Gardeners build energy-efficient home with local, natural and recycled materials

By Lynn Ascrizzi, Special to the BDN
Posted Dec. 04, 2009, at 4:48 p.m.

Many of us think we’re being ecologically savvy if we tote groceries in recyclable canvas bags or drive around in a newer model, fuel-efficient car.

But to Maia Campoamor and Jacob Mentlik of Montville, living sustainably involves far more. In fact, their lifestyle is about as green as it gets.

Their owner-built home, barn, root cellar and three, hoop-style greenhouses, all set on 30 acres off Peavytown Road, form the hub of their organic market garden, a small business called After the Fall Farm.

“This is our fourth growing season,” said Mentlik, 29, on a recent fall day. His green-checked wool jacket, work clothes, boots and full beard gave him the distinctive stamp of the homesteader.

Yet, he and his partner, Campoamor, 28, had other career choices than living off the land. Both are graduates of Colby College in Waterville.

He earned a bachelor of science degree in environmental policy, in 2002; she graduated in 2003 with a degree in social justice.

But to them, farming and marketing vegetables grown without pesticides and other chemicals satisfies a deep, personal vision. For one, it provides an environmentally friendly livelihood in food production. And their fresh produce, sold seasonally at farmers markets, bolsters local food security.

“To have a sustainable food system, we need more small-scale family farms that focus on growing food for local communities, ideally shipping no more than 10 or 15 miles, not nationally or internationally,” Mentlik said.

Besides living off their summer market garden, they also run a successful winter CSA (community supported agriculture), a venture run out of the well-constructed root cellar beneath their small barn.

Right now, the cellar is stocked full of root crops, cabbages and other storage veggies.

“We don’t need to advertise the winter CSA. We’re booked up,” they said. They also raise pigs and chickens for their own use.

Walls of clay and wood chips

After graduating from Colby, they lived in Portland. Both worked at homeless shelters for teens and adults.

They also started a nonprofit food security enterprise called Winter Cache Project, now in its fifth year. They organized community members to grow storage vegetables to distribute and share throughout the winter.

“It was like a CSA (community supported agriculture), with no money involved,” Mentlik said.

Then, he and Campoamor bought the off-the-grid, Montville farm and moved onto the land in 2005.

Formerly owned by a market gardener, the land came with a log cabin, the 50-foot-long hoop houses, overgrown garden plots and lots of woods.

But after living for a time in the cabin built by the former landowner, they decided to build a new house — one with a small green footprint.

The result is a 16-by-20 foot, salt-box-style dwelling, which includes a small sleeping loft. The house is situated near their vegetable gardens, among a clump of trees at the end of a meandering dirt driveway.

Electric energy is generated by a small, solar panel system. A hand water pump is used inside the house. For the farm, a gasoline generator pumps well water into a holding tank, to pressurize it.

“In the future, we plan to run the entire water system on solar energy,” he said.

Mentlik built the structure by hand using post-and-beam, timber-frame construction. The labor-intensive framing project took four months, worked on while they also managed their market farm operation.

“We raised the frame in the pouring rain,” he recalled. “Neighbors came to help. We put the word out and a bunch of people came.”

The home’s most unusual feature is its 10-inch-thick walls, made from an insulating mix of clay and wood chips. Mentlik got the idea of using the low-cost, natural material from a friend in Franklin, who had used a wood-clay infill system to insulate his cabin.

He also did a lot of reading up on the subject. An important resource was Fox Maple School of Brownfield, a center that offers workshops as well as how-to articles in their publication, Joiner’s Quarterly.

The technique sounds medieval, but it is actually a modern German innovation, according to an article in the quarterly.

Wood chips were purchased locally from cedar mill owner Bruce Tweedie of Thorndike and from N.C. Hunt of Jefferson.

“You pay by the yard; I got three-to-four yards of wood chips. We got the clay for free, from a gravel pit in Warren,” Mentlik said.

“Free,” however, did not include digging, hauling and working with the wet clay.

“I had to dig it out. It wouldn’t load. It was really heavy. And, it’s really heavy when you first put it up [to fill the walls]. It took a long time. We had to get it done before the weather turned freezing. There was endless amounts of labor,” he said.

He mixed the clay with water in a 55-gallon drum to make a clay slurry, or slip.

“You coat the wood chips with the clay slip. I did it in a wheelbarrow. You apply it in small batches. Some people use a cement mixer,” he said.

The wood chips fortified the clay. Chicken wire held the mix in place on the walls, while the clay dried.

“Some people use wooden lathing. I would definitely do that in the future. The chicken wire tends to bulge out,” he said.

Over the thick, clay wall, he and Campoamor applied three coats of clay “plaster” mixed with chopped straw and sand. Each layer was about Þ-inch to ½-inch thick. Layers got progressively finer, with more sand used in the final surface.

“Maine’s marine clay has a bluish tint. We left it the natural color. Some people paint it with casein or clay paint,” he said.

The second floor was insulated with sheep’s wool instead of Fiberglas. Wool was bartered at Horse Power Farm in Penobscot.

“I helped with the haying and took a bunch,” he said.

“Each bag of wool had the name of a sheep on it,” recalled Campoamor, with amusement.” I remember the names Juanita and Margarita.”

Sweat equity

Building green in the style of Mentlik and Campoamor took a lot of gritty labor but relatively little, out-of-pocket “gold.”

Altogether, it cost them under $10,000 cash to build their house, they said. Expenses included boards for sheathing, several windows, milling the wood and flooring, nails, screws, foam insulation for the roof and 29-gauge steel roofing.

“Most of the beams were traded for by my labor and some got given to me. I’m sure I saved up to $10,000 on insulation and the recycled windows I got for free by barter,” he said. He cut more costs by installing used kitchen cabinets, also free.

The wood chips for the walls cost about $300; straw bales for plastering, $20. The sand was free.

Insulating the home “cost a fraction of what you would pay for Fiberglas or foam insulation,” Mentlik said.

He estimated that traditional sheet rock would have cost them roughly $300 and 4-inch thick Fiberglas insulation, about $1,000.

All told, the hard labor paid off. Money saved went into their own pockets instead of being handed over to a bank or industry. And the energy-efficient thermal mass of the thick clay walls makes their home a cinch to heat.

Build with natural materials

— Fox Maple School in Brownfield offers workshops on traditional methods of building using natural materials such as timber, straw, wood and clay. For more information and workshop schedules, write the school at P.O. Box 249, Corn Hill Road, Brownfield, 04010; call 207-935-3720; go to:

— Joiner’s Quarterly, published by Fox Maple Press of Brownfield, offers how-to articles on timber framing and natural building materials. For a link to the quarterly’s article, “Building with Wood Chips and Light-Clay Infill Systems,” go to:

According to a Joiner’s Quarterly article, “Building With Wood Chip and Light Clay Infill Systems” (Fall 1997) by Frank Andresen: “The insulative value for a 12-inch exterior wall with plaster can be up to R-25, depending upon the quality of the wood chips, clay and the density with which the mixture is packed.”

In winter, Mentlik and Campoamor use an Amish cook stove called Baker’s Choice, made in Ontario, Canada. The stove cost about $1,200.

“The top is all welded steel. It has a large firebox, so it can heat the house and cook. It heats up to 2,000 square feet,” he said.

“Sometimes we have to open the upstairs windows,” said Campoamor, of the sleeping loft. “It took a while to learn how to rotate pots on top of the stove. And I’m still learning how to keep the oven at the temperature I want.”

Their sizable wood lot also cuts the family’s fuel costs.

“We cut all our own firewood. We use about two cords per winter. We’ve got no electric bill, no water bill and no fuel bill, except a small propane tank used for summer cooking,” Mentlik said.

Hidden costs and rewards

By choosing a sustainable, agricultural lifestyle, Mentlik and Campoamor are clearly in the minority. In the United States, only 1 to 2 percent of the population is farming.

That statistic, and the pressing need to revive sustainable agriculture by training a new wave of farmers, were highlights of a May 2009 speech, “The Necessity of Agriculture,” presented by ecological poet, author, educator and farmer Wendell Berry, in acceptance of the annual Louis Bromfield Society Award.

“What will it take,” asked Berry, “to get significant numbers of our young people, white of collar and soft of hands, to submit to hard work and long days, not to mention getting dirty?”

Mentlik echoed the sentiment.

“There are so few farmers and so many huge agribusiness farms. If there were more small-scale local farms, we’d have a lot more food security. We wouldn’t be dependent on the agrisystem highly run by fossil fuels and nonrenewable resources,” he said.

On the other hand, Mentlik and Campoamor represent a new wave of organic niche farmers in Maine. According to the state Department of Agriculture, small farms have been on the rise from 2002 to 2007, increasing 13 percent from 8,136. During that period, Maine organic farms increased 139 percent. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in Unity lists 140 farms statewide that run CSAs.

The upsurge of folks willing to work the soil is remarkable; yet, as Berry pointed out, farming is hard work.

During market-garden season, Mentlik and Campoamor put in 12-hour days. In winter, he jobs out his skills in woodworking and logging, for extra income. The physically demanding work takes its toll, he said.

And, even a simple lifestyle has its complications.

With their 2-year-old daughter, Osa, in the picture, Mantic and Campoamor are adding on to their cramped living space. All lumber for the new addition has been cut and milled on their land. But this time, they’ve made a small compromise.

A new foundation, twice as big in area as the existing house, has been dug out and poured about 20 feet away from the home site. To do the job, they hired Joe Thornley & Son, Cement Contractors of Freedom. Other local contractors will move the original home onto the foundation.

Will clay and wood chips be used to insulate the addition’s walls?

Mantic hesitated. “If I do, I will use wooden lathing instead of chicken wire,” he said.

Living off the grid is not hassle-free, he added.

In late summer, lightning zapped out their solar panel, he said. Thankfully, homeowner’s insurance helped replace it with a used, 24-volt system. But until that got installed, their phone and computer were down for weeks.

Also, a rural life has its drawbacks. When Osa is older, Campoamor aims to look for part-time work, hopefully in the social-justice arena.

“It’s not easy to find that kind of work in this area,” she said.

Nonetheless, she and Mantic remain passionate about the down-to-earth lifestyle that links them to a grassroots community of like-minded neighbors and to a quality of life which few people share.

“We’ve intentionally kept things small. We live sustainably, but we also believe in being emotionally sustainable. We take time off. A lot of farmers lose sight of this and burn out. Sustainability has a higher level. How you’re treating yourself is part of that,” Campoamor said.

And, one aspect of their lifestyle is priceless.

“The time we have to spend together. We are both here with Osa. We’re all here working together,” she said.

Lynn Ascrizzi is a poet, gardener and freelance writer who lives in Freedom. printed on March 24, 2017