Villa Terra: A New Home Built with Earth Walls and Salvaged Materials

© Frank Paul Perez, Red Lily Studios

Villa Terra‘s beauty has just as much to do with what you cannot see, as it does with what you can. Within the 18-inch thick walls of the 3,200 square-foot house is enough dirt to moderate the sun’s heat throughout the year. That means the interior stays cool during the summer months and warm during the winter months. Although considered a brand new home at the time of its completion in 2005, its historical character is drawn from the many salvaged materials integrated both underfoot and overhead. Read on to get an insider’s perspective on Villa Terra from its homeowner and architect, Noel Cross of Noel Cross Architects.

© Frank Paul Perez, Red Lily Studios

Q: Tell us a little bit about your home.
A: I started on the house when I received the original building permit in 2001. I was undertaking a lot of the labor myself, so we continuously worked on it and didn’t move in until 2004. After we moved in, we kept working on it a little bit. In 2007 BuildItGreen asked us to be involved in their home tours.

I started out building it as green and as environmentally sustainable as I could. This ultimately became the fundamental reason to do a rammed earth or a P.I.S.E. house (Pneumatically Impacted Stabilized Earth). The method creates thick concrete walls with an earth aggregate. We used it because we were trying not to use lumber and wanted the benefits of a passive solar house.

On the other hand, it was not done for cost-effectiveness. In the end we ended-up spending about $350 a square-foot; but the house is probably worth more because I contributed a lot of the labor myself.

Throughout the design and construction, my motivations from the beginning to the end where to be as green as possible.

© Frank Paul Perez, Red Lily Studios

Q: Can you elaborate more on your motivations?
A: Sure. Every material that went into the house was measured-up against the four parts of a life-cycle assessment, including where you source the material and the transportation (how far it takes to get the material) to the site. We wanted the materials that went into our home to as sustainable as possible. We are also concerned about the health of the interior space of our home.

© Frank Paul Perez, Red Lily Studios

Q: What are some of the more notably green aspects of your home?
A: In addition to a ground source heat pump, a radiant floor heating system, and the big thick passive solar walls, we have solar panels on our roof and we also integrated a lot of reclaimed materials throughout.

I shopped for several years for plumbing fixtures, ceiling finishes, and the like. We also have thousands and thousands of board feet of reclaimed lumber. The home has a reclaimed bathtub and reclaimed sinks.

We got a lion share of the framing lumber (9,000 linear feet) from a shopping center that was torn down for the nearby redevelopment of Santana Row, just five miles away.

We are also really proud of the fact that this building is going to last 400-500 years, as opposed to the 80-100 years of a normal wood-framed home. We really built it to last.

© Frank Paul Perez, Red Lily Studios

Q: What are some of the favorite outcomes of the home?
A: My favorite outcome of the project is the look and feel of it. My wife and I also wanted it to be quiet. Thanks to the thick walls – it’s very quiet on the inside. We really like the fact that it just feels solid, and the fact that it looked 300 years-old when it was completed.

It is also great, especially in the summer. You can walk in at 5 in the afternoon on a 100 degree day and it stays cool inside. The walls help it stay cool during the summer and warm during the winter. We really enjoy the effects of the passive heating and the passive cooling systems we have implemented throughout.

© Frank Paul Perez, Red Lily Studios

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