Building a Home: Materials to Live With

Jan Simone and Cliff Crutchfield's home-building journey began over two years ago with the quest for an architect to create a very special dwelling on their property south of Moab, Utah. The Association of Independent Architects suggested Kenton Peters, KP2 Architects, Inc. in Salt Lake City. What evolved is an eclectic, southwestern, oriental-feeling structure with a vaulted roof flanked by flat roofs on each side.Upon final inspection the building inspector stood picking at his beard for several minutes and proclaimed, "It's unique." One basic architectural design principle is "form follows function" -- meaning simply that the way people intend to live in a dwelling should determine how it's designed. In keeping with this concept, the Simone/Crutchfield home is unique to them.The design process was a spiritual adventure; the goal to provide space, sacred space for the body and soul to dwell in. Kenton Peters (who many in Utah consider to be the guru of alternative building) understood the atmosphere that Simone and Crutchfield wanted in their new home. Many conversations, sketches and considerations go into this part of the design process as architect (or designer) comes to fully appreciate what the clients are trying to explain -- their creative desires for their shelter and how daily life would carry on within it. Jan, inspired by a book called Places of the Soul by British architect, author and sculptor Christopher Day, wrote to Day expressing her appreciation of his book. Day arranged his trip to the U.S. to include a visit with Jan, offering his expertise to Jan and Cliff. As the abode was described, and visualized by Jan and Cliff, Day took clay in hand and formed his interpretation of their vision. To the surprise of all, he sculpted something very similar to what Kenton had already designed. "They [Kenton and Christopher] let the space speak to them," says Jan. Kenton Peters has a reputation as one of the more progressive Salt Lake City architects, specializing in alternative, sustainable building methods. It is the challenge of blending the new with the old, creating modern, sustainable housing that excites Kenton. "We're not talking about building pioneer-style here but about the efficient use of readily available materials with the least impact on the environment," he says.The dictionary definition of sustainable is "to support with sustenance: to nourish, keep up, prolong, to carry the weight of." Alternatives can provide us with various means of relieving our heavy reliance on the limited resources we have through substituting more abundant materials, sustaining our existence here longer by prolonging total consumption -- and nourishing hope that our resources can carry us through more careful use and conscious choice. As the old proverb says, the frog never drinks up the pond in which it lives. WHY BUILD ALTERNATIVES?The building industry has made considerable improvements regarding the consumption of energy and environmental protection during manufacturing of building products. Energy consumption (and consequently, heating costs) has decreased over the past 20 years due to improvements in insulation, tighter houses, thermally improved windows and more efficient heating systems. Also, recognizing the toxic effects of some synthetics to inhabitants as well as the environment, the industry has taken great strides to improve product manufacturing processes. The consumer can play an important role by becoming knowledgeable of the choices available and demanding safe, less toxic supplies. There are some very good reasons to seek alternative ways of providing oneself with shelter, the ultimate driving force being an overall concern for the environment. Kenton Peters is quick to rattle off a slew of good reasons: energy conservation; dwindling forests; to maximize recycling and utilize byproducts; rising housing costs; avoidance of "toxic" materials; to reduce air pollution associated with production and transportation of materials from manufacturing plant to job site; the "feel" of a naturally-built shelter; the empowerment that comes with choosing to explore building unconventionally. Besides the numerous rational reasons to choose alternative methods, personal consciousness of choice opens the way for the spirit of creativity and stewardship to reside with us.DESCRIPTION OF ALTERNATIVESStraw bale construction is just what the name implies, a structure made of regular old (seasonally new, actually) bales of straw (the dead, hollow stalk -- a byproduct of grain production). The thickness of the solid walls and deeply set window openings yield a sense of being wrapped in a heavy wool blanket on a cold winter night. The roof and foundation are pretty much the same as any other house. Bales are stacked in a running bond, secured together both vertically and horizontally and anchored to the foundation by tying them to eyebolts embedded in the concrete floor. Additional stability is gained by running willow stakes from the top down through the bales, or impaling the bales onto reinforcing rod vertically embedded in the concrete floor.There are, basically, two types of straw bale structures: load bearing and non-load bearing construction. The weight of the roof is transferred directly onto the walls of a load-bearing structure. Keeping the walls from buckling out under the weight is an essential design consideration. Non-load bearing consists of a post and beam system that actually supports the roof; the bales are just used to fill the spaces between the posts, forming the walls. A main attribute of straw bale construction is that straw is readily available, abundant and renewable. It's relatively easy to build with straw bales and it provides superior insulating value, of both sound and temperature. One of the most appealing qualities of straw bale is the feel inside, the stillness.There are, of course, some disadvantages to building with straw bales. Obtaining building permits can be challenging and may require a lot of effort in educating the local building officials. Fire hazard during construction is high and home owners insurance is difficult to obtain and expensive.Electrical wiring, plumbing and attaching cabinets to the walls require extra planning. (Score one for conventional framing: There's always a stud to be found within 16 inches!)It's easier to get building approval of the non-load bearing construction because the structural integrity of the building comes from a conventionally framed system more familiar to the housing officials and more historic technical data is available to prove that the design is structurally sound. Special design consideration must be given to the window and door openings to distribute the load across openings in the wall. Keeping bales dry is essential to prevent molding within the bale. And, of course, fire safety on the site is paramount. Being aware of hazards during construction minimizes risks. A random spark in an area of loose straw could be instantly disastrous, as Simone and Crutchfield experienced. Three months into construction, with all the bale walls up and beginning work on the roof, sparks from a grinding machine ignited some loose straw. All was lost in flames. The builder's risk insurance covered the $100,000 loss.Once the structure is finished, fire risk is greatly diminished. As a whole, the bales are so firmly compressed, there is little oxygen for combustion. With the stucco finish, fire ratings compare favorably to conventional wood frame buildings. Three coats of stucco, inside and out, seal the bales from moisture and rodent infestation. The stucco finish is part of the natural beauty of a straw bale house, giving it an earthy appearance and blending into its surroundings by utilizing the soils around the house. EARTH SHIPSAn earth ship is a self-contained vessel designed to be totally self-sufficient -- "off the grid" -- requiring no public utilities, which allows it to land virtually anywhere. Mike Ford admits to have "cheated" on his earth ship built on Bandanna Ranch near Fruitland, Utah in that he opted for public utilities over the costs of installing a solar system and alternative sources of electricity. Ford partnered with builder Todd Kleinfelder to construct this showcase home that, after two years in the construction process, he had grown attached to, choosing not to sell. Ford lives in the earth ship when he's not in Park City and plans to use it as a model for future earth ships to be built on Bandanna Ranch.Earth ships are typically built into a hillside or over a pit dug below surface grade, providing for thermal dynamics of the earth in conjunction with the solar gain through massive glass walls above. These structures were conceived as a way of recycling worn car tires, using them for wall construction, thus adding thermal mass and reducing exposure to the elements. The tires (all of the same size) are stacked in a running bond, then each tire is filled with soil and compacted with a sledge hammer -- an extremely labor-intensive process and probably a great stress reducer, whacking at dirt all day. (Bet you'd sleep well after a few weeks of that!) Finish the walls with stucco and voila, tires are gone.The earth provides protection from climatic exposure and massive southern exposures collect solar energy (used for hot water systems and heat). Dark-colored interior walls and various types of stone or slate flooring absorb heat from a southern-facing glass wall and radiate the heat back into living space when the afternoon temperature begins to drop. Often a greenhouse is incorporated for year-round gardening and the beauty of indoor plants as well as an assist with air filtration. Gray water from household drains is filtered through a pit of sand, gravel, charcoal and the roots of long-rooted plants that oxygenate and filter the water, then pumped to irrigate the 150 sq. ft. of plant boxes in Bill's earth ship. A composting toilet reduces water consumption and eliminates the need of sewage system. While the need for the sewage system has been removed, it is still required by most state building codes. This can be one of the toughest challenges to obtaining a building permit for a totally self-sustaining earth ship in the state of Utah, according to Mike Ford.Window shades screen out unwanted sunlight and venting through skylights lets out unnecessary heat. Interior walls may be made of any typical building material or recycled items such as aluminum cans or bottles embedded in mortar, similar to laying a brick wall. DC refrigerators and appliances are available to keep electrical consumption within the capacity of photo voltaic cell capacity (batteries). With considerable planning, special appliances and a desire for isolation, these earth ships can land in the most remote places!Bill Clark also sought builder Todd Kleinfelder to assist in construction of an active solar, contemporary home that would heat itself from a combination of the earth's thermals and passive solar heat gain at an elevation of 7,500 ft. in Cebolla, New Mexico. "It's been successful," says Bill, with indoor temperatures of 65¡ during minus-8¡ outdoor temperatures without any heat source.ADOBEAdobe, a mixture of coarse sand or aggregate, fine sand, silt and clay poured into forms and left to dry in the sun normally refers to adobe blocks. Adobe is thought to be of Arabic origin, atob, meaning sticky paste or muck. In the U. S., adobe is quite generously used to describe several different things: mud block, brick or mud plaster. An arid climate is essential to forming adobe blocks, as they require about a week in the sun to dry. Ideally, the soil taken right from the site must have a proper mixture of coarse sand, fine sand, silt and clay in proportions that a simple jar test can evaluate. The soil mixture in a jar with water, shaken, and left undisturbed for 24 hours, will separate. The largest, heaviest elements will settle to the bottom, revealing the proportions of the soil composition. A seasoned adobe builder will be able to interpret the results and suggest ways of balancing the elements with mortar and/or lyme for durability and resistance to water and wind erosion, two of the threats to the durability of adobe.Allen Roberts, historian and preservation architect with Cooper Roberts Architects in Salt Lake City, and previously the State Historical Society, cites several examples of original adobe structures still being used in the state today: the Bountiful Tabernacle, built 1857-1862; the Opera House in St. George that is currently being renovated; Peteet Neet School, a three story Victorian school in Payson, Utah built 1900-1901, whose entire superstructure of adobe block (with stone and brick veneer) is undergoing renovation for seismic upgrade; and Allen's own home in the Capitol Hill area of Salt Lake City. San Born maps (fire insurance maps) show 80% of the structures built 100 years ago were adobe block. Still standing today, they're not noticeable because they are painted or covered with stucco.Most of the early building in Utah was adobe block due to the scarcity of wood needed to fuel the ovens for brick making. Once the transportation of wood improved, brick became the preferred material because of its greater compressive strength. Allen has worked extensively with historical preservation and designs favoring native adobe which is particularly well-suited to the more arid southern part of the state. RAMMED EARTH"Earth is the oldest building material used by humans and the ultimate expression of appropriate technology," writes Paul Grahm McHenry, Jr. in Adobe and Rammed Earth Buildings. Ancient ruins in arid climates all around the world show evidence of entire cities built of raw earth nearly 10,000 years ago. Rammed earth (called pisŽ de terre in France) spread to more temperate climates and has remained essentially the same for 2,000 years.In the present spirit of utilizing readily-available, local materials, appropriate soil from the construction site is blended to a specific mixture. This mix of organic soil, clay (the binder), silt, gravel and sand with the exact amount of moisture and addition of cement is shoveled into forms (similar to concrete wall forms) and compacted in layers four to six inches deep. This can be accomplished with mechanical tamping equipment, pneumatic rammers or tamping with a hand tamper (a four-inch by four-inch steel plate welded to a six-foot-long handle). Starting at the bottom of the form, the primitive (and physically rewarding) method of hand tamping begins by standing in the forms and settling the soil with your feet, then setting a rhythm to the tamping, "ramming the earth." "As the soil becomes compacted, the sound of the tamping will change from a dull thud to a ringing sound. When the layer rings, it's time for more earth," writes David Easton in Mother Earth News (April/ May 1996.) It sounds like the most environmentally intimate alternative building process.Layer by layer, the wall becomes a sort of instant rock, compacted much like the geologic process of creating sedimentary rock except a few million years quicker. Variations of soil, color and texture can offer the same rich diversity as our landscape.Of course, experts in rammed earth construction should be consulted every step of way from site selection and house design to soil analysis and mixture ratios which determine weatherability and strength of the walls. The stone-like walls provide thermal mass that retain heat but in certain climates insulation may be necessary. Also, help is needed to determine the best handling procedures, amount of soils required, labor costs and the most suitable form-making for the project.COB HOUSEA cob house is essentially adobe with straw added and is hand-molded, sort of like making a sand castle. Fascinating designs can be sculpted as limitless as the imagination. It's not very practical for a dwelling of any size but sounds fun!COSTS OF BUILDING ALTERNATIVESThe more complex the design -- the more off-set levels, corners and roof lines -- the greater the cost. Keep your design simply suited to your real needs and consider recycled materials such as gymnasium flooring, barn wood, old cabinets, light fixtures and doors.The main difference between conventional construction and the alternatives described here is the wall construction which is only 18-20% of the building expense. In general, alternatives are not going to cost less to build than conventional homes unless the owner is willing to provide a lot of sweat equity to reduce the cost of labor, a major expense. The real savings is in the improved efficiency and reduced energy consumption living in these homes designed to be sustainable over time. HURDLES IN BUILDING AN ALTERNATIVE HOMEProbably the first hoop to jump through is that of obtaining a building permit when unconventional methods and materials are proposed. Fortunately for the rest of us, some pioneering spirits have walked that path. Ann King met a lot of resistance from the local building officials when she tried to obtain the first permit in Sanpete County for the straw bale Humanities Center built for the Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Utah. The local building officials were not satisfied that straw bale was a safe, viable option and were not initially willing to issue the building permit required. She called on Roger Evans, Director of Building Services & Licensing in Salt Lake City, who offered assistance. Evans helped King gather the technical information necessary to show that the design was in compliance of code and overcome the skepticism of the inspectors.The Uniform Building Code governs residential building to insure safety for the occupants and durability of the structure. There is a provision in the code for obtaining approval of new technologies if they can meet the code's criteria for safety and durability. "The local building official must be shown that the building will be structurally sound, designed for its seismic zone," coaches Evans. Detailed drawings of the structural connections and integrity must be provided. The structure must be in accordance with load bearing requirements and meet fire resistance criteria. "It is the applicant's responsibility to educate a skeptical inspector with a rational approach that can be viewed as a learning experience," says Evans. The library and internet can be of help in gathering information to present to the building inspector, as well as to the designer, architect and any engineers who will be involved in the process. A well-designed structure should include the supporting documents.Evans provided the technical support out of his own curiosity about straw bale construction, a method he was not familiar with until King applied for her permit. Surfing the internet, Evans was amazed by the amount of information on straw bale construction. It is this sort of keen interest in the unordinary that seems to be common in the stories of all who have built alternative abodes, as well as a fortitude to persevere in spite of some pretty entrenched opinions about building.Obtaining a loan for an alternative design will take more leg work than a conventional construction loan. Lending institutions may also be skeptical about how to determine the fair market value of an "unusual" design. Again, it's an education process.A typical construction loan covers a six month period, which is usually adequate for a conventionally framed home built by skilled builders. Because of the newness of these methods and the inexperience of those attempting them (particularly do-it-your-selfers) the timetable of building an alternative will likely be longer than construction of a conventional home. Be sure to investigate any interest penalty that may be added daily for extending the loan period. Finding a contractor and builder who are sensitive and ambitious about alternatives will require some interviewing on your part. The Utah Home Builders Association was unable to offer any individuals particularly recognized for their work in alternative building. Jan Simone contracted Tom Rees of Castle Valley to build their home near Moab. "You have to wait to get him -- but he's worth waiting for, he's the best!" says Simone. Builder Todd Kleinfelder has been hailed by both Mike Ford in Fruitland and by Bill Clark in Cebolla, New Mexico for his work on their earth ships. Another outstanding individual who dedicates his life to building straw bale homes around the southwest is Bill Hunt, who headed up the student-assisted construction of the Humanities Center at Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant. Any building project can challenge all of your merely human qualities in the areas of negotiation, cooperation, compromise, listening and accepting the ideas of others, understanding, tolerance and the biggest of all, patience. Interview your potential contractor/builder and listen for that depth of soul, for that spirit of adventure necessary to stretch oneself and learn the techniques required to build in new ways. Generally speaking, any good builder is going to do what they do best: build as efficiently and economically as possible. But not all are open to learning new types of construction. Interview builders, get references and listen carefully to the answers provided to your questions. Remember, you'll be working with this person daily for at least six months. Your choice is an important one. Base it on your own research and your ability to communicate with this individual: Are you being heard and understood? Do they understand the feel you want in your home as sincerely as Kenton Peters understood Jan Simone's? You'll know.Purchasing home owners insurance will require perseverance to locate a company willing to take a risk on something that's fairly foreign to their statistics as Jan Simone learned trying to insure a straw bale home 15 miles outside of Moab. Often these alternative structures are built in remote areas where access to fire fighting services is limited, a major concern to insurers that will likely boost the premium. Be prepared to do a fair amount of investigating and, like educating building inspectors, to show the design and materials are safe, viable alternatives to the conventional. The network of folks in the straw bale construction provided documentation of fire rating information that assisted Simone in getting All State Insurance Companies to send an inspector, document the value of the house, verify a lot of details and substantiate the quality of construction before agreeing to insure the home at a premium of approximately $2,600 per year! Buyer beware or, more accurately stated, be advised. NATIONAL TRENDSThe trend is toward more design consideration for passive solar and natural ventilation, use of overhangs for shading summer sun, orientation of house on the site, high-energy efficiency through tightly sealed construction and insulation, and selection of highly efficient mechanical systems and appliances. Roger Borgenicht of Assist, Inc. a community design center, reminded me of the enthusiasm I had as a Residential Design student in the '70s when the energy crisis prompted much technological attention to active solar systems and design concepts that were hoped to revolutionize building such as envelope homes, geodesic domes and earth sheltered homes. "As the price of energy went up, we got used to the costs," comments Max Smith, a Salt Lake City architect. He has planned some earth-sheltered housing but says no one is really asking for it. The contemporary home of Deb Sawyer and Wayne Martinson in Salt Lake City, designed by Max Smith, paid particular attention to solar orientation overhangs, and is "unique in that common sense was used," says Deb Sawyer. For example, the north wall is earth-bermed at the bottom with only a few tiny windows above. The home, built with conservation in mind, maximizes the winter sun for passive solar heat. There are no fancy gimmicks, just readily available, energy-efficient products such as compact fluorescent lighting and two high-efficiency gas furnaces allowing for separate temperature control in two different areas of the house as needed."Most wealthy clients want to be conscious of good design incorporating energy conservation and are very aware of the expense of wood, often selecting alternatives," says Smith. "What we've discovered, however, is that while alternatives can provide unique design opportunities, offer a sense of environmental consciousness, and yield potentially exquisite feelings of comfort and grounding in totally natural structures, the advances of modern technology in the areas of product development, strength and durability of improved materials will prevail."Gary Evershed, vice president of Lowell Construction in Salt Lake City, agrees. Lowell is a first rate commercial industrial construction company that specializes in the utilization of recycled materials. "There will always be people on the fringe," says Evershed, "and I like that. But they will have no impact on the overall building industry because it's such a strong economic structure." Rich Thorn, executive vice president of Associated General Contractors, expresses a similar sentiment, that the alternatives are "narrowly applicable, but standard construction won't be replaced."More than ever the emphasis seems to be on using materials that are non-toxic and environmentally friendly to produce and transport and on reducing waste during construction, much in line with Kenton Peters' pursuit of sustainable housing. It appears that the desire to build alternatives is more of an individual choice for personal reasons rather than a matter of economics. As we continue to explore new ways by expanding on ancient techniques that so effectively utilized elements from our natural environment, we're empowered through the spirit of creativity, to house ourselves in dwellings that harmonize with the earth.

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