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We made it our own selves! Workshop attendees show off freshly mixed plaster.

Clay, sand, and row houses
BY MIRIAM AXEL-LUTE
photos by john whipple

t’s early on a Saturday morning in December, but Jeff Root and Megan Schmidt Root’s house is abuzz with activity. Right inside the front door, Tim Bell is using a screen door to sift sand, occasionally pausing to throw the larger particles that are getting screened out onto the icy patches on the front stairs and sidewalk. Crouched under the stairwell, Chris Leo and Lexa Juhre are trading off hacking at a bale of straw with a machete and using scissors to further cut up the resulting bits. In the chilly basement, Simon Burke-Lipiczky is using a blender-like attachment on a power drill to blend water-soaked, recycled shredded paper into a pulp. Up in the kitchen, Dawn Mason is stirring wheat paste on the stove. (“It’s like making gravy!” she exclaims after the group is shown the procedure.)

There is chatter and laughter in the air as Jonah Vitale-Wolff runs up and down the stairs checking on how everyone is doing and joining in the various tasks, and Root occasionally appears to snap photos. The scene may look like a cross between a direct-action training camp and sandbox time for grown-ups, but in fact it is something much more basic: home renovation.

Root and Schmidt Root have opened up their home on Albany’s Grant Street for the first Hudson Valley Natural Building workshop. The participants are preparing locally acquired materials to make plaster from scratch. They will use it over the course of the weekend to plaster the front hallway, which is currently a combination of old plaster, new sheetrock, and bare lath.

HVNB is Vitale-Wolff’s fledging business; its particular spin is bringing natural building techniques, which have mostly been used in rural areas and in the Southwest, into the context of a Northeastern city.

First thing this morning, Vitale-Wolff, an energetic young dad wearing a flannel shirt worn through at the elbows, gathered the workshop attendees in the living room upstairs to give an introduction. He exudes happy impatience, clearly torn the whole time he is talking between wanting to get going and do the work and wanting to use this chance to impress upon everyone just how incredible and exciting the territory they are about to venture into is.

Natural building is not the same as green building, he notes. Green building tends to be about using technology to improve the efficiency and reduce the toxicity of building materials. Energy-efficiency furnaces, low-toxicity paints, and recycled-paper countertops are green materials. Natural building is “not about commodities,” he says. It’s more about changing how you look at the whole process (you might, for example, not need paint at all over a light-colored natural plaster), emphasizing local materials as well as, as his Web site puts it, “human labor and creativity instead of capital, high technology and specialized skills.”

For example, one of the main ingredients of the plaster the group is about to make is clay, a pure Albany slip that would be the envy of local potters. It has traveled all of a block from where it was being excavated by a neighbor putting in a back deck. The sand and straw and shredded paper also were locally acquired.

“An average 4,000-square-foot new house generates 8,000 pounds of waste,” says Vitale-Wolff, shaking his head. “We take waste.” The group gets examples of this when they stop into Vitale-Wolff’s own house a few doors down for lunch and see his hardwood floor made from recycled wood pallets and peek out the back door at the retaining wall built from “urbanite” (i.e. waste chunks of concrete).

Though he has many statistics about the environmental impact of traditional building in his head, Vitale-Wolff is more interested in making the process of building with natural materials accessible than he is in browbeating anyone about the environmental benefits.

“I would not even call myself a plaster expert,” he modestly tells the folks who have paid to come learn from him, some professionals in the building trades, all homeowners with a couple specific projects on their minds. “But these materials are forgiving. I’m not giving you a recipe. I want to give you a comfort level with the materials and how they work.”

He gathers people around a coffee table on which he’s gathered sand, clay, flour, dry milk, straw, paper pulp, borax, linseed oil, and some Ziploc bags of metal pigments. “What do you notice about these materials?” he asks.

Burke-Lipiczky, who has worked as a carpenter for 12 years, pipes up quickly to say that he’s not worried about touching or breathing fumes off any of them. “I didn’t have to think at all, ‘Should I be careful of this getting on my hands?’ ” he explains later. “Usually, If I was painting, spackling, I would want to get it off as soon as possible. When you’re doing sheetrocking [and things like that], at the end of the day you never feel very good. It doesn’t smell good. This stuff, it just smells like a farm.”

Next comes a quick lesson in the three basic components of a natural plaster—aggregate (sand), binder (clay, plus wheat paste or milk if desired), and fiber (straw, paper pulp)—and the roles of other optional additives (borax for mold resistance in a damp area, linseed oil for shine, pigments for color). And the work commences.

It goes on so nice: Simon Burke-Lipiczky spreading plaster.

Having a group of complete no vices plaster your hallway might not seem like the most relaxing thing a homeowner could do with a weekend. But for Root, it was a dramatic improvement over the months he’d spent overseeing the gut renovation of the rest of the house.

He and Schmidt Root purchased the mid-1800s row house in June 2004, two weeks after their first child was born. They had a bank loan for the renovation, which came with a time limit of a year. Root says he was so anxious about money and time that although he tried to incorporate some environmentally friendly choices into the house, like some insulation made of recycled denim fiber, most natural or green choices didn’t feel like an option. In fact, he found that he was the one telling the people working on the house to cut corners, something that left a bad taste in his mouth.

But last fall, with his living space finished and moved into, and only the front hallway and the basement left on the to-do list, Root began talking with his neighbor Vitale-Wolff. Even though he was intrigued by the kind of work Vitale-Wolff was doing, Root says, “I had all these practical arguments against it. He just broke them down one by one. ‘The materials won’t be that expensive. It’s not a lot of work.’ ”

And indeed, Root found himself amazed at how much fun he had at the workshop, watching people enjoying themselves, and not being stressed out about money or time. Because the materials were so cheap, he noted, there was no feeling of “We bought all this, now we can’t mess it up.” In fact, there was no crisis at all when the first batch of wheat paste (ingredients: flour, water) didn’t thicken properly, likely a result of the water not coming back to a boil fast enough when the recipe had been scaled up. That batch was mixed with some sand for a prep coat on the sheetrock, and a new batch created.

This February, at a follow-up workshop on “alis” paint (similar ingredients to the plaster, in different proportions and minus the straw), also in his hallway, Root says the bulk of the time was spent getting the color just right. Though that was a long process, he still found it less of a “mentally exhausting exercise” than hours in a paint store staring at “little slips of paper with colors with funny names,” which tends to give him a headache. This was more like “watching a color unfold,” he said. “We created a color.”

It’s all in the prep: Jonah Vitale-Wolff sifting sand.

Vitale-Wolff came to natural building after having worked in organic farming and urban farming projects in the Worcester, Mass., area. “It was part of a larger picture for me of sustainable living: growing your own food, building your own house, providing for yourself,” he explains. He started out working with a traditional timber framer, and has also traveled the world learning from people working with straw bale and natural plaster, earning his money at home through traditional carpentry.

The natural building world is small and close-knit. Vitale-Wolff speaks fondly of people he’s learned from and worked with, and excitedly describes how a network is forming of natural builders in the Northeast, where it has been less concentrated.

Vitale-Wolff thinks he’s found his niche in the greater movement: bringing natural building into urban centers. “A lot of this work happens now in kind of rural settings, and it’s fantastic,” he explains, but it tends to be limited to “not just people with a certain amount of money, but a certain type of culture that is not what most people are.”

Many straw-bale homes, for example, are single-story, with curvy rounded walls, designed to fit into a hillside or a natural setting. That’s wonderful, says Vitale-Wolff, but it wouldn’t necessarily make sense in downtown Albany. What would? Well, that’s what he wants to find out, starting with more finish work, like the plaster, and building up to new construction.

“Row houses are an amazing design, stoops are an amazing community builder,” he says. “I’m not a purist. There’s great applications for natural-building hybrids with tall structures. . . . If you want to start building three-story straw-bale apartment buildings, I’m all for it. It’ll be fun. We can come up with a good model for doing it.”

Along the way, there will come a point where building codes will have to be expanded to explicitly recognize these materials, but given their fire-resistant records, Vitale-Wolff sees that as just a matter of education. “Even though they’re not specifically written in the code, it’s not that they’re not meeting code,” notes Mary Golden, a natural builder and architect from the Rochester area.

Elegance, naturally: Jonah Vitale-Wolff in the hallway plastered and painted by his workshops’ participants.

After a few hours of work pre paring the ingredients, it’s time to mix the plaster. People quickly ditch mixing tools for the more direct approach of crowding around the wheelbarrow and mixing with their hands. Six pairs of arms knead good-naturedly, gray up to the elbows in clay and sand. The addition of the paper pulp from the basement chills the fingers, but the wheat paste follows soon after, still hot enough to warm the mixture even though it has been sitting on the front steps for a while to thicken. As soon as one wheelbarrow’s worth is full, the application begins, and by lunch time, significant areas of the hallway are already plastered.

As quickly as they took to the work, the participants in December’s workshop didn’t rush home to immediately create their own natural plaster walls. But most of them were impressed enough to be giving it serious consideration.

Juhre says she plans to use it in repairs on her home in Albany’s Center Square. She likes especially the idea of using materials that are gathered locally. “It evokes the land,” she says. “I think it reminds you that things are made of earth.”

Burke-Lipiczky says he doesn’t figure his landlord would be into him applying it to his current apartment, but that when he buys a home it will be in the plans. “It felt good that it wasn’t producing any sort of extra waste,” he says. “And the materials worked just as well as anything else I’ve used, which was kind of amazing. It really looked nicer—I’ve seen so many sheetrocked walls, this had more life to it.”

Mason, who currently is buying homes and renovating them to sell one at a time, isn’t sure the look would be what buyers want in the Stephentown house she’s working on right now, but hopes to use it when she eventually builds her own—and possibly in a renovation in a different area. She attended the alis painting workshop too, noting with pleasure, “There was no paint fumes, no reason to go out and get some fresh air every once and a while.”

Root thinks that the workshops do more than just giving people a specific eco- alternative skill. “I expected it to feel like an alternative,” he says. “But it seemed more like the basics of building. . . . [Vitale-Wolff] demystified the basics.”

Root says learning about building basics also made the whole process of house renovation seem less intimidating. “Renovation brings out the worst in people,” he says with a smile. “They operate out of fear. I’m not sure why.” Vitale-Wolff’s workshops start to get people past that fear, Root surmises, and even if they don’t spawn a whole army of natural builders, they might generate homeowners who are more confident about experimenting, both on their own and with whom they hire.

Golden, who also has led natural-building workshops, agrees. “It exposes people to the materials, gives them some exposure to how it goes together, and gives people a really tangible example of what it’s like to be in one of these buildings,” she says. But she cautions that one workshop does not qualify someone to build their own house.

Though Vitale-Wolff offers full-fledged contract work through HVNB, he is steeped in the do-it-yourself ethic and eager to promote the accessibility of many of these building techniques. “It’s so straightforward to do, with a little bit of background and someone to facilitate it, you can involve anyone,” he enthuses. “You don’t need skilled laborers. Natural building is creating your materials from scratch, so it’s very labor intensive, [but] it can involve so many more people than conventional building.”

And in fact, he’s found a way to blend the business and the DIY work, by offering to work with homeowners who are willing to do some of the manual labor on their own, but need someone to guide the project and provide the expertise and connections.

Agnes Zellin and Paul Tick of Delmar recently went this route when they hired Vitale-Wolff to replace their kitchen floor. The floor still had the original 1960s linoleum on it, and though they’d been trying to get as much use out of it as possible before sending it to the landfill, it was starting to get worn to the point of being hard to clean and maintain. And yet they had put off doing anything about it for years; they didn’t want to put another plastic product on their floor, but both the cost and the environmental impact of having trees cut down for a hardwood floor were too much for them.

Vitale-Wolff suggested three options: bamboo, locally milled wood, or recycled pallet wood. Bamboo, while more renewable than wood because it grows faster, is costly and comes from China under questionable labor conditions, says Tick, and locally milled wood still involved cutting down trees. So Zellin and Tick opted for the pallet wood option.

As with most techniques Vitale-Wolff uses, a recycled pallet-wood floor is a low- materials-cost but labor-intensive endeavor. About 500 million hardwood shipping pallets are made every year in the United States, most for only one use before they head to a landfill. Vitale-Wolff connected with Bruce Bibbins of Voorheesville, who gathers used pallets and takes them apart to sell for firewood, and the first step toward Tick and Zellin’s new floor was Bibbins’ delivery of a truckload of hardwood (albeit wood that “looked like junk”) that cost them $40.

Over school break in February, Tick and Zellin ripped up their old floor, and then worked alongside Vitale-Wolff to plan a design that fit with the sizes of wood they had, pick the good pieces (they used about half the truckload), and then cut the wood lengthwise to be a uniform thickness, cut joints in the pieces, and lay the floor.

It was three full days of intense, dusty work, after which someone still had to come in to do the sanding and sealing, but “through the whole process we kept feeling really good that we were doing something that was not incurring a huge impact on the environment,” says Zellin. “For the amount of money we could spend for a new kitchen, we have a much higher quality of product that’s not only nice to look at, it’s durable, healthier. . . . Where we were investing our money was in labor, and the labor was a person who had a creative idea.”

In fact, “nice to look at” doesn’t quite cover it. They had put in a regular factory-built wood floor in their family room when they bought the house, and, says Tick, while that was a nice floor, there’s no comparison. The new kitchen floor is “absolutely sensational. The beauty of the wood is just shining through, every piece is unique and they just fit together so beautifully.” And doing it this way saved them significantly over a conventional floor. (If you’re not putting in your own labor, a natural building project would more likely come out costing an equivalent amount or a little more.)

The trade-off was time, as Burke-Lipiczky notes when asked about obstacles in the building trades to spreading natural building techniques. “Most of the people I’ve worked for [as a contractor], they want things to be put up quickly, so it’s not inconveniencing their life,” he says. “Having torn up someone’s bathroom, they want nothing more than for me to be done and out of there.”

“You can hire someone who is in and out in two days,” acknowledges Tick. Instead, Zellin and Tick basically devoted their week’s vacation to working on their floor. “In some ways we wanted to do a couple of other things besides this [with our vacation]. But we decided to put that time aside to invest in something we believed in,” says Zellin.

But they’re happy with the choice. “It was a wonderful way to spend a vacation,” says Tick. “Taking care of our home, and taking care of the environment,” as well as getting to know and work with “a very creative, environmentally sensitive person.”

Root’s hallway is still a construction zone. The walls were done in the space of the two workshops; they are a gorgeous wine-purple with a rustic sandy finish and a twisting braid design rising in plaster out of the wall itself right above a high shelf just inside the door. Now, on the floor, a colorful tile mosaic is evolving. Root and Schmidt Root were inspired by Vitale-Wolff’s approaches, and are tiling the floor themselves using a set of recycled tile picked up on Freecycle and from friends.

Meanwhile, Vitale-Wolff is looking to a future for Hudson Valley Natural Building that blends regular contract work, working with DIY homeowners, workshops and community projects. Word of mouth is bringing him contracts already, from painting to floors to building dining room benches other internal sculptural features out of cob (also clay, sand, and straw, but different proportions and longer straw). He’s excited and honored to be working in some of the region’s old homes, in the same space as earlier generations of craftsmen. “I love building. It’s really, really fun for me,” he says. “And I love teaching. I love sharing these skills. . . . It’s just really exciting to see people are interested.”

maxel-lute@metroland.net

For more information on Hudson Valley Natural Building, contact Jonah Vitale-Wolff at www.hvnb.net, 434-8010, or jonah@ hvnb.net. Other regional resources include Natural Design Build, Ben Graham, http:// naturaldesignbuild.us and Gaiatecture Design Studio, Mary Golden, www.gaia tecture.com.


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