Design for Life: My Sensuous Home: Adorning My Home’s Walls With Natural Materials

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Carol's pre-remodel living room had laminate flooring, beige walls and badly painted fireplace bricks.
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The new natural palette: cork flooring and three colors of custom-mixed clay.
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"Now I can breathe deeply, relax and feel cozily earthy in my living room," Carol says.

A sense of magic welled up as I raked my fingers through the orange Nevada City soil. As I sieved the clay through a screen, I felt the earth through my fingers, eyes and nose. 

I was sitting on an oak-studded hillside, sifting clay that would be turned into plaster and troweled onto my living room wall. My friend Janine Björnson had dug the clay in the Sierra Nevada. Her sweat, my toil, her experience and our friendship were weaving together to transform my home.

In the beginning

This story started with a tree branch crashing through my roof, leaving me temporarily homeless, and ends in the most comforting home I’ve ever had. I’d been planning to “naturalize” my house since I moved in more than three years ago. I wanted to replace the plastic laminate flooring, cover the white walls with earth-toned clay plasters and turn my office into a studio. I don’t recommend disaster as a spur to remodeling, but in my case, it worked.

All of my flooring is connected, so although only some was damaged, I had to replace it all. For a bit more than the insurance-covered cost, I got the cork floor I wanted. I chose Natural Cork Roca–a warm, woodlike pattern. But what about the laminate? I didn’t want to send piles of plastic to the landfill.

I posted it on SonoMax, a regional material-reuse website, and a couple responded. Both were unemployed, and their house needed new flooring because (get this) their old cork floor had been damaged by a leaky roof. They were ecstatic about getting my used flooring for free.

My new cork floor looks divine and smells good, but the best part is how it feels. I stopped wearing shoes to revel in its warmth, resilience and texture. After months of uprooted living, I felt this turning point deep in my bones.

To the walls

My favorite part of the remodel was working on the major walls with my friend Janine Björnson, owner of natural building company clay, bones and stones. As they swept on the natural clay plasters, Janine and her crew filled the house with the soft swishing sound of brushes and laughter. I wanted my studio to glow in the afternoon sunshine so we chose a light ochre pigment with finely chopped golden straw and tiny flecks of silver mica mixed into the clay slip. The transformation was stunning. Work is not drudgery in this space.

I wanted the living room to feel  grounded yet inspired, so we chose a beige clay paint with fibers of the herb pau d’arco and bits of black mica. The resulting walls are textured like rice paper.

That vibrant orange soil I sieved became a clay plaster Janine troweled onto one living room wall. Morning sunlight grazes the wall, highlighting its rich texture. Its vibrant color enlivens the entire great room and takes me back to that day on the hillside.

My home, my self

My career is based on the notion that our surroundings influence how we feel. I never felt at home in this house before; the white walls and plastic floors reflected none of my passion. Now living here is a constant reminder of my creativity, earthiness and love for the living world.

I love watching people walk into my tract-box house expecting beige walls and carpets. Some stare. Some want to touch everything. Some sigh deeply and grin. It feels good to be embraced by earth.

Carol Venolia is an architect and co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006). E-mail her