Creative building and renovating

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Numerous options exist for building more energy-efficient homes or renovating existing homes, using lower-cost building techniques and using natural materials. Visitors to this year’s Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair Aug. 13-14 at Ogle County Fairgrounds in Oregon, Ill., will have plenty of opportunities to learn about all of them.

A series of three workshops will present building with natural materials. Natural home design by architect Lou host-Jablonski will explain the use of an ancient technique — straw-clay construction — that uses all-natural, often locally-obtained materials to build an efficient, low-toxin home. Host-Jablonski’s own straw-clay home in Madison, Wis., meets all local building codes. Chemist Douglas Piltingsrud developed the chemical formulas essential to modernizing the straw-clay construction process.

Jim Hutchison used the technique to build a large straw-clay farm shed near Rock City. The building was first framed in with 2- by 6-inch studs on 2-foot centers. The straw-clay mixture was then placed into the forms attached to the framing and compacted by people stepping on the mixture.

Anna Wolfson will make the final presentation about natural plaster. Clay, sand and chopped straw are mixed to form the plaster. Naturally-occurring minerals provide desired colors. The plaster also becomes the finished paint. Natural buildings are labor intensive, but Wolfson believes they are well worth the work. The finished product is healthy; there are no dangerous fumes, and the building can stand many years. Additionally, building materials are often locally available and inexpensive.

The creative use of trash to build a house will be presented by Jay and Annie Warmke, also Sunday keynoters. They will offer a virtual tour of the buildings at Blue Rock Station, as well as basic techniques for those who wish to construct their own. They will include tire pounding for foundations, plastic bottle greenhouse, and building a straw bale chalet.

Mike Dudek, chairman of the Rockford branch of the U.S. Green Building Council, will share his experience with building a LEED home on a budget. He decided the only way for him to understand LEED strategies was to build a house himself. He settled on an existing home in Woodstock, Ill., a “gut-and-rehab” project. He will also discuss the challenge of using renewable energy on a heavily-wooded lot. His conclusion: good planning is important.

Architect Patsy Welch will talk about the process of designing and building an affordable, passive solar, universal design house, including location both for solar gain and access to transportation and amenities. A compact design and use of recycled materials are included. Victor Zaderej helped her with the passive solar aspect and earth tube.

Builders Seth and Rick McCanse, who have years of experience incorporating renewable energy into their work, will hold a question-and-answer session about prioritizing remodeling dollars with an eye toward energy conservation.

A panel of experts, including a certified energy auditor, an architect, a financing expert, a contractor with related experience and a representative of government will hold another question-and-answer session about affordable housing and sustainable strategies.

Deconstruction as an alternative to demolition will be presented by Bill Howard of YouthBuild Rockford.

Additional workshops will focus on powering a home with renewable energy, energy-efficient appliances, heat pumps and geothermal, living off grid and how to cope with being without power.

Major sponsors of the 10th Anniversary Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair are the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, Freedom Field and The Rock River Times.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the July 20-26, 2011 issue

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