Thanks for checking in! Like many other small businesses around the country and the world, Living Craft is actively working to move forward with our operations during the Coronavirus pandemic.
We chose to close down our site operations early in the pandemic because we decided that we wanted to do as much as possible to slow the spread of the virus. Limiting exposure for ourselves, our clients, and our suppliers in order to flatten the curve are our best routes to alleviate the pain that this virus is causing to our communities and to medical professionals.
As an essential business in the state of Colorado, we are continuing to work from home on off-site operations, including our design services and project development and planning. We are still accepting new client inquiries and can aid you in your home project planning needs through videoconferencing and other remote communication methods.
Additionally, we are ramping up on-site work as we feel able to do so safely. In order for essential work to continue, we are putting safety protocols and training procedures into place which will allow us and our employees to navigate the challenges of staying safe and limiting our exposure while making progress on our projects. We strive to comply with social distancing guidelines and have implemented additional disinfection practices. For more information, we will be posting samples of our working protocols and job site checklists as we develop them.
As an added precaution, we are offering our employees extra paid sick leave in order to provide them with flexibility and to encourage them to stay home if they have any symptoms or possible exposure to the virus.
We hope that you are all staying safe and healthy during this challenging time.
When I interned at an organic farm in Moab, they called themselves Beyond Organic. In addition to meeting all the standards for USDA organic certification, they also took the extra time and care to be good stewards of the land and soil. They did this by soil testing and adding natural amendments, planting cover crops and using crop rotation practices, and using other tools for increasing biodiversity and supporting pollinators like companion planting and crop rotation.
Inspired by that, I like to think of our company as Beyond Green Building. Of course, we support the goals of the green building movement, but we are also also striving to stay on the cutting edge of new developments and research. Incorporating these new ideas can lead to the creation of an even better home, with a lower impact on the environment. Especially with remodel and retrofit jobs, we believe we can do better with more natural and healthy options. So, we like to look at an existing building holistically, first taking the data from an energy audit and materials testing, and then applying our knowledge and techniques to design the most green and healthy building we can.
Just by choosing to keep an existing structure, rather than demolishing it, you’re off to a great start. The greenest buildings are the ones we already have, because then you don’t have the initial carbon emissions costs of tearing down and moving the old building materials to a dump. With creative remodeling and potentially an addition, an old home can have a new life and all those useful materials are kept out of the waste stream.
Once a remodel has begun, there are many strategies we can turn to in order to take it Beyond Green. One is using carbon sequestering insulation materials like straw, hemp, cellulose, recycled denim, and wool. This helps offset climate change which would otherwise be exacerbated by the building industry. We also choose interior finishes that are VOC free to improve indoor air quality from the start. Additionally, using advanced air sealing membranes, efficient mechanical systems, and the use of a service cavity for utilities can turn an older leaky home into one that is air tight. That way we aren’t letting unwanted air move through small holes in the wall assembly where it can create condensation points and eventually lead to mold. Whole house continuous ventilation systems, which are quickly becoming a requirement for new buildings, can also drastically improve indoor air quality in older, remodeled homes.
A Living Craft designed remodel is meant to last for beyond the life of an individual, with means not only choosing systems that create a more durable home, but also using finishes and materials that are timeless. Plaster and wood finishes can be varied to meet the modern styles of today, but also have been used in homes for thousands of years, so they have better staying power in a fast moving design field.
We are constantly looking to keep ourselves up to date on the knowledge and new ideas in green and natural building and remodeling. Through this evolution, we hope to stay on the cutting edge and keep collaborating with other companies and individuals who have similar goals. It’s an exciting place to be!
An energy audit is sort of like a physical check up for your home. This is especially important in the case of an older home which may have been built before the updated building code called for a certain level of insulation and air tightness. An energy audit is a great way to find out exactly which interventions will have the most impact on lowering your home’s energy usage and reducing heating and cooling losses.
An energy audit is often the first step we recommend for our remodel clients. That way, we can be sure to design the project with all the data available. This allows us to meet budgetary needs while making the best choices to craft a more efficient home.
In addition to finding areas that lack insulation or have air leakage, energy auditors can point out aging mechanical systems which may be having a greater than necessary impact on energy bills and carbon emissions. Going all electrical with the mechanical systems in a home is one great way to plan for the future, as our energy grid becomes less dependent on fossil fuels. The auditor will recommend specific practices for sealing leaks and insulating, or suggest which systems to upgrade. We can help you decide which of these options will give you the best and healthiest home.
With the data from an energy audit, together with Living Craft, you can choose which areas of your home to focus on, whether it’s air sealing in the attic, adding cellulose insulation, or upgrading an aging water heater or boiler. Once we’ve set up your home to be more efficient, we can then design interior renovations that will make it more beautiful and healthy.
For example, one client came to us with a bathroom remodel project. Since her bathroom tub was leaky, it had caused damage to the ceiling below, and obviously needed some work. After an energy audit, we were able to find out that the attic also needed air sealing and the bathroom fan wasn’t venting outdoors, but instead bringing humid air out of the bathroom and in to the attic. Since these are not ideal, we were able to reroute the bath fan vent, air seal and add insulation into the attic, and also give her an updated bathroom with a fully water sealed shower. Without the energy audit, she may have only acheived some of these objectives. She not only got a rebate from Xcel, she also saves money every month on her heating and cooling bills, and stays more comfortable year-round in her home.
So, if you have an older home that you are planning on upgrading or remodeling, be sure to get that energy audit before you start budgeting for other upgrades, because it is the quickest and simplest way to start saving money on energy bills. Even if the inside of your home doesn’t need any work, an energy audit can let you know where the weak spots in your building envelope are, without being intrusive. And if you need help interpreting the results and deciding which interventions to make, let us know!
There’s a lot of information out there now about hemp construction. Since the recent passing of the 2018 Farm Bill in congress, which legalizes the growing of industrial hemp on a federal level, the hempcrete building technique has gained media attention.
But what do you need to know if you are thinking about your new dream hemp house or hempcrete remodel?
How Hemp is Used in Construction
Many articles in the press have done a good job of explaining the use of hemp in hempcrete walls. This system involves hemp hurd being mixed with lime binder and then loosely packed into forms that are built around the wall framing. This is applicable in both new builds and remodels. There is lots of room to experiment, as well.
For example, the hemp-clay house we worked on uses the hemp portion of the wall solely as an infill which butts up to the inside of the otherwise more conventional wall. It serves as a thermal break and plaster substrate. Hemp can also be mixed into plasters, earthen floors, and used in creating blocks, with either lime or clay binders.
There are companies that make building products made with hemp that could replace plywood, batt insulation, and even wood framing members. For now, though, hempcrete (or hemp-lime, or hemp-clay) is the king of hemp building.
Benefits of Building with Hemp
There are many benefits to building with hemp and hempcrete systems.
First off, the environmental benefits. One way hemp is better than other building materials that it may replace is that its production (farming) and processing (making the hemp plant into hurd) can require less energy, water, and time inputs. In fact, due to its long root system, hemp plants can actually improve soil health by increasing organic matter in soil over time and naturally loosening dense soils.
A hemp home may use less lumber, since the wooden frame of the house can be designed with greater spacing than if the home used more conventional insulating batts that are designed for 16″ or 24″ spaces. And since hemp grows much faster than trees, it requires less water and energy inputs, and a smaller area of land to produce an equivalent amount of material.
Hemp also replaces insulation. Batt insulation like fiberglass and mineral wool are manufactured products that need a lot of energy to create and ship. If local hemp hurd is used instead, the embodied energy is much lower. Also, hemp captures carbon from the air as it grows, which is then sequestered and stored in the walls of your building for as long as it stands. This means you get to start out with a carbon neutral or even carbon negative home from the beginning!
The rise of “sick building syndrome” is well documented. As homes get more energy efficient with tighter envelopes, indoor air quality can decrease. Particularly when the materials used to build and finish them and the products we bring inside are off gassing chemicals and VOCs, this can result in poor health, lowered cognitive abilities, and potential long term disease. In addition, mold can become a problem from condensation forming within wall systems or inside of poorly ventilated homes.
Hemp can help with this is a few ways. If you follow our plaster site, you may have read about how plasters can improve indoor air quality. The lime (or clay) binder in hempcrete is the same earthen material as in a natural plaster. Also, most hemp walls are finished using plaster on the inside.
Also, hemp won’t contribute to VOC and chemical off-gassing as it is a wholly plant based material which has been dried and processed before being mixed with the lime.
Finally, hempcrete walls are highly mold resistant. The lime binder has a very high pH while wet, which prevents mold. And, once it has cured and been plastered, a hempcrete wall regulates humidity and allows water vapor to pass through it in a way that won’t lead to any points of condensation within the wall. There are also no gaps within the wall through which air can move. This eliminates another source of moisture and mold, and contributes to the longevity of your building.
Boosting Local Economies
Growing hemp is seen as a healthier, safer alternative to other economic activities, like mining and large scale industrial agriculture. Because hemp requires less inputs of pesticides and herbicides than other crops like cotton, soy, and corn, it is a good candidate for replacing or joining into a crop rotation with these plants. Also, parts of the country whose economies were dependent on coal mining or manufacturing jobs could use the recent legalization of industrial hemp to carve out a new living. In Colorado, hemp and marijuana growing is already boosting the economy.
Current Challenges of Building with Hemp in Colorado
Since industrial hemp is a new crop in the United States, we are lagging slightly behind in the manufacturing of products using hemp and in the processing of the raw plant material. The equipment, factories, and machinery required for such a task are expensive and it will take time to catch up to other countries where hemp building has been popular for decades.
For example, when we built our hemp-clay project, using a unique and lower carbon version of hempcrete where clay is used to bind the hemp together in the wall instead of lime, we used imported hemp hurd. There are drawbacks to this, like increased embodied energy. However, the current consistency and quality of processed hemp hurd available locally (if it is available at all) meant that there would be more headaches and room for errors than if we bought from a part of the world where hemp building is well established. In those countries, the processing of the plant into the final product is seamless and reliable.
So, while we are still waiting for Colorado and the US to catch up with other areas of the globe, hemp building is coming to Colorado quickly, including in a studio project that we are starting later in 2019. Keep an eye out for updates!
Living Craft co-owner Ben recently returned from a trip to Morocco. In addition to being a very cool vacation destination, Morocco is also the homeland of tadelakt plaster. This is the polished lime plaster that we use in showers, sinks, kitchen and bathroom backsplashes, and windowsills. Our mentor, Ryan, learned his skill in Morocco, and passed it on to us.
Ben got some great shots of tadelakt on the Moroccan streets, in bed and breakfasts, and in a restored historic lobby of a public garden. Its use is very prevalent throughout the country, in mostly decorative forms. Ben got to see a tadelakt roof, and drain spouts that directed water into a pool. Click through the gallery below to see the natural and beautiful Moroccan aesthetic of tadelakt in the home country.
After his trip, we are all feeling inspired and energized for a big tadelakt bathroom project we are currently tackling in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver. Check out that completed project here.
Currently the conventional construction industry contributes heavily to climate change. That cannot be debated. What if it could be changed?
Welcome to the modern world of increasing carbon emissions.
No matter the exact numbers, we know that creating buildings from new materials that have been manufactured and then shipped long distances, using machinery that consumes fuel and electricity, and assembled by workers who travel to the site daily in gas burning vehicles cannot be the greatest thing for the planet right now. We are struggling with the real effects of climate change in the present day, while also hearing every day about the potential futures we and our children will face.
How can building actually help?
We are part of a small but growing class of builders who believe we can offer some solutions to the big problems of carbon emissions associated with construction. Some ways this can be done:
Use Local Materials
If you don’t have to ship pine boards from New Zealand, but can instead use wood harvested sustainably from the same region that you are building in, this will reduce the embodied energy of that material. Unless you live in New Zealand, and then go for it with your pine. If you live somewhere where forests aren’t abundant, then you could look into other options like straw bale, masonry, or stone.
Their local abundance is part of why we love to use natural plasters. Sand, clay, and lime are harvested and processed fairly locally, not shipped from across the sea. These materials can be used for floors, walls, and more.
Use Materials with Lower Embodied Energy
If you can choose build a home out of cement blocks or adobe blocks, you can drastically reduce your building’s carbon footprint by choosing the adobe. Cement is one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, but adobe blocks can provide as much structural support, increased thermal mass (means more comfortable home in the face of extreme temperature swings), and a much lower embodied energy.
Similarly to how single use to-go containers made of styrofoam can’t ever be considered “green,” a home insulated with lots of foam is also not very green, because of the amount of energy it requires to manufacture that foam. Materials like straw, hemp, and cellulose can perform just as well, at a lower embodied energy cost. There are many more examples of this, so feel free to ask us about low energy materials when designing your dream home!
Use Materials that Sequester Carbon
Straw is made of carbon, and when a home is insulated with carbon-rich materials like that, you’re locking that carbon out of the atmosphere for the life of the building, How cool is that?
In contrast, a fiberglass batt or mineral wool board (or foam of any kind) takes a ton of energy to create and doesn’t sequester carbon at all. Bummer.
Other materials that sequester carbon: wood studs, hemp, cross laminated timber, and fiber boards (some made from hemp are coming onto the market soon).
Practice Efficient Home Design
Paying attention to your climate and site conditions and using principles of passive solar design will keep your home comfortable throughout the seasons while reducing your energy bills. It also lowers your carbon emissions.
Another part of designing a wall system is preventing air and water leaks. A tightly air-sealed and well-insulated home will last longer, reduce issues of mold or rot, and be more energy efficient for both heating and cooling.
It’s a good start to begin thinking about some of the factors listed above when designing and building a home. We can’t change the industry overnight, but the broader acceptance of low carbon building methods today could go a long way.
You could say that lime plaster forms the foundation of our company, or at least of our origin story. The three of us met on a big lime plaster job in the mountains west of Boulder, CO. We each contacted our mentor, Ryan Chivers, because we had heard of his reputation in the natural building community as a lime plaster expert. Frank had worked with him for a year at that time, and this project was mine and Ben’s first time meeting Ryan. He brought us on to help him sling plaster on both the exterior and interior of this strawbale mountain home. And, as they say, the rest is history.
Here are a few of the reasons we love lime. Whether it’s found in a historic home where plaster was the primary choice for wall building at the time (lime or gypsum), or a new build or remodel where the homeowner chooses to use plaster, this material is definitely not out of style.
Have you heard the word birefringence? I hadn’t either, until I met Frank. Wikipedia defines it as so: “Birefringence is the optical property of a material having a refractive index that depends on the polarization and propagation direction of light.” Well, maybe that cleared things up for some of us…
The point is, because lime plaster cures back to it’s original material of limestone, it maintains some of the aesthetically enchanting qualities and depth of a natural gemstone or mineral, while being customizable in texture and color.
We all know that something that’s rock solid is very dependable. So, if someone gave you the choice to have walls that are literally rock solid, wouldn’t you take them up on that? It sounds like a no brainer to me.
3. Easy to Repair
One miraculous feature of lime plaster is that it is actually constantly repairing itself on a microscopic level. When small cracks form, new lime is exposed to air and moisture, which causes a continuing reaction which can self-heal smaller cracks. In case your lime plastered walls do get some bigger cracks, or a couple scratches, or an historic wall system needs repair, lime plaster can be repaired by a skilled plasterer. There are even artisans replicating plaster relief art in historic renovation.
4. It’s got History
Today, I told a material supplier that the products I was picking up were going to be used on a exterior plaster job, using lime plaster. He looked surprised and said, “Now that’s old school.” And he is not wrong! But the best thing about an old school material like lime it that it’s tried and true. And lime has been used in building mortars and plasters since the Greek and Roman heydays.
5. Low Carbon Footprint
As lime cures, it actually absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. While there is still energy input during the production and shipping of lime (we call this it’s embodied energy), the curing process helps to offset this carbon footprint. Plus, lime is a more local product in many locations, particularly here in the Denver area, which means less fuel is burned for transportation than a cement stucco or paint.
6. Support your Local Craftsmen and Craftswomen
Many trade groups and magazines are extolling the virtues of skilled craftspeople in construction. The hashtag #keepcraftalive is one example I saw recently. Like many trades in the building industry, the workforce of skilled plasterers is diminishing. Hiring a local plaster company is one way to help rekindle the movement of skilled laborers coming up in the workforce. Plus, dollars spent on local products and with small businesses are more likely to stay in the community.
7. Improve Indoor Air Quality
Plaster improves indoor air quality in a few ways. One is that lime plaster contains no chemicals that can off-gas into the indoor atmosphere. Those are things like VOCs (found in some paints and stains). Instead, plaster is made of solely natural materials like sand and lime, with nothing that will emit noxious chemicals into the home.
Another way plasters improve air quality is managing humidity levels. We wrote a full blog on plaster and humidity over at our plaster specific website, Living Plasters. The general idea is that whether humidity is too low or too high, it can be bad for indoor air quality, or make your home feel uncomfortable. Plasters act as a buffer to moderate humidity levels in the “Goldilocks Zone” of just-right.
Personally, I’m excited to be part of reviving the lime plaster movement and beautifying our homes and buildings.
Living Craft’s work at The Bindery Restaurant in Denver was recently featured in an article in Modern in Denver magazine. The focus is on the sustainable and cultural elements that the owner, Linda, brought to her new business venture. Our custom traditional lime plasters are one component of the sustainability practices that they prioritized during their design and build process. Read the full article to find out more, or stop by for an up close look at the walls.
The Ties That Bind
“Lime Plaster is a natural product. It’s a true craftsman’s product… it’s more alive than stucco. It allows light to interact, to dance.”
We were approached by a family that was hoping to have their currently unfinished basement built out to include a bedroom, bathroom, storage, living area, and home office/meditation space. This extra space will accommodate a family with up-and-coming teenagers.
Our clients already had a design for the new space and emptied the basement of most things, minus a piano which would be too difficult to move upstairs – so we built the basement around it! The bathroom design was tweaked a little by us and our plumber to make it easy to drain everything and provide required clearances and access for pipe clean-outs.
We also made some modifications to the office/meditation space, which ended up with a very cool and versatile corner of sliding barn doors.
Indoor Air Quality
Basements in older homes are notorious for being moldy, damp, and having stale air. Because we build healthy homes, breaking from the stereotype was necessary. This featured heavily in our materials selection and building method criteria.
This house has luckily not had any problems with bulk moisture in the basement (i.e. flooding). In order to create an air and vapor barrier inside the permeable concrete foundation walls, we used a polyiso foam board (a case of least-bad when it comes to foams). We foil taped all joints and caulked along the bottom. This barrier was completed using spray foam along the rim joist at the top of the wall to seal that area from air infiltration, both from outside and from the garage. Its very important to keep car fumes out of living spaces!
We also installed a small, two unit, balanced ERV, with one unit in the bedroom and the other in the living area, on the other side of the basement. These ceramic-core fans alternate drawing air in and pushing it out. The ceramic is a heat sink, designed to keep the air temperature inside the same and prevent energy loss.
A nearly silent, motion activated bathroom fan keeps excess moisture down. Clay plaster also plays a big role in managing humidity and keeping air quality high.
The existing wood-burning fireplace was replaced with a new gas insert. This is cleaner burning, and no more having to sweep dusty ashes.
Finally, we used a paperless drywall in all areas of the basement. This choice is mold resistant, since it’s actually the paper that provides the food for the mold spores. The only place that’s different is the shower, which we fully waterproofed using Schluter Kerdi products. Here, the longevity and mold resistance in the wet environment of a shower is valuable for a long lasting home. It will prevent unnecessary water damage and further remodeling work later on.
Insulation and Sound
Because of the possibility of moisture, we used mineral wool batts within the 2×4 framed walls to insulate the basement further. This insulation is rot-resistant, since it’s basically just rock, turned into fibers. Up in the ceiling, we used cellulose in mesh bags to insulate the top of the outside walls, between each joist, before the drywall went in.
Extra insulation batts went into the interior walls surrounding the bathroom and bedroom. This will allow the family to use the space in multiple ways without disturbing each other if someone is sleeping or showering.
As part of a healthy indoor environment, all the surfaces are treated with VOC-free finishes. Custom clay plasters cover all the walls and ceilings except the bathroom. The bathroom has a lime plaster on the walls and ceilings, and a groutless tadelakt shower, which will never have issues with mildew in grout lines.
All trim is custom milled beetle kill pine. Doors are from used building supply stores, and are all solid alder wood. All of the wood in the home is treated with a VOC-free and plant based oil finish.
The floor is the original slab of the basement, polished and tinted and then sealed. This is easy to keep clean, and will also keep air quality higher than if we’d used carpet. Area rugs can be used in places of high traffic or where you might be walking barefoot.
A Healthy, Natural Basement
This family was great to work with and be around, as we worked in their home. We’re excited to see how the space lives up to their needs. We are glad that this basement offers them some extra living space, without having to worry about the problems of unhealthy indoor air quality.
We’re working in a home where we used a hemp and clay mixture between timbers to add insulation and thermal mass. Why did we choose this, and how is it different from the hemp-lime or hempcrete building processes?
Hempcrete, or hemp-lime, as you may know, is a popular form of wall infill that’s a mixture of hemp hurd, hydraulic lime, and water. As it cures, the lime in hempcrete chemically changes back into the same composition as limestone, making it rock solid. Frank has taught at a few hempcrete workshops around Colorado with John Patterson of Tiny Hemp Houses.
Hemp! It’s great. It grows fast, and needs less chemicals while growing: all reasons it may be more ecological than other building materials. Hemp is also better for soils than most other plants, with its deep roots that aerate soil. Additionally, the hemp stalk is composed of about 50% carbon by dry weight. This means that the carbon sequestered from the atmosphere during photosynthesis can be locked into our building like a carbon sink, not being released until the building is demolished much further down the line. This enables us the possibility to build a “carbon negative” wall system. If you’d like to learn more about carbon sequestering and building for climate change, we will be posting a blog soon.
Lime, while a natural and healthy building material, requires a lot of energy input to be created. Also, we import a lot of the natural hydraulic limes from overseas, increasing the embodied energy of the material. Alternately, a mix with cement is used, which also has very high embodied energy and accounts for an absurd amount of greenhouse gas emissions. There are other additives that can be mixed with lime to make it hydraulic, such as different types of pozzolans and geopolymers. These have their own benefits and drawbacks, but it comes down to manufacturing processes, local availability, and toxicity.
What about Hemp-Clay?
Colorado is blessed with beautiful and strong clay, an alternative binder to lime or cement. The best part of this is that the energy required to dig up and screen local clay is minuscule compared to burning lime.
We made a test brick with hemp hurd and clay slip, and the result was strong and lightweight – a perfect combination of insulation and thermal mass (especially once clay plaster is added).
The hemp clay installation process went very similarly to hemp-lime. Forms were packed with wet material and then moved up. It goes pretty quickly if you can make your mix dry enough, but still sticky and workable. That way, forms are moved up and the packed in hemp-clay sticks in place without slumping.
Since clay does not set chemically, like lime or cement, it has to dry naturally, with time. With several fans and dehumidifiers placed around the home, it still took a while to fully dry. We used a moisture meter to check deep within the walls, and later patched those spots where we had to put the probe in.
This step is very important because if you seal the hemp up with plasters before it’s dry, although it can still breathe through the plasters, there is a greater chance that some moisture will get stuck deep in the wall. Over time, this could lead to mold.
Another thing to note is the clay tends to shrink as it dries. This led to some cracking and pulling away from timbers. We took an extra half day to come back and fill those cracks in to prevent thermal bridges and loss of insulation in those places.
Plaster Prep and Plastering
This step is again just about the same as with hemp-lime or hempcrete. We had a few places where the mix was too dry or didn’t have enough clay, as well as fragile corners around windows where we used an expanded metal lath to shore up the hemp clay. Landscape staples were used to attach the lath to the hemp, where needed.
We used clay plaster and our sprayer to get a base coat up first. The texture is perfect for plaster to stick to. Although clay plaster is the safest bet for a strong bond, a lime plaster or lime stabilized clay mix would also key in well to the rough surface.
We’re pretty happy with the results and process. It’s not too dissimilar to a woodchip-clay infill wall. The fact that it’s a low embodied energy and carbon sequestering solution is exciting, but the amount of time it takes to dry is a challenge. However, working in the summer could speed that up easily. We would also consider adding a small amount of cement or lime to the mix in order to create that chemical set and allow us to fill higher and faster.
We used a mortar mixer for mixing, which only allows a certain amount of minimum moisture. If you wanted the mix dryer, a horizontal drum mixer would be a better option.
Unsurprisingly, we’re not the first to try this. Check out Chris Magwood and the Endeavour Centre Blog below for their experience. Scroll to the bottom if you just want to read the hemp-clay part. I think that the hemp-clay block shows the most promise. Because they are small, that minimizes the risks of cracking and pulling away that can happen during the drying of a large wall.