Natural Building

After building a natural home myself, I am a big fan for all the reasons you can read about in the relevant literature (see links below). There are two primary reasons to go natural. First, you may suffer from allergies or chemical sensitivities that make conventional homes nightmarish to live in. Second, you want to minimize your impact on the earth, and we can do that by specifying materials with a minimum of embodied energy, reducing the use of concrete, designing to minimize the energy demands of the HVAC system, and designing for solar PV to provide all needed energy.

Getting Started

Be aware that natural homes are not a mainstream commodity, so you’ll either need to hire an experienced builder or else you’ll be doing a lot of tasks yourself. And to be clear, your builder needs to be experienced in the technique you are using, whether it’s hempcrete, straw, post and beam, etc For better or worse I am a designer, not a builder, and I won’t be onsite helping build your house. But I do understand what it takes to educate oneself to build a natural home yourself because I’ve done it. You can see what went into building my little house here.  If you’re serious about natural homebuilding, there is no better way to get started than by getting your hands dirty at a workshop or building a test structure yourself.

Every natural home is unique to its site and its owner, so feel free to contact us to initiate discussions about creating a custom plan. There is something truly special and satisfying about designing and building a home that is truly your own creation, and where you contributed your own blood sweat and tears to the construction. (You’re sure to contribute all three, but hopefully not in equal measure!) Please browse the information on this page to learn more about the features we use in our natural home designs.

Natural Building Resources

If you’re new to the concept of building out of earth, stone, metal and fibrous materials (like wood), you may be pleasantly surprised at how beautiful a natural home can be. In general, the materials are cheap but much more labor is needed to build naturally. Fortunately, the techniques are very DIY friendly if you are willing to practice beforehand or take some workshops.

  • “The Case for Natural Building” by Michael Smith           CLICK HERE

  • “Making Better Buildings: A Comparative Guide to Sustainable Construction for Homeowners and Contractors” by Chris Magwood  CLICK HERE

  • “The New Natural House Book: Creating a Healthy, Harmonious, and Ecologically Sound Home” by David Pearson  CLICK HERE

  • "The Natural Building Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to Integrative Design and Construction" by Jacob Deva Racusin & Ace McArleton  CLICK HERE

  • Tree Hugger  CLICK HERE

  • Down to Earth Design - Sigi Koko  CLICK HERE

  • Green Homebuilding - Kelly and Rosana Hart  CLICK HERE

Green Foundations

Rubble Trench: We discourage basements, primarily because you use the significant advantage of the thermal mass provided by a masonry floor. This is even more important in a passive solar home where the house can overheat on a sunny day unless that energy is stored in the floor. We also don’t like basements and crawl spaces because they tend to be damp, hard to insulate, and they let critters in. The rubble trench is a great way to lower the carbon footprint of your home by eliminating a significant volume of concrete. Using a rubble foundation (which is old technology) is a practical and simple solution.

  • “Rubble trench foundation” on wikipedia.org  CLICK HERE

  • “What is a Rubble Trench Foundation?” by Sigi Koko      CLICK HERE

Faswall: Healthy, High Performance ICF Building System (also good for walls and DIY homes)  CLICK HERE

Adobe Floors

Modern earthen or adobe floors are not primitive, despite preconceptions. The layers include a gravel capillary break, a polyethylene moisture barrier, thick layer of rigid building foam insulation, 6” or so of earth and straw, plus a surface treatment of hardening oil (linseed, tung, hemp, etc.). The surface is water resistant, can be waxed if you prefer a shiny look, and it’s much easier on the feet than a concrete slab.

  • “Earthen Floors: A Modern Approach to an Ancient Practice” by Sukita Reay Crimmel & James Thomson    CLICK HERE

  • “Earthen Floors: Why, How, and Where” by Ashley Lubyk, originally published by Verge Permaculture         CLICK HERE

Hempcrete

If hemp had been legal in the US when I built my house, I would have used it instead of light straw clay. That’s changed now, and hempcrete is really taking off in Canada and the US.

Light Straw Clay

I’ve done some volunteer work on a couple strawbale homes over the years. This is one of the flagship natural building techniques and results in a quality home. But the engineer in me didn’t gravitate to this for several reasons:

  • Bumpy, uneven walls

  • Reliance on post and beam construction, which limits the availability of contractors to do the framing

  • Super-thick walls (20”) are penalized by tax rates that measure square footage on the outside of the wall.

  • Limited appeal if you put the house up for sale, and buyers may not understand the value underlying the (usually) higher asking price

When I learned about light straw clay (LSC), this was a great fit for me. Using the hybrid wall section I designed, I have a thin skin of LSC on the interior that, in combination with clay plaster, acts as thermal mass and moisture control. The thinner section dries faster during construction and leaves room for a generous layer of dense-packed cellulose for thermal resistance. I was sold and I couldn’t be happier with the house in practice. In addition, the walls are relatively flat, which is more in line with my aesthetic. Of course, LSC walls can also be constructed full thickness as described in this fantastic book: 

  • “The EcoNest Home: Designing and Building a light straw clay House” by Paula Baker-Laporte, Robert Laporte  CLICK HERE

  • “The Advantages and Appropriate Use of Light Straw Clay” by Lydia Doleman  CLICK HERE

Clay Plaster

The look of a clay plaster wall was enough to sell me on the idea. It has a rich, textured look that is reminiscent of old European buildings or adobe from the desert southwest of the US. There are two important reasons to choose clay: first it acts as a moisture sink, absorbing moisture out of the air on a humid day and releasing it during drier conditions. Second, it allows water vapor to diffuse out of a natural wall (such as hempcrete of light straw clay) to make sure moisture cannot accumulate and lead to mold/mildew.

  • “Clay and Lime Renders, Plasters and Paints: A How-To Guide to Using Natural Finishes” by Adam Weismann & Katy Bryce  CLICK HERE

  • “What is clay plaster?” by SimpleConstruct.com        CLICK HERE

Lime Plaster

Lime plaster is a staple of strawbale natural house construction. Used on the exterior, it is durable, weather resistant, vapor permeable and can be pigmented to a variety of shades that put vinyl siding to shame. It is also perfectly suited to hempcrete and light straw clay for the same reasons. In addition, the material is highly basic (the opposite of acidic) so it will not support the grown of mold and mildew. For that reason, I used it on the interior of my bathroom/shower, both on light straw clay and on traditional lath. In this application, applying olive soap and polishing with a stone is called takelakt, as described in the bottom link.

  • “Building with Lime: A Practical Introduction” by Stafford Holmes & Michael Wingate  CLICK HERE

  • “How to Lath and Plaster” on YouTube  CLICK HERE

  • “Making our shower out of Tadelakt” on YouTube    CLICK HERE

Living Roofs

You may or may not dig the look of a living roof, but there are a few very compelling reasons to consider one. First, the materials protect the roof membrane, so you’re likely to get 50 years out of your roof before you need to consider replacing it. Second, you’ll save a ton of energy in the summer due to the evaporative cooling effect of the vegetation, especially if you provide drip irrigation during dry periods. Reducing the cooling load will allow the reduction or elimination of air conditioning equipment. Third, in areas where homes are required to manage stormwater runoff, the roof can be designed to check that box, at least as far as the house is concerned. It is relatively simple to design the structure in a new home to support the added weight of the roof.

  • “Creating My Green Roof: A guide to planning, installing, and maintaining a beautiful, energy-saving green roof” by Dave Hilary  CLICK HERE

  • “How to Install a Green Roof” by Tom Odor  CLICK HERE

If you find any broken links on this page (or any page for that matter), I’d appreciate if you’d contact me and let me know.