Natural Building Workshops by Root Down Designs

Here is a promo video, by Aaron Pate, for a future ‘HOW-TO’ full-length video.

This was taken from the Cob Oven Natural Building Workshop led by April Magill of Root Down Designs @ the Romney St. Urban Garden in Downtown Charleston, SC in May of 2015.

Enjoy and stay tuned for more!!!


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Cob Oven Time Lapsed Video

Check out this video by Aaron Pate, filmed at the Romney St. Workshop.





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Root Down Designs is Featured on FRONT PAGE of The Last Straw Journal!

the last straw journal root down designsRoot Down Designs is featured on the FRONT PAGE of The Last Straw Journal!

April wrote an article called ‘A South Carolina Architect’s Journey to Natural Building and Rammed Earth.’

You can purchase this issue for $10 here.


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The Post & Courier Writes About Natural Building

May 23, 2015, David Quick published an article, Architect teaching locals about building with earthen materials by holding cob oven workshops, for the Post and Courier about Root Down Designs and Natural Building.

post and courier cob oven workshop


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Romney Street Urban Garden’s New Cob Oven

Highlights from the Romney Street, Urban Garden (aka The Bottom) in downtown Charleston, SC.

romney st cob oven root down designs 3Romney St Cob Oven Root Down Designs 2

Romney St. Cob Oven Root Down Designs



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A Pawley’s Island Beach House: “Blends Without Conforming”

During the 9 months of growing my first baby, I was also ‘growing’ this custom home design.

a mama’s got to brag, right?

On January 30, 2014 I birthed my baby; on January 30, 2015, this home should be ‘birthed’ and ‘fully grown’ as well.

This project presented many challenging design obstacles; for starters, an extremely challenging site: very skinny with protected Live Oak Trees, a 10 foot rise in elevation, beach-front considerations, and all of the local Pawley’s Island ordinances and codes.  One of the major requirements of my client was to have a seamless, handicap accessible route all the way from the parking spot to the beach front, as well as to every space within the home.  Being the artist that she is, she also challenged me with the task of creating a home in which the ‘house and the views become a piece of art in itself.’

Not wanting to mimic the very traditional and conventional homes seen on Pawleys, she wants her home to stand apart from the rest. As an Architect, it’s always a challenge to decide how to create a structure which is original & unique, without being a ‘Frank Ghery‘ kind of structure which relates to none of it’s surroundings (sorry Frank Ghery fans!).

In the words of Georgetown Building Inspector, this home “blends without conforming”  which is exactly what I was shooting for.  The height, scale, and mass is sensitive to the site, especially from the beach-front view, yet the materials and the details offer a more unique and modern approach to the traditional beach home.

Here are a few key elements of the design:

Passive Solar Design Strategy – window placements,  roof forms, and an open floor plan with lofted 2nd floor allows for optimum solar gain during cool months and optimum shading and ventilation during warm months; the single sloped roof allows for hot air to rise all the way from the first floor to the to top the

second floor and out through upper clerestory windows

floor plan

Minimal Square Footage – as to minimize impact on a sensitive site, minimize heating and cooling costs, and to consider a modest budget, each space was carefully designed to maximize functions & efficiency within the smallest footprint possible; the total heated square footage is 2600sf

Zoning of the Building – as a single woman with many visiting family and friends, I wanted her to be able to literally close off 1300sf of the home when guests are not in town and be able to live in the remaining 1300sf.  The HVAC system was carefully designed to have 3 seperate zones; this way she is not heating and cooling spaces in her home which are not in use.

Living Roof – the roof over the parking area will have Green Roof Modules provided by Green Roof Outfitters

The Golden Rectangle drawing from sacred geometric patterns, I designed the floor plans based off of the geometry of the Golden Rectangle as to create the most aesthetically pleasing (and feeling) space.

Creative use of Materials – the exterior of this home is clad with a mix of local milled cedar and hung in a board & batten style intermixed with corrugated metal panels. All of the exterior deck railings are nothing more than ‘cattle fencing’ with a handrail.

The interior will have a very open floor plan framed with old, reclaimed mixed species oak and pine from Reclaimed, and finished with modern white cabinets, stainless steel countertops, exposed metal ducts, and a concrete & metal stovepipe fireplace.  Michael Moran will provide charred wood for the fireplace surround and Handcrafted, LLC will custom build open tread stairs, countertops on hinges, and board & batten style shutters.  The aesthetics of the home will be a nice mix of ‘rustic traditional meets modern contemporary.’

charred wood

interior; fireplace







‘Bare Bones’ Approach – Exposed structure, single sloped roof, minimal trim….’no fuss’ kind of design

Maximum Views – maximum ocean views captured from every room of the home

Handicap Accessibility – a wheelchair can access every space in the home; from the parking spot to the ocean

Sensitivity to Trees – the floor plan was heavily dictated by the existing trees on the site and careful decisions were made as to not encroach on them

inspiration for exterior materials

I am happy to be collaborating with Thompson Young Design during the construction period of the home.  At this point, the piles are in and framing will begin next week.  I will continue to document the construction process as the home emerges.  I can only hope that once this home is ‘birthed’ she will be as stunning and beautiful as my last project.






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Earthen Nursery Creations: How to Make a Cob Sculpture on Drywall

You can create a raised, 3D, Cob sculpture (also called Bas-Relief)  right on top of your conventional drywall!

First: Choose the image you’d like to sculpt onto your wall.

Second: Draw the image on the wall. Creating a grid can help you to make sure you are drawing it to scale.

Third: Mix a traditional cob mix (2:1 clay:sand) and add chopped straw.  You will want to screen your clay as to get any rocks and chunks out.

Fourth: Begin to apply small ‘golfball’ size clumps of cob to the wall; it helps to throw it onto the wall from about 6″ away.  Once you have a small section covered in ‘balls,’ begin to smooth them all together using a flattened palm.  You can go as thick as 1″.  Anything thicker and you’ll want to first apply roofing nails to the wall to act as ‘claws’ to hold the cob.












Continue: Until you have the desired shape.  Let this dry out until ‘leather hard’ before adding anymore or doing any decorative work.


Next: Begin to add extra layers to embellish the sculpture and add mosaics.  Don’t forget to always re-wet your dried out cob before adding new!


As your cob sculpture dries, begin to compress it using a flexible trowel or a plastic lid (yogurt lids work great!).  Stay on top of cracks as they appear by buffing them out as they come.


Paint around the cob sculpture to enhance even more.































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A ‘Tiny House’ Design

You may have heard of a Tiny House before.

Basically, the idea being that it’s just that…a tiny house…often times it’s under the required square footage for a building permit, sometime’s it’s designed to be mobile on a flat bed trailer, and sometimes it’s just about being as small and efficient with your space as possible.  Often times a very small budget rules the tiny house design; salvaged materials are typical.

Here’s a few pictures to give you an idea: Tiny House pics

A few years ago, Matt and I started building this little structure, not so much as a ‘Tiny House‘ per se since we have a home to live in already, but more so for storage of yard & garden tools, my natural-building supplies, and to be used as a greenhouse during the winter months.  We are in the beginning stages of building a permaculture-style food forest in our front yard.

In typical Matt & April style, we are just now, three years later, coming around to finishing it. (I blame it on all of the other cool projects we’ve been building.)

This particular design is a passive-solar, south facing structure with maximum glazing on the south for greenhouse use in winter.  It has a loft up top for storage, but could be used as a sleeping loft if it was a tiny house.  It’s only 8 x 10′ but we could actually go up to 10 x 12′ (120sf) and still be underneath of Charleston County’s ‘Do NOT Need a Building Permit’ code.  

 As for materials, we salvaged everything except for the main framing components (6×6 posts, roof rafters, floor rafters, studs, and header beams).

Salvaged Materials include:

  • cypress flooring
  • treated pine beaded siding
  • metal roofing
  • windows – these came off of a commercial construction job site headed for the dumpster!
  • sliding glass doors

We built everything ourselves as efficiently and minimally as possible; all in all we probably spent $500 total.

I particularly like the way we trimmed out the windows with just 1×8’s ripped down…simple, quick, and aesthetically pleasing.

Eventually we will finish the exterior trim work (probably three years later), build a ramp & a sitting bench along the front, and shelving on the north wall.

This winter we will keep cold-sensitive plants in there as well as start spring seeds in the late winter.  We’ll probably keep our chicken, Blanche, in there as well because believe-it-or-not, one chicken can raise the room temperature as much as one to two degrees! This can be enough to save some plants in cold temps.

And who knows, I’m sure one day I’ll continue to add to this, maybe a Cob Trombe Wall or some kind of earthen thermal/”heat-sink” element to hold solar heat gain and make a nice, comfy winter time bench to sit and drink some coffee.

If you are a fan of the tiny house concept, this can easily be modified to be a quite comfortable little bungalow. I would extend the size to 10 x 12′, jack up the roof height another foot to make the 6′ sleeping loft a little more roomy, and the sky’s the limit on the rest of the little details.

Consider this Concept #1: Tiny House Design.

Stay tuned for more! 

tool storage

view of loft space

view of loft space

view from inside towards cob oven & cob bench






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Root Down Designs Now Licensed in NORTH & SOUTH CAROLINA!!!


Need an Architect?

Want to build something really hip?

Want to THINK OUTSIDE OF THE BOX???Interested in a Natural Building Method? Conventional with a UNIQUE Twist???…….Passive Solar Design?…….Smart, Functional, Efficient Design…..

Well Root Down Designs is not just serving SOUTH CAROLINA anymore….we’ve opened ourselves up to ALL of the Carolinas….this means you too NORTH CAROLINA!!! I’ve got love for both of you!


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Throw Out The Solar Panel, Open The Window

I recently attended the Building Enclosure Council’s meeting on ‘Lessons Learned: A Net Zero Habitat For Humanity Home.’

This was a public meeting where they reviewed the data analysis gathered from the Net Zero Habitat home which was organized through Habitat for Humanity and designed/engineered through the Building Enclosure Council.

Many steps were taken to create an energy efficient home with hopes for the home to produce more energy than it was using; a few of the implemented designs were:

  • SIPS Panels for the walls and roof       
  • solar panels
  • 80 gal solar hot water heater
  • geothermal system

Those who are not familiar with SIPs panels; think about a styrofoam cooler….essentially, this is what a SIPs home is; a continuous foam based insulation system which totally envelopes the perimeter of your home creating a highly insulated footprint.

Once the home was complete and data was collected, the finding were less than impressive and very discouraging to all involved.  They found that the energy being consumed was not only NOT net zero but in fact the residents were consuming much more energy than they anticipated. In fact, the neighboring stick framed home was pretty comparable  if not better, in some analysis.

The modest home of 1,300 sf came at a very high price tag once you total up the high tech building elements such as the SIPS panels, the geothermal, solar panels, etc.  The price tag came in at $135,248…but remember, this is a Habitat home. This means all labor was volunteer.  So, in knowing what we know about contractors/builders, if this same model was applied to your normal home build, the price tag would have come in somewhere around $290,000. That means $233/square foot…OUCH!!!

Another obstacle is that in building with the SIPS panels, you are eliminating the ability for the home owner to take the framing of the home  into their own hands. SIPS are a highly specialized building material with very low tolerance to imperfections.  In this particular project, a crane had to be brought in to lift and set the large SIPS panels in to place.

So what happened??? Why, when all of this money was spent on high-tech systems and materials were the energy results so poor???

The #1 ‘Lessons Learned’ as quoted by the Building Enclosure Council was:

1. Get Commitment to Energy Conscientiousness From End User/ Develop an Energy Management Plan and Educate the End User

In multiple visits to the home, the Building Enclosure Council found that the End User was practicing ‘energy-wasteful living;’ things such as

  • shades drawn and all lights on during the middle of the day
  • heat set to 82 degrees in winter months meanwhile homeowner is wearing tanktop and shorts inside
  • AC set to 68 in summer
  • multiple TV’s, lights, and other electronics turned on in every room of the house, even when not in use
  • clothes being washed (in hot water) & dried every day of the week
  • (not the home owner’s fault) the solar hot water heater was commissioned/calibrated incorrectly

So although extensive measures were taken to ensure an energy efficient home, it’s all irrelevant as long as the end user is consuming large amounts of energy on a daily basis.  

I’m not blaming the Building Enclosure Council, Habitat for Humanity, SIPs manufactures, or the end user for any of the above; in fact, I think it’s a great step towards sustainability in the housing industry and certainly a way to bring awareness and start to uncover the layers….explore…find solutions.  Do I think that this particular model serves as a good prototype for future Habitat homes, or homes in general? Probably not…simply because I don’t think that $233/sf is accessible to most Americans looking to build a simple 1300sf home on a budget.  I also don’t see the construction of SIPs panels and the cranes required to be very accessible to most ‘hammer & nail’ toting American with good friends and neighbors who are willing to help them build a home. I also think that the discussion of Passive Solar design is a worthy one when investigating how to design a truly energy-efficient home.

My point in all of this is just to bring it back to that simple #1 Learned Lesson.  We can spend hundreds of thousands

 of dollars on high-tech equipment, gadgets, and materials, but are we really addressing sustainability?  Are we using less energy and REALLY building an energy-efficient home???   I think that this situation proves to us that we cannot and will not address the sustainable housing issue until we start with the education of the end-user.  We, as home owners and home builders, have to examine our own personal living practices. Are we wearing tanktops inside on a 30 degree winter day? Do we have our AC pumping when it’s 80 degrees and breezy outside?  Did we turn off the light when we left the bathroom?  Can we hang our clothes out to dry vs. turning on the dryer on a beautiful Spring day? Can we live in a 1300sf home vs. a 3100sf home?
To truly be ‘sustainable’ and live in energy-efficient homes, we have to start with ourselves.  In my opinion  you don’t need a lot of money or the top notch solar panel to do this.  Minimize. Simplify. Create conscientiousness around what it means to be ‘energy-efficient.’  When we start with ourselves and create that change, our neighbors will see and recognize and learn by example.
I believe that we have to stop looking to the building industry to show us how to live energy-efficient lives and start looking at ourselves and how we live.  
In the words of the Building’ Enclosure Council, lets all start by:

Committing to Energy Conscientiousness….Developing an Energy Management Plan… and Educating Each Other




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