In early 2012 the Three Rivers Hermitage Community was notified that a pipeline on their property would need to be replaced the following year in order to meet an “increasing global demand” for fossil fuels. The Hermitage, a place designed to invoke solitude and peace, was faced with the fact that this would not only cost them four acres of woodland, but would also force them to be complicit with the process of extraction and delivery of oil from the Athabaskan Oil Field in Alberta, Canada.
When realizing that as property owners they could not legally resist a thousand-mile pipeline, they resolved instead to use both the settlement resources and future planning resources to work toward greatly reducing The Hermitage’s reliance on the oil that flows under its soil. Thus, Earth House was born.
In 2016, the need to expand the resident staff for the retreat center became a necessity. Perhaps more importantly, this challenge also provided an opportunity to build a house for the new residents that would not rely on oil or fossil fuels, and would not produce construction or deconstruction waste. Naomi Wenger, part of the residential community of The Hermitage, told Watershed Voice, “We built with the idea that the house should last for 400 years and when it needs to be destroyed, it can simply return to the land without becoming waste.”
The Hermitage Community is a contemplative prayer retreat in rural Three Rivers, Michigan. The guesthouse and a nearby chapel building sit on 62 acres of rolling meadows and woodland. More information on the retreat center can be found at www.hermitagecommunity.org or by calling (269) 244-8698.
Consulting with Thomas Hirsch of Bungalow Builders (located in Benzonia) who were already actively building houses from straw and clay, The Hermitage began devising a blueprint for the build that utilized an ancient method of construction. Using straw for thermal resistance with clay as a binder, and the clay offering protection from fire, pests, and mold, the decision to use this centuries-old technique was the first earth-friendly measure The Hermitage took during construction.
Earth House is just that, a house built entirely of sunshine, rain, and soil. Hand-built with the help of 150 volunteers over the course of over two years, the home was constructed with local dirt, wood from their own pine plantation, and non-toxic materials. The house is fitted with earth floors, earth plaster walls, wood ceilings, wood siding, and insulation made from mixtures like straw and clay or mineral wool — insulation spun from rocks. Heating for Earth House is supplied by radiant in-floor heating and a wood-burning stove. Additionally, the home has 26 solar panels to service all the electrical needs of the residence.
In August of 2022, the build was finished and a dedication was held for The Hermitage Community to honor the work that had been accomplished. Earth House welcomed new co-directors Faith and Troy Bierma not long after, joining current residents Naomi Wenger and her husband David.
The structure is a testament to the strength of a community when it has a vision for positive change, in fact, Naomi said she hopes Earth House sparks an interest locally in construction that does not have a devastating and lasting effect on the planet.
In the dedication ceremony for the eco-friendly residence, Naomi spoke of the triumphs and challenges experienced over the course of the project. “Though we leave it unfinished — the landscaping and a small amount of interior finish remain to be done — we leave it with our hearts full of the desire that this be a house of blessing to those who live and visit.”
Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.