderZanden is a pretty interesting guy in his own right. For instance, he spends a lot of his time living and working in the less-traveled parts of Africa, most recently Madagascar. However, the especially unusual thing is his home.

VanderZanden lives at Newberry House, which describes itself as a “simplified co-housing community” at the edge of Portland near Forest Park. Two-thirds of the steeply sloped 7-acre property is wooded; chickens and turkeys roam a fenced area surrounded by vegetable gardens. Apparently they do (or did) have llamas, but I didn’t see any.

Newberry House uses the term co-housing to distinguish it from communal living: the residents share a common main house which serves the common-area functions for the community (kitchen, dining room, living room, guest bedroom, study, laundry, etc.), but each also has a separate bedroom cabin. These have colorful names like The Goat Shed, The Pump House, and VanderZanden’s: The Mud Hut.

The Mud Hut is pretty much what you’d expect: a 100-square-foot circular cabin built of mud.

Actually, the construction is earth bags (large sacs of dirt) coated with cobb, a mixture of clay and straw. VanderZanden and Scott Howard built it in 2009. The building is really solid, holds its temperature, and is well insulated to sound too. It is wired and has running water. It has a small fireplace, a living room, a bathroom with a shower and composting toilet, and a loft bedroom. The roof is made of pond liner covered with living sod.

The nature of earth bag structures lends itself to circular buildings that aren’t practical with traditional construction. That changes the way you live, says VanderZanden. He told me, for example, that he used to have a long chest in the living room, but it took up too much space against the round wall. So, he swapped it for a vertical wardrobe that contains as much but fits the room much better.

Such a unique way to live!