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For housing solution, Petaluma builder looks to the earth

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WANT TO HELP MIGUEL ELLIOTT LEARN TO USE AIRCRETE?

Donate here: gofundme.com/AirCrete-Workshop

As a battered Sonoma County focuses on recovering from deadly fires that displaced thousands of residents, a Petaluma builder hopes to turn to the earth for answers to the dire housing crunch.

For the past two decades, Miguel Elliott has been creating structures with cob, a sturdy and natural sand-clay-straw mixture.

Now, he hopes to use AirCrete, a lightweight and inexpensive concrete-based material, and his cob techniques to construct homes for those impacted by fires and for Sonoma County’s homeless population.

While the construction of a typical home is often accompanied with a costly and lengthy construction process, the dome-style cob housing Elliott hopes to create can take as little as two weeks and $1,000 to build, he said.

“There’s a big opportunity here for implementing alternative solutions after the fires,” said Elliot, who owns the building company Living Earth Structures and has completed a medley of other projects locally and out-of-state, including a straw bale school at the site of the Standing Rock protects in North Dakota and benches for local high schools.

Elliott hopes to work with a friend who will attend a conference in Baja, California this month to learn to use AirCrete, a lightweight and quick-drying building material. AirCrete homes would cost about $2,000 and can be completed in a few weeks, he said.

“AirCrete is 100 percent fireproof and waterproof and it’s very well insulated,” Elliott said. “It’s very light weight and very easy to pack and form into the dome’s bricks. It can dry overnight. The technique is, you put liquid detergent into a little machine called the Little Dragon and that turns the detergent into a foam that kind of looks like shaving cream that’s mixed with cement, which is basically a combination of shells and lime.”

Elliott hopes to create small clusters of the two-story dome homes that could potentially feature small kitchenettes and bedrooms in the 120 square-foot structure, with other shared utilities such as bathrooms and larger kitchen spaces. Those campground-style communities would have about 12 homes each.

He’s been working with engineers to get his structures to comply with state building codes to streamline the application process at a local level.

Elliott is hoping to work with municipalities to tailor zoning codes and other regulations to allow for those small structures to be habitable and permissible under local zoning regulations.

He’s presented the idea to the Santa Rosa City Council and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, who he said showed initial interest. Specifics, including funding sources and locations, are still in the works, Elliott said. He envisions that the developments could be community-oriented projects.

Those who learn the tricks of the trade through building their own homes could in turn help others with their dwellings.

“The individual structures people live in can be done creatively and have the people who want to live there help build them,” Elliott said. “They would be a sweat equity model where they would get the house very affordably because they’re putting the work in and doing the labor themselves and that’s very empowering.”

While Elliott has yet to present his idea formally to the Petaluma City Council, he’s been working with Petaluma People Services Center Executive Director Elece Hempel to identify potential locations for such a village in the city. Hempel, whose nonprofit has provided housing to thousands of fire victims through its home share program, said out-of-the-box thinking will be necessary as officials create a blueprint for the future of housing in Sonoma County.

WANT TO HELP MIGUEL ELLIOTT LEARN TO USE AIRCRETE?

Donate here: gofundme.com/AirCrete-Workshop

“Let’s use 2018 as an opportunity to really look at what has been successful and build on things we’ve done in the past,” she said. “That’s why these cob homes are something I’m fascinated with — it’s an opportunity to look at something differently. We all need housing; this is a way to look at housing differently.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)