Mowing the roof?

Couple’s earth home was perfect retirement plan


Wide, long windows face the home’s south end bringing in plenty of natural light. The home is so well lit by the sun, that little if any artificial light is needed during the day. Photo by Carol Stender


Like many homeowners, Phyllis Jastram has mowed and tended garden, but few make the same claim she can of doing those things – on the roof!

Although she’s let the roof’s grass grow long, Jastram said the earth home she and her husband, the late Rev. Robert Jastram, built more than 25 years ago remains solid. The concrete structure, built in Minnesota lakes country, is a two-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot, including two-car garage, structure.

The home was built between Fergus Falls and Wadena and served as the perfect retirement spot for the couple, who grew up together near Sioux Falls, S.D.

“We were both born near Sioux Falls and went to the same church,” Phyllis said. “Our parents were friends. We were in Walther League together, and all the while, I thought he was the most handsome usher our church ever had!”

Robert was enrolled in the seminary to become a pastor, but he was called first into military service. He was shipped to Japan to be part of the invasion force when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Phyllis said. Robert went in with the occupation forces in 1945. He became friends with several Japanese families and was determined to come back as a missionary. He returned to the states with silk for Phyllis’ wedding dress, and the two were married June 1, 1947.

He made good on his promise to the Japanese families when, after attending seminary, his first call was to Japan.

They traveled with two of their children on a freighter. The trip took 14 days, she said. They were the only American family in the 80,000 population town of Shibata. Another three children were born to the couple over their 23 and a half year stay in the Asian Pacific.

“From the Japanese people, we learned the language, many of their customs and made a lot of dear friends,” she said.

Phyllis took classes in flower arranging and tea ceremonies. And, from the Jastrams, the residents of the community learned about faith and American culture. Phyllis invited the local school children to their home, where she showed them American cooking.

She conducted English classes and had students from ages 6 to 60, she said.

“I was determined to teach the men some politeness to the women,” she said. “The women would walk behind them, but taught them to open the door for women.”

Their children attended a boarding high school in Tokyo while the couple continued their ministry with a 100-member congregation. Many of the congregants came from the mountain communities to attend services.

They left in 1976 with 12 other families. Their American church could no longer support the mission, and more Japanese pastors were establishing congregations.

It was the start of a new ministry. Bob was pastor at a church in Gettysburg, S.D., and later, in Parkers Prairie where he served for 10 years until his retirement.


Bedroom in Phyllis Jastram’s energy efficient home.


He was interested in earth homes, and since the couple liked the area, they decided to build beside a lake. They looked until they found the ideal spot in lakes country.

The Jastrams looked at earth homes due, in part, to a growing interest in energy efficiency. They toured earth homes in Nebraska and Montana and looked at designs and construction. Once they hired a company to make the dome-style structure, they began the build in 1989. It took three to four years to finish the structure, Phyllis said.

There are three 900-square-foot modules, including a garage, in the home’s structure. The earth home offers many benefits, including no air conditioning in the summer, and it uses little heat in the winter, she said.

The large windows on the south-facing home bring in plenty of light throughout the day resulting in little if any indoor lighting needed.

“It is quiet and offers even temperatures, very low maintenance and so much more,” Phyllis said. “And if we had to do it over again, we would do the same thing.”

Robert, who did much of the work himself, planned the home’s design to accommodate the couple’s needs as they aged. He measured doorways, making sure a wheelchair could easily pass through, and he put light switches at each doorway.

One design feature was influenced by their time in Japan. The couple installed an “ofuro”, a Japanese bath which is short and steep sided. While many ofuros are freestanding, the Jastrams had their ofuro sunk from the bathroom floor. A Japanese scene done in tile was placed on a nearby wall.

The home’s “age in place” design was crucial to the couple when Robert was diagnosed with multiple systems atrophy. The disease causes the nerves to gradually deteriorate, and over the nine years he battled it, Bob experienced loss of mobility. The one-story home design accommodated his wheelchair and other care equipment he needed. The only renovations to the home during that time were to the front door to move the wheelchair in and out and the installation of a shower in the bathroom.

“Living in our earth home was a great blessing and helpful in many ways,” she said.

Bob died just five days before his 80th birthday, but his legacy continues.

Phyllis recently returned to Japan to a warm welcome by the Shibata community.

“The Japanese bow when greeting one another, but we didn’t. We just hugged,” she said with a smile. “One of the comments the members made was that Bob was a kind, loving person.”


Phyllis Jastram sits in the open kitchen-dining-living room in the earth home she and her husband, the late Rev. Robert Jastram, built in the early 1990s. They designed the home to be an “age in place” home, with wheelchair-wide doorways and light switches at each door. The earth home uses little heat in the winter and needs no air conditioning in summer. Photo by Carol Stender


Their years in Japan, coupled with their strong connection to family, is evident in the home’s decorations. It has a pleasing mix of family photos and Japanese art.

And it remains the perfect home for Phyllis. Bob’s careful planning in the design and the home’s efficient layout make it easy to maneuver and care for, she said.

“It’s the perfect place,” she added.

#EarthHome #EnergyEfficiency #LakeCountry #RetirementHome

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