While many green designers use high-tech materials that are airtight, water-repellant and light on irritants, Oregon-based architect Paula Baker-Laporte, co-author of the book Prescription for a Healthy House, believes that nature has all the answers.
Using a philosophy called Building Biology – which originated in Germany after the Second World War – Baker-Laporte and her husband Robert LaPorte create ‘EcoNest’ homes made from clay, straw and wood, and they feature natural floors, clay plasters, beeswax and oil sealants that work with nature rather than against it.
She doesn’t subscribe to the idea that homes need to be seamlessly sealed with plastic vapor barriers. On the contrary, she says designing a home with materials that don’t trap moisture inside is important to air quality – and that doesn’t mean energy efficiency goes out the window.
As you’ll see in the McGowan House, which Baker-Laporte designed for a New Mexican client who wanted a healthy home for her and her prized parrots, EcoNests are anything but mud huts that can only exist in dry desert climes: the pair has created homes in 17 states and four Canadian provinces – and they don’t skimp on style.
Heating/Cooling/Air Filtering: In summer, earthen walls made of a combination of clay and straw absorb the daytime heat, keeping the interior relatively cool, then slowly release the heat at night. In winter, they keep heat in and shield residents from the cold.
Still, some added heating is needed – and in the McGowan home, it came in the form of in-floor radiant heat (using Wirsbo PEX tubing), as well a striking soapstone masonry heater that looks like a fireplace but does much more. In short, a small fire warms the walls of the fireplace; then those walls continue to emanate heat long after the fire is out. Since the gases pass through several chambers and fully combust before heading up the chimney, the system is nearly smoke-free.
For cooling in summer, carefully placed windows ensure plenty of natural airflow.
Wall Finishes: Rather than sealing walls with paint, Baker-Laporte used clay plasters tinted with natural pigments to give the McGowan residence its earthy hues. The colors aren’t uniform as they are with paint, but the architect says our eyes actually prefer variety, because nature doesn’t come in monochrome. “If you look at a leaf that is green, you’re not going to see one shade of green. You’re going to see several tones and hues,” she says. “And when we are in nature, our sight is enlivened, so that is what we do inside.”
The finishes also naturally absorb moisture, then expel it, so mold growth is inhibited – even in steamy rooms like kitchens and baths.
Flooring: Baker-Laporte’s floor of choice is made from a mix of earth, clay and straw, then coated with several layers of natural oils and beeswax. But in the McGowan house, the client opted for red birch floors in the main living areas, which gave the home a warm, welcoming feel, as well as easy-to-clean stone tile in the entryway and bath.
Insulation: The earthen walls naturally keep homes warm in winter and cool in summer, and with less heating and cooling required, there are fewer opportunities for allergy triggers to circulate, and fewer greenhouse gases heading into the environment. Baker-Laporte does employ conventional insulation, such as cellulose or formaldehyde-free fiberglass, in the roof to prevent the heat from escaping. In the McGowan House, she used open-cell spray foam which keeps heat in but still allows moisture to pass through, so mold has a tougher time setting up shop.
Cabinets and Counters: While most particle board and plywood uses formaldehyde as a binding agent, there are some manufacturers who produce products that are free of the common asthma trigger – and the custom cabinet maker used those safe materials for the McGowan kitchen. After the cabinets were varnished, they were left to off-gas in the factory before being installed. For counters, the client opted for solid granite.
Extras: The client’s parrots got their very own aviary right off the kitchen, which also offers access to an outdoor area.
“When you walk into a house that was made using natural materials, it’s enlivening. We have been visited by hundreds if not thousands of curiosity seekers from around the world, and their first comment is usually, ‘It feels so peaceful in here’ – which is how we feel in nature,” says Baker-Laporte, who lives in an EcoNest home with her partner, Robert Laporte. “And for me it’s not a theory, because living in the environment is proof.”
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