When I tell people that we design and build natural buildings, many immediately assume that we are speaking of straw bale building. Far fewer people have heard of Light Straw-Clay (LSC) building and yet the combination of natural fiber and clay soils has been a primary building method since mankind began building shelter.
Light Straw-Clay, also known as clay/straw, clay slip, light earth, light loam and Leichtlehmbau evolved in Germany in the early 1920s from the more traditional heavier mixtures of clay soils and fiber. The lightweight, aerated version containing more straw (or other plant fiber) was recognized for its superior physical and thermal characteristics, which resulted in more energy efficient and comfortable buildings.
Robert Laporte, my partner in life and work, was an avid timber-frame builder when he went to Europe in 1990. He was in search of a natural, non-toxic and ecological wall system to substitute for the styrofoam and press-board panels called SIPS commonly used for timber-frame building in North America.
When he discovered the Light Straw Clay (LSC) technique being used in Germany, he knew he had found the materials he was looking for. He brought the knowledge back to North America and has been innovating ever since. I joined him in 1994 and, as an architect/builder team, we formulated the EcoNest home concept.
The EcoNest home combines light straw clay, timber framing, earthen floors, natural plasters, and other natural techniques using the principles of Building Biology to create finely crafted, modestly sized homes where health, ecology and owner participation are the keynotes.
The EcoNest workshop experience is designed to bring together builders, aspiring builders and future natural-home owners for a hands-on building experience which produces professional and predictable results in the form of a building shell for the workshop host — a new EcoNest owner.
As Robert likes to say, it is about building the builder as much as it is about building good shelter. Our EcoNest homes have now been built in 17 States and 4 Canadian Provinces and we now have trained Affiliates throughout North America.
Our new book, The EcoNest Home: Designing & Building a Light Straw Clay House, published by New Society Publishers, is the “How-to and Why” manual for the EcoNest Building System. It is the result of 25 years of evolution streamlined into 300 pages of everything a builder needs to know to successfully replicate our system.
It contains step-by-step instructions for every aspect of the wall system, explains how we apply the health and ecology principles of Building Biology and illustrates these with many photos of finished homes. Our book can be purchased at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store and on our website.
When Robert went to Germany in 1990, there was only one current and definitive text on LSC building: Architect Franz Volhard’s Leichtlembau. Alter Baustoff-neue Technik. Fortunately for North Americans, after several editions, Mr. Volhard has very recently published his work in German, French and English.
Light Earth Building: A Handbook for Building with Wood and Earth (find it here). It covers multiple techniques, illustrated by contemporary case studies of LSC building from around the world. It is also the most comprehensive publication on the physical characteristics of LSC to date.
Along with these two helpful manuals to assist anyone wanting to build with Light Straw-Clay there is more good news! The International Residential Code has, as of 2015, included a new Appendix R Light Straw-Clay Construction which paves the way for anyone needing to obtain a permit for Light Straw Clay building.
This code initiative originated several years ago when Architect Martin Hammer, who represented CASBA, the California Straw Building Association, in tireless efforts to include straw-bale construction in the building codes, extended an offer to help us propose code language for LSC. Martin initiated a group of dedicated LSC practitioners, into the complex world of changing building code and, with his help, we were successful!
The inclusion of both Straw Bale and Light Straw-Clay into the International Building code was a giant step forward in the recognition of the viability and promise for the future of natural building in North America. We are grateful to Martin Hammer and CASBA for opening this opportunity to us and demonstrating the generosity and spirit of cooperation that is characteristic of the natural building movement.
Are you someone who learns by doing? Join us for comprehensive hands-on training at an EcoNest Workshop and learn firsthand all of the techniques illustrated in our book. Hope to see you there!
Paula Baker-Laporte, FAIA, is an architect, healthy building consultant, instructor for the International Institute of Building Biology and Ecology and author. She is the principle of EcoNest Architecture. She is primary author of Prescriptions for a Healthy House and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of The EcoNest Home. Connect with Paula on her website, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.