Most humans spend an extraordinarily large percentage of their lifetime indoors. Even active people in our mountain west region that enjoy skiing, hiking, camping and snowshoeing, still spend most of their time indoors.
It’s because of this, that Love | Schack Architecture continues to focus on designing the most healthy projects we can build. It’s why I decided to design and build my own home with the goal of using as much raw, natural and local material as possible.
While it’s a noble goal to offer the most natural end product, balancing budgets, durability and programmatic needs is our job as Architects. That’s an inescapable goal no matter who our clients are.
In my own case, I didn’t have a large budget, but I was willing to trade my own labor and sweat equity to balance upfront costs so I could afford more durable, healthy, natural materials with a lower life-cycle cost.
It’s a fairly conventional design, but after some research and careful planning, I began to combine natural or raw materials to create a sustainable, healthy and affordable home for myself. It surprises some people when they find out that the ‘unconventional’ materials I used are actually natural, low-tech, often overlooked and sometimes forgotten techniques from the past.
The natural materials I used in my home consist mainly of clay, straw, and wood.
While many natural builders use the subsoil from a building site, I had to source mine from a canyon about 10 miles away. My excavator actually dumped a pile of it in my yard and I processed it myself.
One amazing thing about clay is that you can process it in different ways for different uses - wall plaster, wall structure (adobe or cob), or as a floor - similar to a concrete slab, only a little softer and easier to stand on.
Unlike conventional paint or even non-VOC paint, clay has the ability to control humidity and air quality. It is often used in museums to help preserve sensitive artifacts. Clay not only pulls water molecules from the air, it attracts toxins and add negative ions, which help improve our well-being.
I added lime (another natural material that I got at the hardware store) to make plaster to encase straw bale walls, to coat sheetrock walls and to create tadelakt for shower walls.
Why plaster? It’s a carbon-neutral product, it improves air quality, it doesn’t need to be painted, it’s cleanable and it’s easy to repair.
In straw-bale construction, the plaster skin created from clay provides structure and fire protection.
Tadelakt is an ancient moroccan lime plaster technique. It turns to stone as it cures and creates a luxurious, high end finish that’s seamless, waterproof and anti-microbial.
My earthen floor is four inches of clay finished with a beeswax and citrus solvent finish.
Straw may not be an obvious material choice to those familiar with conventional construction, but straw-bale is almost as old as balloon framing. The oldest straw bale buildings in the U.S. were built in Kansas, 120 years ago. Loose or bundled straw has been used for ages. 120 years. In its most basic form, straw bales are stacked and packed, then coated with a plaster skin.
If you’re up to it, you can bale the straw yourself. Some contractors have taken to baling to ensure dimensions and quality. I selected my pre-baled straw from a farm field in southern Idaho.
Though many builders don’t have experience with straw-bale construction, building codes are coming up to speed, especially where fire resistance and structural issues are involved. This is helping to bring the cost of this ‘forgotten’ building technique back into the range of conventional construction.
Using wood in construction may seem obvious, but in my project I used wood that was cut and milled locally from a stand of dead fir.
Wood trim and accents throughout my home are milled from the same local source.I decided to mix raw, natural materials with conventional construction techniques to demonstrate that the two methodologies combine beautifully. The first principle of sustainability is harnessing the free energy of the sun, with lots of windows - which require wood framing. My south facing walls are conventionally framed (double-stud, high-performance framing) and insulated instead of straw because it was easier than cutting/notching straw bales into small spaces around wood posts/studs. I used dense-pack cellulose, or recycled newspaper, for insulation. This is a very commonly used and very affordable product.
I did a little more work than most homeowners will. I spent a little more upfront money on things that will pay me back in the future. The way I see it, by paying for natural, renewable materials, by paying people rather than product or chemical manufacturers, by spreading knowledge of traditional materials and building techniques, everything spent on a project like mine is an investment in the community.
Humans are drawn to nature and more happy and healthy when we are connected to it. These materials automatically create these connections. It is possible to surround ourselves with materials that not only cause no harm but improve our well-being. The earthy smell or the smooth, cool texture of the plaster on my hand or cheek invokes a similar feeling to walking barefoot on grass or digging in a garden. It feels good to know that someday, 100-200 years from now (my house will last that long), all of the materials can go back to the garden.
Here are several resources related to natural building materials and techniques that we recommend:
For FAQs about straw bale construction: https://www.strawbuilding.org/faqs/
For information about the recent CA fires and straw bale vs wood performance: https://www.ecobuildnetwork.org/projects/research/straw-bale-test-program
For specialty finishes using lime plaster, concrete, tadelakt, and clay: Artesano Plaster
For old world wall systems, hand-crafted for today’s buildings: New Age Artisans
For a good article on a natural way to add personality to your interiors: Snaidero-USA
How clay plaster might save the world: https://thelaststraw.org/clay-plaster-might-save-world/
For more information about earthen floors: http://endeavourcentre.org/2015/07/why-we-love-earthen-floors/
For a project that uses natural building techniques to build community: The Pueblo Project
You also have a list of contractors at the bottom of http://loveschackarchitecture.com/passive-house/