Architecture Student Learns to Build with the Earth

Oct. 18, 2021
Daniel Vega and Ray Clamons giving each other a fist bump.

Natural Building Works founder Ray Clamons, and Earth Grant student Daniel Vega.

Daniel Vega is a UArizona senior majoring in Sustainable Built Environments (SBE), a born-and-raised Tucsonan, and a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. He was attracted to the SBE program because of his lifelong relationship with the natural environment, and a desire to employ sustainable building practices in his tribal community. Through Earth Grant, Daniel is working with local design/build firm Natural Building Works, who use materials like rammed earth, straw bales, recycled tires, and earth-filled bags to create self-sufficient buildings with minimal waste.

Earth Grant student Daniel Vega building with straw bales.

Earth Grant student Daniel Vega.

Ray Clamons is the founder and lead architect of Natural Building Works (NBW) and Daniel’s mentor through Earth Grant. Ray speaks about compassion for others and community building as critical components of NBW’s projects, which often incorporate opportunities for others to engage and learn. One such project is the straw bale house that Ray, Daniel, and a dozen other “Happy Tampers” (staff and volunteers) are building this fall. At a recent volunteer workday, Ray starts with a gratitude circle, and the day’s crew members chime in about what they’re feeling grateful for that morning. Throughout the day, music, conversation, and laughter can be heard along with the sounds of saws and nail guns.

Inch for inch, straw bales (R-1.85/inch) insulate less than fiberglass (R-2.9), but because they are so much thicker than typical rolls of insulation (R-19), these non toxic byproducts of the agriculture industry provide a stronger (R-27) shield against heat and cold. With this super insulation, along with properly placed high performance windows and overhangs, air tight construction and continuous fresh air ventilation, the family of five who will call this healthy house a home will feel comfortable all year using 80% less energy for heating and cooling. Straw being nontoxic, biodegradable, and carbon sequestering make this building material a powerful choice for climate action.

Daniel speaks positively about what he’s learned in his undergraduate career, but reflects that natural building techniques haven’t been part of his coursework, so the opportunity to work with NBW is especially valuable to him. Daniel will be moving into the UArizona Masters of Architecture program after graduation, where he has already been accepted. In this program, Daniel hopes to continue pursuing earth-based and sustainable building strategies, and opportunities to apply his knowledge in the real world. Where does Daniel’s passion come from? In his words: “a sense of responsibility to my Yaqui tribe to create an equitable, aesthetic, but also sustainable environment that feels like home.”

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