Home of straw and clay helps owner educate others

Lou Host-Jablonski has turned his home into a learning lab where he experiments with straw-clay and other building techniques and teaches others as he goes.

It means living in a partially finished home-some projects left undone are waiting for those who will learn from them - and Host-Jablonski finds himself cleaning up tools and materials to allow tours.

It's all in the effort to create an "affordable natural house" that he hopes will be the kind of place where others can picture themselves living.

"I'm doing it on my own house before I foist it on other people," said Host-Jablonski, an architect at Design Coalition of Madison. "The house is really a work site and educational opportunity in progress."

While the 1,900-square-foot home, which has a cathedral ceiling in the living room, is more space than Host-Jablonski needs, he wants to show that such a home could be realistic for a family. The East Side home has three bedrooms - one is in a loft that could be walled off - and two bathrooms.

The extra space also gives Host-Jablonski more room to conduct tours like the one organized recently by the Madison non-profit organization, Sustain Dane.

Host-Jablonski's home at 30 Lansing St. off Milwaukee Street features low-pollution and low-toxin materials and techniques. It also features a barrier-free design, which includes wider hallways and doors and a roll-in shower.

Tiled with a water motif, the shower is just one of the aesthetic touches to the home that surprisingly doesn't come off as a science experiment.

Host-Jablonski started the process by looking for a lot close to his office on the near east side. But those are hard to come by in that area. So six years ago he purchased a $55,000 home measuring about 400 square feet and set deep in the lot . Built on top of stones instead of a foundation, Host-Jablonski jacked it up and put a foundation underneath it.

Then he put an addition on the front of the home. It was built with straw-clay construction, which is comparable in cost to building a conventional custom home, Host-Jablonski said.

With straw-clay construction, bales are taken apart in order to mix the straw with the clay. A porthole window gives a peak at the construction of the wall next to the stairway.

"It protects the wall from moisture and adds thermal insulation to the house," Host-Jablonski said.

In January, Host-Jablonski started working on a three-year project to build straw-clay homes on tribal lands in the state. Sue Thering, a UW-Madison assistant professor of landscape architecture and a community development specialist for UW-Extension, is coordinating a partnership with several Native American communities in the state to create affordable, energy efficient housing through a grant.

The exterior of Host-Jablonski's addition is covered with stucco and asbestos siding saved from the original home because the fibers are encapsulated and that would keep it out of the landfill.

The inside of the walls are covered with earth-plaster and the floor is made of clay, sand and lime, which takes less energy to produce than concrete but is labor intensive. The floor will eventually be sealed and waxed. When it's done, it will have a leathery look.

The floor is one example where mistakes were made and corrected as the process was refined-one part of the learning experience.

When complete, the home's features will include:

* Living roof on the low-sloped portion of the house.

* A number of recycled products including roof shingles

* Products with recycled content such as the porous pavers for the driveway

* Plumbing pipes without PVC, a more toxic plastic.

* Wood trim, flooring and decking from sustainably managed forests

* Salvaged tiles for the kitchen floor and salvaged sinks in kitchen and workroom

* Site-built roof trusses that use recycled lumber and other framing methods to minimize the use of wood

* Four skylights.

* Non toxic paint and other materials like wheatboard, which is made of recycled wheat chaff with a formaldehyde-free adhesive.

The home also features a number of energy conservation measures, including the small, efficient boiler that is about the size of a large suitcase and hangs on the basement wall. It heats all the water used in the home, which has zoned heating and a hydronic system that includes in-floor and ceiling radiant heating and radiators.

The air-core floor is a passive solar, heat storage design. Solar heat from the south-facing windows and the skylight is stored in the floor, which sits on bricks that form channels. The heat is then distributed by a duct fan that pulls the air.

"It allows you to draw room air underneath the floor," Host-Jablonski said.

A passive cooling system, which includes oversized vents and overhangs, eliminates the need for mechanical cooling.

Because a tight home can create an indoor air problem, an energy recovery ventilator was installed.

The cabinetry came from a lawyer's office torn down when the Overture Center was built. Old black lab tables serve as some of the countertop space.

Host-Jablonski has done virtually all of the finish work, including the electrical and tiling the shower. One of his daughters, Day, who had just graduated with a degree in sustainability when the project was started, agreed to be the job superintendent.

Along the way, Host-Jablonski has found ways to expose parts of the home, which are normally hidden. For example, the bones of the upstairs bedroom ceiling were exposed while the hard edges of the wood were rounded with plaster-making an artistic statement as well.

"I wanted people to really understand what is holding this home up," he said.

The next step is to remodel the original section of the home where there will be new lessons to be learned.