For fourteen years, Paula Baker-Laporte and Robert Laporte, based out of Tesuque, NM, have been designing and constructing EcoNest homes. The homes are built from a clay, straw and timber frame and are finished with Earth plaster and additional harmless finishes all through the home. This makes each home not only ecologically responsible but adaptable to just about any climate. Clients are always involved in the construction of their own homes and this is just one of the many ways the finished product of an EcoNest is truly unique.
Describe a day in your personal or professional life.
When you are an architect and married to your favorite builder, as I am, then the line between personal and professional life is a blurry one. Luckily we love our work together so that is not a problem. We live and work in the same compound with house, guest house, architectural office and woodworking shop. If it is not winter, I typically begin the day in my organic garden. I also pick up lunch and dinner ingredients there on the 30 yard commute from home to office to home.
Is it your personal belief that creativity and the ability to create art is innate?
I believe that we are all creative beings. I also believe in the 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration prescription. It takes years to develop a comfortable skill level with the design and building process.
When did you first become interested in the planning and execution of building structures?
I began architecture school in 1972. I went in to it on a whim unlike many other students who had dreamed of becoming architects from a young age. Of course when I was young girls didn’t dream much about careers.
Where did your first inspiration come from?
My first inspiration came after I began architecture school. I had a professor, called Douglas Engels, who saw some promise in me and took me under his wing. He gave insights into the creative process by showing us amazing examples of architecture from around the world and throughout history. He challenged his students to think critically.
Can you tell me about your creative process?
The creative process is a mysterious one. I have learned to trust that, if I listen carefully and work hard, it won’t desert me. However it also does not always show up on my desired schedule and it is not something I can force. When a design is right it is right. Up until that moment it is not right yet.
Was the Green Movement a major factor in your decision to create EcoNest?
No. The green movement has come along as a welcome surprise. I began to search for healthier ways to build when I became chemically sensitive in 1992. Until then I was unaware of the need. I studied Bau-Biologie and that lead me to search for ways to build using massive walls that worked dynamically with the natural environment. Which in turn lead me to Robert Laporte and his work with clay/straw wall system. EcoNest evolved out of that collaboration. Natural homes that are designed and built to be climatically responsive and resilient are “by their nature” both ecologically sound and health enhancing.
What materials do you feel can make the largest impact toward a healthier life by choosing green?
Certainly the wall system or “skin” of the building is a major decision. A good home from the standpoint of health and ecology however consists of thousands of right choices and there are many ways to go that are equally good.
What are the benefits of using clay, straw and timber frame?
There are many benefits too numerous to briefly mention. We have written a whole book about this. It is called “EcoNest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber” GibbsSmith Publishers
Do you live in one of your designs? If so for how long and how do you find the experience?
Yes. We built our first EcoNest in New Mexico in 1999. I had visited Robert in his clay/straw home in Iowa previously. It is because of my own home is so nurturing to me that, ironically, I often have to leave it so I can travel around telling other people about it. Robert and I both do a lot of educational work these days.
What type of interior materials do you specify to avoid toxicity?
My book “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” lists thousands of resources for building without toxins. But absence of poisons is only one criteria. We choose natural materials for EcoNests because they have additional properties…visual liveliness, beauty, hygroscopicity (the ability to regulate indoor humidity), softness, negative ionization (they don’t gather static electricity) etc.
Are EcoNest homes appropriate for all climates? If so what makes them able to transition from warm to cold so easily?
EcoNests work best in four season climates. The mass walls are not needed in the tropics and not insulative enough for the arctic but have a wide range of applicability in between. They have been built in 12 states and in several locals in Canada and Scandinavia.
What have you incorporated into your lifestyle to facilitate going green and conserving energy?
We do not use fossil fuels to heat or cool. In addition we have a very large organic garden, we preserve food, we have a root cellar. We often cook with a sun oven and we compost. We buy locally, belong to the food co-op and support the farmer’s market. We collect and re-use rain water and gray water. We buy organic. We line dry our clothes. We drive Priuses but most importantly we try to be conscious. We forgo the packaging whenever possible, we turn off lights etc., we try not to be wasteful purchasers of things we don’t really need. On the other hand…we travel via air quite a bit and know we need to cut back even if that means forgoing green conferences!
What is important to you about conservation and preserving our environment?
I don’t understand the question. Everything. Obviously our survival is intrinsically linked to the health of the natural environment. We either become better stewards or suffer.
What is your favorite project or work you’ve completed thus far?
Our projects are always designed for the needs and wishes of our clients. Since Robert and I got to be our own clients for our own house, this is the one that I love the best. Of course there are aspects of other projects that we don’t have in our home that I like very much. The Little Residence is like a sacred temple to me and that has to do with their love of their own home and the consciousness that they have brought to living in it. Our clients have all brought their unique “essence” into their homes and we have been fortunate to have special and wonderful clients.
What challenges have you had in your work?
Because we are doing something that is not “main stream” we have often had to swim up-stream. Many building officials (especially outside of New Mexico) who don’t understand earth, appraisers who don’t have comps, homebuyers who don’t understand the value of a home that deeply nurtures and takes little energy to achieve comfort in. Building small ecological and natural homes for ordinary folks is not a get-rich-quick proposition but it is fulfilling in other ways.
Do you feel that the Internet has a positive or negative influence on art? How does the Internet affect your work?
I can’t comment on the fine art /internet connection but it has been positive for us. Lots of people visit our website. It has become an educational forum for us and people sign up for our workshops on it. It is a wonderful research tool. The first edition of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” was done before we had Internet. I don’t know how we ever did it!
What is your greatest ambition as an artist?
An architect, or at least the type of architect that I am, is more like being a craftsperson than a fine artist. Our objects are objects of use. If I can continue to create environments that are nurturing and that bring joy, health, peace and beauty to my clients and those who come after them throughout the life of those homes, then I consider that to be work well done. My ambitions do not extend beyond that goal.
What are you currently working on?
We have several homes in various stages of planning and building around the continent but mostly in Santa Fe. I am doing a lot of writing these days. I am also developing courses and teaching with the Building Biology Institute (IBE). Robert and I do some speaking engagements around the country but have concentrated our efforts this year on developing the seminar that we co-teach and builder training workshops that Robert leads here in Santa Fe.
What advice would you give a young artist just getting started?
Seek inspiration. Work hard. Be patient.
What “Green” Product would you recommend to our readers?
I assume you mean for a home. I would have to say that one of the most dramatic and quickest way to change the feel of an environment would be to plaster it with natural clay plasters but there are no real silver bullets. It all starts with your reader’s circumstances at any moment and then deciding the next logical step.
What is your best going green tip?
I don’t think we can consume our way out of this one! Become informed, act with conscience.
How would your friends describe you?
You would have to ask them. Hopefully they would say that I am a good friend. They might mention my off-color sense of humor.
To view more of Paula Baker-Laporte and Robert Laporte’s work please visit the EcoNest Website
Smart Energy Technology: www.OrganicMechanic.com