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Designing Natural and Environmentally Sustainable Homes: An Interview with Carolyn Riege and Norbert Hufnagl of Earthen Touch Natural Builders

By Carolyn Riege and Norbert Hufnagle

Tell us a little bit about your company and its foundation.

We both came from corporate careers and through experiencing more natural homes and through the desire to use less resources ourselves - began researching, then volunteering on projects to learn the ins and outs of natural building. Being more sustainable and creating homes that are healthier for the inhabitants and the earth in general, made perfect sense to both of us. One thing lead to another and people began asking us to help them create adobe, straw bale and other alternative homes and spaces. Living off-the-grid ourselves has taught us much about how to maximize resources we have on hand. We currently live in a straw bale hybrid home which is both unique and performs like a dream, so we walk our talk, as they say. Our home is comfortable all year long, beautiful and we love it.

What makes your homes more environmentally sustainable than others?

We wouldn't say our homes are more sustainable versus others as though it were a competition. We simply think that whatever any of us can do to use less, and more natural resources when creating a home, the better. There are so many ways families can begin to use less energy and spend less money by educating themselves with all of the options available, and we hope to help people do just that. For example, setting up a solar hot water system to heat the floors and water, adding photovoltaic panels (PV's) for electricity, using materials on the land for building, or even repurposing items from one project to the next. It all adds up to more savings and less energy consumed, and in our minds that is a very good thing.

As a natural home builder, how do you make sure you understand what your clients want while making sure it has a natural feel?

Like any good contractor, we spend lots of time interviewing and discussing our methods with our clients. We get to know their specific wants and needs and what they require for their own definition of a more natural, healthy home. Then we guide them toward sustainable solutions. It's a long process and we get to know them well over time so we can give them what they want with no surprises or unhappy endings.

What is the process of designing one of your homes?

As mentioned above, we meet with our clients multiple times and discuss specifically and with much clarity what they want and need. Then we guide them into an efficient design by providing options for them. Factors which any good architect or home designer will tell you which are key to a successful home design specific to using less resources are - utilizing passive solar design criteria, using a natural wall system and wall coverings that improve indoor air quality, creating an efficient space which functions well for the inhabitants, building smaller versus larger when it makes sense, and keeping the design and costs within the budget set forth by the owner, to name a few. We always guide people into using the elements which will allow for maximum comfort while using minimal resources to build, heat and cool a home. It just makes sense these days when heating and cooling costs continue to rise, to let a smart home design remove some of the financial burden. Let the home work for you instead of you working constantly to be comfortable. We believe it's the way to go, every time.

What is your philosophy behind creating natural, yet practical homes for your clients?

Creating homes with adobe or straw bale are perhaps our ideal for any new home building project, but it's not always possible given the owner requirements. But with those materials, we can buy local adobe bricks, or straw bales from farmers in the area, both which support local businesses and use materials readily available in our area. Harvesting materials nearby such as local clays for earthen floors and beautiful plasters for walls is a great option we have in our part of the country. The more materials we can harvest nearby, on the owner's land or surrounding areas, the better. We will work to recycle building materials when it makes sense to a project. And working with any ideas an owner-builder has or had researched for their own definition of sustainable and natural, works for us. We believe that any step toward making a home more sustainable and natural and healthy, is a good one. And since no two people will define those words in the same way, we are happy to help any owner-builder define how much sustainability they want in their lives. We ourselves are always looking to improve the efficiency in our own lives, so are open to new ideas anyone has discovered along the way.

What's the best way for people to get in contact with you or your company?

We can be reached on our website in the contact section, another option:

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About The Author

Carolyn Riege:

Following a career in art direction/graphic...

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