If some buildings make us sick, can some buildings make us healthy? For many years, this question has motivated the personal and professional lives of architect Paula Baker and builder Robert Laporte. Their collaboration—the evolution of which they call an “econest”—provides an affirmative answer.
As conceived by the Baker-Laportes, an econest is a crafted timber-frame structure with straw-clay infill, earthen plasters and nontoxic finishes. The house is carefully designed for its occupants, is placed mindfully on the site, and follows a healthy building process that includes educating the construction crew about alternatives to potentially toxic materials and techniques.
Paula’s path to healthful building began with chemical sensitivities that she developed nearly 25 years ago while living in a mobile home. At that time, medical science knew little about multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), so she went from doctor to doctor without addressing the cause of her symptoms. Years later, her own doctor became sick from chemical and pesticide exposure at her clinic, and Paula discovered they had the same illness. The light bulb went on in Paula’s head.
“During my research into the concept of the healthful home, I realized what was going into standard home construction—xylem, formaldehyde, pesticides and phenols, to name a few. I decided to find a way to design more healthful homes for my clients,” says Paula. After a decade of study and practical application, she put her research into the book, Prescriptions for a Healthy House.
Robert’s journey to a house that is good for its occupants and leaves a light footprint began with inspiration. As a skilled timber framer, he found joy in his careful craftsmanship, but when it came time to wrap the wooden frame in synthetic foam insulation panels, his good mood disappeared.
His search for an alternative led him to Europe to study historical timber framing. In Germany, he discovered the traditional infill techniques of fackwerk (wattle and daub) and leichtlehmbau (literally, “light clay building”). Robert was inspired and stayed on in Germany to study this time-tested technique.
The Germans also have a rich tradition of creating durable plasters from clay and straw. In fact, Baubiologie, the German school of healthy building, endorses clay plasters as beneficial to human health. The hydrophilic clay absorbs excess moisture vapor in the air, balancing the home’s humidity and temperature. Clay has also been shown to have a purifying effect on the air. Returning to Canada, Robert began building with and later teaching these time-tested techniques.
In 1994, Paula signed up for one of Robert’s “natural house” workshops, and somewhere among the wood, straw and clay, a personal and professional collaboration was born. Eventually, he moved to Santa Fe, where Paula was working as an architect, and founded the EcoNest Building Company. His quest was to utilize as much as possible unprocessed natural materials in his buildings.
Robert and Paula have designed, built and lived in several econests themselves, refining the design each time. “Many features we first tried out on ourselves have now become standard in our clients’ homes,” says Paula. In every location, they strive for the integration of indoor and outdoor spaces, to enhance the residents’ connection to their natural surroundings.
In recent years, they have made the most of a steep hill property north of Santa Fe by creating a compound of buildings to live and work in. It includes an office for Paula, a spacious workshop for Robert, two smaller econests and their current home.
The house feels very private, with an entry gate and covered walkway leading to the front door. The landscape walls define a Japanese-inspired courtyard, which connects the main house and the casita, a self-contained guesthouse. The sheltering green steel roof matches the sage green of the high-desert landscape.
The interior also has a Japanese feel. Rice paper panels diffuse the light from two skylights in the metal roof. Shoji screens slide into pockets in the walls, lightly separating private and public spaces. The proportions are elegant, yet modest.
Classic timber-frame joinery exposed to the interior creates the structure of both the main house and guesthouse. Foot-thick straw-clay walls wrap around the outside of the frame. Inside and out, the smooth-troweled earthen finish has a texture and solidity, yet seems perfectly polished. The effect is serene.
And the econest is constructed to provide comfort for a century or longer. Four-foot roof overhangs and a stone wainscoting protect the walls from all but the most severe weather. Slate countertops, tile and other durable finishing materials require minimal maintenance. And after the home has served its useful life, the timber frame can be taken down and reassembled elsewhere, while the walls melt into the landscape. Perhaps they might eventually sprout into a grain field.
The stone and tile floors contain radiant heat, but it is rarely used. Instead, Paula and Robert stoke up their wood-thrifty masonry stove to supplement solar heat. A 12,000-pound soapstone work of art made in Finland by Tulikivi, the high-mass heater offers each room a view of the roaring fire and includes a baking oven.
Eschewing air conditioning, the Laportes make use of cross-ventilation and nighttime cooling. Even during midsummer in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, overnight temperatures are significantly cooler. Opening windows, encouraging air exchange with fans, and storing the coolness in the mass materials work to keep the home’s interior comfortable in the high-desert heat. Plus, the fresh air is naturally beneficial.
“A natural house can prevent illness, but if someone is sick with multiple chemical sensitivities, I may not recommend a straw-clay house. First, they need to get well. Mold spores will always be present,” says Paula. But for her, the answer is an econest.
“It’s been six years now since I began living in straw and clay houses. Sometime during those years, almost imperceptibly, I have made the transition from illness to wellness to vitality—a state that I’m convinced is the result of living in a beautifully healthful house,” says Paula.
In 2005, the couple wrote EcoNest: Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw, and Timber, which explores their healthful handcrafted dwellings built to serve many generations. After 27 years as a builder, Robert sees their design/build work expanding to villages, clusters and integrated communities. The ultimate goal is “to wake up every day and to feel like you are a part of this phenomenon of nature,to feel like you are a part of the weave,” says Robert.
Catherine Wanek is the author/photographer of The New Strawbale Home and The Hybrid House: Designing with Sun, Wind, Water and Earth. She also co-authored The Art of Natural Building: Design, Construction, Resources. Wanek owns and operates the Black Range Lodge, an ecological bed & breakfast in southwestern New Mexico. www.blackrangelodge.com