Barry Vogel: Home Performance Pioneer

September 03, 2017
Fall 2017
This online-only article is a supplement to the Fall 2017 print edition of Home Energy Magazine.
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Have you ever dreamed about buying a plot of land and building a cabin, a retreat, or even your year-round home? Barry Vogel, an Attorney, Counselor and Mediator, in Ukiah, California, has done this not once but three times. The last time was in 1986, when a friend told him about an acre of land for sale a quarter mile from downtown Ukiah, just a four-minute walk from his law office. Not wanting to miss out on this prime location, he and his wife made a full-price offer that very day. Choosing to live so close to work was a way of designing his life to avoid car commuting. Although that particular decision was carefully planned, his choice of Ukiah was more serendipitous. “Before I settled on Ukiah as a place to live, I wanted to check-out another town in Trinity County, ” he says, “but I liked Ukiah so much I never left.”

Vogel has deep roots in Mendocino County, where Ukiah is the largest city (16,000 people) and also the county seat. Starting out as a young civil rights attorney in the mid 1970s, he was instrumental in defending groups of owner-builders in rural communities throughout northern California against criminal charges alleging that they had violated state-wide building codes by living in rustic cabins without electricity, heating, or conventional plumbing, as some tiny house enthusiasts do today (see my previous Home Energy article on the topic, “California’s Owner-Builder Movement”). Vogel’s connections—and eventual friendships—with these owner-builders provided knowledge and inspiration when he made his first attempt at home building.

Vogel’s home today: the yurt from the side, with its spiral staircase. (Barry Vogel)

Long before green building was the trend that it is today, Vogel was thinking about how to build houses that were energy efficient, economical, comfortable, and spiritually centering. In 1976, he bought 40 acres of land in northern California, between Ukiah and the town of Mendocino, an area known for its natural beauty and temperate climate. At that time in California (and in the United States as a whole), interest rates on homes were prohibitively high, but land was relatively cheap. This combination of circumstances helped convince “back to the landers” to take an alternative path to homeownership. They bought land and built their own shelters, usually simple cabins. The United States had just been through the OPEC oil embargo, the environmental movement was beginning to flourish, and these owner-builders rejected consumerist lifestyles that relied heavily on fossil fuels, instead favoring low-impact simplicity.

His First Cabin: Learning by Doing

Although he was inexperienced in the craft of home building, Vogel wanted to learn by doing, and so he built his first cabin with the help of many experienced friends. He camped in a grove of redwoods on his land during the process (although he’s quick to point out that he had a bed and other creature comforts). He had no formal construction training, but he sought the advice of the owner-builders he had successfully defended in 14 high-profile trials throughout northern California. At that time, there were numerous books and articles on owner-building, which helped to fuel the growing movement.

His first cabin was compact and simple: 16 feet x 24 feet with a 16 x 8-foot sleeping loft. It had a propane stove and a wood stove. He drew 12 volt electricity from his truck. For water, Vogel pumped it up hill 360 feet over a quarter-mile drawn from a nearby spring. He still remembers, in a visceral way, his “shriek of joy” when he turned on the tap in his cabin and “and potable water flowed.” He filtered the water, stored it in two holding tanks, and never got sick.

He also used an old fashioned outhouse, well screened to keep vectors (flies) from getting in or out. Vogel knew all about the importance of managing sewage, which was a major bone of contention between rural owner-builders and the rural counties’ building inspectors. One successful case was dubbed “The Great Toilet Trial when the judge, also an owner builder, dismissed the case.

A Favorable Climate for Rural Home Building

The political climate at this time was actually favorable to rural builders who wanted to build rural cabins, including log cabins, and use an outhouse, rather than otherwise potable water, to manage their sewage. Governor Jerry Brown (then in his first term in 1977) was very supportive of the use of outhouses and had appointed a staff member to focus on this issue—a person who happened to have been one of Vogel’s law school professors. The Brown administration agreed with the many owner-builders who argued that outhouses and compost privies were a sensible way to conserve water in drought-prone California. What was not sensible, they argued, was using clean, potable water to handle sewage. Brown even supported changing California’s laws to permit outhouses in appropriate settings.

Vogel’s cabin was a success in some ways. The site was on a hilltop and had glorious views, and the heating, electricity, and water were all functional. But it was very poorly insulated, making it much too hot in the summer, when nearby Ukiah could reach temperatures of over 100°F. Still, the experience taught him a lot and prepared him for his next home-building project.

Young Interests

That first cabin burned down in the winter of 1981, for unknown reasons, when Vogel was travelling in China. But he certainly wasn’t done building. He had always been drawn to remote cabins and retreats in the woods. As a boy growing up in the Hollywood Hills, Vogel had wanted to be one of three things: a lawyer, a symphony conductor, or an architect. He was attracted to architecture and music as creative outlets, but his father was a lawyer. Law and politics were regularly discussed at dinner time with his family.

As a college student in the 1960s, Vogel travelled to Mississippi to register African American voters. This trip furthered his desire to protect and defend civil rights—a career that he pursues to this day. Of that experience in the segregated South, Vogel says, “Looking back on those days, I realize how lucky I am to be alive.” Although Vogel did not become an architect, housing and design intersected with his law practice when he defended the owner-builders who, in turn, influenced his own personal housing choices. He was always particularly interested in the intersection of creativity, design, and shelter, seeing a house not only as fulfilling a basic human need for protection from the elements but also as expressing and shaping its owner’s (or occupant’s) values and activities.

A side view of Vogel’s second cabin in the redwoods. (Barry Vogel)

A front view of Vogel’s second cabin in the redwoods. The home was a total of 800 sq. ft. (Barry Vogel)

His Second Cabin: With a Little Help From His Friends

Vogel’s second cabin was a bit more ambitious than his first. It was on the same piece of land, but this time, he hired friends who lived nearby to build it while he approved the designs. It is 20 feet x 20 feet and two stories tall, a total of 800 square feet, with porches and long views. This cabin was intended as a retreat. Even today—Vogel still owns it. Prior to cell-phones it got only radio reception. At that time, the Mendocino County owner-builder controversy was a hotly debated topic, and Vogel took great pleasure in retreating to his owner-built cabin and listening to local radio shows on the fundamental right to shelter.

Many of us might fantasize about building our own homes—or even have a strong desire to do so—and yet not act on it. Plumbing, sewage, electricity, staying warm in the winter and cool in the summer, in a house that is structurally safe and as low impact as possible, are basic goals of creating shelter. Although Vogel had no formal training in design or construction, he had one trait that gave him confidence and motivation. He wanted to learn, and he believed that he could apply his learning. He cites his mother as an inspiration. When Barry was about 13 years old, his mother began a Ph.D. program in psychology—an uncommon goal for a woman of that era. “Why,” he asked her, did she think she could accomplish this lofty goal? Her answer: “If someone else can do it, there’s no reason I can’t.” That sounded reasonable to her young son, and this attitude stayed with him as he grew older and took on new challenges, whether joining the Peace Corps, going to law school and passing the bar exam or a building a cabin in the woods. Vogel pursues and shares his curiosity and passion for learning through his radio show, Radio Curious, of which he has been the host and producer since 1991. It airs weekly on about 70 stations in the US and Canada, and the website contains about 600 podcasts on a wide variety of topics.

His curiosity led him to take on a variety of do-it-yourself projects. In 1972, when he was living in Boston and working as a civil rights lawyer, he decided that he wanted to design and make his own clothes. He found and enrolled in a class called Sewing for Men. This can-do attitude and desire to learn would help propel him through his later homebuilding projects. “I remember reading a biography of Wilbur and Orville Wright: They said, if you can draw it accurately, you can build it,” Vogel said. “And I found that to be true whether making my own shirts and pants, or a new neck for my banjo.” In fact, before he built his first cabin in California, he and his girlfriend purchased a cabin on the Appalachian Trail, near Bear Mountain, Connecticut. . This was his first experience with the joys of an outhouse. It was at this time that he also started making his own simple furniture, including Adirondack chairs and tables.

Vogel’s home today: the yurt connected to the 16x24-ft. room between the two yurts. (Barry Vogel)

His Home Today

The home Vogel lives in today is a beautiful two-story double yurt that is a 10-minute walk from downtown Ukiah and a 4-minute walk to the General Specialties building, where his law office has been since 1974. Significantly larger and more accessible than his previous two cabins, it reflects a combination of experience, experimentation, learning from others, and self-teaching.

Vogel and his wife were fully involved in designing this house. At first they hired an architect to design it, but bids to build it came in at three times their budget.

Remembering a friend from the “owner-builder” days who was building yurts, they started again. Barry was the owner/builder/contractor, and he hired an experienced contractor who knew about yurts to be the on-site project manager, as he knew whom to hire and how to make sure everything was done in sequence. The two yurts, each 21 feet in diameter, are two stories with a 16 x 26 connector. Each yurt has 16 sides, a conical roof, and a 5-foot diameter skylight. The 16 sides of each yurt meet each other at 22° angles. This creates the sensation of being in a round room.

Heating and Cooling

The home uses a convection system to capture natural heating and cooling. Each of the conical ceilings has a fan and an air vent and fan to draw the warm air up and out on hot summer days. The windows are closed during the day and open at night. At night, the pantry has a vector proof hold and a fan that draws cool air to rush in to keep non-refrigerated food cool. The home does have air conditioning; however, it is only used when the temperature exceeds 100 F.

Each of the 16 panes in the yurts has 12 inches of insulation to maintain warmth in the winter and stay cool in the summer. The Vermont Castings fireplace in the living room on the first floor has a ceiling vent, allowing the warm air to convect upward into the master bedroom.

Most of us live in square or rectangular rooms, with 90° angles. Yurts, with their unusual angles, make it difficult to have closets, but living in round rooms that do not have 90 degree angles can shape how we view our environment. The second floor of each yurt has a 200-degree view and provides the feeling of being in a tree house. Vogel relates that his daughter Hanna—now a ceramic artist who creates large-scale installations—who realized at the age of about 7 that other people lived in square rooms. She remembers that this gave her a special perspective when she was growing up, one that differed from other people she knows.

Being an Owner-Builder Today

Does Vogel have any advice for people who are drawn to building, or designing, their own homes? Fundamentally, he says “Go for it” He believes that we all have the ability to learn anything we want—particularly today, when information is so readily available, and there are online forums to troubleshoot nearly anything, allowing us to learn from peers near and far.

What about financial obstacles? Some of us are reluctant to take out loans, but Barry reminds us that borrowing is an acceptable way to gather the funds necessary to build shelter for yourself and your family. He took out loans to purchase the land where he built his cabins and the land where he built his current home, and he looks back on those decisions as the only way he could have achieved his goals. If financial disaster strikes and you lose the home, you’ll never lose the knowledge you gained from building it—knowledge you can later apply elsewhere. “Our home is where we have the greatest mental freedom,” Vogel says; it is where we can safely imagine and manifest our creativity. Our immediate environs are very potent in that regard”.

Vogel takes inspiration from the 2,000-year-old redwood trees that surround him in northern California. Those long standing wonders of the world prove “the right risks are worth taking.”

Mariel Wolfson is an academic editor at American Journal Experts (AJE). She has a Ph.D. in the History of Science from Harvard University.

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