The Truth Window
January 12, 2011
Contemporary straw bale home builders have made a tradition of cutting into their walls a truth window—a hole on the inside where you can see what the house is made of.
In the house that Joe Trumpey 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 during my tour of the family’s home.
Autumn doesn’t like having her picture taken. Unlike her little sister, Evelyn, who is from Ethiopia and beams for the camera.
Autumn’s light is different.
So instead of having her face the camera, we asked her to open the door of the truth window and gaze inside. Autumn fixed her eyes on the straw there, the guts of the house she’s had a hand in building. And even though she’s probably just trying to ignore the fact she’s having her picture taken, in that photo she appears to be looking at something surprising and wonderful.
And it really is.
The Trumpeys’ entire house is a truth window—a manifestation of lives lived faithfully to the values Joe and Shelly try to hold themselves to. It’s not the “dream house” of realtor promises, but 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, it’s outrageously energy efficient. It doesn’t contribute to global warming—the Trumpeys live off-the-grid, powered by a solar-array that looms over the pasture and their Scottish Highland cattle, Jacobs’ sheep, and goats.
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 cut down and planned to chip into the landfill to control the emerald ash borer. Joe milled all the boards and had at least a hand in setting every one in place.
“We thought that if we could do it, it would be cool to try,” Joe says when asked what inspired the family to take on such a project. “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.”
“I didn’t realize how much work, how long it would take,” Shelly says, “but sometimes Joe has an idea and you go along for the adventure.”
They still call that adventure a work-in-progress, and many of the most livable and lovable spaces evolved from changes to their original plans. The “sweet spots,” Joe calls them.
If that sounds more like artistic process than home building, recall that Joe is professor of art and design at the University of Michigan and an acclaimed science illustrator whose work includes 5,000 illustrations for the award-winning, 17-volume Grzimek’s Animal Life Ency-clopedia.
Artistic inspiration and flourishes are everywhere in the new home. 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, 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. There’s the shell decorations in the master bath and details in the stonework under every first floor window.
These are things that took 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 building the house,” Shelly says. “To get so fixed on the end result we didn’t pay attention to right now.
“I came to love 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.”
And 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 onto that rule, and one—a puggle—probably never will.
They’ve still got a ways to go. 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 bearing the shapes of the fingers which have turned them so many times.
Joe and Shelly plan to clean off that knob and handle when the house is finally finished. But for now it’s a reminder of the land their house has come from, of the hands and hearts that shaped it—that sometimes you have to get messy to get things done, and 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.
See photos of the Trumpeys' home here