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Alternative building styles sprout in Saguache County

Article by Christina Nealson

Residential construction – July 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE LITTLE PIG crouched in fear. The wolf was at the door, and was prepared to huff and puff and blow the house down.

“Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin,” squealed the pig.

Hmmmmm, reconsidered the wolf. Whoever thought of building a straw house anyway? Cheap. Plentiful. I wonder if it’s warm?

“Hey Pig, I’ll let you go if you tell me the R-factor of these walls.”

“RRR-factor? WWWhat DDo You MMMean?”

“Silly Pig. Everyone knows R-factor. It’s how well a wall’s insulated from cold and heat.”

And so they struck up a friendship, the wolf learning about straw, the pig learning that R-factor is the resistance of material to the transmission of cold and heat — the insulating quality. One inch of wood equals one R-factor. Pigs, as well as humans, want the number high.

Log, glass, pumice-crete, Rastra, stone, boxcars, tires and aluminum cans, straw bales, adobe-crete, structural foam panels…there’s a housing revolution underway in Saguache County, which prides itself on as little government regulation as possible.

Plumbing and electricity are regulated by state codes, and sewage is governed by county permit, but how you build, and with what, is up to the builder. All you have to do is give a “notice of construction” to the county assessor and stay under the recent 40-foot height limitation enacted to discourage 400-foot pyramids.

Although alternative housing can be seen throughout the San Luis Valley, most activity is in the Crestone/Baca area, where ecological concerns meet economic realities, and the desire to experiment is high.

None too soon. Most of the 1 million new houses built in the United States every year are built from wood, constructed with the same methods developed in the 1880s. Today we face disappearing forests, sharply rising wood prices, and exorbitant heating costs. These factors, combined with long, cold, Rocky Mountain winters at 7,000+ feet, force the homebuilder to ask a new set of questions:

How can I build a cheaper, energy-efficient home? How will my home affect the environment over the years? What chemicals are used in the production of the building materials? Where do the materials come from? How can I marry modern technology and old natural, materials?

“Ever since Hurricane Andrew [in 1992], the price of lumber has skyrocketed,” says Mark Jacobi, Baca builder, “eclectic rascalian,” and volunteer fire chief. Mark opted for Rastra walls in his house that sits high on the side of the Sangre de Cristos.

Rastra sounds like something imported from Persia, or built by somebody with long, thick dreadlocks. Not! Rastra is a mixture of 14% concrete and 86% recycled polystyrene (a/k/a StyrofoamTM) that comes in 180-pound blocks.

Mark Mathiak and Cassandra Skouras are typical of alternative-material contractors. They’re enthusiastic believers, environmental cheerleaders for the new wave. “This 1500-square-foot wall went up in 130 hours,” bragged Mark. A ten-inch-thick wall has an R-factor of 30 to 41, he said.

That means happy builders and a warm house. The walls I observed had a strange chemical smell, but I was told it was because they were new.

Jacobi chose Rastra for its flexibility. Its easily carved blocks allowed him to construct curved walls. Doors and windows are sawed out and easily patched if you change your mind and want to move a window six inches to the right. It’s also fire-resistant, and has no toxic agents. It feels earthy, despite tiny chunks of styrenes.

The downside? Unless you can have the blocks delivered to the construction site, they’re hard to move. They can crumble and break, and they’re heavy. They’re also cut metrically at the moment, which calls for conversion. But it’s catching on. There are a dozen houses planned in the Baca-Crestone area and Salida.

“I love my house,” says Jacobi. “It’s quiet and warm. It feels good to use less material for the same structural soundness, and it was cheap….” a tune commonly sung by the harbingers of new housing.

ANOTHER NEW MATERIAL is Stress Skin, structural foam panels. Weighing in with an R-value of 44 for 12-inch walls (R-22 for 6.5″), Stress Skin walls arrive in large, ready-made pieces of rigid polystyrene sandwiched between oriented strand board made from aspen. Strand board is a non-toxic particle board. No formaldehyde is used in the resins and no blowing agents are used in the polystyrene, which means no CFCs to attack the ozone layer.

Like Rastra, the walls go up pronto. Unlike Rastra, the walls don’t breathe. Circulation of air and humidity must be carefully planned. And you don’t get bennies for going to McDonald’s and using old polystyrene cups. This polystyrene isn’t recycled — it’s created for these walls, a serious negative environmental consideration for many.

Leito Tejada-Flores and Linda Waidhofer, newly arrived to the Baca from Telluride, join 200 others across the state who are building Stress Skin houses, many of them in the Vail area. Theirs is the first around here.

From the builder’s standpoint, these panels are lighter than Rastra and not as fragile. A 4’x8′ panel weighs 88 pounds and panels can be custom cut to order. They provide a continuous load-bearing wall and are fire-resistant. The walls of an 800-square-foot house go up in a day, with a panel construction that is relatively easy to learn.

Stress Skin reduces the use of lumber up to 60%. Guy Parker, the contractor of the Tejada-Waidhofer home, claims an $80-a-month propane bill for his 2,600-square-foot home in Vail, and propane runs it all. Stress Skin can be used for interior walls and ceilings as well as exterior walls. Outside walls are commonly stuccoed, inside walls drywalled.

It’s all pretty impressive, but standing inside the newly erected walls, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been shrunk and dropped into a polystyrene cup.

It’s a short drive across the sandy piƱon hills to the tall junipers that surround the latest house of pumice-crete. Both pumice-crete and adobe-crete are attempts to mix different earth products into a structurally sound insulating wall.

Michael Dennett, of White Elk Builders in Crestone, works with pumice-crete, pouring it into plywood forms. A typical insulated pumice-crete wall gives R-20. Exterior walls are stuccoed. Pumice-crete is lightweight and non-toxic. As with Rastra, there is no fiberglass insulation and no sheetrock. However, the forms are heavy and require lots of plywood and 2x4s.

The pumice is dug from the nearby volcanic region of Fort Garland and San Antonio mountain in northern New Mexico.

The proximity of materials is an important factor to many, who consider the ecological cost of shipping building materials across the country. The Baca still twitters with condemnation of a recent log home that required the shipment of logs from the eastern United States.

Michael likes pumice-crete. “The idea is to get away from toxicity not only in the house, but in the manufacture and installation of materials.” A statement that takes us closer to the hard-core dweller-builders who insist that a house is much more than a shelter — that built correctly, it should create an environment of good health.

The Story of the Three Little Pigs was a public-relations nightmare for what has become the most popular house alternative, strawbale. It takes some factual convincing before folks believe it will not blow away — the wolf, albeit a figurative but still ravenous creature, is a fixture at many of our doors — or easily catch fire.

However, the strawbale walls are coated in three layers of cement stucco. The biggest fire hazard exists before the wall receives its protective coat, but no one knows of any such fires.

Straw is a cheap, locally-produced, renewable resource, easily assembled into walls. Covered with stucco, bales provide R-50 insulation and look like double adobe. Sounds inside are soft, hardly traveling between rooms, something Rastra and Stress Skin people also claim.

“Strawbale creates a bioharmonic house,” says Peter May, architect and natural building consultant in Crestone. We stood inside his round strawbale house under construction. “There are no chemicals. The natural material breathes — it takes care of ionization, the balance of electric particles in the air. It’s hygroscopic, pulling moisture from the earth as needed. These houses connect with the pulse of the earth and life process as a whole.”

Lest you think we’re entering the realm of the new age, Peter is quick to point out that NASA has measured this electro-magnetic pulse at 7.83 hertz, and named it the Schumann Wave.

It was discovered during the first manned Apollo missions in the 1960s, when astronauts suffered nausea and disorientation. Apparently, when we humans are separated from the earth’s electro-magnetic field, we suffer. Now NASA installs 7.83-hertz electronic oscillators in all spacecraft that carry people.

So one might think twice about placing a strawbale, or any other house, on a concrete slab. The Schumann wave can’t get through.

Other possibilities for floors include clay from the Saguache deposit, or a wooden floor above the ground. (I used two-inch tongue-and-groove in my seven-sided log and glass cabin.)

Peter believes that if a house feels and smells healthy, then it probably is healthy. “The most common materials for building have lots of formaldehyde and concrete. These are the favorite materials for preserving and entombing. Think about it.”

“If I had it to do over again,” said Mark Jacobi, “I’d build a strawbale.” That seems to be a common sentiment among those who started early, before the strawbale was popular knowledge.

SIXTY PER CENT of the current housing starts in the Crestone/Baca area are from materials other than brick or wood frame. Most of the starts are strawbale.

Unfortunately, it is currently impossible to get bank financing for strawbale homes, according to Jodi Heutimk, home loan manager for the First National Bank in Alamosa, who toured the Baca area early this year.

Until the appraisers and insurance agents get together and assign an insurable value, the banks won’t lend money. Lee Temple, an architect who is building the Sustainable Resource Center in the Baca, is working with banks, insurers, and appraisers to qualify unconventional houses for conventional loans.

Education is the key, as places like Tucson, Ariz., lead the way by integrating new housing methods into the established system of building codes and financing. But bank financing and insurability aren’t high on the priority list of builder/owners. They know it will come, with time. Meanwhile, Rastra and Stress Skin have no trouble fitting conventional loan requirements.

Figuring approximate costs for finished walls per square foot is tricky for new materials…there are many opinions and variables. The following estimates are ballpark figures: adobe, $10; Rastra and Stress Skin $6-8; Strawbale, $5. Note that these are for square foot of wall, not the square feet of floor space.

Labor is a huge factor. If you do it yourself, adobe wins, with strawbale a close second.

Driving around the valley, one can’t help but notice piles of tires dug into the ground on abandoned lots.

THE EARTHSHIP. Books have been written about it, and weekend seminars, at $350 a pop, are held to “promote in-depth, hands-on training in the methods and skills involved in building your own earthship and its mechanical system.” Centers are even devoted to its proliferation, with one as near as Taos.

But no one seems to mention that unless you own slaves, you probably won’t get the thing built. Each tire must be placed into the earth and packed with more than a hundred pounds of dirt. And we’re talking hundreds of tires.

I suspect that its construction may qualify as the number one reason for divorce in the state. You get the picture.

“At the core of earthships is valid information, but they’re incredibly hyped,” says architect Jon Worden, currently building a post-and-beam strawbale for himself in the Baca.

A completed Earthship is a pretty picture of sustainability — there’s one in the Baca. The idea is to build a south-facing structure bermed into the earth with tire and aluminum-can walls. It is a self-sustaining environment; everything is recycled within its walls, and food grown with gray-water systems.

But the amount of materials it takes to build one is enormous. Tires must be brought in from who knows where, and where have those tires been, anyhow?

“There’s not much room for flexibility in its design,” stated Jacobi, and several builders in the area wonder whether building shelter out of tires and aluminum cans is the best use of materials. This concern for where and how to use materials is a common one. As Jacobi points out, “If I don’t use trees, I use rebar from the mines of Upper Michigan. If I use cement, I support the use of large amounts of fuel consumed in the kilns. If I use pumice, I destroy San Antonio Mountain [the largest free-standing mountain on this continent, visible from the Baca].”

Lee Temple reminds us that, “We must be clear about the essential characteristics of different building materials and use them to the best advantage.”

Once you decide on the materials of the house, Worden says that site placement is just as important. Know the drainage of the land, the trees, southern exposure, the relationship to neighbors.

HARRIET JOHNS is an artist of the Baca, known there as “Our Lady of Perpetual Construction.” After building a pumice-crete studio, she moved a retired box car ($1500 delivered) into the Baca when no one was looking.

Houses in the Baca must pass an architectural review committee with guidelines that, until Harriet, didn’t include box cars. In Harriet’s application to the committee she described her home-to-be to the tee. She just didn’t call it a box car.

Once in, Harriet went to work berming the north side, cutting out the south side and building on a greenhouse. “The original wood in a refrigerator car is beautiful, and everything is insulated.” Her example became the basis for the relaxation of laws against box cars. They are now allowed as building components and additions to other dwellings.

Harriet has since built a strawbale studio, and she plans to use Rastra next. “Home is the perfect marriage of site and structure,” she says. “We should be fined $5,000 for not paying attention to topographic and solar orientation. People still put garages on the south side of their homes. Isn’t that nice, to give the warmest room to the car?”

A worthy civilization should give its people the tools and skills to build their own shelters. But like other basic rights, for instance childbirth, that endeavor has been given over to the experts. Building codes sometimes make it impossible for poor people to create their own dwellings as bankers and developers seek to maintain wealth flowing in their direction. Just as women struggle for the right to deliver their babies as they wish, so must people reclaim their right to build houses as they wish.

Of course, it’s as easy to build a trophy home from Stress Skin or pumice-crete as from imported wood. It’s happening in the Baca as well as Vail. Gucci nailbelts and fur-covered tape measures can’t be far away.

But it’s also possible to build an organic, life-giving shelter from materials that exist close to home for less than $10,000. My own log, glass and recycled-material cabin, 800 square feet, cost $8000. It faces south, gathering sunshine through windows. All electricity comes through an active solar system. My energy bills (wood and propane combined) are less than $30 month.

The logs for my home were carefully selected from a mill in the Valley that does not clear-cut. Most windows are old patio doors, double-paned. The finishing wood came from the streets of Boulder, in a now-defunct annual event called the spring clean-up, where yuppies gleefully threw out whatever was old and awaited city bulldozers and dump trucks to haul it away. A veritable gold mine for builder/scavengers.

My goal was to build a beautiful and cheap shelter, free from toxic materials, that didn’t separate me from the environment. Birds and weather are a few feet from me, in any direction, as I sit dry and warm.

Contractor Guy Parker reminds us that if there’s a housing revolution, it’s slow. The building sciences, and most contractors, are entrenched in the old ways, and only seem to move when pressured by pockets of individuals that break out and begin building differently on their own:

Pockets like the Valley, where you’ll most likely like your neighbor, who’s trying to do it differently. She’s creative and inquisitive and brave; you’ll see him on community committees and boards.

Perhaps Saguache County is onto something — new in ways, and as traditional as the American pioneer hewing a log cabin. Neil Seitz, owner of Valley View Hot Springs and a member of the county planning commission, says there are no plans to change the non-regulatory policy.

It would take a larger level of resources to form another county department that would have to be supported by permits. Besides, the people here like it the way it is. While folks are saddened that Ken Kern, author of the popular handbook The Ownerbuilt Home, died when his ceiling caved in on him, they still prefer freedom with risks to rules and regulations.

SILENCE, BEAUTY, and the wild are the reasons I moved to this valley, a high mountain desert embedded in an anarchistic spirit that rises hot and strong, like a Yellowstone geyser. While our neighbors to the north and the east compete for prisons to boost their economies, I suggest they look at freedom as a bigger draw.

“We convert, if we do at all, by being something irresistible,” writes May Sarton, a poet and novelist. The problem is, the places to express sustainable irresistibility are harder and harder to find.

Christina Nealson managed to finish this article at the same time she finished her novel, Sing it Blood Red, and fended a black bear off her front porch. Ah, life in the Valley.