Megan Cain and Mark Sundlin are strong proponents of sustainable living. They met at Dancing Rabbit, an intentional, ecological community in Missouri. They value living simply and thoughtfully, and recently bought their first home at Troy Gardens, a new condo/co-housing development on Madison's north side that meets green-built standards. They love their bamboo floors and the sunlight from their many windows. It was only natural that they'd want to cover their walls in green materials, too, and American Clay caught their interest.
American Clay (www.americanclay.com) may be the perfect crossover product, bridging the green and the mainstream decorative worlds. It's made from natural clays and recycled aggregates; colors are created from natural pigments.
American Clay replaces paint and adds dimension and color to walls and ceilings. It can cover most surfaces and is suitable for any room. It's environmentally sustainable and easy to apply, even for novices. It can go right over drywall or even wallpaper.
Cain and Sundlin admit they aren't plaster novices. At Dancing Rabbit, they made and used natural plaster incorporating straw and other natural materials. American Clay was the natural product they wanted - without the added challenge of making plaster themselves. They just mixed and applied. They chose a bold Dakota Red for their living area and kitchen.
"Anyone can do it, once they get the hang of it," says Cain. The multi-step process is more complex than painting (see sidebar), but American Clay designed the product for everyone to use. Over a long weekend, Cain and Sundlin transformed a blank white slate to a warm, earthy-red haven. They also added mica chips, which produce subtle sparkles from light.
"It was a fun process," says Sundlin, but recommends researching the application method and taking the time to do it right.
American Clay is the brainchild of Croft Elsaesser, president and CEO of the company. Elsaesser had worked in the building industry around many toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can affect the nervous system and vital organs. Elsaesser was plagued with headaches, skin problems and a cough.
VOCs are found everywhere - in paint, cleaning products, office equipment and more. Mainstream plasters, including cement, acrylic and gypsum, often contain caustic substances and produce hazardous byproducts. They can also be harmful to people during their application.
So Elsaesser sought to create a natural plaster, minus VOCs. Inspired by European plasters, he and his mother, interior designer Carol Baumgartel, researched different materials and options. American Clay Natural Earth Plasters was born in New Mexico in 2002; the company is based in Albuquerque.
Baumgartel, now a company vice president, thinks current standard building materials and practices are a recipe for sick buildings. "We are kidding ourselves if we think we can maintain the levels of acrylic and petroleum products," she says. "Consumers were crying for a good, nontoxic product with beautiful finishes."
While clay plasters aren't new, American Clay's simple yet refined approach is a hit with professional builders and weekend do-it-yourselfers. In 2006, the company was named one of the Green 50 by Inc. magazine.
American Clay comes in 35 colors, three finishes and several texture options. Loma is the base for all finishes and is the easiest for beginners. Used alone, Loma can be matte or textured. Porcelina is the smoothest plaster, reminiscent of Italian influences. Marittimo finishes incorporate crushed oyster shells from the Gulf Coast. They are inspired by Morocco's Mediterranean coast.
Textures can look smooth, pebbly or troweled (regular or irregular), or have hand-textured designs applied.
The 35 base colors range from Dakota Red to Tuscan Gold to Lake Tahoe. Custom colors are possible. One bag of plaster finishes 80-120 square feet. For Loma finishes, costs average $1 per square foot for primer, plaster and color pigments.
"It spices things up more than painting," says Megan Cain, and thinks the product offers more room for creativity and experimentation.
Interior designer Carol Baumgartel recommends this traditional plaster process.
Choose your surface with care. Most surfaces work fine, but wood paneling and OSB (oriented strand board) should be avoided.
Prep your work area. Plaster creates more mess than paint, so cover anything you don't want plastered. Tape edges and corners, even if you would skip this for painting.
Apply Sanded Primer Elite. Primer provides tooth for the plaster to adhere. Let dry completely.
Mix Loma plaster with color pigments. The company practices ecological packaging and shipping practices, so you purchase pre-measured amounts and mix them yourself. Trowel onto surface and work until thinner than a credit card, 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch. Let dry completely.
Mix the topcoat plaster (Loma, Porcelina or Marittimo), add any texture (mica or straw) and trowel, again no thicker than a credit card. If you want to build in hand-formed texture, do that in this step. Let dry completely.
Spritz and compress to fully finish the surface, but only if you did not create any hand-formed textures. Properly finished, the surface should be dust free.
Save excess unmixed plaster for future maintenance and repairs. Save any mixed plaster, too, and just rewet when needed. To repair, trowel and compress over a blemish or scratch.
Plastering is not like painting, Sundlin says, because plaster moves. If you plaster to the ceiling, be sure to tape the start of the ceiling. If plaster ends up somewhere it shouldn't, just wash away with water. Smaller, flexible trowels work best in corners, Sundlin adds.
Baumgartel offers simple advice. When in doubt, dry it out. To impress, you must compress. Let primer and plaster coats dry completely between steps, which may take a day. Compress and compress during final step until the surface no longer moves or chafes under pressure or when rubbed.
Baumgartel recommends not sealing American Clay to benefit from its natural qualities. It repels dirt and resists mold. Sealer is available if you want a sheen or for walls exposed to high humidity or splashing liquids.
American Clay offers a DVD showing the process. Customer service is also available to answer all questions. You can request their Try-It Kit ($36) with three premixed samples, one of each finish, and three practice boards.
Where to buy
American Clay's closest supplier is Safe Building Solutions; W292 S4498 Hillside Rd., Waukesha, WI 53189; 262-968-5070; 800-697-5371; www.safebuildingsolutions.com
American Clay Enterprises, LLC; 8724 Alameda Park Dr. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87113; 866-404-1634; email@example.com; www.americanclay.com