The road to Bonnie McGowan’s home offers a few clues about the clay-straw, nature-inspired home at its end. After passing through Pecos, New Mexico, a sleepy village nestled within the high desert wilderness, and past a few farmsteads, the forest service road climbs through a dense forest. A few miles up, a birdhouse perched on a gate pole and a carved street sign for Silver Feather Trail mark the entrance to the Birds of a Feather community, the gay and lesbian retirement community Bonnie founded in 2006.
Bonnie conceived of the community more than 15 years ago, then spent three years finding the perfect site: 157 acres of secluded, peaceful forest and meadow. After spending another five years planning the community, in 2006 Bonnie built the community flagship—her own home.
Bonnie was determined to build a home that would enhance the beautifully wild site she’d worked so long to find. “I wanted my home to feel like it grew out of this landscape,” she says.
Bonnie was also committed to creating a healthy home for her two parrots, which are more sensitive to chemical exposure and unnatural environments than humans. She asked our company, EcoNest, to design and build one of the clay-straw homes we specialize in.
A little birdy told me
Parrots are extremely sensitive to their environment, so their needs drove many health- and eco-friendly design choices. From foundation to rooftop, Bonnie’s home meets protocols for smoke-free and pesticide-free builders, using additive-free concrete and low-VOC glues, sealants and finishes; eliminating asphalt and formaldehyde; employing low-electromagnetic-field wiring; and enhancing the home’s peacefulness with an isolated mechanical room.
In some cases, the parrots also directed the home’s interior design. For example, parrots find manmade, repetitive patterns disturbing, so their corner is finished in natural green slates and plaster. Echo, a serious 15-year-old, and Oliver, a mischievous 6-year-old, like to be in the center of activity, so we designed an easy-to-clean nook in a prominent kitchen corner for their cages, with direct access to an outdoor aviary and views to the living room and dining room beyond. We blocked most of the exterior views from their cage area with patterned glass block so the sight of raptors won’t cause panic.
Bonnie envisioned Birds of a Feather as a peaceful, serene retreat where residents could live in harmony with one another and nature. Community building was among the most important elements of Bonnie’s project. My husband and business partner, Robert Laporte, led a five-day workshop during which Bonnie, her friends and her future community members built her home’s walls, using local clay and straw. Handcrafted timber frames of local white fir support the home’s central core and guest house. The home also features the work of talented local artisans, including plasterers, tile setters, and custom cabinet and door makers. Their work complements Bonnie’s collection of art by local painters, weavers and woodcarvers.
Feathering her nest
Bonnie’s determination to live in harmony with nature meant her home had to be low in carbon emissions. Solar collectors power her zoned radiant in-floor heat system, and a double-sided soapstone Tulikivi masonry heater, shared by the living and dining rooms, provides steady comfortable warmth with very little wood. Skylights above the living room admit natural light, which is then diffused through a composition of “eco-resin” panels held in place by a mandala of timber-frame joinery. A “sun bump”—a bay window that bumps out to within 18 inches of the roof overhang—in the south wall of the bedroom/office supplies passive solar heat all winter.
The home’s 4-foot roof overhangs and stone wainscoting at the base provide a “good hat and a good pair of boots,” protecting the clay/straw wall system for a long and healthy life. These roof overhangs, along with heavy roof insulation, cross-ventilation and massive walls, provide comfort without the need for mechanical cooling, even when summer daytime temperatures consistently reach the 80s and 90s.
The 12-inch-thick clay-straw wall system, covered with clay-based plaster inside and earth-rendered plaster outside, offers comfort and acoustic serenity. Bonnie sees mountain views from the kitchen, master bedroom and her soaking tub. The masonry heater and soft natural light create a cozy interior, and a deep portal carved out under the roof wraps from kitchen to bedroom provides extended outdoor living while shading the western sun. “There is a peace that permeates these natural surroundings, and it carries through into my home in a seamless transition,” Bonnie says. “The parrots feel it. The dogs feel it. My visitors feel it, and I find it amazing.”
Through caring for her two Amazonian parrots, Bonnie McGowan experienced her own ecological awakening. When she read that parrots could die instantly if exposed to overheated nonstick cookware, out went the Teflon pots. Because her parrots require a strictly organic diet, necessitating frequent trips to the health-food store, she too began eating organic.
These initial steps brought her to examine her interaction with nature, and when it came time to create her own home, she knew it had to be the healthiest, most natural environment possible. She wanted her parrots to lead long, healthy lives—and she wanted to be there with them.
Nests are best
We could all learn a thing or two from the way birds build their homes.
■ These builders sing while they work.
■ They build sturdy nests with the nontoxic materials at hand.
■ They never build more than they need to keep their families sheltered.
■ Each nest is a perfect climatic response.
■ The nest owners know how to maintain and repair their structures.
■ When the nest’s useful life is complete, it returns to nature, to become the fertile ground for the growth of the next building cycle.
Building biology principles
Baubiologie, or building biology, was a key component in Bonnie McGowan’s home.
■ Design for natural climate control and minimal need for mechanical intervention
■ Local materials and artisans
■ Electromagnetic field safety
■ Use of natural, nontoxic materials that create healthy indoor climate through natural humidity control, elimination of static electricity and natural ion balancez
■ Natural heating and cooling
■ Extensive daylighting and cross-ventilation
■ Color in accordance with nature
A chat with the homeowner
What’s your favorite way to pass a snowy day?
Bonnie McGowan: Curling up with a good book, music and a glass of wine in front of a roaring fire in my Tulikivi while watching the snow collect on the surrounding pine trees.
What was the most challenging aspect of building the house?
Bonnie: During the design phase, selecting the location on the land and working on the design to take advantage of passive solar, active solar and the views. Another challenge was the length of the construction time (18 months from start to finish) required, given the long winters and the drying time natural building materials require.
What was the lowest moment of the design and building process?
Bonnie: Trying to coordinate all the colors using natural materials like slates, travertine, woods and pigments because natural materials change depending on age, location and where they were mined. I would select from the samples, and then when my order would arrive, the colors and textures were often extremely different than the samples I had liked.
If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be?
Bonnie: I like to invite prospective community members because my home is a venue for explaining, through experience, the benefits of the ecological way of life I envision in the community. My home is often their first experience of an ecological, natural home, and I hope to inspire them to build such a home for themselves within the community.
Paula Baker-Laporte is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a certified Building Biologist. She is the primary author of Prescriptions for a Healthy House
(New Society Publishers, 2001), and co-author of EcoNest (Gibbs Smith, 2005).
The good stuff
Architect: Baker-Laporte and Associates, (505) 989-1813, firstname.lastname@example.org
Builder: Timber-frame and clay-straw shell by EcoNest Building Company, (505) 989-1813, email@example.com
General contractor: Prull and Associates, (505) 438-8005
Community contact: Birds of a Feather, Bonnie McGowan, (505) 757-2901, www.birdsofafeather.com
House size (square footage): 2,325 square feet plus 460-square-foot guest house
Bedrooms: 2 (main house); studio (guest house)
Bathrooms: 2 (main house); 1 (guest house)
■ Tulikivi masonry heater
■ Passive solar design
■ Active solar radiant floor heat and domestic hot water
■ Deep roof overhangs, spacious portals, natural cross ventilation, low-E glass, thermal walls and heavy roof insulation negate the necessity for air conditioning
Electricity source: Public utility
Appliances: Energy Star
Insulation: Clay/straw walls, Icynene in ceilings
■ Light clay-straw wall system, locally sourced and pesticide free
■ Locally and sustainably harvested and crafted timber frame structure
■ Natural earthen render finish on outside walls
■ Colored clay plaster finish on inside walls
■ Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood flooring
■ Eco-resin 3form, a GreenGuard-certified acrylic composite, used for door and ceiling panels
Water consercation systems: Community-wide wastewater treatment
Fixtures: Water-conserving fixtures
Waste reduction: Zero-waste wall system: leftover clay and straw used in landscaping, lumber scraps stockpiled for owner’s use as heating fuel
Recycling: Formwork recycled for roof sheathing
Construction methods: Natural clay-straw wallsystem and timber-frame
Site and land use: Community design includes Planned Unit Development with clustered homes to protect open space and shared nature trails through restored high-desert forest
Plants: Native landscaping
Water Conservation: On-site, community-wide sewage treatment and water re-use