Sigi Koko is the principal designer of Down to Earth Design, which she founded in 1998 to help her clients manifest their dreams of living in a natural, healthy home. She works exclusively on projects that are natural, energy-efficient buildings, on the forefront of sustainable design. Every project functions in synchronicity with its environment, relating to seasonal cycles of sun, wind, and rain to provide natural heating and cooling primarily from passive (free!) sources. Her clients enjoy an average 50% reduction in total energy usage compared to conventional buildings. She uses a palette of building materials that ensure healthy indoor space and minimal environmental impact.
This episode is the second episode from a two hour conversation with Sigi Koko. This episode is a more free ranging chat taking in materials, myths, women in construction, and empowerment.
Episode 70 is the first half of this conversation and focusses more on how she is able to design a home that fits her clients dreams... even when they don't yet know them!
Links for Episode 70:
Support the show
The Southside Hereford: University Design Challenge 2022:
Register your interest in participating here
Event registration here
Connect with me
IG - @jeffreythenaturalbuilder
Twitter - @JNaturalBuilder
Facebook - Jeffreythenaturalbuilder
LinkedIn - Jeffreythenaturalbuilder
Jeffrey Hart 0:00
Welcome to building sustainability podcast with me your host Jeffrey Hart, aka Jeffrey, the natural builder every fortnight. Join me as I talk to designers, builders, makers, dreamers and doers. Exploring the wide world of sustainability in the built environment by talking to wonderful people who are doing excellent things. Hello, and welcome to episode 71. This is another interview with Ziggy Coco. This episode does stand alone, but it might make more sense with a little bit of background. If you listened to Episode 71st. I promised a little tiny house update. I'll try and keep this pretty brief. Things are starting to move along. I went away to an earth building AGM and and just before I left, I pulled up all the floor protection, hoovered everything out, gave the floors really good sand and then gave them a coat of oil and all my goodness. The ash flooring that I've put in has all these hidden peachy tones, which are just gorgeous. It's really really something I can't really explain how wonderful it is, by by taking up the floor protection is really turned a corner on the building is no longer a building site is a home. The first thing I did when I got back was to pop my sofa in here. And so I have a comfy little space to hang out. And then I did all the finishing details to my bookcase slash recording studio slash desk slash booze cabinet. It's a multipurpose space. It's a plant display unit as well. I have put pictures of that on my social medias. Jeffrey, the natural builder on Instagram and Facebook. Have a look and let me know what you think. I'm pretty pleased with it. Also a quick reminder that if you've heard episode 70 you will have heard about the competition that timber development UK are running for students and recent graduates. Make sure you check out the links in the show notes for those. This episode actually features a few questions that were submitted by the building sustainability patrons. In this episode. We've got a question from Alex. And a question from Joanna. In fact, this episode starts off with a question from Alex. So thank you to those for joining in. Being able to submit your own personal questions to the upcoming guests is a lovely privilege for the patrons. So if you want to help support the podcast and get some bonus audio and some other little treats, then do head to patreon.com forward slash building sustainability. Speaking of patrons we have had a few more this month we have got Tabitha binding Stewart Bridget Joelle Enders B, thank you so much to those three for supporting the podcast. A special note that Tabitha binding has gone for the five pound level, meaning I will be carrying her a beautiful eating spoon. I don't know if you've ever eaten with a wooden spoon. Genuinely, it will change your life. But I would say that when I so yes, thank you to those three. And thank you to everyone else who supports the podcast, your little bit of money every month really adds up to me being able to afford to live and dedicate the time that this podcast takes. So thank you. Speaking of spoons you might have heard on the other episode, I have a spoon carving course coming up on May the seventh if you are in the Bristol area of the UK then come on down and learn this wonderful craft ale open up a whole world of just very very beautiful people there is all the info and a link in the show notes if you want to come along and the final thing to say is that if you are in London at the beginning of next month, the first second and third of March then come along to future build. I will be down there giving talks on straw installation and talking about Earth floors as well as Tronic snatch some little interviews for the podcast with all of the the wealth of knowledge there that is in London Excel first of the third of March 2020 do hope see you there okay, that's quite enough for me. Enjoy ice cocoa. I would recommend
it Yeah, how are you? How are you choosing the products or materials based on which part of the world you're in?
Sigi Koko 4:50
Well, I mean, I'm always more or less between DC and New York City.
Jeffrey Hart 4:55
So what's your what's your sort of local palette
Sigi Koko 4:57
then our local palette, always is clay for mass, mostly straw for insulation. And mostly that is straw bale. Because like clay straws hard to make correctly, and you need much more thickness to get the same r value. And it's slower. I'm just starting to explore hempcrete as cost effective. Right now straw is by far the cheapest way to get that our value. Stone is part of the palette trees, right? So we live in an area where there are forests. So particularly, if almost everywhere that I build, there are Mills nearby that will either mill something for you or they're harvesting from a local forest that they own, and they may not be sustainably certified. But as someone explained to me once, I said, Oh, are your is your forest sustainably certified? And they said, honey, we've had our forests for 130 years, if we didn't harvest things sustainably, we wouldn't be in business. It sounds like okay. That's very good. Yeah, so wood is definitely part of the palette, I try to avoid steel. Partly because of the embodied energy. It's it's almost always structural steel is almost always high recycled content. But it's no longer made in the US for the most part. Right. So it's again that 6000 miles. And if we can do it with something that's local, I'll make that choice. So I would say yeah, so straw, Clay, stone, wood.
That's the primary palette.
Jeffrey Hart 6:58
Okay. And then do you do you design for people not sort of in your, your region? And if so, you know, how do you get to find out what is their? What's their local palette?
Sigi Koko 7:10
Not so much. So when someone I get I mean, people email me often and I'm in India, or I'm in Portugal, or and the first thing I email back is safe, find somebody that's near you.
You know, while I would be honoured and it would be absolutely wonderful to go and build something in India, right, that would make me so happy. I don't know, I don't know your local. So if you work with someone local, they they know what your regulations are. So they won't stumble on something accidentally, which I very well could. They'll know what your local resources are and where to get them. Right. So and there's, I'm probably like heresy to say this as a designer, but there's really nothing special about I design a certain way. And so like, you're gonna get this certain thing, like anyone can design that way. Right. So there are beautiful buildings everywhere in the world. Right? Yeah. So it's, that's, that's not the magic, the magic is the process of understanding what's near us. So to me, I would first the first question I would ask, if I was, you know, plopped me down somewhere, and okay, build something. The first question I would ask is, What is my climate? And am I looking for materials that insulate me because the comfort temperature that I want inside is radically different at different times of the year from outside? If that if the answer to that question is yes, if you have four seasons, and winter is cold, and you will ever heat or cool that space, then insulation is what you want. So then I will go find insulation materials, and those tend to be the ones that are lightweight. Because what you're really insulating with is air. Right, so little tiny air pockets. Right? So Pumice is a mineral but it's insulating, right? So if you live near a lava flow
Jeffrey Hart 9:21
that's not a luxury we have.
Sigi Koko 9:24
Exactly, you know, it, may it it's often some kind of agricultural fibre. Right? Because agriculture is ubiquitous around the world. And then, or if you're somewhere where if you are always trying to stay cool, always right. So you're in the middle of a desert, especially if it's arid. If your goal always, always, always is cool me down, call me down, call me down. Then thick, thick, thick, thick mass and shade it right so keep it out of the direct sun. and put a living roof on it. So your roof is actively cooling itself and insulate the roof. Right? Okay, now I'm looking for mass materials, those tend to be the heavy ones. So Clay stone, right? Yeah, so so to me, I would approach it that way first, and then look for the material. So then okay, I need to build a roof over me, that means I need to be able to span from one point to another. Now I need something that is strong enough to go from here to here, right? And you can do that by creating domes if all you have is mass, but if you have trees around you, you are bamboo. Right? You can span with some other material, right? So that's how I would approach it is okay. Ask the problem first. Okay, now what do I need to solve that problem? And now go go hunting. Okay. Yeah. Where's the material that solves that problem?
Jeffrey Hart 10:56
Lovely. I think that's a fantastic answer.
Oh. Yeah. It's always I'm sort of dubious of anyone that says, you know, this is the way you should build a house, and then you sort of plunk it anywhere. It's I think that's nuts. Not understanding climate and any differences in in needs?
Sigi Koko 11:22
So really, yes, I agree with you. Yeah.
Jeffrey Hart 11:25
Do you favour building with with raw materials or products?
Sigi Koko 11:33
Raw materials? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, for one, they're really empowering. Right. So like, just use clay plaster as an example. I never buy clay plaster. ever, never. I know, there's beautiful products out there. But to me, if I can teach someone that you can take your soil, or you can go to a pottery supplier and buy this 13 pound bag of, you know, powdered clay, and you can figure out how to make your own plaster. To me, I've just empowered someone. Yeah, you know, and they have to understand it in this whole other tactile way. Which is always deeper. To me, it's a deeper understanding of the material. And so before you ever even put it on, you understand it in a way.
Jeffrey Hart 12:28
It's not just I add water to this bag. Yeah,
Sigi Koko 12:32
yeah. Yeah, it's sort of the difference between, you know, if you're gonna make pancakes and you use a mix, and you just add water or whatever, versus Oh, I know, there's an egg in there. And I know there's oil in there. And I know there's flour. Right. So yeah,
Jeffrey Hart 12:44
and if I don't have this, then I can substitute with this. And it's still,
Sigi Koko 12:48
yes, exactly, exactly. Yeah,
Jeffrey Hart 12:50
it's something I kind of struggle with. Because on the one hand, I am very purist. I want to be like, you know, the most raw materials possible, but then I'm also conscious that if we want natural materials to take over the world, you know, then they need to be in in kind of products that every person can, can sort of slot into, to place easily. Yeah,
Sigi Koko 13:14
yeah. And I mean, I think absolutely, there is a place for clay plaster products for, you know, just to cycle back to that example. Absolutely. You know, and, and like sikita, a criminal, she has that earthen floor product, right. Yeah. Brilliant, right. But if I know how to do it another way, that's how I'm going to teach my clients but yes, no, I'm grateful that those products exist. And you know, like, panelized, straw bale, oh, please take over the world. You know, yeah. If you ask what my preference is, it's always gonna be oh, let's dig a hole.
Jeffrey Hart 13:55
I'm right there with you. Don't worry. How do you so this is sort of cycling back a little bit to design? How do you sort of have a conventional architects view what you're you're up to? Do you ever get any sort of feedback? I don't care.
Sigi Koko 14:17
I mean, I mean, I don't I ultimately I don't care. If I cared, I would have edited how I how I approached school, right. But I think there's more and more architects are embracing. Certainly they're embracing green building right in air quotes, but I think more and more are embracing natural products, at least to some degree and natural building to a smaller degree. And where I'm differentiating is, for example, putting clay plaster on a conventional wall versus Oh, the wall is actually different, right? Certainly the what I noticed the most is the questions people ask. There's more uniform knowledge. When you say a straw bale house, almost everyone knows what you're talking about now. Sure, yeah. Right. If you it's not as much with cob. So I usually use the word Adobe instead of cod because Adobe has a familiarity, at least in the US, right? So even if I'm talking about cob, I call it sculptural Adobe, if it's someone that I know, doesn't know what I'm talking about. So that they know, I mean, a wall made out of clay. Otherwise, they think corncobs
Jeffrey Hart 15:41
Oh, yeah, that's, that's gonna be confusing.
Sigi Koko 15:46
So I think there, that's always the beginning, right? When when the knowledge base is more ubiquitous. So that's the first step to adopting something is to understand it, and be at least curious about it. But I wouldn't say there's, you know, a huge slew of architects out there looking to design with straw bales or clay yet, hopefully. Yeah, but expanding but slow, slow,
Jeffrey Hart 16:19
slow. Yeah. Yeah, I think it's probably a pretty good representation of what's being taught and how it's being taught. Kind of. And that hopefully will be be changing considerably in the in the upcoming years. Oh, my
Sigi Koko 16:34
goodness. Yeah. Yes, yes, please.
Jeffrey Hart 16:39
Here's a good one. This is probably something like, you know, what's, who's your favourite child type question. But do you prefer designing or building?
Sigi Koko 16:51
Oh, so? Yeah. Yeah, no, definitely. It's a Who's your favourite child question. Right. But, so, when I left architecture school, I, you know, I thought, Okay, well, now you get a job, you know, because you have to do an internship with architecture. So I thought, Okay, well, let me find a job with an architect. And so I found a job. And when I was talking to her, she's I said, Well, what would what would I do? Like, what would my job be? You know? And she said, Well, you know, basically, you, you tell the builder, how to do their job. And I was like, I don't know how to do their job. So I declined the offer. And I went and did construction, like, just on conventional homes for two years. And I wanted to understand what that job is like. And for real, I'm going to answer your question. And what I what I learned from that is two things about building and one thing about myself, so I, I love being hands on, even when it's something that conventional. But what I learned was, there's more than one way to do something. And often, there's easy, multiple, easy ways to do something and multiple hard ways to do something. And so just that frees you up that there doesn't have to be an architectural detail. There can be right so and and you can have a conversation with a builder about how would you do this, right. And then the second thing it taught me is how to have respectful conversations with builders. Right, which I think is at least here, that is a big problem. So it is really, really challenging for me to get a new builder that I haven't worked with before to call me the first time.
Jeffrey Hart 19:00
Sigi Koko 19:02
Right. Because they end and by the time I'm comfortable with them, every single one at some point tells me their horror story that they had with an architect being an ass. Can I say as Yeah, of course. Good. Because too late. Right. So um, so so that's what I learned about construction that I then take forward. And the thing I learned about myself was, I love hands on, but I missed the creative. Right, right. And when I'm just you know, create, when you're designing something, it seems like it's all like chasing paper and coloured pens, but that's mostly computer time. Right? I'm a computer person, that is the beginning is all paper and trace and cheat and happy. Right? So sort of the romantic architecture moments, but really what most of it is is said They're moving lines on a computer screen, right? And when I'm doing that too much I miss the hands on. So for me personally, I need a job where I get to do both, you know, and then I fell into loving teaching. So, yeah, that's my third child that I love equally.
Jeffrey Hart 20:21
Very much the same actually, the teaching really surprised me. I just, I fell in love just kind of pushed forward and did it. And suddenly, when I love this, this is your that satisfaction of certainly teaching physical skills when someone you plastering, they pick up a trowel, and they they push the mud on the floor first time, and then you come back a little while later. And they're, you know, they're smoothing and that it's, it's that big, big grin on their face is quite addictive.
Sigi Koko 20:53
Yes. Yeah. Yes. And my favourite moments are when you hear one student explaining something to another student. Like, my work is done here. Yeah.
Jeffrey Hart 21:06
If you understand it enough to explain it. Yeah.
Sigi Koko 21:10
Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Jeffrey Hart 21:12
So natural building has got a really good gender balance. Why? Why do you think that is?
Sigi Koko 21:21
I think because the shoulds are gone. So I think societally, we still have. Women should men should more, this is a particular job. The expectation is, it should be a man, it should be a woman. And those barriers are, you know, coming down slowly. And I feel like usually changes slow at first, and then all of a sudden, it happens. But I think with natural building, there's no should, if there's no expectation of gender. And so therefore, if you have, particularly for women, if a woman has a desire to learn some kind of a building trade, it's almost the natural thing to go to No pun intended. Because there's the there aren't the same barriers of walking onto a job site where it's all men, and you're the only woman and you have to accept a certain amount, or at least have a strategy for a certain amount of ridicule and sexual comments and whatever. Right, so.
Jeffrey Hart 22:42
So So I guess what you're sort of saying is, if we got to the, or when we get to the point of conventional construction being gender balanced, then the sort of barriers are then taken away? Well, I
Sigi Koko 22:56
to, to me, it's I and and honestly, I mean, this is my opinion, right? Obviously, I can't speak facts on this. But I have a I have a very skewed viewpoint of it too. Because because I'm a woman teaching. I get a lot of women who come to my workshops, because they want to be taught by a woman. Right. And I think most women who teach will tell you that. And so I have a you know, I don't see the normal, I see what comes into my sphere. And I think for most women, there is the it's like, they can expect a safe space. When they know, there is a woman in charge of their educational experience, not because women do that better than men. But because every woman on the planet has had an experience where a man didn't do that for them. Yeah. So they don't know that they will be held in a respectful manner. Right. And my experience with men and natural building is that is absolutely there. Right. But if you don't know you don't know. So I have I have a slightly skewed experience with women and natural building that has to do with me being a woman. But if I look at it a little larger, and I see Yeah, to me, it's there's it's the barriers of who can do it are erased and the barriers of who should do it are erased right? We don't have rules for gender and natural building right. Many cultures do actually so in in African cultures and South American and Central American cultures, like women are the plasters hmm, you know, often women are the builders, right? So women are in charge of the Clay Right? Not universally but often. And so, I had an experience actually teaching some South Central American men how to clay plaster, and they're like, this is women's work. Right? Not today.
Jeffrey Hart 25:16
We are gender equality.
Sigi Koko 25:19
So so but you know, those exceptions aside in sort of, you know, at least in the US, I can speak to that, I think, I think that's what draws women is they can't they know they can do it. Right. The tools are simple, the, the materials, and they're heavy, but there's ways to do it that you don't have to be super buff, you know. So there's not those same physical barriers and, and you're not stepping into an environment that is exclusively male. And now you have to sort of how do you present into that environment? Yeah, so that's my guess. But it's, you know, obviously hefty opinion. Not, of course, yeah.
Jeffrey Hart 26:07
There's a little question from from another patron, which was a question about, are there any books, or sort of fiction or nonfiction for children to get them into vernacular building or, or sort of circular economy type things?
Sigi Koko 26:26
Great question. And I don't know the answer, because I
Jeffrey Hart 26:29
feel like the three little pigs is sort of the auntie.
Sigi Koko 26:34
Unless you're my mom, and you give me the alternate story of the three little pigs for Christmas.
Oh, I wish I knew the answer to that. I can't think of any off top off the top of my head.
Jeffrey Hart 26:51
Sigi Koko 26:52
if something comes to answer that, if something comes, can I email it to you? Of course,
Jeffrey Hart 26:57
yes. And yeah, if anyone listening also has, has a suggestion, and
Sigi Koko 27:03
that's for kids. Okay. I'll write it down. I'll give you that a little thing.
Jeffrey Hart 27:08
Okay. So let's talk myths. I know, it's one of your passions is dispelling the myths I want. What what do you come up against in terms of myths or preconceived ideas?
Sigi Koko 27:22
I mean, there's the the real myths, and there's the myths that people say to be funny. Right. So Right. You know, there's always the, the wolf's gonna blow it down, aren't you afraid? You know, which, to me is clearly funny because a wolf don't go around trying to blow down homes. Right. That's, that's not a big problem anywhere. But also, who could blow that hard? You know, so? Yeah. So to me, that's always somebody trying to engage and being awkward about it. Right. So I take that one as serious. But the true myths, I mean, there's sort of the myths that come up and the myths I'm passionate about so because to me, there's the myths about because natural building is so easy to learn. And therefore there are so many people who are empowered to build themselves. But there isn't a set of rules to help people sort out which material is appropriate. And there's a lot of partial information and sometimes misinformation online. So if you just go searching, right, and we tend to stop when we got the answer we really wanted not when we have, you know, it's just how humans work, I think yeah,
Jeffrey Hart 28:42
yeah, you check the all the weather forecasts until you find the one that says it's going to be sunny. Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Sigi Koko 28:48
Yeah. And because of that, I think there there are Miss day makes that owner builders make and those I'm passionate to correct because I would love if all owner builders created perfect examples of natural buildings, right. And then there's the questions that come up. So to me, they're almost two separate questions. The things that come up the most in terms of straw are, you're gonna have mice, like that's a given which, okay, if you have a barn full of straw, sure, you're going to have mice because they have little cavities to run around in and a little nest that they can make inside and a food source, right. But if you pack them tight in a wall and you plaster them it's a solid wall, there's no cavity in there, they have to make a cavity so they have to first dig out all of the plaster and then dig out the straw. And by that time, there's a pile on your floor. So you know they're there and you set a little trap and they're gone. Right so before there's ever an issue you would solve the problem so that that doesn't come up. Only homes I've had mice in their in their in normal stud walls, you know, initial spaces not they're not in this job it was so Oh, the other myth is fire, obviously. And that one has been like that there's just testing data. So if you just Google fire test strike, you will find the answer to that. And the reason
Jeffrey Hart 30:15
I stick videos of ridiculously scorched straw bale walls, but you know, still in in one one piece and have just charred on the surface,
Sigi Koko 30:24
right, exactly, exactly. Or there's a there's a straw bale house that went through a forest fire and the only thing still standing or the straw bale walls and. Right, so. So that one's fairly easy to debunk with actual data, right. And the fire test, right, it exceeds a stud wall, which is our conventional here, it exceeds by far it exceeds that stud wall in terms of fire resistance. What are the other ones bugs that you're gonna have bugs? So people, you know, as soon as you're saying I'm going to take materials from nature, the thinking is right, so So what do we do when we're confronted with something new? We take our experience with that thing. And we now just apply it. Carp launch. Right? So if your only experience with straw is the three little pigs story, that's why that comes up. Right? Because that is the end. So you're trying, you're actually trying to connect, I think when people have those myths, they're trying to connect, and they're trying to understand, and it doesn't always come out clean, you know, but uh huh.
Jeffrey Hart 31:37
It's a very nice way of looking at it. No, but
Sigi Koko 31:39
if you hear it that way, then you can connect back, right? Yes. Yeah, so if if I'm, you know, if I bring a branch in from outside, there's probably a spider on it. Right? Or some beetles? Or who knows what, right? So if then people think, Okay, well, if I'm bringing those materials in my home, that's what I'm bringing in with? No. You're you're finishing a home, you just have chosen a different palette of materials, it's still a finished home. And that's where I think, you know, so photographs of beautiful natural buildings that look clean, right, that look, and I mean, clean architecturally, right? They look. They have a high level of finish on, right? That dispels that myth. Oh, it does. It looks like a house. Okay. Right. It's just you've used these other materials, there's not going to be worms in your clay wall, right? They need water, your wall will not have water, right. So eventually they will die, right? And then mould is another one and bio biodegradation is another one. So yes, what won't get rocked? Right, exactly. So then explaining, okay. In order for things to rot, they need water. Right? And wood is also biodegradable, and we build with wood all the time. And we don't ask that question. Why? Because we've been building with wood for 1000s of years. And we have this set of details of how do you keep that wood dry? Right? And it's the same. So let's now apply that to this fuzzy brick. And keep it dry. And as long as you keep it dry, it will last forever, right? So so those are also just education, right? There's a opportunity to educate about how Okay, well, what does it mean to biodegrade, right? How does that process work? And then the same with mould right? As long as you keep it dry, there is no mould mould needs moisture. So if you've solved one problem, you've solved the other problem. And then explaining how you know, lime and clay have this sort of relationship with humidity that actually help reduce condensation overall, and therefore reduce liquid water and therefore reduce moisture and mould and all of that. So those when someone asked questions like that, it's about understanding the material so that they can be comfortable. Sometimes comfortable to say yes to it. Right. But most of the time, just be comfortable that that's a paradigm that's normal, you know, or whatever. Right? That it's not like a hippie weirdo. If straw bale, right? And not that hippies are weird, but I'm just, yeah, I'm in that person's head. So those are different kinds of questions to me. And those are all explainable by explaining physics or testing data or whatever. And then the myths about how owner builders use materials. That's where, oh my gosh, if I could change one thing I would like to change the understanding of mass versus insulation. Yeah, please, please, can we just understand that? Like, there are physically different opposite ends of physics. And it's not someone making something up empirically It is scientifically provable the way thermodynamics works. Yeah, that insulation blocks the flow of heat transfer. And in order to be a thermal mass, it must also be a conductor of heat transfer. So it needs to be conductor and a store of heat transfer. So they're, they're literally different things, they both have a place. And in everywhere in the world, there is a way to build with mass, but it gets so thick. That it's not really feasible, right? So I did this, I did a calculation when I was in school and at UT, University of Texas. So that was in Austin. So it's, you know, fairly mild climate. And I did a calculation of what wall thickness you would need, if you just built with mass in order to if you built with mass, passive solar, what wall thickness would you need in order to stay comfortable without heat, or cooling? And it was 21 inches of mass. And that's in a moderate, very moderate climate. Like you don't need a winter coat in Austin, Texas. Right, right. So 52.5 centimetres,
Jeffrey Hart 36:33
which is the sort of classic southwest cup buildings are probably that and a little bit wider. In the UK.
Sigi Koko 36:44
So so if you never need a winter coat, like there's there's homes in Austin that don't have heat, right? They're just chilly. They're not freezing. Your pipes aren't freezing, right? You're just Yeah. You need a sweater? A couple days, right? Until it's summer. But now transfer that into a four season climate. Okay. I'm not going to build a four foot thick cob wall like that. That's what's my foundation now? Right? Like, there's a point where it's not reasonable. And I can just build with insulation, do less work, get a higher performing building. Use less overall materials, right? So my, my overall, embodied energy, if I'm including my energy in that is less, right. So so this is again, like my little logical brain goes to town. So if I could correct one thing, it's that insulation versus mass. Every building should have some mass. But yeah, most buildings should also have insulation. And if you're not sure, the safe bet is insulate and put mass inside.
Jeffrey Hart 37:56
I think there's there's definitely a point of confusion. And I saw a conversation fairly recently, where the result is the same, you know, they're they're heating a mass building, and they stay warm. And it's cold outside. And so they're, they say, well, it's insulating me, but it's, you know, just because the result is is the same doesn't mean the the way you get there is the same.
Sigi Koko 38:21
And I always I always worry when someone gives an empirical example and says, Okay, therefore it will work no matter what. Because if you delve deeper into those examples, sometimes you find out that either it's not actually performing that way, or there's something quite specific about that design that allows it to perform that way. And it doesn't just mean the material is okay. It means the whole the material in relation to that particular design solution is okay. You got I mean, and you can't just take one, and now apply it in a different way and get the same result. So yeah, like I know, on the tucking natural homes group on Facebook, there was somebody who posted some project that they didn't know anything about, but it was some supposedly mass building in Sweden or Norway or somewhere and had no heating system. And then people were like, asking specific questions about it. And they said, Well, I don't know. And it's like, well, if you don't know you can't use it as an example. Right. So yeah. Because you don't actually understand why it works that way. You that's the that's the actual question. Why did it work that way? Not it worked. And therefore it will always work. You know what I mean? So and I think that's what happens with owner builders often is oh, this worked so I can make it work. Well. Understand why and if you're not sure insulate
Jeffrey Hart 40:00
So very, very solid advice. I think it's, it's difficult I see a lot with with talking natural Holmes's. Yeah, I think it's a wonderful resource. And I'm not knocking it in the slightest. But there is a thing where people will ask a question. And then there'll be replies which are definite. And you you need to do this based on do maybe someone that's done it one time before, maybe 10 times, maybe 100 times. But the answer is always It depends, isn't it? Yeah, there is no one solution as you as you said. And yeah, I find it can be quite frustrating. And I don't know how you do it, because you're always answering questions. And I mean, for one, I don't know how you have the time in the day, if I haven't been there in a month. So you haven't dry January?
Sigi Koko 40:58
Exactly. Well, so I mean, first of all, I only go on there when I have the time. And I set a specific amount of time that I will dedicate. And I only answer questions that I know, I know the answer to so I don't just weigh in on everything. I just if, if if I feel like I can help someone or if I see that there's a thread that's going in multiple directions, you know, then I'll weigh in, but you know, so I think if everybody just say what you know, and don't say what you don't know.
Jeffrey Hart 41:39
And understand that it's complex.
Sigi Koko 41:40
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. What are the other big myths? Oh, misunderstanding of passive solar also. Okay. You know, so so that. I, I see a lot of people say, Oh, well, passive solar means I only need insulation on my north wall. I don't know where that comes from. But it is not passive solar. So, yeah. So I would love if passive solar design was part of physics in high school, like, can we make that happen? Yeah. And certainly should be required by all architects. But if everyone had an understanding of that, I think it I mean, it changes how you garden, it changes how you think about your space even and, you know, if you accept that west facing sunset view picture window in your home, you know, then creates overheating. All when all summer long, you know? So? Yeah, a misunderstanding of of passive solar is probably the other one. Okay. Yeah.
Jeffrey Hart 42:55
I think one of the questions that I have that I get a lot about floors is longevity. And that's definitely dealing with a preconceived idea. What on earth floor is. And I had an inquiry just recently from someone who is building a, they called it I think, no waste, net carbon, carbon zero development, somewhere in the UK. And they, they said, they were phoning me up because they wanted, or has been specified that they had a lime Creek floor, and they were worried that that was too soft. And that they wanted an earth floor because they thought it might be harder, and I had to correct them on that. But then they were saying their reasoning was that they wanted people to be able to walk around in stilettos. And, and I thought, that's a very strange mentality that you're you're setting this change in. You want to be no waste and a netzero. But you're you're not changing the expectations on the materials. You're expecting a new material to act like the old one, even though it's completely different.
Sigi Koko 44:06
I mean, I would say just even just step it back one step. I think as soon as you introduce something unusual, there is an expectation that not only will it perform as well that it will outperform right. So make it better than what, what is normal, or we can't go there, right. There's a there's a guy who does this talk about natural building, who has a quote where he says if we tried to get wood, structural wood into the building codes today, it would be almost impossible because there's so many different species and how you cut the wood matters and data data data, right? So yeah, this expectation that something new has to outperform right which is what you what you experienced. So with a dolt with full earthen floor specifically, I have started using Adobe floor as the term. And the reason is what I noticed when I said earthen floor is what people hear is dirt floor. They don't hear Earth, they hear dirt. And they think what you're asking of them is that they live in a hovel, and they're out. Yeah, but if you say, Adobe, they hear architectural material. And then they say, Oh, what is that? Right? And yeah, it's a different they, it sends them in a different direction, at least here in the US. And maybe you don't run into that particular one. And then when I'm sort of trying to get someone to understand the equivalent with conventional construction, I say it's similar to a hard wooden floor. Right, which is something that everyone has experienced. And so if they would have the same stiletto expectation of a wooden floor, you know, then they should be looking at something much, much harder. Right. So does that did that? Was that your question?
Jeffrey Hart 46:15
Did that Yes. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I don't know if that necessarily. I actually posed the question. I just sort of went on a bit of a ramble.
Sigi Koko 46:23
Oh, yeah. So I think part part of you know, when you're when you're doing something that's not conventional, right? That is not in most people's experience. I see part of my job as talking their language so that they can hear it in a way that leads it leads them to questions, as opposed to predispositions. Because if they're asking questions, I have an opportunity to educate them. But if they have a predisposition, they stop asking questions, and they write it off. Right. And so finding terms to use and finding equivalencies, in sort of the ubiquitous experience of life for most people can help bridge that gap.
Jeffrey Hart 47:20
Yeah, there's a chap here called Craig White, who builds straw, modular straw bale homes. And he's described the straw as renewable materials building with renewable materials, because it's sort of in that renewable energy mindset. People can kind of hook into that and understand it.
Sigi Koko 47:40
Yeah. Yeah. So that it's a way of speaking about it differently. So that, you, you, you draw questions, as opposed to closing anyone off?
Jeffrey Hart 47:51
Crikey, that's a lot of soft skills I need to learn.
Sigi Koko 47:56
You're quite skilled. I think life generally is, you know, you learn more and more and more and more every single day. And if you're not, you're bored. So yeah, yeah. At the point where you have all the answers, you know, you can go live on the mountain by yourself
Jeffrey Hart 48:18
the feeling that that you get in a natural home, it's often talked about the feeling, you know, what do you think is actually causing that? What's the thing we're kind of reacting to?
Sigi Koko 48:32
Oh, gosh, I mean, I think there's sort of there's sort of the woowoo answer to that. And I think there's a scientific answer to that. So first of all, natural homes tend to be the finishes you see, were touched by a hand. Right? It's not a machine that made drywall and a machine that made paint and if the paint isn't completely uniform, it's because someone patchily made it not uniform, right? They're not these sort of flat plasticky machined perfect planar, it's hand made, and even if it's an exceptionally skilled hand, right, so if you go to Japan, the walls look, they're flatter than drywall. I mean, they're flat, but you can still tell that they were made by hands. Right. And there's something about that, that feels tactile and draws you in. Right? It's welcoming. It's I'm not finding the right word for it.
Jeffrey Hart 49:46
It seems like it's it's you're connecting with another human almost
Sigi Koko 49:50
Yes. Right? Yes. Right. It's connected. Yeah. Yeah. So I think that's an I don't think you have to know that when you walk in, you feel it when you walk in. And the example to me is kids. If you watch at like, this is a great example, my sister for a while had a had a clothing store, and we built the changing room was this Cobbs spiral. And she said to me once that when a parent would come into the store with a child, the child would walk in and kind of move to go show up with them. And then they would look up and they would see the wall, and they would sprint to the back of the store and hug the wall, and just hang out at that wall for the whole rest of the time until they had to go. And it's not like she had playthings over there for the kids. Right, it was just the wall. So there's something about handbuilt materials from nature, that are that speak to a really deep, unconscious part of being human. I think I mean, this is obviously opinion, right? So I'm stating facts, right? I'm saying opinion based on observations. But to me, kids are the unfiltered. Right. And, and so that, to me, is an intuitive reaction, feeling that everyone has, but adults can sometimes shut down, right. And I think that has to do partly with the materials and partly with the fact that it was made by hand. But I think there's this whole other part of clay in particular, and lime to a degree as well, about its sort of breathability and, you know, that sort of electric charge. And, you know, I think from like, if you measured the ions in the space, there'd be more positive ions in the actual air, you know, so, you know, there's, there's, I think something physical going on, at the same time as that sort of tactile, intuitive, emotional response that you may not even be aware of that you feel when when I walk a group of people into a, you know, straw bale home for the first time at Reno straw bale and clay plasters, and maybe at Adobe floor and calm wall. You can hear everyone sigh. Right? So they walk in and they just go. Right? Like there's a release, there's, it's quiet. It's not, there's no toxins, right? That's healthy air. It's balanced daylight, it's finishes that are constantly creating healthier air in the space. So they're actually interacting with what you're breathing in this space. And they're hand built. So the house feels like you're stepping into a sculpture, even when it's, you know, sort of modern ish. And I think all of those things play into what that feels like. Do you know what I mean? Yeah. And I think there's also a piece that feels like, it's, I could do that. You know? Yeah. So I don't know that everyone feels that. But I think for people who do when they walk into that and say, Oh, my gosh, I could do that. That's empowering. Right. And so all of those are very positive reactions, you know? So yeah, I don't know. It's, it's a little woowoo. But I see it over and over and over and over. And
Jeffrey Hart 54:10
yes, well, I mean, it's, you know, the feeling is a thing it's commonly talked about, but none of us kind of, can really, you put a direct thing on it. I, I sort of go from woowoo to just purely practical like, is just having clay on the walls softer, and therefore the sound is different. Is it the insulation that is making you less outside sounds like you can't hear the traffic or something. You know, on some days, I'm very much done that practical route. And other times I'm, you know, there is something that's connecting you to to people of ancient times and kind of, you know, the other side of it.
Sigi Koko 54:56
Yeah, and I think it's all of it. I think it's I I think I think he wouldn't necessarily want to separate the pieces out. Right? So clean is also the oldest building material. Right?
We leave caves, we dig a hole, we add water, we build a home, right? So I think from that sort of inherited reality or whatever, you know, that's the wound to but
if someone hands any person a ball of clay, what do they do?
Jeffrey Hart 55:37
Squish it might play and
Sigi Koko 55:38
immediately right? You immediately start to do something with it, you know, and some people make a cube and wall and a little, whatever, a bowl or whatever. Right. So where did that come from? How do you know to just play with it? Right. And so now you're in a space where the walls have at least that as a finish. And this is our oldest building material. Right? So I think there's even that connection, somewhere in there. You know, that takes us back to, you know, this very primal human being. Yeah, you know, I don't know. And to me, like, I almost don't want to separate the pieces, you know, because I think there are scientific explanations to pieces of it. And I think there are just inexplicable reactions as human beings to clay particularly. So yeah, yeah.
Jeffrey Hart 56:36
I don't know. What I don't know. I think that's wonderful. I just wondered, Is there anything you'd like to finish on any sort of wrapping up or words of wisdom you'd like to impart? Oh, my goodness, that's a lot of pressure.
Sigi Koko 56:51
Isn't there? A lot of pressure? Yeah. Be a scientist. Explore. If you're not sure about something, figure out what test would I need to do to figure it out? Right, so okay, I have clay. I don't know how to make a plaster out of it. Okay, make a bunch of different plasters. See which one works? You know, like, be just be a scientist. That would be my
Jeffrey Hart 57:19
Yes, I guess that's, that's not being afraid of failure. Because Because you're you're learning so fast from for anything that doesn't work as a plaster. It's, well, that's another one eliminated.
Sigi Koko 57:32
Start with something that it's okay to fail on. Right. So this is like one of my mantras is Don't start. Like if you're gonna learn Tadelakt don't start with your bathroom.
Jeffrey Hart 57:47
Yes, that's a really good bit of advice.
Sigi Koko 57:50
If you want to build with Cobb Make, make a mailbox first make a chicken coop, make a shed make a outhouse, make an oven, right? Do something small that if it failed, you wouldn't be devastated. Right? If you want to learn clay plaster, go make a panel and clay plaster on a panel and keep scraping it off or make it thicker and thicker every time you want to practice. Or go to a barn or a basement or you know whatever. Right? So our closet, start in a closet where it's okay, if it's it is right. Don't start with your you know, the space you need to be the most beautiful because everything is a learning curve. Give yourself the space to have that learning curve. Set good enough.
Jeffrey Hart 58:57
Oh, my goodness. Thank you so much, Ziggy, I can't believe just what a joy those two hours were. I really, really appreciate seeing spending the time and having just such a wonderful conversation. The Three Little Pigs part of that conversation has really changed something in me actually. I always found people's Three Little Pigs, Big Bad Wolf comments when we talked about straw installation to be quite hostile. And actually hearing ciggies take on it that is them wanting to connect but not knowing how has really changed how I think about those comments now. And really, I'm looking forward to the next one. So I can invite them in for a bigger and better conversation. Because of this conversation. I've actually searched out someone to talk to for the podcast, all about these kind of communication issues around sustainability. So look out for that one in the coming weeks. And I did get a little update from Ziggy on the books for children. This is What her email said, I know there are books that encourage kids to play outside, even building forts, but none that I know of that are specific to natural building. But there are books like build your own earth oven by Kiko denza. Or, you can make the best hot tub ever by Becky B. These are How To books for particular club projects that are certainly kid friendly. So could be good family activity books. Neither is written specifically for kids, but are both easily digestible. So that's a great suggestion of two books. I would also say that Kiko Denzer is a friend of the podcast, he was on way back around that episode nine, maybe eight so long time ago, definitely check that out and check out his book because building an earth oven is just a joy to do, especially with kids. And at the end of it, you get pizza was not so like, okay, that is it from me. As always, there are links and things that we've discussed in the show notes. If this is your first time here, do subscribe, do check out the other episodes, because if you like this, you're gonna definitely like some of the other stuff that we've got for you. And if this is not your first time, and you really feel like you're getting something from building sustainability, if you are able to support then head on over to patreon.com forward slash building sustainability, your support would be hugely welcomed. And you get some of those sweet sweet benefits, like being able to submit questions for future guests and some bonus episodes and general bits and bobs. Okay, until next time, bye bye
Sigi Koko is the principal designer of Down to Earth Design, which she founded in 1998 to help her clients manifest their dreams
of living in a natural, healthy home. She works exclusively on projects that are natural, energy-efficient buildings, on the
forefront of sustainable design. Every project functions in synchronicity with its environment, relating to seasonal cycles of sun,
wind, and rain to provide natural heating and cooling primarily from passive (free!) sources. Her clients enjoy an average 50%
reduction in total energy usage compared to conventional buildings. She uses a palette of building materials that ensure healthy
indoor space and minimal environmental impact.
Sigi translates each client's vision into a unique design that reflects their personality and lifestyle, while responding to the
surrounding landscape and climate. Sigi's uniquely collaborate design process provides a high level of information and support
that encourages her clients to engage fully throughout design and construction. She also teaches natural building workshops
that empower her clients to contribute creatively during the construction of their own home.
Sigi Koko holds a Masters of Architecture degree from the University of Texas at Austin, where she learned fundamental design
skills. After earning her degree, she spent two years building homes to learn the practical side of how buildings are constructed.
This in-the-field experience helps her communicate well with builders. She spent two years completing her architectural
internship for HOK (Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum) in Washington, DC, where she provided "green building" expertise on
many projects. She also created their Healthy & Sustainable Product Database" and contributed to several HOK publications,
including the document now published as The HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design (published by Wiley & Sons). Her
experience at HOK gave her the opportunity to explore extensive green building research and taught her how to create highly
detailed drawings and documentation.
Sigi has designed over three dozen strawbale buildings in the mid-Atlantic region, including Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania,
and West Virginia. All projects have received standard building permits. She has worked with building officials statewide in
Maryland to gain approval for strawbale construction and rubble trench foundations. Her projects have been mentioned in the
New York Times, featured on HGTV, and she has been featured in numerous print articles, including the Washington Post, the
Baltimore Sun, and Progressive Engineer.
Sigi Koko is nationally known for her expertise in sustainable design and natural building, she has lectured extensively on these
topics, and has written articles for numerous publications. Publications include Interior Graphic Standards Chapter on Green
Building Materials, "Five Steps to Keeping Strawbale Walls Dry" article in The Last Straw Journal, and "Rubble Trench
Foundations - a Brief Overview" article in Building Safety Journal magazine.