Green construction taking root
Natural, green building seeing exponential growth

Ben Witting, of Naturally Plaster, works on the display wall at the Eco Home Center soon to open its doors on North Main. Many businesses specializing in natural building materials and techniques are reporting a recent growth spurt as local residents look for more environmental building alternatives./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Will Sands

Making the move to natural construction was easy for Andrew Phillips. “Health issues got me into natural building,” the local builder said. “I house sat for some friends who have a straw bale house. Immediately, I found I was sleeping better at night and breathing deeper during the days because I was surrounded by adobe floors and clay plaster walls and not glues and insulation.”

Phillips is by no means alone. Natural building and its big brother, green building, are growing exponentially in the local area. Straw bales are displacing concrete forms and adobe is overtaking drywall thanks to growing local awareness about personal and environmental health along with increasingly friendly economics.

As an architectural photographer, Laurie Dickson spent much of her time documenting the ultimate in mainstream construction – the trophy home.

“I was getting paid to photograph 5,000-square-foot homes in Telluride, and I was selling that to the world as the pinnacle of achievement,” she said. “Over time, it became a real value conflict for me.”

Dickson will resolve the conflict during the first week of August, when she opens Eco Home Center. The center will be Durango’s first retail design and resource center dedicated to environmentally friendly building supplies and systems.

“I’ve been able to go beyond the pedestrian knowledge of natural building in my life,” she said. “I wanted to offer it up and make it available to the community and the region.”

Though the store space is still under construction and her grand opening is several weeks away, Dickson already has been inundated with phone calls. Like Phillips, she credits the growth in natural building to a growth in local awareness.

“People are understanding that the home you live in has an effect on you,” she said. “The single biggest reason people choose natural building is health.”

Kelly Ray Matthews, president of the Southwest Natural Builders Guild, also has seen a big spike in interest since he started building straw bale homes eight years ago. “There is a lot more interest locally,” he said. “The number of calls I get in a year has definitely increased, and the interest in clay plasters is way up.”

Like Dickson and Phillips, Matthews credited growing awareness about the health benefits of natural building for his spike in business. He also pointed to increasingly reasonable costs as an added incentive.

“I can easily tell people that my prices can be equal to if not lower than stick-frame prices,” Matthews said. “It’s a real no-brainer when people see that it’s beautiful, healthy and cost effective.”

Matthews concluded by dismissing preconceptions that natural building is “alternative” or “unusual.” He pointed to structures in Europe that were built in the 1300s from natural materials and are still standing the test of time.

“This is the traditional building style, not stick-frame construction,” he said. “We’re trying to recapture that.”

Construction continues on the future home of Mercy Medical Center and the Three Springs project east of town on Monday. Developers of Three Springs are implementing a points system whereby units are given points according to their environmental friendliness./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

 It is also the logical local style of building, according to Matthews, Dickson and Phillips, and helps stimulate the La Plata County economy. “If I did a straw bale wall, I’d use bales from the San Luis Valley, sand from the Animas Valley, mud from Bodo Park and bamboo from a local source,” Phillips said. “Natural building is more local, and it puts more money in workers’ pockets and less in big companies.’ Plus the price is usually a wash.”

While natural building focuses on using natural and local materials in home construction, the green building movement focuses more on large developments and commercial construction. In its most basic definition, green building calls for an approach that meets the needs of the present population without harming the abilities of future generations to meet their needs. Unlike natural building, it also adds a strong energy efficiency element to the equation.

Michelle Reott is the principle owner of Earthly Ideas LLC, a Durango-based sustainable design and construction consulting firm. Reott points to local projects like Copperhead Camp, Edgemont Highlands and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s Three Springs as evidence that there is a relative explosion of green building under way in La Plata County.

“I know the natural building community has been doing good work here for a number of years,” she said. “What’s happened here more recently is green building is being utilized by people who are not necessarily custom builders but are looking at ways to be more environmentally friendly.”

In the case of Three Springs, which could total 2,283 units at buildout, a point system is being implemented with energy efficiency as its baseline. Once an efficiency standard is met, units can accrue more points by using environmentally friendly materials or implementing water conservation plans, among other things.

Reott credited several factors for bringing green building to the Durango area. “I think it’s a combination of awareness, an informed consumer and a way for projects to differentiate themselves,” she said.

All of the players agreed that natural building is comfortably at home in the Four Corners area. A mix of climate and interest has put the Southwest on the map for things like solar energy and straw bale construction.

“I would say we’re pretty high on the list nationally,” Phillips said. “As far as functioning solar energy, this is an epicenter. And besides the West Coast, I’d say we’re one of the biggest hubs of natural building in the country.”

However, green building and environmentally conscious large commercial and development projects are a bit behind the times in La Plata County. While La Plata County is pioneering the first green-building projects on the Western Slope, it is still well behind the Front Range and other urban areas, according to Reott.

“I think we’re just getting our feet wet,” she said. “The interest and exposure hasn’t been here until now. But there is a lot of building going on here right now, and as a result, there’s a lot of opportunity.”

The City of Durango is also just getting its feet wet on natural and green building. The Durango City Council took a first step in February of 2004 when it passed a resolution endorsing green building. First, the resolution called for the greening of all future city construction. Second, it kicked off a push to spread green building standards throughout the city, a push that’s currently stuck on the back-burner because of personnel issues, according to City Planner Greg Hoch.

However, Dickson said that she suspects that both natural and green building will be jumping off the back burner in the near future. “There are so many benefits to the economy and to personal and environmental health,” she said. “I think these things are going to have to be mandated, and it’s going to have to start with our local governments. It just makes sense, and people are starting to find out.” •



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