made it our own selves! Workshop attendees show off
freshly mixed plaster.
sand, and row houses
by john whipple
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
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
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.
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.
goes on so nice: Simon Burke-Lipiczky spreading plaster.
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.”
all in the prep: Jonah Vitale-Wolff sifting sand.
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.
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
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.
naturally: Jonah Vitale-Wolff in the hallway plastered
and painted by his workshops’ participants.
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.”
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.”
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.