50 years off-grid: architect-maker paradise amid NorCal redwoods

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50 years off-grid: architect-maker paradise amid NorCal redwoods
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Published – 04/27/2020 7:55 am

In 1968, Charles Bello and his wife, Vanna Rae, moved onto 240 acres of redwood forest looking to live a simpler life off the land.

They had spent their savings to purchase the land so they got to work building their home themselves. Their first structure was a panelized A-frame that they erected in 5 days (with help from a couple family members). Total cost was $2,800.

The property is a half-hour drive down a dirt road and it was bare land when they arrived so Charles and Vanna Rae built their own infrastructure: roads, bridges and went decades without refrigeration nor phone (they eventually installed PV panels and cabling for phone lines).

After 15 years in the A-frame, they built a cabin in the woods and there they lived for a decade until the trees began to block out their views. In 1991 Charles (who once apprenticed under famed architect Richard Neutra) designed the Parabolic Glass House. With a curvilinear wood roof and two curved walls of windows, the home feels enveloped in trees.

Charles and Vanna Rae built it for $8,500 with timber they milled themselves, using salvaged materials for everything from doorknobs to stoves. The couple relied on photovoltaics, solar thermal and gas for power and a dug-in greenhouse attached to the home provided much of their food. By canning and preserving, they could go for months without going to a grocery store. Their two boys were homeschooled. The couple supported themselves selling Christmas trees.

Nearly all the old growth trees on the property were logged in the early 20th century, but Charles has spent the past half century restoring the land. He and his wife set up the Redwood Forest Institute in 1997 to manage and preserve the forest. He has carefully selected 1,000 trees to be preserved for 2 millenia as the next generation of old growth.

Now, 87 years old and a widower, Charles is determined to find successors; he hopes to find three couples who want to settle on the property (currently worth about 4-6 million dollars) in exchange for continuing as stewards of the land. He is currently building glamping guest houses that he hopes will help fund the enterprise. His website now advertises “seeking caretaker ASAP”, someone “wanting to get away from it all and live a more simple down to earth lifestyle”.

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