Charles Bello - 50 years off-grid

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

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). The 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 the 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 millennia as the next generation of old-growth.

Now, 88 years old and a widower, Charles is determined to find successors; he hopes to find "three professional couples in their early 40's, financially independent, who want to settle on the property continuing 52 years stewardship of this special place in a sustainable lifestyle where one does for himself or herself rather than urban living". He is currently building "glamping" guest houses that he hopes will help fund the enterprise.

Charles Bello Documentary

In Summer 2013, we took a trip into the heart of 400 acres in Northern California. We stayed in the Parabolic Glass House at Charles Bello's Redwood Forest Institute. The experience was like a time trip into the days before the Iron Horse despoiled the great frontier.

I recorded a brief stream of consciousness introduction the morning just before we left, reflecting on the experience to begin the video I shot on the fly the day before.

Charles Bello, a San Francisco architect in the 1950's, bought land in late 1960's and moved off the grid. Today he continues to live off the land, renewing the forest and tending to the trees he loves.