Blending ‘Natural' and
Conventional Building Materials


by Tom Shepherd, Senior Contributing Editor

The best kept secret about green building is that it's not radically different from conventional construction. A builder working on a LEED project simply refines his existing skills and his materials list to create a structure that is less taxing on the environment. From there, it's not an enormous leap to begin using truly natural products such as adobe, hydraulic lime, casein, clay, and straw-bale – but no glues, VOCs, or formaldehyde. So who is the customer for homes made from these materials?

“Anyone who is interested in healthy indoor air, in very large energy savings, and who has a penchant for being in something uncommon,” Andrew Phillips has found. His company, Natural Dwelling LLC, keeps quite busy during this recession constructing new homes that utilize natural elements. That can mean anything from building a house from straw bales that were harvested from the owner's actual plot of land, to providing adobe floors and natural finishes to an AAC room addition.

The products affect the senses differently than, say, drywall and carpet. “There's a certain quality to natural building materials, the ambiance they exude, which is very similar to a walk out in the woods,” Phillips explained. “The materials you're using are essentially what you find on a hike, and the feeling you get from being in nature is similar to what you get just being in these structures. When you're using base materials, they exude that quality of feeling.”

Phillips started his career as a conventional builder/contractor who did all the usual things: framing, drywall, flooring, roofing, carpentry, masonry, and a smattering of plumbing and electrical work. But gradually, those skills expanded to working with the materials native to his Durango, Colorado, area. The region provides an interesting mix of year-around and ski-season residents, so the size of his jobs can vary from an 800 square foot cabin to a just completed 8,500 square foot naturally finished home in Gunnison, CO.

A straw-bale wall is built from rows of bales that are stacked from foundation to roof. According to Phillips, no rebar or reinforcement is necessary, and he has built walls up to 21 feet. A straw-bale wall provides exceptional thermal mass and fire resistance, and its thermal and acoustic insulation properties far exceed the capacity of standard fiberglass insulation. Phillips seals the exterior with a coating of hydraulic lime, which cures to become a limestone that's as tough as concrete. Indoors, he favors a clay plaster or adobe finish rather than ubiquitous drywall. The cost per finished square foot ends up in the $200 range. Unlike conventional homes, most of that goes into labor rather than materials.

Like any building material, straw-bale can present the builder with some red-tape delays. Phillips recalls the problems he encountered in a recent 2-story project where an out-of-town homeowner employed an out-of-town structural engineer who had never actually seen a straw-bale home.

The principles behind natural building may sound untested at first glance, but much of this construction technology predates wood frame and steel frame. In Europe and America, there are many centuries-old structures still in use that were built of straw/clay, adobe, hydraulic lime, cobb, and other regionally available materials.

In Phillips' experience, the use of natural materials blends well with modern building products. At most, a natural home contains about 60-70 percent natural materials. At the Gunnison project, only 15 percent of the materials were natural. “Yet the natural materials are probably what people notice most,” he believes. “We did the finishes, the adobe floors and the lime plaster exterior walls. The rest of the house has conventional plumbing, wiring, a stem wall, trusses, blown-in insulation and spray on insulation, metal roofing, stonework, wood flooring and a concrete pad,” he listed off. “It's a well-assembled amalgamation of conventional and natural materials that fits together seamlessly.”

That experience reinforces Phillips' insistence that traditional natural materials can fit into any modern structure. “You can pick any number of natural components that will easily tie in with the conventional building trades as they stand today,” he insists. “If you take a commercial structure with I-beams and steel studs, you can still stick cotton insulation inside, and if you'd like to plaster the walls, you can link all that together with a high degree of success.”


In Durango, most contractors have already come into contact with a natural building. But on the Gunnison project, his crew included some first-timers. “They all ooh-ed and aah-ed and wanted to understand what they were working with, but they knew it felt really nice,” he chuckled.

A big part of what his novice contractors noticed was the indoor atmosphere. “These materials enhance IAQ, and because of their volume, they dominate it,” Phillips contends, and he cites studies that show the health benefits, and indicate that clay and adobe help clean the air and regulate heat and humidity. “It's so funny; in modern day green building, indoor air quality is a major element people focus on, and they'll try to micro-manage it by using a low-VOC acrylic paint and the best eco-groovy carpet they can find, and then throw in house purifiers, ventilators, and what not. But that's a complicated solution to what's actually rather uncomplicated for people using natural building materials. Using conventional materials is when it gets complicated.”

Like any building project, there's an adjustment curve for newbies to learn the quirks of unfamiliar projects. Thanks to his 10 years experience, Phillips finds that he can integrate his natural construction processes into a conventional project and stay on the GC's schedule without any delays – both as a contractor and as an outside consultant. “I know what to expect, I know what materials to order and have on hand for each stage of the project,” he says. “Just like conventional builders do with conventional materials.” And Phillips reckons that he deals with a lot less call-backs than the typical builder/contractor.

But whatever their appeal, one thing matters most. “The building materials have to stand on their own merit if they're going to catch on,” Phillips admits. “They are very viable to use and very viable economically. The more we do this, the more economically viable it becomes, and every home can incorporate some of these building techniques.

“Natural building is not cute, or quaint,” he concludes. “I want people to know that it indeed stands on its own merits.” • 970-946-9389


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