A home at one with nature (© Simon Watson, WSJ. Magazine)

Mickey Muennig, Big Sur, Calif., architect, looks out from his latest sod-roofed house and sighs. Nature seems more intense out here, almost biblical. On some days the ridge is blanketed with fog, on other days there are forest fires, washouts, earthquakes, soul-withering storms and, like today, gale-force winds. But Muennig, 74, is used to it. He’s lived here since 1971, when he came for a visit and fell in love with the area’s wild beauty and the independent spirit of the bohemian residents — and became the first master of eco-minded architecture, perfecting green-roof construction more than 30 years before it became the fashionable way to build.

This house on Cooper Point, with its budding roof of wild grasses and California poppies, is one of his most impressive projects yet. It’s part of an expansive garden that, theoretically, stretches all the way down to the Pacific Ocean and is a perfect blend of old hippie values and the newest in green thinking. “The lifestyle was what really drew me here,” Muennig says. “I always dreamt of living freely in a small cabin.” Big Sur is about 140 miles south of San Francisco and only 29 miles south of Monterey, but it feels even more remote. Many artists and writers — Edward Weston, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac — came here for the isolation and beauty of the landscape. Now it attracts wine-sniffing moguls from Silicon Valley who build discreet hideaways or come to stay in the environmentally correct Post Ranch Inn, designed by Muennig.

Slide show:  A home at one with nature

With his silver locks and diminutive size, it’s easy to see why locals call him the “White Elf,” and the name goes with his soft-spoken, laid-back approach to life and architecture. He’s an unsung hero of the green movement precisely because he never made an effort to publicize himself. (There’s still no monograph published on his work.) While his design philosophy derives in part from Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff was an even bigger influence. Goff, who taught Muennig at the University of Oklahoma in the 1950s, was an architecture outsider, working with unusual materials and harnessing the energy of spiral and crystal forms. Despite these early influences, Muennig developed his own inimitable style in a series of free-spirited experiments with earth, stone, redwood and eccentric roof shapes. For his first commission in Big Sur, he put a sod roof on a pre-existing house, and on his next project, the Kelm house, he used wood recycled from an old wine vat.

What's your home worth?

The Cooper Point house literally becomes the landscape, rising ever so slightly in a gentle ellipse of green, following the natural contours of the site. It’s built like a bunker with massive concrete retaining walls at either end and all-glass walls in between. There isn’t really a roof in a conventional sense — it’s more like a continuation, an enhancement of the Big Sur environment, seeded with native grasses and wildflowers. “It doesn’t require much maintenance, but sometimes we go up there with a weed whacker when it gets too shaggy,” the owner says. The half-buried walls and 6- to 8-inch-thick sod roof make the house relatively fireproof, and provide insulation and substantial savings in energy.

The owners estimate that they’ve cut their overall energy consumption by half, if not more. Indeed, the house is completely self-sufficient and independent from the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. grid. Power comes from a bank of solar panels. The house’s long, tapered profile, something like an airplane wing, makes for an aerodynamic hump, reducing resistance to the winds that, on occasion, blow more than 100 mph. “I love the lightness of flight,” says Muennig, who began his education by studying aeronautical engineering at Georgia Tech, before switching over to architecture. When it’s howling outside, the house feels snug and protected inside.

“It was a wonderfully collaborative project,” says the owner, who, along with her venture-capitalist husband, was introduced to Muennig’s work when living in one of his earlier houses, the Psyllos House on Pfeiffer Ridge. The Cleveland-based couple bought 68 acres in 1997 and then added property to bring their total stake on Cooper Point to more than 100 acres. All along, they wanted Muennig to design their house. “Mickey knows the spirit of Big Sur,” the owner says. “He lives there. He knows all about the winds and fires.”

Muennig stalked the wild, sloping site, chose a little knoll with great views to the north and south, and began to work out a plan. But designing anything in Big Sur is always tricky. There are stringent setbacks and zoning restrictions in the Big Sur Coastal Land Use Plan, one of the most environmentally protective land-use policies in the U.S. Both archaeological and geological experts have to review the site; with Muennig’s project, a botanist even came to check for endangered plants. (He discovered patches of Hutchinson’s larkspur as well as coastal buckwheat, the prime food for Smith’s blue butterfly, a federally protected species. All of those areas had to be avoided.)

After construction, the site was replanted by local landscape designers with a blend of native coastal grasses, chaparral, bush lupine and ceanothus with its pale blue blossoms. Outer fringes of the building area were seeded with a ground cover of manzanita and hardy wind- and drought-resistant plants, including South African grevillea and silver-leafed leucadendron. To the north, they planted screens of Monterey cypress to create small protected areas for sitting. Standing inside the house feels like being in the belly of a wonderful whale. Ribs of Douglas fir are supported by beams that curve to follow the lines of the earth, while the central spine is a narrow skylight that keeps the interior from feeling like a cave. Low-profile furniture — a coffee table made from a slice of buckeye root on a Lucite base, a slab of teak reclaimed from an old bridge in Java for a dining table — was selected so as not to block views. “We can see 50 miles to the south,” the owner says.

Home affordability calculator

Biomorphic and anthropomorphic allusions are never accidental in Muennig’s work. “Architecture is indeed tied together through imagery, a notion that is no longer held important,” he says. Conspicuous references to natural phenomena — seedpods, pine cones, nautilus shells, fins — can be seen throughout the development of the Muennig style. The Psyllos House resembles a turtle, and his own house on Partington Ridge, with its Chinese moon window and “lashes” of recycled tepee poles, resembles a giant eye looking out over Big Sur. Muennig says, “I built it as a temple to architecture and man.”

Off the grid: Home details

  • House size: 2,745 square feet, three bedrooms
  • Distance from main power grid: one mile
  • Money saved by not running lines to main grid: $200,000
  • Solar panels: 36 silicon panels laid out on a nearby slope support house and caretaker cottage
  • Energy produced by solar panels: 5.4 kilowatt-hours
  • Energy storage: Lead-acid batteries (120 kwh or two days’ worth)
  • Cloudy-day system: Propane-powered generator
  • Heat: Radiant heating in concrete slab floors
  • Water supply: Artesian wells
  • Hot water: On-demand system supplies house and hot tub
  • Decorative waterfall: Turned on only for visitors (otherwise would use 2 kwh per day)
  • Cost of entire system: $50,000 to install, about $12,000 per year for propane and maintenance
  • Owner’s estimated energy cost savings so far: 50% of a traditional house
  • Sod roof: 6 to 8 inches thick
  • Insulation equivalent: Twice the standard requirement
  • Visual impact on landscape: Minimal from some angles
  • Endangered species protected by site choice: Smith’s blue butterfly
  • Number of flora species planted on roof: 20
  • Leaks: None yet

Sources: Mickeymuennig.com;Postranchinn.com. Landscaping: Pacific Garden & Design 831-667-2952. Interiors: Stevenmillerdesignstudio.com

This article was written by Alastair Gordon for WSJ. Magazine. Photographs were taken by Simon Watson for WSJ. Magazine.