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Building their own EcoNest

A couple known for helping other people construct natural houses have built their own sleek, healthful and energy-stingy abode in Ashland and will use it as the headquarters of their business and classes.

Over the past year — and sometimes using the labor of eager students — Paula Baker-Laporte and Robert Laporte, owners of EcoNest, handcrafted a 1,700-square-foot, single-story house with 1-foot-thick walls made of rammed clay, straw and sand. The structure has enough insulating value (R-20) that they will need no air conditioning in summer, they say, and in winter they expect to get by with a Tulikivi heat-accumulating, soapstone stove that burns a small amount of sticks and keeps radiating for 24 hours after it's out.

For a backup, the home has radiant, hydronic heating under maple floors, but they doubt they'll need it.

The main environmentally conscious, energy-affordable thing they teach and preach is the walls; once you've got that, everything else follows for a healthful house using the most natural and local building materials.

"The walls behave like our own skin. They're vapor-permeable. They breathe," says Robert Laporte. "They are thermally efficient. Clay-straw has the insulating benefits of straw-bale, then you breed that with cob construction for mass. It moderates heat, humidity and sound."

The house has no crawl space or basement. It hugs the earth, which has an ambient, 55-degree temperature, so they will build indoor temperature from the ground, he says, not from the winter air temperature.

In an EcoNest, says Baker-Laporte, inhabitants aren't exposed to the thousands of man-made chemicals found in building materials.

Baker-Laporte is intimately familiar with the impacts of indoor pollution caused by toxic building materials. Thirty years ago, she came down with an extreme case of "environmental sensitivity" from formaldehyde and other chemicals in her home. In the time it took her to regain her health, she had thoroughly studied the syndrome and its causes and was launched on a new career to prevent it.

She emerged as an architect and author, with publication of a 1997 book called "Prescriptions for a Healthy House," now in its third edition, co-written with a physician and "house doctor." In 2005, she and Laporte published "EcoNest: Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber," which describes their philosophy and building techniques and centers on 10 homeowners who built houses using their principles.

Their books and workshops, notes Baker-Laporte, have made the couple leaders in what they call "natural, healthy and handcrafted building."

Being handcrafted — but also buildable from plan-kits they sell — the houses are not cheap to create. They run $250 to $300 per square foot, with about a third of the cost coming from "owner's choices," that is, things you decide on, such as tile and faucets.

However, notes Laporte, natural straw-clay homes are durable, and there's no reason they shouldn't be standing a few centuries down the road. The longer it stands, they say, the cheaper it becomes over time, and the more resale value it gains.

EcoNests focus on a minimum of moving parts, a lot of mass and a superb defense against moisture — "a building's enemy" — in the walls or anywhere else, without using plastic sheeting.

Interior walls of the couple's new Ashland house utilize standard construction — two-by-fours and Sheetrock — and are finished in slightly iridescent, clay plaster with oxides in the mix for coloring. The main room is ochre from iron; the bath is lime from copper.

The house is outfitted with ultraefficient appliances and some solar panels off to the side, not on the roof, where they can be aesthetically challenging.

A big energy savings comes from "daylighting" — skylights pleasingly scattered in darker hallways and interior rooms — with a 6-footer in the central, drop ceiling, its light diffused by a panel of rice paper. You don't feel the need to turn on lights.

Perhaps the most unique feature of the house — under the heading of local, natural building materials — is a floor in the master bedroom made of earth. It's very dark and mostly sand with a little straw for strength and enough clay to firm its shape. It required a laser and lots of skill to make it level, says Baker-Laporte. It's coated in linseed and tung oil and finished in lustrous beeswax.

"It has give under your feet," says Baker-Laporte. "It's not like concrete, which is hard and foreign to the body. I love the way it feels when I walk on it."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

In winter the home uses a Tulikivi heat-accumulating, soapstone stove that burns a small amount of sticks and keeps radiating for 24 hours after itís out. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch