Twelve years ago I had never even heard of building with straw. I lived in a four-bedroom colonial house in a subdivision in Maryland. The conventional American Dream – good job, big house, nice cars, the monthly lawn service, the health club membership, 24/7 access to shopping …
Then on my 49th birthday came the American nightmare. A wake up call from Mother Nature. Sometimes she needs to smack you hard to get her attention. My wake up was a cancer diagnosis that sent me spinning into a quest of asking questions and trying to understand “how could this happen to me?”
One path of my quest (probably driven by my background as a chemist) sent me questioning the chemicals in my environment: the food I was eating, the air I was breathing, the water I was drinking, the lifestyle I was living, the buildings in which I was residing and working. The answers took me beyond the overt pollution of urban air and water to the hidden nooks of micro pollutants in synthetic materials, chemical food processes and endocrine disrupters in simple everyday products.
The quest also took me on another path. I began looking for a place to live clean and chemical free, or at least as clean as is possible. And that’s how I came to a small town in the North Fork Valley (www.northforkvalley.net) in Western Colorado.
In this place, I discovered clean air, local “clean food,” and seasonal cooking. I now buy directly from farmers I know. Now I help with birthing their lambs and growing vegetables. Now I preserve fruit from local organic orchards when it is ripe and I buy meat directly from local ranchers. I have traded conventional processed food for “living food.” In fact, one of my favorite farms in Paonia, Colorado is named The Living Farm (www.thelivingfarm.org). They are dedicated to chemical-free growing for their plants and animals.
So if I could be surrounded by healthy, clean elements and could take local, healthy, clean food into my body, how could my husband and I live in a healthy, clean building that was locally produced? The answer came when we learned about the EcoNest “living sanctuary” construction made of clay, straw and timbers (www.Econest.com).
EcoNest architect Paula Laporte-Baker describes “a home that nurtures the health and well-being of its occupants while stewarding the environment.” The EcoNest construction uses benign materials that are locally and sustainably harvested. The designs are comfortable and reinforce my connection to nature. For the semi-arid climate in Western Colorado, the light clay/straw walls are “breathable” unprocessed materials where the flow of air and vapor is unhindered. The 12-inch natural unprocessed solid walls provide insulation and thermal mass and greatly reduce the need for many volatile organic compound (VOC) contaminants from adhesives, insulation, joint fillers and paint. In fact, the straw in our walls was harvested from The Living Farm about three miles away from the building site (Figure 1). Friends came and helped stomp the walls with the clay/straw slurry, so now they are a part of our home, too (Figure 2).
People walk by the site outside of Paonia everyday. They watch the progress of the construction. They say it looks “different.” Our odd-looking clay/straw walls rise about 18 inches above the Foswall block stem walls to protect them from snow and ground moisture. Our EconNest roof has a four-foot overhang to give shade from the summer sun and protection from rain and snow. Our timber framing looks Japanese and the house is square, not rectangular like most American houses. And, yes, there are sprouts of grass poking out of the walls. Passers by also see the prominent sign with the “ground rules” for the building site (Figure 3).
Probably the most frequent question we get, though, is regarding the distinction between straw/clay and straw bale construction. Straw bale and clay/straw construction are actually quite different. The light clay/straw construction combines loose straw with clay soils and water in a slurry. The straw and clay are tumbled so that each straw fiber is coated with clay making it fireproof, vermin proof and resistant to decay. The mixture is compacted in a 12″ form that creates a thick monolithic wall. When the wall is dry it contains both the insulating properties of straw (approximately R-24) and the mass storage capacity (about 50lb/ft) of earth. Due to the high clay content clay/straw walls are hygroscopic which means that they have the ability to moderate and balance indoor humidity, an important health-promoting factor. Because the clay/straw walls have sufficient texture to receive natural plasters, they will be covered directly with natural clay layers without the need for additional netting.
Yet the EcoNest architecture goes far beyond the walls. It is part of a philosophy of healthy building (or Bau-Biologie) . It is creating awareness about the need for “authentic,” safe homes that embrace ecologic values and that exemplify the human aspect and the needs of family life and nature. It is a holistic approach to the space where we spend 90% of our time. It is considering air quality, humidity, ion balance, electroclimate, light and proportion. It is a means of asking the hard questions about things we take for granted, like our blind trust in synthetic building materials and accepted building standards, the prevailing culture of “better living with chemistry,” and the make-up of the true American dream home.
Initially, our EcoNest will cost a bit more to build than a conventional house of the same size. This is intended to be our last house, so we want it to be a comfortable, healthy place to live. We are being mindful about the selection of building materials to be as free of harmful chemicals as are available and reasonably attainable. In using these products and procedures, we believe that we are safeguarding, to the best of our ability, our own health also the health of the construction crew and our environment. The thought process has opened our minds to different approaches to construction, energy use, water conservation and lifestyle. Hopefully, we can make a difference by advocating for a different – healthier – approach to living in our home. Sometimes you just have to believe and make choices along a chosen path.
 Bau-Biologie, or Building Biology, is about the study of healthy buildings. It is about the relationship between our bodies and our built environment.