Diamond in the Rough (and Ready)

Diamond in the Rough (and Ready)

By David A. Greene
Architect Ken Meffan's ten-years-in-the-making home is in the tiny Northern California town of Rough and Ready—a term that might as aptly refer to the house itself.

This was a really difficult site to build on, because there’s so much water. A creek runs through it, and there are springs all over the place. But we love the water, and so do the kids. They dam the creek up every summer for swimming, and it collects silt in the winter, which makes great compost for the garden. Last year, we grew sunflowers that must have been 12 feet tall.

Architect and builder Ken Meffan lives in Rough and Ready, California, a tiny town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. "Rough and ready" also describes his take on domestic bliss: Meffan, 56, is known for his rugged, modern houses in the High Sierra. But when it came to creating his own homestead, he, his wife, Sue, and their four kids roughed it for over a decade (two years in a tent and nine in a workshop) while he built his family’s home by hand.

There are two structures on the property: the little workshop, where we lived for almost ten years, and the main house. Before the workshop, we lived in a tent. We were very poor, but we were having an adventure, like the Swiss Family Robinson—–until a giant, once-every-20-years rainstorm pretty much blew us away. The morning after the storm was over, the kids came to me and said, "Dad, this isn’t so much fun anymore."

Though all the plants are mundane home-center varieties, they grow to uncanny heights in the moist, sunny environment.

We only had two of the four kids when I started building the main house, and as the family grew, we kept adding bedrooms. Officially, it’s 3,400 square feet, but half of that is a greenhouse. When I was a young architect in Malibu, I hired a landscaper who took me to a greenhouse tucked back in one of the canyons. It was crammed full of plants, and when we squeezed down one aisle, he said, "Just take a deep breath." And when I breathed that pure, oxygen-fortified air, I knew that I wanted to build a house just like that.

Dylan, 10, and Zoe, 13, have a lazy float down the creek, Huck Finn–style, in a steel horse-watering tank.

Regular houses are full of barriers. Even windows are psychological barriers. Here, we slide open the walls and live in direct contact with nature. You can feel the weather in here. I was on a business call once when it was raining; it was this tremendous downpour, where the sky just opened up, and I couldn’t hear or talk. That’s what this house is all about.

"In a regular house you can't hear the birds or feel the fresh air," says Meffan, contrasting it with his greenhouse-within-a-house.

Living with wildlife is also important. We get lizards inside and don’t bother to run them out. We’ve had wild turkeys wander in, and a baby squirrel used to sleep with the kids. We have tons of people here all the time, too. I’ve stopped noticing when there’s an extra kid or two in the house.

Sue waters the indoor foliage with an industrial hose hung from the ceiling.

I consider this house a prototype. Some of its features I wouldn’t dare  build for customers, in case they don’t work out. Like the garage-door "sunroof" in our bedroom, or the sliding glass walls. When I build those walls for customers, I buy cool, superexpensive hardware from Germany, with big lever handles. Here, I tried something different, putting them on Rollerblade wheels. They worked out wonderfully, though! The flip side of experimenting is that the inspection process can be a real drag. I had to get a rural occupancy permit for us to live out here. And I had to block off the spot where the fireman’s pole was supposed to go.

Rocks dug up during construction were saved and incorporated into the poured-concrete floors and walls. Hydronic heating coils in the floor are augmented by a wood stove during the damp winters.

For the walls, my theory was "anything but drywall." The walls on the ground floor are straw bales, covered with clay mud dug from the site. And a lot of the wood upstairs is salvaged. When I build big vacation houses for other people, we usually clear a bunch of trees on the location and mill them into lumber onsite.And then when the job is over, I just drag home whatever’s left and use it around here.

Cody, 17, and Dylan jam in the kitchen with Yogi, the Welsh corgi.

There’s corrugated polycarbonate on the roof of the greenhouse and corrugated galvanized siding out on the workshop. I consider it an indigenous material. In nearby gold-mining towns like Grass Valley and Nevada City, the forty-niners used corrugated metal extensively, probably because it was a cheap material. They built a lot of Victorian houses, too, but those don’t stimulate me as much as an old barn does, or an old mine building. If you make a building too perfect, it doesn’t give you that interesting feel. You don’t want your house to feel like a modern furniture store.

The front door is made from re-milled old leftover beams. A custom pivot mechanism allows the weight of the massive door to rest on a tiny point, allowing for almost friction-free operation.

I grew up in suburbia, in Redondo Beach, California, and I think our environment here is a rebellion against that. Once, I wondered if the kids might be better off somewhere else, so I asked them what they thought about living here. They said, "Are you kidding, Dad? We love it here." They don’t know anything different, of course. But they will. My 20-year-old daughter lives down in San Luis Obispo now, and she thought it was so great to have her own apartment. But after two weeks of sitting in that drywall box, she started to appreciate what she had up here in Rough and Ready. We’re pretty good with weird around here. It’s a little on the funky side, but it’s home.

The showers are made from stock-watering tanks from the Ideal Stock Tank Co. and have waterproof canvas curtains. Less expensive than prefab shower-tub units, stock tanks are built of weatherproof galvanized steel and are sturdy enough for cows to drink from—–and, ergo, for you to bathe in.

The floorboards are lumberyard "culls" that had turned gray or cracked from being exposed to weather. Meffan had them re-milled into pristine planks with an old-world feel. Contractors typically pass up culls to get to the "good" wood below. Ask at your local home center, and you may be able to get them at a steep discount, or even for free.

A media storage unit is made from a steel pivot welded to a heavy-duty tractor bearing by Sierra Metal Fabricators. The massive, smooth-spinning unit also serves as a room

divider, to screen a desk and computer station from the main living area.

As Meffan was hand-troweling the concrete floor, his daughter ran in with different leaf specimens from the property, like ferns and bamboo. Meffan pressed the leaves into the drying concrete and later swept the crumbling leaves away, leaving "fossil" impressions in the floor. The floor was then sealed with a nontoxic acrylic.

The young Meffans relish playing in the creek’s adjustable dam, made from poured concrete. The nutrient-rich silt that collects over the summer is dumped on the vegetable garden in the winter, when the creek flows freely.


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