Madison's Greenest House?
Architect Merges Ancient Techniques with 21st Century Tecnology
By Lynn Welch, March 4, 2003
||The Affordable Natural House project on 30 Lansing Street incorporates natural building materials and techniques into an integrated system. Design Coalition architect Lou Host-Jablonski heads the construction project of his own residence and living laboratory testing the materials and methods used in the house.
To the naked eye, a number of things stand out about the house being built at 30 Lansing St., in an unassuming east side neighborhood filled with modest houses. Aside from the updated Cape Cod design and sign out front describing the construction project, a curious second peak juts out from the main roof of the new construction. The second peak is an oversized vent that's part of a passive cooling system.
The Affordable Natural House project on 30 Lansing Street incorporates natural building materials and techniques into an integrated system. Design Coalition architect Lou Host-Jablonski heads the construction project of his own residence and living laboratory testing the materials and methods used in the house.
It's an experiment meant to keep the house cool in the summer, avoid humidity from building up and prevent ice from damming on the roof in the winter. It's just one of the building techniques being tested in "The Affordable Natural Home." Lou Host-Jablonski is building this living laboratory with sensors in the floors and scientists testing its materials.He's also constructing perhaps the greenest house in Madison.
The project pairs science and sustainable building techniques in an urban infill home. It integrates a whole host of green building techniques combining energy-efficiency and a healthy living environment with ecologically aware, low-pollution materials.
"What I'm doing here is not just working on integrating materials, but an entire system," explained Host-Jablonski, an architect with Design Coalition in Madison and a longtime practitioner of sustainable building and site design. "To me, the integration and working out the details is what makes this important. It's my chance to try to put it all together."
When it's done this summer, he will live in the house being built onto a small existing structure. But he'll also use the new building as a testing ground for many of the techniques and building practices he has chosen to use.
Before discussing the project further, it's important to note how Host-Jablonski defines affordable as it relates to his house. Rather than just cost (for the record, Host-Jablonski is trying to keep the cost of the new addition at $150,000), affordability here refers to a modest size house (about 1,000 square feet in a loft-style structure) and material choices. "Everyone makes choices when they build a house. What I'm trying to do is make choices that are sustainable and green," he said. In addition to cost, size and neighborhood zoning requirements, factors he used in building his "affordable" natural home include the toxicity of materials used - in manufacture, use and disposal - and the longevity of materials.
Among materials and techniques Host-Jablonski has incorporated into the house are recycled roof shingles and reused kitchen tile and cabinets, earthen flooring on the main level with heating tubes within, and milk paint made with milk protein, lime, clay and earth pigments. Cast iron piping replaces all PVC materials, and the framing system decreases the amount of wood needed to support the structure.
Straw-clay, or light clay, walls serve as a substitute for insulation and drywall. The ancient building technique uses wheat straw with clay mixed with water to produce a slip. This sticky mixture is compacted into wood forms to produce a 12-inch-thick wall and then is covered with an earthen plaster.
Douglas Piltingsrud, a chemist from Eyota, Minn., who is planning to construct his own natural house, is in the process of conducting tests on the straw-clay construction. His experiments will determine the risk for mold or mildew and the permeance, or rate at which vapor transfers through these walls. He'll test a section of wall he built as well as the plasters Host-Jablonski used. "I think these things I'm investigating have to be resolved before I can build a house or make recommendations to other people," Piltingsrud said.
Although straw-clay is an ancient building technique, Piltingsrud explained that older homes built with this technique used a heavier clay content. Light clay is somewhat uncharted territory, lacking in certain documentation necessary to get it into the mainstream and past building codes. "There's a lot of these houses that have been built, but there's not firm documentation about how they were built," he said.
Host-Jablonski said between 30 percent and 50 percent of people in the world still live in earthen structures. But most of the building techniques used to construct these houses have been passed down by word of mouth and there's been little science to document the process or its effectiveness. So Host-Jablonski is taking the steps to document them.
Terry O'Laughlin, director of Madison Area Technical College's computer electronics program, is helping monitor the efficiency of heating and cooling systems. He installed temperature and moisture sensors to check points in walls, floors and ceilings. Other ongoing research will determine the effectiveness of the passive cooling system in reducing summer heat, find out how much insulated shutters reduce heating bills, and measure passive solar design.
For more information about the project, click on The Affordable Natural Home.