Megan Tady

Amanda, Graeme, and Rennie perch on the IPE boardwalk decking.

After living for seven years in downtown Austin, Tex., graphic designer Amanda Cooley Donaldson and her husband, Graeme, wanted to build their own home closer to the school where he taught. But they didn’t want to build just any home; they were passionate about constructing the most sustainable home possible. Soon, they embarked on a three-year process that included purchasing land, assembling a design and build team, and immersing themselves in all aspects of green building. The final product is a house partially insulated with sheep wool and recycled cotton with an inverted roof design to capture Texas rainwater, sliding patio doors procured from Craigslist, and walls finished with a VOC-free lime plaster, one even polished with black olive soap. 

Last April, the couple moved into their home on two-and-a-half-acres, which includes a guest house and a studio, and Donaldson has some ready advice and insight for other people inspired to create their own eco-friendly home. And as she reflected on her time at Berkshire, she was delighted to see so many of the School’s recent sustainability initiatives. “It’s made me really proud of Berkshire,” she said.

The mix of construction methods and materials: Blox, wood, plaster, radiant barrier

Q. Why was building sustainability so important to you?
A. Any time you build a new house, you're going to consume a lot of resources. We wondered if we could do it with as low of an impact as possible. And any time you start building on land, you're going to disturb that ecosystem. How do we do that in a way that is as sensitive and regenerative as possible? Then there's the toxicity and health aspect. So many of these materials used in construction are not great for us to be breathing in. If someone has to wear a Hazmat suit to install a thing, how is it okay for me to be in it afterwards?

Q. How did your background as a designer help in this process?
A. My journey with sustainability started back in design school [at OCAD University in Canada] when I had exposure to sustainable architecture and looking at the supply of materials that some remote communities use. They do some incredibly creative things that respond to their climate in a way that helps sustain their culture and their way of life for centuries. If we consider our own climate, what do we have access to? What is local, and what can we use? The more you build that way, the more your end result will reflect the place.

Q. How did you pull together your building team?
A. It was very important to us that we found a team of people that was on board with trying to do this as sustainably as possible. As we started to research, we realized there's a lot of resistance to this because it's not the normal way. It's not the easy way. We knew we’d need people who were willing to experiment and step outside of their comfort zones.

Amanda sowing Texas native grass seed.

Q. What is an example of a local material that you used?
A. The primary materials that all the walls are made out of are papercrete blocks, made just down the road in Mason, Texas. They’re made from recycled paper from different recycling centers in the area, along with a little bit of portland cement  and some lime as a binder. A lot of earth-building houses use straw bales. We have a lot of ranches in the area, but we would need a lot more straw than we could get at that time of year. The other option we ruled out was compressed earth blocks, which you see throughout the Southwest and Mexico. We lacked the clay and time to create all of the blocks we would need. That made the papercrete blocks a really attractive solution. They are structurally sound, require no weather barrier, and also functioned as insulation. And you can plaster directly onto its surface, a finish material we knew we wanted from the beginning.

Q. What is your favorite spot in your new house?
A. In my living room, I have a giant picture window that looks out into this field. I’m able to watch the seasons change and the grasses and trees change and the deer walking by in the mornings. It makes us feel so connected to nature.

Q. What did you learn in the building process?
A. We had to recognize that there are limitations to building sustainably, and you can try as best as you can, but you're going to hit walls. You’re not going to be able to do everything as pure as you had hoped, but you can get 80% there, or 90% there. It was really important for us to at least try,  and that the team around us was respectful of that effort. 

Buildings oriented for passive solar benefits, with rooflines designed to capture rainwater

Q. What advice do you have for people who want to build sustainably?
A. Start early with researching, because it takes time to really sort through everything. There are many passionate  green building advocates eager to help you navigate all the options and tradeoffs. 

Find that person who's dedicated their life to building mud huts, who has lived and breathed and understands why he's doing what he's doing. Those types of people are a wealth of knowledge. Have patience, because it is hard, and it’s important to fight for your vision. Don’t be afraid to challenge people who say, “This is the way it’s always been done.” Just because it's always been that way does not mean that's how it has to be going forward. 

To read more about Donaldson’s journey, check out her blog: