Combining intelligent design with traditional materials and solar technology creates a sustainable jewel in Corrales.
This article first appeared in Spring 06 Su Casa
A well-designed building works on many levels. It looks good and feels good. It meets its owner’s functional needs, reflects regional vernacular style, and fits into the neighborhood. And if it’s totally working, it expresses the designer’s worldview.
Just such a home stands along a dirt lane off of Corrales Road, north of Albuquerque. At first glance, the not-so-big rectangle with a corrugated metal gabled roof, plastered with a deep brown mud, could be a historic New Mexico adobe. Yet this modest new home may well be a model of resource and energy efficiency for the 21st century.
Certainly for Ted Owens, owner and builder, it is the culmination of years of work and several passions—for solar energy, for simple, elegant design, and for creative media-making. His resulting labor of love is a finely crafted 830-square-foot home of timber, straw bales, adobe, and stone that is powered by the sun and collects and stores its own water supply.
A design generalist with an emphasis on appropriate technology, Ted has designed film graphics and solar ovens and consulted both on small homes and multimillion dollar structures. He worked successfully in the Los Angeles arena, designing and directing video and multimedia documentaries and corporate image projects for architectural firms and corporations. But something was missing.
Ted founded Syncronos Design in 1988 to promote the use of appropriate technology and sustainable design in our built environment. Around 1990 he moved away from corporate image projects and started focusing his work on sustainable design and ecological issues.
Living in West L.A. began to seem incongruous. Finally fed up with the time it took to get across the city, Ted moved to Corrales, New Mexico, in 1990. He settled in the village of Corrales for the sense of community he felt. “Then when I moved there, I found out a number of other solar people, like solar pioneer Steve Baer [founder of Zomeworks], live in Corrales, too,” he says. “I felt right at home.”
When he was ready to build his house, Ted knew that it had to incorporate everything he knew about solar energy and sustainable design. This became a long-term commitment. Ted spent a couple of years researching and designing the house, then two and a half years to build it. The size and proportion were influenced by old adobes on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, Ted says. He also found inspiration in a classic about space design, A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander.
“It’s always the one book I recommend if you are going to build your own house,” he advises. “It makes you think about how the house flows, and where does your eye go? Small spaces always have a view outside. Windows should illuminate all rooms with natural light from two directions.”
The result is a home design that is both aesthetic and ergonomic, and its livability is not dependent on size.
In addition to their ecological qualities, adobe and straw bales were an attractive option for Ted for their natural pliability. “Using older, more traditional materials can effortlessly make for a beautiful structure,” he adds. “The flaws and imperfections become beautiful.”
While Ted was researching the materials and imagining his dream design, he realized there was still much to learn about the building process. “I knew I wanted to use straw bale and adobe,” Ted explains, “but wondered, ‘what is it actually like to try to put it all together to turn it into a house?’” And, even with the small size, the house turned into a massive project for a first-time owner-builder.
Many days found Ted and just one or two others working. Plus, he was shooting an educational documentary as he went along, so he would often take off his tool belt and pick up the camera. Ted began construction in 1998 and finally moved in March 1, 2000.
According to the New Mexico building codes, straw bales may not be load bearing and may only be used as insulation in a post-and-beam framework. Ted chose 4x4 posts with double 2x8 beams for structure. The roof support is pre-engineered 2x4 trusses that create a gabled roof with a depth to accommodate about 15 inches of cellulose insulation, rated R-55. A simple shed roof covers a roomy front porch on the east end of the home. In true New Mexico vernacular, the roof material is shiny silver corrugated metal. Ted’s home differs from the traditional when you walk around to the south side and see an array of shiny blue solar panels.
In the dining/living area, the gabled roof creates a vaulted cathedral ceiling on the west end. An intimate kitchen is tucked under a sleeping loft on the east end of the rectangle. Although it’s a small space, the kitchen is efficient and functional, with an easy-care concrete countertop and open shelving, some created from salvaged wood. A small round bathroom and a long narrow storage room along the north wall are separated from the living space by a thick adobe interior wall, plastered with a white clay aliz, which is essentially a clay paint.
In the tradition of straw bale construction, Ted decided to host a wall-raising workshop to get the bales installed into the walls. He met Stephan Bell, his straw bale maestro, teaching someone else’s straw bale workshop, where a group of people came to help and to learn themselves how to build with bales. At least on the straw bale part, Ted discovered that natural building can be done by someone with relatively little experience.
“We put 80 percent of the bales up in two days with an inexperienced crew,” Ted says excitedly. “And the entire first coat of earth plaster was also applied with volunteer help in just a couple of days.”
Over the course of a weekend, Stephan led a merry group of novices through the ins and outs of bale building. Straw bales were laid flat, end to end, and notched around the 4x4 posts. Each course overlaps the one below, in a running bond, and they were staked together with lengths of rebar. The bale wall was connected to the structure with strips of expanded metal lath attached to the posts and held into the bale with landscape stakes. An electric chain saw was used to shape corners and carve nichos. On the non-bale gable ends, they stuffed loose straw behind stucco netting to maintain the stuffed-pillow look of straw bale.
During another weekend workshop with Stephan, Ted’s house received its first coat of clay plaster inside and out. Local clay, mixed with sand and chopped straw, was applied with hands and trowels in two joyous days of playing in the mud.
The thick interior adobe wall was built by a small experienced crew over the course of a couple weeks. Because of his concern for indoor air quality, Ted used “unstabilized” adobes and mud mortar—except for the first course of adobes which, by code, are asphalt-stabilized with cement mortar to be more water resistant. Electrical wiring is sandwiched in between courses of adobe, as well as through stud walls. Ted confined the plumbing to interior walls as much as possible and decided not to use PVC. He chose copper for fresh water, and ABS for drain pipe, which he considers the lesser of two evils.
Ted also minimized the use of concrete, trying to use it only when serving multiple functions due to its high embodied energy and its contribution to global warming gases.
One such appropriate use was for the floor, where concrete serves as structure and mass and offers a beautiful aesthetic. In a time-consuming process, Ted poured sections of concrete in free-form patterns and used an edging tool to etch in control joints to emulate flagstone. Later the floor was acid stained and the joints grouted. The resulting floor belies its origins. Rather than a monolithic slab, Ted’s floor has an organic, handmade look and feel.
Topping off this sustainable home is a photovoltaic solar array and a water catchment/storage system. Typical gutters are all that is needed to catch the rain that falls on the roof, which is filtered, then stored in a 1,500-gallon underground polyethylene cistern. Burying the tank ensures that it is protected from damaging UV radiation and keeps the water from freezing. Also buried in the ground is a 55-gallon drum that holds the pump and pressure tank, which can be lifted out for easy maintenance. Ted’s cost was 50 cents per gallon of water storage.
The 900 watt solar system converts sunlight into electrical energy, which is stored in batteries. Ted stores about 1,050 amp hours of electricity, or enough to run his life for about two and a half days. Admittedly, he is more conservation minded than most. “When you’re living off the grid, you become really conscious of how much it takes to wash a load of clothes,” he says.
Ted calculates that he spent $88,000 total for his custom 830-square-foot home, not including the land—or his considerable sweat equity. The price does include his photovoltaic system, which will pay itself back by eliminating his monthly electric bill for many years to come. Making use of passive solar heating also keeps gas consumption to a minimum.
Along with water harvesting, this house is a model of self-sufficiency—it could be sited nearly anywhere in the Southwest on or off the grid. “I wanted a system that would offer maximum energy efficiency and be easy enough to build for a do-it-yourselfer,” Ted says.
Still, it was a huge effort—one he advises others consider fully. “If you build small you can put your focus on the details and not bust the budget. [But] even a small house is a big physical undertaking. Do you have the time and energy to see it through?”
Ted points out that a real problem with “alternative” building is that few professionals have experience with the materials, so it can be hard to get subcontractors to work on the project—or they don’t do a good job.
Fortunately, he believes this is changing. “The cost of running an old home is bound to become much more expensive due to increased energy costs. So a green home is going to hold its value over a conventional home that will eventually become an energy money-pit down the road.” Ted laughs, “If the contractor or designer were required to pay the utility bills, green building would become the norm overnight.”
Ted advises designing the south-facing roof overhang so the summer sun directly overhead can’t enter, but the low-angled winter sun will shine in and provide heat. Thermal mass walls and floors will absorb and store heat during the day and release it at night when you need it most. Earth, in the form of adobe or cob, is a great thermal mass, and so are stone, brick, rammed earth, and water. Ted’s adobe thermal mass wall was more expensive than conventional framing, but he is confident this upfront investment will be recouped in saved energy costs over the years.
From foundation to plaster, Ted caught his entire building process on video. Called Building With Awareness, the elegant movie is both a documentary and a how-to video. The DVD includes a virtual tour of the artful home while Ted explains the design and how many functions are incorporated into a small footprint, literally and ecologically.
Ted is proud that the majority of the materials he used came from the region and respect the traditions of New Mexico. “They look great, and the energy efficiency is a free bonus.” He advises, “Creativity can make up for a low budget. Build only what you really need. This alone will save more money than anything else, both in construction costs and energy costs.”
The priceless payoff is that “You’re getting an aesthetic that comes naturally with the material, even if you don’t know how to use it that well. If you make a building that’s functional and aesthetic, you know no one is going to tear it down anytime soon.” Built to last, Ted Owens’ natural sustainable home will likely stand as just such an example for decades to come.
Catherine Wanek organized the building of a straw bale greenhouse in 1992 and has been an advocate ever since. Author and photographer of the book The New Straw Bale Home, she is also a founding member of Builders Without Borders. She lives in Kingston, New Mexico.