Natural Stone

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A classic example of the low-maintenance house is the magnificent stone mansion that the famous architect Charles Greene built in the 1920s for D. L. James near Carmel , on the California coast. The roof is tile, and the rest of the exterior is stone entirely, hauled (by horse and wagon) from a nearby quarry. Even the roof guttering is tile and stone. The foundation is a natural outcropping of bedrock that under lies the site. The stone itself, practically free for the hauling, is of a rather nondescript gray-brown, but when laid by an artist, walls become breathtakingly beautiful. (Greene directed the laying of every stone, and when the masons laid a part of a wall while he was absent, he had it torn down because it didn’t quite match the texture he was striving for.) Greene also demonstrated that irregularly shaped stones could be adapted to any form an architect could dream up. He used them to frame round windows, to make large and small arches, for the sills under windows, for grottoed door frames, for chimneys and parapets. You have to see it to believe it; the photo here doesn’t do it justice.

The James house—castle, really—was of course extremely expensive to build, but one can use the lessons it teaches to build a very fine but a more humble-size home quite cheaply Greene, who came out of the arts and crafts movement of the early twentieth century, was following in that tradition: make use of as much of the natural materials around you as possible. On such a rocky site as he built on, a person in spare time could start laying up stone on the natural bedrock—the stone free for the breaking and lifting—and raise a house to the roofline without spending much more than the cost of mortar.


Scott and Helen Nearing hand-built all the stone buildings on their home stead by using the slip-forming method. Wooden forms hold the stone vertically in place as mortar shoveled in between the stones cement them together. Once set, the forms are removed.

Even stone walls built with slip forms, where you can’t really see the pattern you are creating too well until you take the form away, are very attractive, as anyone understands who has seen Scott and Helen Nearing’s home or read their books on the subject of stone walls. “A slipformed house can be built for less than two-thirds the cost of a similar house made of wood and will compare favorably with mason-built stone houses in terms of durability and attractiveness,” says the book Back to Basics: How to Learn and Enjoy Traditional American Skills (Reader’s Digest Association). Still more money can be saved by building a two-wythe “sandwich” wall with insulation in the cavity (as I talked about earlier in this section when I discussed brick and masonry walls) and letting the inner wythe serve as the inner wall. This practice is best suited for the walls that surround a large fireplace. The heat of the fire will be absorbed into the heavy stone walls and radiate back out over a long period of time. If, on the other hand, an inside wall is to be paneled or otherwise needs furring strips, these are embedded in the concrete as the form is filled, against the interior side of the form. In this case, the stones are laid mostly to the exterior side of the form, and the interior side is filled with concrete only. There are many good books on slipforming stone walls, including the Nearings’ account in their book Living the Good Life and Build It Better Yourself (Rodale Press, 1976).

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Updated: Saturday, December 24, 2016 16:53