A Fine Nest: Sustainable Housing in Iowa

A green building pioneer’s straw-clay home proves life-changing for its creator and life-giving to its residents.

| July/August 2001

A dozen years ago, builder and timber framer Robert Laporte sat listening to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation, lecture on sthapatya ved, the ancient Indian art of creating prosperity, health, and tranquility through the orientation, proportion, and placement of buildings. It was there in the Golden Dome, a gathering spot for meditators in Fairfield, Iowa, that Laporte had an epiphany that changed the course of his career—and, ultimately, his life.

“In sthapatya ved,” Maharishi told the crowd, “we build in such a way that everything nourishes everything.” The line captivated Laporte. Visions flashed through his mind: a pair of hands chiseling a long, paper-thin curl from a piece of wood; horses hauling logs through a winter forest to a building site just yards away. Next came a tranquil water scene, but as Laporte’s mind’s eye panned farther back, he was shocked to find dead fish floating on the surface of this river. He panned back farther to a pipe with green water spilling out, a factory spewing smoke. Laporte understood intrinsically that this factory made building materials. “I went out of the dome that day and just started thinking, what do I build with?” he says.

That was the beginning of a journey that would take Laporte halfway across the world and lead him into a new career dimension as a teacher of natural building methods. And it all started with one house.

Iowa gold

Laporte set out to build a home using local, natural, unprocessed materials—a fortress against Iowa’s wicked winters and sultry summers. He wanted to participate in every aspect of the building process rather than passing off the messy toxic jobs such as Sheetrocking and painting, as had been his custom. He went to the library.

There he found a book on climatology, describing features from geography to soils in regions around the world. He learned that Germany’s climate was almost identical to Iowa’s—an exciting discovery given that European building history stretches far beyond that of the American Midwest. “Before the Industrial Revolution, people were basically using building materials that nature had manufactured—materials at hand,” Laporte points out. “There were hundreds, actually thousands, of years of history related to timber frame building and the systems that dovetail with it.”

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