Mother Earth Living

Casa Natura: Building a Family-friendly Home

Following centuries-old building techniques using timber frame, straw, clay and earth, a mother designs a home for herself and her daughter that’s healthy, ecologically sensitive and naturally nurturing.
By Linda Mason Hunter
May/June 2002
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The 1,500-square-foot econest is snuggled in a forest of ponderosa pine overlooking a field of willows. Four-foot overhangs protect the straw-clay walls, a south-facing solar room helps heat the house, and a pent roof at the gable end protects the exposed wall from driving winds and rain.
Photos By Laurie Dickson
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When it comes to her environment, Daryl Stanton walks a fine line. Completely dedicated to a natural, organic lifestyle, Daryl is as close to a purist as any normal person wants to get. She wears natural fabrics and eats simply, growing her own vegetables and herbs. An interior designer by trade, Daryl has an established reputation in her hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for designing beautiful interiors using natural products, many of which come from her boutique, Casa Natura.

A true pioneer in the healthy home movement, Daryl traces her commitment back to the late 1970s when the first house she remodeled and decorated literally made her sick. “I didn’t know anything about natural materials back then,” she says. “I was a holistic health practitioner so I thought I knew how to be healthy. What I didn’t know was that a house full of outgassing synthetic chemicals—formaldehyde in pressed wood and wall-to-wall carpeting, polyurethane on the floors and in fresh paint, upholstery stuffed with polyester—can make people sick.”

The significant amount of earth—20 to 30 tons—provides a life force of its own.

Daryl fled Los Angeles and the toxic house in a travel trailer retrofitted with natural materials and began an intense period of re-education and healing. She soon began to think clearly again, and her symptoms vanished. From that day forward, whenever Daryl decorated or purchased anything for her house, she did it consciously, using products biologically conducive to life.

“I consider myself lucky,” she says. “We all should avoid these strong synthetics, but because I am sensitive I can detect them. I regard my sensitivity as a gift.”

Along the way her concept of beauty changed too. Where once she viewed natural interiors as sterile, featureless environments, she now sees them as biologically beautiful. Her new house attests to her evolution. Infused with Daryl’s uncompromising spirit, this—the third “natural” house she has designed for herself—is built to be ecological as well.

“I wanted a healthy house, built for longevity out of ecologically sensitive materials, one that breathes and feels and smells like living in nature,” she explains. And that’s exactly what she got. Designed with Paula Baker-Laporte and built by Robert Laporte of Santa Fe’s Econest Building Company, along with Steve Vessey, Daryl’s 1,500-square-foot house is as warm as a hobbit’s, even in winter when wild canyon winds blow.

Keeping it simple

Design of the house took cues from the timberframe construction and Daryl’s wish for an organic, European-style country cottage. “A simple layout was important to me,” she says. “I realized from past experience that I basically live in my kitchen. So I wanted one big room incorporating the kitchen, dining, and living area, heated by the sun and a woodstove. Then a bedroom and bath for my daughter and a separate bedroom and bath for myself.”

A fan of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977), Daryl developed her own “language” for building, incorporating such patterns as “light on two sides of every room,” “divided-light windows,” “window seats,” and “varying ceiling heights”—elements that give the house an old-fashioned, easy livability.

By definition, Baker-Laporte and Laporte’s econests are energy efficient structures that incorporate passive solar gain, wood heat, and radiant in-floor heat. In Daryl’s house, a south-facing greenhouse that’s one step down from the main level functions as an entry and mudroom as well as a heat sink. Inside, a Vermont Castings woodstove nestled into an adobe nook warms the lower floor. Mud plaster interior walls, combined with one-foot-thick straw-clay exterior walls, allow the house to breathe, moderating temperature and humidity and contributing to an even, comfortable atmosphere all year long.

Working through complications

Though Daryl’s house was designed to be simple, its construction was not without complications. From the onset the steep, rocky site—sloped, confining, and punctuated with huge granite boulders (complications that made the lot affordable)—presented a challenge. “When you first walked on the property, you had to ask yourself, where could I possibly build a house?” laughs Laporte. But his trained eye instantly spotted a big advantage—a perfect southeastern orientation. He and Baker-Laporte maximized the house footprint by cutting into the north slope, gaining more level area while creating a bermed wall that insulates the coldest end of the house (earth maintains a constant of fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit). Dirt cut from the hill to fill in a low area created a nice, nestled pad to build a home.

Then, halfway through construction, the building department red-tagged the site. As long as Laporte followed the code for straw bale construction and agreed to put a waterproof membrane in the wall and plaster the walls with cement, officials would allow construction to continue. “I could not do that,” Laporte insists. “These walls need to breathe. If they don’t, moisture inevitably gets into the wall and hastens decay.”

Construction halted, and in the meantime the state of New Mexico organized a task force of natural house builders and building officials to draw up official guidelines for straw-clay construction. Straw-clay is now a recognized building method in the state, and New Mexico’s recognition has facilitated the use of straw-clay in other parts of the country. For both Daryl and Laporte, getting approval without having to compromise with weather barriers and synthetic plasters was the biggest triumph. A month after the site was red-tagged, construction resumed.

Interior integrity

Today, stepping into Daryl’s house is like entering an attainable future. Earth colors—mustard with red and green accents—predominate. Pine stair treads, hand-rubbed pine cabinetry, and butcherblock countertops exude warmth and have the added bonus of being from local sustainably harvested and managed forests. Flooring is mud (mixed with 10 percent cement so it doesn’t get flaky and soft) finished with linseed oil and beeswax for the look and feel of polished leather. Walls are covered with a light mud plaster dug from nearby Galisteo, mixed with some mica and straw for texture.

In every room the eclectic mix of furnishings speaks of integrity, truth of vision. The custom-upholstered linen sofa is stuffed with down and feathers—no foam or formaldehyde. Tables, chairs, and cabinets are either antique or recycled, so they’ve had lots of time to outgas. Bare windows eschew curtains. Lighting is simple, incandescent bulbs in lamps made of copper, metal, iron, stained glass.

Daryl’s energy-efficient Vestfrost refrigerator (designed to cool without ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons) has European dimensions—shallow depth, increased height—so it doesn’t stick out beyond standard countertops and takes up less floor space.

When it came to furnishing her bedroom, Daryl again refused to compromise. Her bed is a model of composition—an organic mattress, hemp/silk sheets, organic cotton and wool blankets, a plant-dyed hemp/silk bedspread, and hand-dyed hemp/silk pillows. The bed is a metal-free Samina Sleep System designed by an Austrian orthopedist who studied baubiologie (building biology). Wooden slats inside the mattress align the body in an orthopedically correct position.

Everywhere the combination of natural materials and conscious building produces a warm, protected atmosphere, a feeling akin to being in a nest. Much of this atmosphere is attributable to the significant amount of earth—twenty to thirty tons— that provides a life force of its own. But each detail has been given attention and respect. When erecting the timberframe, for example, Laporte placed timbers the way they grew in the forest—crown reaching for the canopy, root end in the earth.

For Daryl and her fourteen-year-old daughter, the 1,500-square-foot house is an ideal size. It’s manageable—easy to heat, easy to clean, easy to furnish. It feels quite roomy, yet is cozy at the same time.

“I’ve got to hand it to Daryl,” Laporte concludes. “She really embraced the whole process. She just had high standards. She wanted the house to inspire health, and it does. She is a real pioneer.”

By far the best testimonial comes from Daryl herself: “There’s something old-fashioned and personal about this house. Even if I were to build another house, I’d build it just like this.”


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