Natural Walls for Timber Frames

The mantra for building houses now is bioregional and low-embodied energy materials (on the inhale), and longevity and health to both building and occupants (on the exhale). After I explain myself here, I will talk about the “skin” that covers the “bones” of the house, the walls.

Bioregional means all/most/as many as possible materials are from within the bioregion where the house is built which is usually defined by geography. I look for all the houses materials within 100 miles or 160 kilometers. I find this process to be very rewarding, enlightening and fun.

Low embodied energy materials require less total energy to extract, manufacture, transport, construct, maintain and dispose of. The goal is to reduce environmental impacts and energy expenditures through the life-cycle of a material (or a product). There is an excellent article on this topic here: (let me know if the link ceases to exist)

Longevity and health to a building means build with materials that stand up well to the test of time. In other words keep a sound hat (roof) and shoes (foundation) on the body of the building.

Longevity and health to occupants means build with materials that don’t off-gas volatile organic compounds that polllute the air quality of the home. Build a home that is not only healthy to the physical body of the occupants, but healthy to the spirit and minds of the occupants with respect to aesthetics and the art of placement (Feng Shui/Vastu etc.).

I feel I have a pretty good understanding of what a good quality frame looks like in a home. If one takes timbers with respect from the forest, one can build a very strong skeleton/frame. The modern timber frame uses SIPS (structurally insulated panels) to “clothe” the frame. SIPS boast high insulative value and some other values, however, they are a high-embodied energy, are not bioregional in most cases and toxic in both production, assembly and consumption stages.

Since a timber frame IS the load bearing part of the home, the walls are what we call “in-fill.” In a natural/bioregional context this has led me to the new and old technologies  of straw-bale, light-clay, rammed earth and cob.

In the past year, and this year 2009, I am working on two straw-bale houses and one rammed earth house. Each day I get a better understanding of how each system works with timber frame, and the pros and cons of each. Here is what i’ve learned so far. I would appreciate any comments to help further these technologies and their quests for sustainability, low-embodied energy, and light carbon foot-prints.

Straw Bale House #1

Up until this house being built by Fernando and Dale, I had only heard of two straw bale houses in our bioregion of the Kettle river watershed. One built by a woman up Nicholson creek off the grid, and one built in Greenwood by an elderly couple which has only the straw bales as load bearing walls on to which the trusses were set to lay. I have spoken to both home owners and they are very satisfied with their homes and would do it again if they had to. I will document their experiences at some point.

Fernando and Dale:



Straw Bale House #2

Rammed Earth House #1

4 comments on “Natural Walls for Timber Frames
  1. russell karp says:

    Hi Michael, Remember, we met at Andrew’s house last summer where I helped cut mortises for their kitchen reno. Andrew introduced me to your website and I have visited it often and enjoying it. IN regards to infill, have you heard of the eco-sense project in Victoria built by the Bairds. It is not a true timber frame but their infill looks to have promise. 30% sand, 30% clay, 30% pumice( lightens the mix and dramatically improves the r-value), straw and water. Check out their website at
    I would like to talk to you about some of your upcoming projects as we are selling our current home to relocate and I would like to build a small eco-home.


    • michaelhollihn says:

      Yes, they were on CBC radio a couple weeks ago. Very inspiring to see the shift happening in urban centers now. It is high time “green” building became natural and low-embodied (energy) as well. I’ve emailed you regarding you small eco-home. Regards, Michael.

    • Eco-Sense says:

      Hi Russell, thanks for mentioning our home. i just wished to clarify that our home is not infill…it’s actually load bearing cob. Check out the research section of our website to learn about the year long research project with sensors embedded in the walls. Learn about the actual thermal performance. Report here:

  2. Keary Conwright says:

    Great website !!!
    Regarding natural infill walls : My house in Sooke is a heavy timber frame with 12″ light clay walls (woodchips & clay) outside of the frame. The concept came from Robert LaPorte, who builds straw-clay walls in Santa Fe. It seems to perform well with natural clay & lime plaster finishes. Also, it is a healthy house – mostly all natural materials. I could send you some pictures if you are interested.

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