Sometimes, you have to travel the world to remember how great home is.
Or, if you’re Miguel Elliot, to really ponder what home is. After many years of travel, Elliot rekindled his love for Sonoma County while mastering the art of building beautiful homes here out of … well, here.
Elliot’ remarkable earth structures are made from the landscape beneath and around them.
Born in Petaluma, Elliot works out of his childhood home on Sunnyslope, where his parents, who just celebrated 50 years together, still live. One of four kids, he recalls how his love of earth building began — with the standard 4th-grade field trip to Vallejo’s Old Adobe fortress.
“I remember being fascinated by the concept of natural air conditioning — how much cooler it was inside the adobe structure,” says Elliot, sitting in his backyard on a bench he constructed by hand from clay.
By “bench” what is meant is an undulating Gaudi-esque sculpture with a bird’s head, a pizza oven, and a cozy, curved, intimate sitting area.
“I asked our teacher if there were any other indigenous forms of building in the area,” Elliot recalls. “And we went to the underground kiva at Miwok village.”
He started trying to build his own kiva in the schoolyard, digging for days with his friends. But rain came and all his efforts collapsed into a huge mud puddle. Still, the kiva and Old Adobe lodged as a tiny seed in the back of his mind.
Elliot attended Cardinal Newman and St. Vincent’s High School, helping his dad with the family tile-setting business on weekends. In school, he was a runner, with a passion for classical guitar and photography. He also played football at St. Vincent’s.
“But I was never a jock,” he says, quickly clarifying. “I was always sort of an outcast. I stood out as someone who didn’t quite fit with everyone else.”
While camping with his dad one weekend, he discovered a fairy-tale town in the heart of the Redwoods near the ocean — Arcata, California. When he found out Humboldt State was located there, he applied immediately. It was the only college to receive an application from the young Elliot. There, he studied music and psychology, initially imagining a future career in music therapy.
After college, he worked with AmeriCorps teaching environmental education to kids in Arcata. While at AmeriCorps, his friend showed him a book called “Building with the Earth.” He immediately remembered good old Vallejo’s fortress, and promptly began studying earth building. When a two-week trip to Thailand with his brother ended up lasting two years, Elliot found himself living in a monastery, working as a counselor with inner city Thai boys with addiction issues. He also taught English and yoga.
And on the side they made adobe bricks.
“I was looking for a project for them to feel good about,” he recalls. “And we needed a bench — a seating area.”
The communal feeling and sense of accomplishment the boys got from building it was powerful. Elliot left Thailand and eventually moved to Chicago where his sister lived. For a while, he taught music at a Waldorf school for kids with developmental disabilities. When the weather was nice, he would take the students out in the garden to sing, and also to work with adobe to build things.