Part hobbit hole, part high-tech habitat
Big Sur architect Mickey Muennig tamed the elements in his vision for a deluxe, off-the-grid hideaway. Maintenance? The owner runs a weed whacker over the roof once in awhile.
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.
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.
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.
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
This article was written by Alastair Gordon for WSJ. Magazine. Photographs were taken by Simon Watson for WSJ. Magazine.
What, $1,000 in Propane and maintenance and lead batteries for power storage? I love the house but don't call it a green home when you are burning through massive amounts of propane, running a generator when the clouds are out or at night, and utilizing lead batteries. It is a proven fact that running on the grid rather than running a generator is much more efficient and environmentally friendly. Yes the panels help with this, but if your using even 500 a month in propane it does not equal out. Oh yea, the lead batteries are extremely toxic to the environment. And how do the plants and animals that used to live under those 36 solar panels feel. If we all went to solar we would cover all our land. It takes more space to set up the panels than the actual footprint of the home they are trying to power. How beautiful would that be. Panels everywhere. Also, what would we do with all those panel when they expire and where do we get all the material to make them.
Love the house though.
My house cost $225 per month for electricity. It is about the same size as the house in Big Sur. I estimate you could install electric baseboard heat in a house like mine for about $12,000. At $50,000 to install and $12,000 per year to maintain and operate, where are their savings? Note that their system cost as much to maintain and operate as my system costs to install.
Still... if you have the money to buy 100 acres in Big Sur... what's a grand a month?
(In California, it is the monthly budget for artisanal cheese!)
They paid $50,000 to install the system, plus $1,000 per month for "propane and maintenance"? They are then estimating that this arrangement __saves__ them 50% of the energy costs of a normal house? What normal house has a "system" that costs $100,000 to install and then costs $2,000 per month to maintain and operate?
My wife, daughter, and I live in a "normal" house in Southwestern PA. We heat and cool with electricity--electric baseboards for heat and one window air-conditioner for the hottest days of Summer. Our electric bill averages about $225 per month. If I borrowed the $50,000 to install their "system," the interest alone at, say, 5% would be about $208 per month.
Our entire house, plus the 5.1 acres of land on which it sits, cost less than $90,000. Our window air conditioner cost less than $400. The most expensive, electric-baseboard heating unuts I could find locally cost $370. Our house would take eight of them. Maybe your house is a little larger, and would need ten. That would be, roughly, $4,000 for the units. Let us triple that to cover the cost of cable and installation. The total then is $12,000. My home is about 2,400 square feet. If you have a home twice the size of mine, that is, about 4,800 square feet, let us guess that the cost to purchase and install the electric baseboards would be about $24,000. Let us also guess that your heating bill would be twice mine, or about $500 per month.
Oh! Wait a minute! This house in Big Sur is __not__ twice the size of mine. It is a little over 2,700 square feet--just a little bit larger than mine.
Still... if you have the money to buy 100 acres in Big Sur... what's a grand a month for propane? Shucks, I bet they spend that much on artisanal cheese.
$12.000. a year in maintanence of the energy system seems excessive.
Or is this for the entire structure?