The Truth Window

Steve Charles—Joe Trumpey ’88 says that most straw bale houses have a truth window—a hole in the adobe on the inside where you can see what the walls are made of.

In the house that Joe and his wife, Shelly, have built, the truth window is a small lattice-work door in an ornate frame that looks like it came from a Buddhist shrine. They found it in Nepal, and it honors their daughter, Autumn, who is from that high country, and who I photographed opening that window.

(See photo albums from the home here and here.)

The minute I took out the camera I could tell Autumn wasn’t comfortable having her picture taken. Unlike her little sister, Evelyn, who is from Ethiopia and beams for the camera.

Autumn’s light is different. When she opened the door of that shrine, she fixed her eyes on the straw inside, the guts of the house she’s had a hand in building, and even though she’s probably just staring at it so intently so to ignore the fact she’s having her picture taken, in that photo she appears to be looking at something surprising and wonderful.

In a sense, the Trumpey’s house is a truth window—a manifestation of lives lived faithfully to the values Joe and Shelly try to hold themselves to.

Realtors promise buyers a “dream house.” Contractors tell customers what’s what they can build for them.

But Joe and Shelly’s home is no dream house. It’s a house of vision built with their own hands. A house from the land that fits the land, facing south for maximum passive solar effect, is outrageously energy efficient, and doesn’t contribute to global warming. It’s off-the-grid, powered by a solar-array that looms over the pasture and their Scottish Highland cattle, Jacobs’ sheep, and goats. (And some of those are fainting goats—Evelyn says Autumn can make them faint, too!)

The more than 500 linear feet of stone Shelly has set in place (including the 35-foot high fireplace and chimney at its heart) came from the ground that surrounds the house, as did most of the lumber. The rest is from ash trees a nearby town took down and was going to chip into the landfill to control the emerald ash borer.

Joe milled all the boards, had at least a hand in setting every one in place.

From my notes from my visit last week I see these quotes from Joe:

“We thought that if we could do it, it would be cool to try.”

“Everything took longer, and was more difficult, than we expected. But sometimes you have to take risks. And after awhile, it gets in the water.”

And these from Shelly: “I didn’t realize how much work, how long it would take (not to mention that she would become a stone mason!) I think Joe had a better idea what it was going to take, but sometimes Joe has an idea and you go along for the adventure.”

“I loved doing the stone work. It’s kind of a zen thing—when you’ve got the mortar mixed just right, putting the stone together is like a puzzle. Peaceful.”

Off the grid. Outrageously energy efficient. A small carbon footprint. Even the first generation Toyota Prius in the front yard. All these things I expected.

What surprised me were the details that seem to have evolved throughout the project—the changes from the original plan that turned into some of the most livable, lovable spaces in the house. The “sweet spots,” Joe calls them.

This is the stuff of artistic process, not home building.

There’s that second floor balcony on the north side, the railing designed by Shelly to reflect the leaves on the trees of the forest it frames.

The summer kitchen was in the original blueprint, I think, but its shape has changed, keeps getting better.

There are the doorways of the girls’ rooms—Autumn’s is shaped like Mt. Everest, Eveyln’s to fit an Ethiopian angel.

The details in the stonework under every first floor window.

These are things that take more work and more time—hard decisions to make after two years of work and an end only now in sight.

Shelly tells the story of a friend who recently went on vacation and spending so much looking down at the ground she hardly looked up to see what she had come to see in the first place.

“I didn’t want to do that while buiding the house,” Shelly said. “To get so fixed on the end result we didn’t pay attention to right now.”

So there have been moments of celebration. A bonfire last fall. Thanksgiving just after the roof was on. And Christmas around that glorious central fireplace and chimney.

This year they took the girls to Disneyland—Joe and Shelly’s first real vacation in three years.

And their first new piece of furniture in years—a couch—arrived last week, not long after the girls moved into their new rooms. It’s the first piece in the house the five dogs aren’t allowed jump up on. The dogs haven’t yet caught on to that rule, and one—a pugle—probably never will.

They’ve still got a ways to go—the detail work that always takes longer than anyone planned. There’s a wheelbarrow in the entryway, waiting to carry more adobe for the final coat. The brass handle and knob on the front door are still coated with adobe mud bearding the shapes of the fingers which have turned them so many times.

Joe and Shelly will probably clean off that knob and handle when the house is finally finished. But I’d be tempted to keep them that way as a reminder of the land their house has come from, and of the hands and fingers that shaped it. That sometimes you have to get messy to get things done, of what you can do when you’re not afraid to take risks, and of the window you open for others to see when you stay true to your own way of living in the world.

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5 Responses to The Truth Window

  1. Pingback: Shelly and Joe Trumpey ’88: Off the Grid | Moments

  2. Steve Badger '87 says:

    Bro Trumpey,

    Congratulations on your new home. It sounds like its construction was truly a labor of love. Best wishes to you and your family. Steve

  3. Kelly Henn says:

    What an awesome home! You guys are setting such a great example for your family and the rest of us. Congrats!

  4. Nancy Doemel says:

    This is just the kind of adventure I would expect from you two. I’m so pleased to see the pictures and know that you are so far along. Bill and I retire in December – hope to find some time to wander north to Lansing, where our son lives, and maybe even see this fabulous work-in-progress for ourselves. Best wishes and love to both of you.