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No. 64, Summer 2014

Light Clay-Straw Mountain Home

By Jeff RuppertJuly 3, 2014November 20th, 2022No Comments

IMGP0028Hal Brill and Allison Elliot created a created a beautiful living space in the mountains of Western Colorado through a hands-on approach and taking their time with major decisions.

6,000 ft (1,830 m) above sea level and at the top of a newer subdivision on the outskirts of Paonia, Colorado the Brill/Elliot home is on a two and a half acre parcel with breath-taking views of the West Elk Mountains and 11,400 ft Mount Lamborn.   It is a very custom habitat for two people who value living lightly on the earth.  Their approach has allowed them to combine newer technology with a warm, welcoming feel.  Their home costs nothing to operate and exemplifies modest, customized living through natural building.

floor_planThe Construction Process
House construction commenced in 2010 and was completed in 2012.  The first phase of the project consisted of building the garage/office space as a staging area for the house construction the following year.  Instead of doing everything at once Hal and Allison took their time, as they did during the design process, making thoughtful decisions at every step.

Faswall Blocks (Courtesy of Shelter Works)

Faswall Blocks (Courtesy of Shelter Works)

Both the garage and house are dug into a hillside, meaning there are tall retaining walls on the Northern side of the structure.  Instead of using regular concrete foundation walls they chose Faswall blocks, which are a combination of wood chips and cement, incorporating rock wool insulation into each block.  The block cores are filled with concrete and reinforcing to create a substantial wall capable of withstanding normal soil and water pressures below grade.

Making Light Clay-straw

Making Light Clay-straw

The walls are made of light clay-straw, a mixture of clay slip and straw packed into forms between columns.  The walls are 12” (30 cm) thick compared to 18” (45 cm) for a typical straw bale wall.  The narrower clay-straw wall translated to a narrower foundation wall, saving in materials and cost.

Wall render consists of clay plaster on both the interior and exterior.  Due to the light clay-straw system, a long drying period was necessary before the application of plaster.  This was accomplished over the course of a few weeks during the hot summer.  American Clay plaster materials were used on the interior and local earthen materials were used on the exterior.

Walls under construction

Walls with formwork and finished clay-straw

The house itself also takes advantage of the ideal solar aspects of the site through the use of south glazing and ample overhangs to keep the summer sun at bay.  Hal and Allison minimally heat their home in the winter months using a wood stove and the in-floor hydronic system.  They have experienced weeks of sub-zero Rocky Mountain winter temperatures while the interior of the house dropped no lower than 60 degrees without any other heat source other than the sun.

The entire house has earthen floors that use local materials and really bring the grounding energy of the home together.  The floor acts as a huge thermal bank, moderating temperature swings in both the winter and summer.  After two years of regular use they look and feel great.

One aspect of the house design that contributes to its exceptional efficiency is it’s modest size (1,500 sf).  The house has only one bedroom and a “flex” room that doubles as an entertainment room or spare bedroom.  It has a master bathroom and a three-quarter bathroom for guests.  The kitchen and eating area is the focal point for social activity and includes a large open pantry that doubles as an informal entry hallway for the building occupants.

Electrical and Mechanical Systems

West EntryA solar electric system was installed on the garage to supply electricity during the construction project.  Even though the electric system is grid-tied, Hal and Allison wanted to be energy net-zero from the beginning.

There is a substantial solar hot water system that supplies all of their needs for in-floor heating, domestic hot water and even a hot tub.  To monitor this system Hal uses a dedicated laptop that is connected to dozens of sensors throughout the house.  He is able to monitor the temperature of any part of the hot water system and make decisions about where to move available hot water, which can become critical during those long but rare periods of cloudiness that typify Western Colorado.

On the exterior, all greywater and rainwater is used as irrigation for the garden and landscaping.  Runoff swales direct rainwater into tree wells and planted areas.  Allison is a master at desert landscaping, using indigenous vegetation and hardscaping to create a beautiful and welcoming outdoor space.

Contracting Process

South Walls Under Construction

South walls almost ready for plaster

Hal and Allison hired a local general contractor, Frederick Zimmer, to oversee the construction of the building shell.  This portion of the project cost $250,000, or approximately $170/sf.

Once the shell was complete they took over as their own contractors, overseeing the remaining subcontractors themselves.   This saved money as the General Contractor was not between them and their subcontractors.  It was also a little more stressful than if they relied on the General Contractor, but they stand by their decision to work directly with their subs (whom they knew) and take credit for the mistakes as well as the solid choices they made along the way.

Project InformationAs one of many alternative projects in the area this one stands out as a modestly-sized, thoughtful and ultimately comfortable home that exudes quality in every aspect.  The hands-on approach by the owners and the ability to take their time bringing their vision to life has resulted in not just a house on a nice piece of land, but a destination for friends and family as a gem in this rural part of Colorado.

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