Paula Baker-Laporte, FAIA is the principal architect of EcoNest Architecture, the design arm of the EcoNest Company. Together with husband Robert Laporte, they have been designing, building and teaching natural building since 1993. The EcoNest home combines timber-frame, light straw/clay walls, natural finishes and the health and ecology principles of Building Biology. With over 35 years of experience Paula has helped clients around the world to create healthy living spaces. I visited Paula at her EcoNest Home in Ashland to learn more about her work and experience as an architect.
Paula thank you for speaking with me today and inviting me up to your home, this house feels amazing. It’s so still and quiet. I am not quite sure how to describe it.
You are experiencing what a natural home feels like when it is combined with thoughtful design and skilled craftsmanship. You could build the exact same plan out of conventional materials and it would not capture this same essence. It is hard to describe, partially because we are used to describing homes visually, but what you are experiencing is engaging all of your senses. The clear acoustics, pleasant natural smells, the healthy balance of ions and humidity as well as the radiant heat on our skin, the absence of electro-magnetic interference, the play of color and lighting in accordance with nature; these are all things that contribute to what you are sensing.
Will you please give us a little background on yourself and your training and then please tell us how you came to work with your husband Robert?
I graduated from architecture school in 1978 from the University of Toronto. Soon after I made my way down to Santa Fe, New Mexico where I apprenticed and received licensure. I was fortunate to live and practice in this special place where there is an unbroken tradition of earth construction and I was immersed in the art of hand-crafted natural building. In 1986 I opened my own studio and soon enjoyed a booming practice. However by the early 90’s I realized that I was chronically ill with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities and learning how to design homes for health became a passion that has been the guiding light of my practice ever since. I became a student and then teacher of Building Biology, a European health-based building science and philosophy which holds nature as the gold standard for human health and regenerative ecology. I was looking for a builder who understood and followed these principles. In 1992 I read an article about Robert Laporte. I immediately signed-up for one of his workshops to learn about the light clay/straw technique that he had brought back from Europe. The rest is history. We have worked together ever since. EcoNest is the product of our collaboration embracing design for health and hand–crafted, natural building.
Working with people to realize their dreams and co-create spaces that will deeply nurture them, what could be more satisfying work? It is such an incredible journey to build a home from scratch and I feel deeply honored whenever someone chooses me to guide them through the process. As I have learned more and more about building for health I have found that I have a special role as an educator as well. So for the past several years my career has expanded into lecturing, consulting, writing and teaching with each facet enriching the others. It keeps me up-to-date with the national scene and enriches what I bring to the table for my special design clients. When people set out to design their own home they will need to make hundreds of decisions and my role is to educate them, guide them and most importantly to find out who they are so that the finished home is a beautiful expression of their dreams, aspirations and unique essence.
This deep appreciation for natural living and a healthy home has rippled out across the world via your work with EcoNest. You have also authored two books and are now working on a third.
My book Prescriptions for a Healthy House was first published in 1998 and is still going strong. It is now in its third edition. It is a guidebook for making any type of construction healthier. Robert and I wrote EcoNest, Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay Straw and Timber in 2005. It is an introduction to the natural building work we do, featuring several case studies. It is the “why to.” We are now working on a second EcoNest book. It is the “how to” and will feature step-by-step instructions for building several aspects of EcoNest homes. Whether one of these books provides a little info about making a house healthier, or is the impetus for someone to attend a workshop, or ultimately becomes the inspiration for someone to design and build with us, I love having the vehicle of the published word to introduce more people to these ideas about holistic building.
Will you please give us an overview to the current services you provide?
I design new homes from scratch. Usually clients come to me because they have a particular interest in health, ecology and natural, alternative building materials. I also consult with owner/architect/builder teams as a healthy home consultant. Along with our EcoNest hands-on building workshops I teach a one day seminar called “Homing In on Your Nesting Instinct.” This seminar is designed to help people get the most out of their home-building experience…for their health and their planet.
Tell us more about consulting services for owners with conventional homes who want to make healthy improvements.
Few people are in a position to build the home of their dreams from scratch but the good news is that most can greatly improve their homes by learning and applying some of the Building Biology principles. Over the years I have worked with many people to make their existing homes more vital. Each home is unique and presents unique opportunities and challenges. Some clients simply want to maximize their existing environment or are doing major renovation and want to assure the healthiest materials and practices. All too many of my consulting clients are in the unfortunate situation where a home or workplace has made them sick and then my job is to help them fix the problems.
Paula please talk to us about the three factors everyone faces when building a home from scratch.
Whether building from scratch or renovating, each client will be carefully weighing cost, size and quality. As an architect one of the biggest skills I can bring to the table is to help design efficiently so that every inch counts. Often people do not need as much space as they originally anticipated and this frees them up to invest in quality. I can also help people prioritize and show them creative ways to “value engineer” the scope of the project. I love to work closely with the general contractor early on. A solid team including owner, architect and builder, with unified priorities is a formula for success.
Your approach is very different than that of a conventional architect. Please tell us more about your own philosophies and style.
There are 25 principles of Building Biology for creating health, well-being and sustainability. Understanding these principles has lead me to value a different building paradigm than the 2x wood framing construction which is so prevalent in this country and to seek out more durable and natural building systems and finishes. This is not the “most space for the least cost” approach. It is about quality and enduring craftsmanship. Having said this, the majority of EcoNests have been for people of ordinary means with extraordinary values. Many have been quite modest in size expressing the owner’s desires to tread lightly and well on the planet. People choose a biological home based on the same values with which they would choose to eat local, organic food.
What is the profile of your typical client?
My clients are self-selecting. Health, ecology, resonance with a certain aesthetic and craftsmanship are usually why they have come to me in the first place.
For me, architecture is a labor of love, a life-long study that always has new secrets to reveal. My clients bring me their dreams and put a lot of trust in me to help them realize these. It is an intimate process. We work together to create something new in the world. Each person is unique and the results will be a reflection of this. It is so very special to see a new building take form. I feel like I am the mother of many children!
Your projects have ranged from clients with tight budgets to clients with unlimited budgets. What are some tools you bring to the table in helping each to reach a successful end result?
Most of my clients have never gone through the process of building a new home before and don’t know what to expect and so my first meetings are an exchange of information. Unlimited budgets are rare and interesting but the majority of my clients have a very real budget and very real concerns about navigating wisely so that they can get the best value for their available resources. Understanding their vision, lots of good communication, helping them set realistic goals and gather the right team around them….these are the initial steps in creating a successful outcome.
Being located right here in Ashland gives us a wonderful opportunity to work with you in person. Also the opportunity exists to view your EcoNest home.
We love being in Ashland and now that we are settled in our own home, we finally have a living, breathing example of our design/build philosophy to share with others. We welcome the opportunity to show our home. If you are reading this and interested, give us a call so we can make a date to meet!
Paula will you show us two or three homes that you have designed that you are particularly proud of?
Photo 1: This was the first EcoNest that Robert and I created together. The footprint was modest but the open floor plan created spaciousness, while the variety of ceilings and timber-frame gave the rooms a cozy sense of place at the same time.
Photos 2 and 3: My clients for this Santa Fe adobe wanted a courtyard design. While the perimeter shape is very organic taking advantage of the surrounding panorama, the square interior courtyard creates a central outdoor room with a cool and welcoming microclimate aided by the fountain and vegetation.
How about special features that you incorporated into a home that you have appreciated?
Photo 4: A covered portal and courtyard frame the views and catch the morning sun extending the footprint of this modestly-sized home and creating the ultimate space for this yoga teacher’s sun salutations.
Photo 5: Our home has a special tokanoma (beauty corner) that was created by our friend Dale Brotherton, a Japanese Carpenter. The round pine post came from Japan. It is a place where I always keep fresh flowers and can celebrate the beauty of my home.
Photo 6: How does a home welcome you in? This picture shows a view through an EcoNest home I designed in Santa Fe. A courtyard leads to this front door through the shoji screens of the vestibule and into the living room and a welcoming fire in the masonry heater.
Finally, in your career as an architect, what choices do you make that you see your clients appreciate the most?
The process of designing and building is complex and multi-faceted. Ironically the best choices that I make for clients are the ones they may never even know about. A successful project is one where, for the client, “It just seemed to flow naturally and easily.” Listening clearly to their aspirations will result in a design that is just right for them. Exploring their personal resonance and anticipating and guiding them to choices that are a true expression of this will result in a home that uniquely expresses their essence. Attention to their budget and clear drawings and communications with the builder will result in a smooth building process. A dedication to their health and details large and small will result in an ease of day-to-day living, a celebration of place, and meaningful connections to the natural surroundings. A myriad of successful decisions by me and my team “behind the scenes” will result in a high degree of dignity and grace in the future lives of my clients. They should expect no less.
EcoNest Architecture Inc.