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American Vedic: A Pioneering Straw-Clay Home in Iowa

4/4/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: green homes, timber frame home, stray claw home, Iowa

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailRobert Laporte had been building timber frame homes for decades when a lecture about sthapatya ved, the ancient Indian art of orientation, proportion and placement of buildings, rocked his world. In shapatya ved (also known as vastu), Transcendental Meditation founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi said, homes are built so that everything nourishes everything. For the first time, Laporte thought seriously about the pollution created by the building materials he was using. He set out to build a home in Fairfield, Iowa, that could stand up to the  wicked winters and sultry summers—using local, natural, unprocessed materials. At the time, in Iowa, this was a radical idea.

Laporte spent six weeks in Germany, where he learned about leichtlehmbau, a clay and straw mixture used to build walls on timber-frame homes. The clay provides insulating mass, holds the straw together and deters fire, decay, rodents and mold. The straw also gives the walls tensile strength and insulates by trapping air in its cylinders. Leichtlehmbau was perfect for a home in Iowa, where the soil is full of pure clay deposits and there’s no shortage of spare straw. “Iowa has export-grade clay,” Laporte says. “I call it Iowa Gold.”

On 5 acres of woods and meadow just outside of Fairfield, Iowa, Laporte built a traditional mortise and tenon timber frame using pine salvaged when the Fairfield power company cut down trees growing into power lines. He wrapped a 12-inchgh-thick straw-clay wall around the frame and clad it in cedar siding—the one thing he probably wouldn’t do again. “I didn’t have the experience I have today with earth plasters,” he explains. “I wouldn’t hesitate to plaster a building in Iowa today.”

With help from high school classes and people interested in building with leichtlehmbau, Laporte erected the timber frame “bones” and the straw-clay “flesh” in three months. “The remaining five months of effort never improved the feeling of that house,” he says. “What I learned was that the soul of this house is captured in the bones and flesh and skin. It’s not in the bracelets and the dresses—all the things you cloak the house with. The important thing I got from this experience is that you have one chance to really create your home—and it’s not the dressings, it’s the core underneath all that.”

Laporte has since sold the home to John and Caree Connet and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexcio. He's built dozens of ecologically sound homes and conducts natural building workshops across the country, and he says the most important book he’s found on building is the Audubon Society’s Bird Nests of North America. “A robin doesn’t fly over to Texas if it’s building a nest in Missouri,” he says. “It uses what’s at hand. If we all would use materials the way birds use them, there would be no shortages of building supplies.”

 fairfield exterior 

 The 1,500-square-foot home faces east, following the mandates of the ancient Indian design philosphy known as sthapatya ved or vastu. Strong cross-ventilation and large roof overhangs negate the need for air conditioning in this Iowa home, while the glass window wall on the south side provides passive solar heat. The long, low cupola on the roof, called a Boston Ridge, provides an air cushion that intercepts heat in summer and keeps the surface cool in winter, allowing snow to insulate and seal the roof. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison 

fairfield entry  

Sliding shoji screens, coir rugs coiled to look like tatami mats and rice paper lamps dovetail perfectly with the post-and-beam construction. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison 

fairfield kitchen window
Twelve-inch-thick straw-clay walls allow for deep window wells. The kitchen cabinets were handcrafted using woven Douglas fir and hand-planed cedar frames and finished with Japanese hand-forged hardware. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison 

fairfield john 

 Homeowner John Connet enjoys a bountiful harvest from the vegetable and flower garden, surrounded by a 7-foot fence to discourage deer. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison 

 fairfield living room 

Builder Robert Laporte used the traditional Japanese method of bracing a timber frame with double beams, an important architectural feature in the living room.  Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison 

fairfield woodwork 

The home is constructed using mortise and tenon construction with peg joints. “No other opportunity will allow you to give so much soul to a home as to craft it with a timber frame,” builder Robert Laporte says. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison 

 fairfield yarn 

Homeowner Caree Connet, a former weaver, nurtures her love for “natural things” with a collection of undyed yarn. Photo by Povy Kendal Atchison 

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