Our construction projects use ecologically sound materials and techniques to create healthy, vital, economical and beautiful buildings. We also prioritize using local resources and skills. Our materials and methods are equally informed by the timeless wisdom of the past and technological innovation of today.
WHY BUILD WITH NATURAL MATERIALS?
By creating buildings using natural materials, we work with the local ecology, geology and climate, supporting nature’s processes rather than resisting them. There are many practical reasons for building a natural house. Many people have wished for an alternative to conventional construction that can so often be soulless, economically enslaving, and unhealthy. Natural building addresses all these concerns to create structures that are in tune with the needs of humans and the Earth.
Because natural structures are designed and built in tune with the seasons, people who live in them can have a closer connection with nature’s cycles. Natural buildings also help to preserve nature, as appropriate design and sensitive collection of building materials can combat deforestation, reduce the need for mining, and reduce pollution. Recycling of materials from other projects helps to protect nature as well. The ideal natural house would give back more than it takes, its construction and very presence restoring the land to a better state. And when the house has reached the end of its life, it can decompose and return to the earth again.
Strawbales are bricks of straw created by compressing and tying loose straw after the grain seeds have been removed. Straw is an annually renewable material, available wherever grain crops are grown. It is a waste product, which is often burned in the field.Bales are easy to work with, lightweight and require a minimum of tools. Thick bale walls are good insulators against noise and extremes of temperature. When covered with a natural plaster, strawbale walls breathe. Strawbale walls provide a quiet, healthy interior environment.We use strawbales as infill in post-and-beam structures or as load-bearing wall systems, which supports the weight of the roof. Bales sit on a concrete, stone, or earthbag foundation. A wooden box beam or concrete bond beam is laid on top of the strawbale wall and ties the roof to the building. We stabilize the walls with bamboo pinning and lath. We cover the bales with earth or lime plaster. In many cases, the lath is not needed, and plaster can be applied directly to the bales.Vital Systems has worked with many of the pioneers of bale building. We utilize the best practices that have emerged during fifteen years of intensive straw-bale research. We participated in a major bale building code testing program led by Bruce King through the Ecological Building Network. This project took two years to complete and has opened strawbale construction to an even wider market.
Bamboo is the largest of the grass family of plants. It grows very quickly, providing renewable material for buildings, tools, utensils and food. Common in the tropics, many species of bamboo grow in temperate climates as well. Some varieties even prefer a good frost. Strong, beautiful and ecological bamboo has recently become popular with builders in the US.Bamboo is particularly suitable for creating beautiful roof structures. Bamboo can be used to create trusses and other structural members, replacing rebar, wood and steel in many situations. It is also used as pinning in strawbale construction and as finish flooring.The traditional architecture in bamboo has been brought into modern expression by Colombian architects Simon Velez and Oscar Hidalgo, whose work continues to inspire all those pushing for a wider acceptance of bamboo as a sustainable building material.Vital Systems is at the forefront of introducing bamboo construction to the United States, working with leading designers and engineers in the field. We have worked on over twenty projects using bamboo structurally or as a finish material, including the first permitted bamboo structure in North America. We work with suppliers of the highest quality timber bamboo, and can access any number of unique and beautiful bamboo products for small and large projects alike.
Cob is an ancient technique of building monolithic walls using moist earth mixed with straw. It can be used to create almost any shape, and has wonderful sculptural qualities. Cob is easy to work with and requires few tools. Cured cob possesses excellent strength, and is a good source of thermal mass.To build with cob, we mix local soil with aggregate and straw to create a stiff mud, which is formed into small loaves (cobs). These cobs can be tossed to a builder on the wall who mashes them together on top of a stone or concrete foundation.The relatively thick walls (usually 12″-24″) are built in courses from 6″ to 16″ high. We let the layer dry and solidify before adding more height. Irregularities in the wall can be shaved off with a spade or other sharp tool as work progresses.Vital Systems uses cob together with other natural building systems to create walls and unique sculptural work for benches, fireplaces and other highly visible aspects of construction. We have pioneered the use of mixing machinery which makes cob, as well as earth plasters much more viable for large projects.
Using wood wisely is closely tied to sustainable forestry practices. Careful harvesting of trees can provide necessary materials while saving delicate ecosystems. Using smaller diameter trees or unmilled lumber can save large old-growth trees. Vital Systems is committed to using FSC certified sustainably harvested timber whenever possible.
Wood is an ideal building material: strong in compression and tension, easily worked and beautiful. While in conventional construction wood is often used wastefully, Vital Systems is utilizing alternative materials, and has also been using wood and wood products in creative, and sustainable new ways.
We seek to avoid excessive wood use through efficient design, utilization of reused or recycled materials, and by replacing wood products with other systems such as strawbale and cob. We seek to utilize timber resources at the job site, and use creative design ideas that can take advantage of beautiful timber that may not be appropriate for lumber production.
Before the use of Portland cement, most earth, brick and stone structures were protected by earth or lime plasters. While still used in other parts of the world, lime and earth plasters are relatively rare in the US. The advantages of these plasters include breathability, softness to the touch, beauty and workability. They are versatile, easy to repair and made from inexpensive materials. Lime and earth plasters stick to and move with the underlying wall, resulting in fewer cracks and often making reinforcing lath unnecessary.Exterior earth plasters are generally used in drier climates or protected by wide overhangs. Where they will be directly exposed to the weather, we harden earth and lime plasters with linseed oil, the juice of nopal cactus or other natural stabilizers.
Earth and lime plaster can also be used for interiors. Interior earth plasters can be finished with a clay paint called Alis Finish. Alis can be applied with various tools to achieve different finish textures. We make Alis Finish in a range of colors, with additives such as mica or chopped golden straw for decorative effects. Alis can be sealed with wax, linseed oil, a casein wash or a stucco sealant product. Interior lime plaster can be finished with lime wash or in the tadelakt style.
Vital Systems has been at the forefront of the emerging practice of utilizing natural plasters. Our work at Ridge Winery is the largest natural plaster job in the United States.