An "EcoNest" is rising from the ground outside Talent, and those working on the region's first clay-straw structure hope it's just the first of many.
The structure, started in May on Wagner Creek Road, is being built as a "barn," but it really could be used for just about anything. It will eventually serve as a utility building behind the future home of developer Scott Allison of Ashland.
A crew of students, led by noted natural designer-builder Robert Laporte, held a workshop and open house at the site in May, showing visitors how the concept works. They say this burgeoning "green" technique holds inherent pluses for insulation, strength and beauty — and they hope their demonstration project will lead to construction of numerous EcoNests in Ashland and beyond.
Laporte and his architect wife, Paula Baker-Laporte, head the venture called EcoNest, which has the subtitle "Living Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber." They are based in Santa Fe, N.M., but they've spent several months in Ashland this year, teaching workshops and spreading the word about their technique of building with clay and straw.
The couple are noted veterans of the green-building landscape. Paula Baker-Laporte is author of the highly popular book "Prescriptions for a Healthy House." Robert Laporte wrote "EcoNest: Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber."
Their approach is not to be confused with strawbale construction. Instead, they erect a sturdy frame of large timbers, preferably cut and hewn on site and assembled with ancient joinery techniques, including mortise-and-tenon, white oak pegs and virtually no nails, screws or metal, says Laporte.
The timber frame is inside the house, in plain view, and has lots of lovely angles and curves.
From that organic and rugged-yet-flexible frame, pairs of 2-by-4 studs are hung, between which is packed a mixture of local clay, straw and water. The straw is a terrific insulator, so more of it goes on the shadier, colder north side. Clay, which absorbs the sun's heat, is used more heavily on the south side.
Building the structure is very participative. You mix the clay, straw and water in an electric-powered tumbler (it looks like a big culvert) filled with spikes. To get the clay-straw between studs, you have to put up temporary plywood forms and stomp the stuff down tight. Bamboo rods run between studs for support.
When that part is done, it takes three months to dry out, so you have to wait. Then you apply mineral-tinted plaster, made of native kaolin clay, sand and fine straw. The mixture goes on like any plaster, with a trowel. The mixing of minerals, including iron oxide (rust), produces lovely earth tones with lots of yellows, oranges and reds.
Once completed, an EcoNest breathes. And because it has no paint or plastics and little metal, you could basically walk away from it and let it melt organically back into the earth with no contamination (except for the metal roof for rain catchment), says Medford architect Jason Zook, "spark plug" for the May workshop and many other green projects in the Rogue Valley.
Zook, for instance, is a co-founder of Green Drinks, which has been held on the last Friday at Standing Stone Brewing Co. for the past year. It is a gathering where anyone interested in green technology can trade ideas, network and brainstorm. It has become so popular that the event moved to ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum in June.
An animated teacher who uses his body to demonstrate how a rigid, nonorganic house crumbles to the ground in an earthquake, Laporte holds forth poetically about the virtues of natural building.
"It will always create, not only healthy homes, but cultivate stewardship for the environment in the process," he says. "It should be obvious why it's popular because both are now at risk — planetary health and personal health."
An average EcoNest might be 1,200 square feet. That's not big for a house, but it's about quality, not quantity, says Laporte. An EcoNest probably will cost the same to build as a stick-built house, he says, depending on the labor and availability of natural resources.
"It's a holistic dwelling, a place to repose, a place that nourishes our health. In short, a place where you can thrive and regenerate ... It's a way of building that builds pride, self-respect, social responsibility and a passion for living and serving."
Ashland city building official Mike Broomfield says the clay-straw style is "absolutely legal." State building codes have recently been updated, so clay-straw and other alternative construction techniques are now "cookbook" — meaning they're not considered unique or special anymore; you just apply the cookbook to it.
Ashland Mayor John Stromberg, who was checking out the site, called it a "beautiful, interesting building — responsible, durable and not allergenic. I'm interested in this kind of building, and I'll be talking to the city staff."