Mary Ellen Strote has always known the kind of home she wanted on her isolated mountainside lot in Calabasas.
She wanted an invisible house.
After three years of construction, her idea is taking shape on a Saddle Peak ridge overlooking Mulholland Highway.
Strote and her husband, Joel, are building an underground house. When they finish the steel-reinforced concrete structure, they will cover it with tons of dirt and plant native wildflowers on its roof.
"It's turned out exactly how we wanted it," said Strote, 43. "I wanted to build the perfect Sierra Club purist house. I didn't want to have a house that was just painted an earth color. I wanted one made from the earth."
The split-level, 4,000-square-foot home can barely be seen by visitors to a nearby nature preserve and other passers-by.
But it is attracting the admiration of Santa Monica Mountains environmentalists who normally cringe at every beat of the carpenter's hammer.
"It shows that it is possible to build in the Santa Monicas and do it unobtrusively," said Sierra Club leader David Brown of Calabasas.
"It shows that people can build and be protective of the natural environment at the same time," said Margo Feuer, a Malibu conservationist.
Although many underground and earth-sheltered homes have been built in the United States, county building and safety officials who have monitored the Strote project said they know of no other underground house in the Santa Monica Mountains area.
Strote said the underground idea took root after she and her husband traded their former home a few miles away in Calabasas for the Saddle Peak property. The previous owner of the 42-acre mountain site had run into roadblocks when he sought state Coastal Commission approval to subdivide the parcel and build conventional houses.
"I feel guilty about living here. I feel it is wrong to put a house here," Strote said. "But, if we hadn't bought it, someone else would have, and it would have eventually been developed."
Neither Strote, who edits fiction articles for Playgirl magazine, nor her husband, Joel, 46, had ever seen an underground house before their own ground breaking in June, 1983.
"This is the first house we've built and we were naive," said Joel Strote, a Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer. "It's been pretty interesting. But it's very difficult when you break every rule of construction, which is what we did."
They cut 50 feet into a steep slope to make room for the house and designed 16-foot-deep footings to anchor it. They changed architects in the middle of the project. And they pushed ahead on their own when the only contractor who bid on the project quit after two weeks.
After that, the Strotes hired workers by the day to build wooden forms for the concrete and fashion a network of steel reinforcing rods. Then they poured cement--for 17 months.
The Strotes have not totaled the construction costs so far, although Mary Ellen Strote said the trial-and-error aspects of the project will force the final amount above $500,000.
For that price, the couple are getting a three-bedroom home built around two circular "light wells" that help illuminate its interior. Its foot-thick exterior walls are waterproofed, formed from a pinkish sandblasted concrete that matches the color of nearby sandstone outcroppings.
The heavily reinforced concrete roof is engineered to hold dirt that eventually will be spread three feet deep and planted with native wildflowers and grasses. Already in place are 42 drains specially designed to prevent rooftop rain accumulation.
"If the mountain catches fire, it can burn right up to our roof without causing damage," Mary Ellen Strote said. "The plants could catch fire and burn to the dirt and they would sprout back later. I won't care if the fire burns right up to the windows--they'll be double-paned, and we'll have roll-down shutters inside."
The result is something of a bunker-like structure, Strote acknowledged this week as she watched workers begin pushing dirt around the rear of the house.
The northern side of the house will be left exposed, with windows that provide a view stretching from the central San Fernando Valley to Westlake Village.
The structure has been described by one of the Strotes' friends as "bunker moderne."
Such a design may be appropriate for Saddle Peak for more than aesthetic reasons, the Sierra Club's Brown said.
"The chaparral up there is 15 years old. It's a forest," Brown said. "Forty acres of that could generate the energy of a Hiroshima bomb when it burns. She needs an underground bunker."
He said the structure blends with its environment better than any he has seen.
"So much of the mountain development we're seeing now is being done the wrong way," he said. "Some of it sticks out like a sore thumb. They're just tract-type houses, painted colors that are totally inappropriate for the mountains. This is the way to do it."
Conservation Efforts Told
Feuer said she and other conservationists have pressed for less-obtrusive construction in the Santa Monica Mountains since the early 1970s, when Los Angeles County designated Mulholland Highway as a scenic corridor and established a citizens committee to set development standards for the highway.
Feuer served on the now-disbanded committee that called for a requirement that houses be "earth colors" and a prohibition of construction that spoils views from the road. She lamented that they were never adopted by the county, although existing zoning in the mountains requires residential lots in fully rural areas to be as large as 20 acres.
"I look at some of the construction that has taken place as an arrogance that totally ignores the values of these mountains," Feuer said. She said the Strotes "have made an enormous effort to deal with nature. I don't know of any other project that has been so protective of the natural environment."
Challenge on Many Levels
Joel Strote, who credits his wife with the underground-house idea, said the project has challenged them on "topographic, financial and emotional" levels--the last because "it was something relatively unique, with unknowns that made it difficult."
But he said the effort will have been worth it when they move in, which they hope to do by Christmas. In the meantime, they are living with their two sons in an old ranch house on the property.
"I'm from the Bronx and Mary Ellen is from Glendale. We like the peacefulness of the mountains and the fact that wildlife is up there," he said.