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Note: Design Forward LLC is proud to have served the Southern California area designing straw bale homes for over 15 years. However, we have moved on to other business ventures and have closed the business as of January 2017. We will not taking any new projects or responding to phone and email requests. This website will be left up as an archive of data for straw bale and design. You may find that some of the links are broken or out of date, but we will not be updating this site any longer. Thank you!
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May 2003
Design Forward
 Sustainable Concepts . Design Forward Newsletter 
May 2003 
. . . . . . . . .

Welcome to the May 2003 newsletter for Design Forward. Please take some time to enjoy this month's features.

Quote of the Month: "When one has finished building one's house, one suddenly realizes that in the process one has learned something that one really needed to know in the worst way - before one began." - Friedrich Nietzsche

in this issue
  • Jackson Residence
  • Earthen Floors
  • Thanks!
  • Feedback

  • Earthen Floors
    After living with earthen floors for twenty-five years, Athena Steen has grown accustomed to skeptics. Merely mention the material, and even progressively minded souls raise a brow. "Then they see it, and the first thing they do is bend down to touch it," Athena says. "They're shocked that it's hard, that you can sweep it, that you can mop it, that it's not dusty. They're astonished that it has none of the bad qualities they thought it would have." No less amazing is that the floors are comfortable underfoot, durable, and beautiful. And that may explain why, centuries after earthen floors were last considered standard home decor, the most natural of natural floors is suddenly surfacing in eco-friendly homes everywhere.

    ENVIRONMENTAL AND ECONOMICAL. Earthen floors are hardly new, of course. From the earliest times, people have used earth to form home floors. In the American Southwest, ox blood was mixed with the dirt for a stronger, more durable surface. For similar reasons, rural Japanese poured bath water, which contained oil from the bather's skin, onto the unsealed floors. While fans sing the praises of durability, beauty, and comfort, earthen floors would barely warrant a second glance if it weren't for one additional attribute: They are just about as eco-friendly as building material gets. Robert Bolman, a Eugene, Oregon, builder, recently made local newspaper headlines when word of the earthen floors in his urban home and rental properties spread. Bolman, who learned to make the floors under the Steens, says they exemplify the natural building ideal. "One of the central intentions of natural building is that when your house reaches the end of its lifespan, the lumber and hardware get recycled, and the majority of the building material simply decompose," he explains. "Rain and microorganisms will break down an earth floor in a relatively short time- probably within a few years. It's a truly cyclical process." Earthen floors are also economical if you do them yourself. The soil, if taken from the home site, costs nothing, and sand is inexpensive. The biggest costs comes from the natural linseed oil, which is about twelve dollars a gallon off the shelf and much less in bulk.

    THE DRAWBACKS. Though functional and sustainably viable, earthen floors have a few disadvantages, including odor from the sealant and problems with scratching and cracking. Fortunately, the Steens say, these difficulties can be overcome. Like most conventional floors, earthen types must be sealed, and some linseed oil can leave a lingering odor. To combat this odor, the Steens use raw linseed oil; while it takes longer to dry, it has only the odor of flaxseed oil. Unfortunately, earthen floors are not indestructible. Dropping a brick from chest height, Bolman says, would likely dent an earthen floor, but the same could be said of a wood one. "It's more comparable to a slab of leather than concrete," he explains. Which means, says Bill Steen, that earthen floors are sensitive to scratching. "It doesn't mean they aren't durable, but people can't have unrealistic expectations."

    No matter how you look at it, laying an earthen floor is one labor-intensive home project. "It's hard work extracting dirt, sifting it through the screens, running it through the machinery to mix it, pouring it, and then smoothing it with a trowel," Bolman admits. "You can put even more labor into it by burnishing it to try to make it really smooth." Bolman did, however, come up with a time-tested and true solution for the amount of required labor. "I hosted a work party. You make a big pot of chili and invite a whole bunch of friends. It's very helpful." Article by Lori Tobias 2002 Natural Home Magazine. All Rights Reserved. Image Bill Steen

    For the Complete story... »

    Workshop Participants,

    I wanted to personally thank everyone who participated in Straw Bale Workshops last month at the Hayes Residence. As this is my parent's house, this project is very special to me. Thanks again. Please take some time to review the pictures and progress of Hayes Residence. For those not burned out yet or those who could not attend the previous events look for more information about a free event in May to continue the project.


    Lisa Van Veen

    Workshop Pictures... »

    Design Forward works toward promoting Sustainable Design. If you know of a project that should be featured, please contact us. Let us know why you think it should be featured and give us a basic intro to the project, the sustainable elements and any websites or contact information.

    If you would like to submit a fun and/or entertaining quote about architecture, building, or such, send it in! If it at all possible, include the author.

    If you have any other feedback concerning this publication, please feel free to send an email or use the form.

    Contact Form... »

    Jackson Residence
    Nestled in the mountains above Palm Desert, the Jackson Residence has a beautiful location set into a large collection of rocks. At the Pinyon Crest site, preservation of the natural landscape is important to the owner. The owner specifically chose the site because the homeowners association was dedicated to protecting the natural setting of the land. All of the homes in the Pinyon Crest area blend into the landscape until they barely become noticeable. The statement of the association reads, "The architecture shall be subordinate to the landscape." Fostering sustainability from the ground up made this the ideal location for a highly efficient natural home.

    Designed by Lisa Van Veen of Design Forward, the Jackson Residence is a relatively small straw bale home with minimal impact to the land and many natural features. The owner was very concerned about the foundation bearing to much on the ground. That concern lead to a small built-up retaining wall and then filling the area with local dirt to become an earthen floor. The floor plan was split to step up the hill, again lessen the contact to the soil. "Grading of big, flat pads (big ugly scars on the hillside) is discouraged," explains the owner.

    With hot summers up to 100F and the possibility of snow in the winter, this location became very ideal for straw bale construction and it high insulation properties. It has many interesting passive solar and passive cooling elements. The nature of the split level floor plan gave way to a natural thermal chimney with a set of operable clerestory windows at the top level and operable window at the opposite end of the house. The effect of the wind will create a nice cooling effect in the hot summer months. On the heating side, the relatively large south facing windows plus the straw bales walls and an earthen floor will soak up the winter sun and become a thermal mass for heating in the winter months. The owner hopes that the design of the floor plan will be the only heating and cooling requirements that the house needs. The use of mechanically heating and cooling is being discouraged by the owner.

    This project has not yet been built, however is in the final planning stages and should have permits within by early summer. For more information on please visits Design Forward's website. Article in full Design Forward. Picture by Greg Jackson.

    Jackson Residence....

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    Featured Link - Bill & Athena Steen's Canelo Project

    Featured Link - More Info about Earthen Floors

    Featured Link - Step by Step Pictures of Earthen Floor

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    Revised December 12, 2003