Hal Brill and Allison Elliot’s light clay-straw home brings together passive solar design, active solar technologies, natural materials, and an efficient layout for an energy-saving, durable dwelling.
Home Power (HP): Besides incorporating solar technologies, your home has some unique features. What served as your initial inspiration?
Allison Elliot: The development process took several years. Key inspiration came from architect Michael Frerking’s house that was featured in a 2005 issue of Sunset magazine. We fell in love with the curved roof, and that really landed the design for us.
The overall design is dominated by this curve, which evokes Anasazi cliff dwellings and our experiences in the canyons of Utah on raft trips. Our front hall is like a slot canyon—narrow, curving, and emerging into the larger space of the living room. Like a slot canyon, the light you see ahead draws you forward. The walls of our guest and music room—what we call the “flex” room—are of red clay plaster called Bryce Canyon, as if it were the darker, deeper part of the cliff dwelling.
HP: Why did you decide to use clay-straw (or “light-clay”) as the wall infill material?
Elliot: Through the years, we attended numerous sustainable building conferences, including the International Straw Builders Conference. We were drawn to the idea of straw bale, having had friends who went that route, but we were also intrigued by clay-straw.
Hal Brill: We were fortunate to be able to tour two clay-straw homes in our area and to see how they performed in both summer and winter. Paonia has large temperature swings—climbing above 90°F in the summer and dipping below 0°F in the winter. We wanted something with enough thermal mass to handle those swings.
Clay-straw seemed to be the middle ground. It offers more thermal mass than straw bales but not as much as traditional adobe. There are no voids, and burrowing insects or rodents aren’t an issue. Clay-straw walls are also thinner—12 inches versus 18 inches for straw bale—meaning that for smaller building envelopes, you gain more square footage. The thinner walls also enable using a narrower footing, saving on material and costs (see “Building with Clay-Straw Walls” sidebar).