Rebuild Green Expo in Santa Rosa showcases safer, eco-friendly home options

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Amid booths featuring postmodern kitchen appliances and gleaming delivery systems for solar power, the table bearing the hay bales seemed a tad out of place.

Sorry, make that straw bales.

“Hay Is For Horses, Straw Is for Houses,” proclaimed the bumper sticker greeting visitors of the California Straw Building Association, one of most popular — and old school — of the 62 exhibits at Friday’s second annual Rebuild Green Expo, a showcase for all aspects of how to build “a healthy, low-carbon home.”

Another goal of the expo was to dispel myths about affordability and practicality of “rebuilding green,” said Ann Edminster, member of the Ecological Building Network, which organized the event.

The straw building association table sat in center of the exhibit hall at Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building facing the Pioneer Water Tanks station, across the aisle from the booth for Modular Lifestyles, whose 371- square-foot Tiny House on wheels was one of the event’s top crowd pleasers.

Homes built with plaster-coated straw bales apparently fared exceptionally well in the 2017 North Bay wildfires that were the impetus for this expo. The straw bales inside the plaster are so dense and compact that “it doesn’t burn very readily,” said the genial straw building associtaion rep, Jim Furness. “It would be like trying to light a telephone book on fire, if anyone remembers what a telephone book is.”

The Bay Area is a nerve center, an unofficial capitol of “the green building world,” said Bruce King, a structural engineer and the author of the book “Making Better Concrete.” After the North Bay fires, he recalled, “we were all calling each other, asking how we could influence the rebuilding that was coming.”

The result was the first Rebuilding Green, which drew some 2,000 attendees, Edminster said. Attendance at this year’s expo easily matched that. More important than those numbers, she said, “was our message. We were providing an event where people could experience something hopeful and positive. People were traumatized. We weren’t here to commiserate. We were here to say, ‘OK, moving forward, look at all this great stuff you can do.’”

You could chill at the straw building association table, learning how to throw a “plaster party,” at which friends and relatives are invited to apply the plaster that coats the straw bales. You could lend an ear to silky smooth Mitsubishi Electronics sales manager David Paschall, who extolled his company’s super smart cooling and heating systems.

Several tables south and west, Katie Bachner, and Rachelle Padgett were surrounded by eye-pleasing and ecologically correct countertop samples. One square, from the Vetrazzo line, glittered with shards of blue glass recovered from a Sky vodka bottle. They are the founders of The Green Materialist, which they described as “an eco-friendly interior design and healthy materials consulting practice.”

Their point: you can improve the health of the planet by using solar energy and low-flow toilets, but your own health can be compromised if your house is full of materials covered with toxic substances, like the formaldehyde on many wood products, or the volatile organic compounds “off-gassed” by some paints, stains and sealers.

If it all started to sound too heavy and ominous, it was a good idea to move to the Asiens Appliance exhibit, where a chef prepared trays of, among other delectable items, chocolate covered figs and strawberries.

At this ultra-green gathering, most exhibitors were preaching to a like-minded choir. There was a backdrop of frustration and fear, however, that the outside world still wasn’t getting the message.

“Go to Coffey Park, and see what’s getting built,” warned Sebastian Bertsch, a water systems designer for Permaculture Artisans. “Wooden fences all the way up to the house, wooden decks, open vents.”

His unspoken question: Where is the straw?

Staff Writer Austin Murphy can be reached at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Vetrazzo is a brand of tiles, countertops and other materials made with recycled glass. The brand name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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