How to Build in the Face of Climate Change

Currently the conventional construction industry contributes heavily to climate change. That cannot be debated. What if it could be changed?

Welcome to the modern world of increasing carbon emissions.

No matter the exact numbers, we know that creating buildings from new materials that have been manufactured and then shipped long distances, using machinery that consumes fuel and electricity, and assembled by workers who travel to the site daily in gas burning vehicles cannot be the greatest thing for the planet right now. We are struggling with the real effects of climate change in the present day, while also hearing every day about the potential futures we and our children will face.

How can building actually help?

We are part of a small but growing class of builders who believe we can offer some solutions to the big problems of carbon emissions associated with construction. Some ways this can be done:

Use Local Materials

If you don’t have to ship pine boards from New Zealand, but can instead use wood harvested sustainably from the same region that you are building in, this will reduce the embodied energy of that material. Unless you live in New Zealand, and then go for it with your pine. If you live somewhere where forests aren’t abundant, then you could look into other options like straw bale, masonry, or stone.

Their local abundance is part of why we love to use natural plasters. Sand, clay, and lime are harvested and processed fairly locally, not shipped from across the sea. These materials can be used for floors, walls, and more.

Use Materials with Lower Embodied Energy

If you can choose build a home out of cement blocks or adobe blocks, you can drastically reduce your building’s carbon footprint by choosing the adobe. Cement is one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, but adobe blocks can provide as much structural support, increased thermal mass (means more comfortable home in the face of extreme temperature swings), and a much lower embodied energy.

Similarly to how single use to-go containers made of styrofoam can’t ever be considered “green,” a home insulated with lots of foam is also not very green, because of the amount of energy it requires to manufacture that foam. Materials like straw, hemp, and cellulose can perform just as well, at a lower embodied energy cost. There are many more examples of this, so feel free to ask us about low energy materials when designing your dream home!

Use Materials that Sequester Carbon

Straw is made of carbon, and when a home is insulated with carbon-rich materials like that, you’re locking that carbon out of the atmosphere for the life of the building, How cool is that?

In contrast, a fiberglass batt or mineral wool board (or foam of any kind) takes a ton of energy to create and doesn’t sequester carbon at all. Bummer.

Other materials that sequester carbon: wood studs, hemp, cross laminated timber, and fiber boards (some made from hemp are coming onto the market soon).

Practice Efficient Home Design

Paying attention to your climate and site conditions and using principles of passive solar design will keep your home comfortable throughout the seasons while reducing your energy bills. It also lowers your carbon emissions.

Another part of designing a wall system is preventing air and water leaks. A tightly air-sealed and well-insulated home will last longer, reduce issues of mold or rot, and be more energy efficient for both heating and cooling.

Start today

It’s a good start to begin thinking about some of the factors listed above when designing and building a home. We can’t change the industry overnight, but the broader acceptance of low carbon building methods today could go a long way.

The Story of the Truth Window


When you’re new to straw bale building, one of the first things you may notice or hear about is the “truth window.”

What exactly is this feature? It seems to me like a fun little joke within the community of straw bale builders and/or homeowners, where a small part of the wall (interior or exterior) is left without plaster, so that the straw is visible. This acts as proof to unbelieving guests and visitors that the walls are actually insulated with straw bales.

The truth window opening is covered with non-removable glass, left open, or has a door that opens and closes to allow the straw to be both seen and touched. However, we STRONGLY recommend sealing this section of the wall and detailing it well to prevent air and moisture from moving through the walls via this penetration. A simple pane of glass embedded in the plaster should do the trick.

Designing a truth window is a fun process where you can express your style and individuality by customizing the trim, shape, or other features. A quick online image search can give you inspiration, or check out a few we’ve worked on and around.

RMNBC 2017 Recap

Living Craft owners were recently proud to be speakers, sponsors, planners, and attendees of the 2017 Rocky Mountain Natural Building Conference, co-hosted by the Colorado Straw Bale Association and Common Earth. It’s been a fun and exhausting process through which we learned a lot, both about hosting a conference, as well as all the learning opportunities from speakers and other attendees of the event.

This year’s event was a blast, where we finally had a chance to meet other straw bale and natural building enthusiasts and reconnect with our mentors and friends from past natural building endeavors. The scope of the conference was broader than similar events put on by COSBA in the past, as we were striving to connect straw bale with other building techniques and ideas which can offer their own unique benefits. Speakers and attendees included earthen and adobe builders, hemp builders, building scientists and passive house experts, timber framers, architects, permaculturists, and landscape and greywater systems designers.

Frank was the emcee for the event, and Ben and Frank gave a presentation titled: Natural Building in the Urban Environment – Low Hanging Fruit. Cheryl was on a panel with several of her mentors and peers, discussing Intergenerationality in Natural Building.

Other highlights were Deva Racusin of New Frameworks Natural Design Build discussing building science and the important role of natural building materials and techniques in the green building movement. There is a huge opportunity for natural builders to promote building homes that not only have low energy use during their operation, but are also made of materials that sequester carbon within the structure of the building itself. By using plant based materials like straw, wood, cellulose, and hemp, instead of carbon emitters like steel, concrete, and mineral wool, the immediate carbon footprint of the building is significantly lower. This is absolutely essential to fight climate change in the moment, rather than waiting for benefits to offset inputs after 20-30 years or more. His business partner wrote a great article that goes into more detail about sequestering carbon in buildings.

The Friday night panel discussion with Deva, Mike Wird, Brian Fuentes, Emily Niehaus, and Derek Roff was also a really fun and informative discussion. The crowd was able to get involved by asking question via a website, which other audience members could vote on to lead the topic of conversation to areas of highest interest. Mike’s discussion of leverage points was inspiring and artful, as was Emily’s reminder that we all have more to give, as her upcoming role as mayor of the town of Moab illustrates.

An impromptu 5×5 panel on Saturday night allowed some of our friends for CASBA (California Straw Building Association) to share the results of wildfires on several straw bale homes which were impacted in recent wildfires across the state. We are truly impressed again and again by the durability of straw buildings with lime plaster, as several homes were left intact even after other non-straw structures nearby were damaged or destroyed.

Finally, COSBA and other anonymous donors, along with event attendees, were able to raise a significant donation to Liz Johndrow’s Pueblo Project, a non-profit that teaches local Central American people how to build with adobe and clay, and improve their homes’ durability, beauty, and comfort with these simple and affordable techniques. She’s hosting a natural building conference of her own in Guatemala this year.

There was too much fun to fully recount here, but Living Craft would like to fully extend our gratitude and love to our community for joining us on this amazing weekend. We hope to continue to work with all the folks we met and those we didn’t get a chance to talk with.

‘Til the next one, friends! #RMNBC2017

Case Study: Repairing a Strawbale Home

after-sponge-coat
The home after we applied a thin lime plaster over all the repairs.

Our clients for this project had finished building their own straw-bale home in the mountains west of Boulder about a decade ago. However, the harsh mountain climate and some details of the design and material selection had led to failures in areas of plaster, particularly around windows and in places where the roof drainage lacked adequate gutter systems.

lime-stabilized
The lime-stabilized earth layer which was used to repair damaged areas of the home, seen as the darker, lower level in this picture, has been built out by the homeowner to the same level as the original lime plaster. Now it’s ready to get a thin lime plaster over them all, to blend the different sections of the home together.

We worked with them to come up with a solution that would allow them to participate in the repair work, while using our experience and tools to speed up the process and get the home ready for winter.

First steps were to remove the lime plaster where it had begun to delaminate from the clay plaster base coat below. This happens because of a reaction between the two materials that creates a silt layer which prevents them from bonding, weakening the walls. In some areas, water had eroded the clay base coats, and we needed to mix and apply a clay plaster to build out everything to the same level. Next, we mixed up an intermediate lime-stabilized earth plaster to apply on top of the clay base coat. This in-between layer helps bond the two materials by creating a transition. The homeowners applied both of these layers by hand after we mixed up several batches and staged them around the house. They also took the opportunity to enhance and add some sculptural elements, including the house number in relief on the side of the wall.strawbale-home-number

We also added metal flashing around windows and below siding to move any water running off the building out to the surface of the wall and keep it from infiltrating into the plaster again. A final sponge-finished lime plaster over the whole house covers up any differences between the old and new and seals boundaries to prevent water from eroding the surface.

strawbale-repairs-in-progress

We will be able to go back in the spring next year, once temperatures are consistently above freezing, to apply a final colored coat over their home. This entire process will ensure that the will last for many decades to come, even in the harsh mountain winters.

© 2022 All Content by Living Craft // website by BluErth