Architect of Good Health  

Architect of Good Health

Bruce Millard employs recycled materials & a holistic philosophy

By Sandy Compton

Sandpoint architect Bruce Millard is enthusiastic about what he does ­ that is taking a holistic approach to designing buildings, particularly for health-conscious people who are concerned about their indoor environments. Various alternative construction materials sit on shelves and tables around his office to demonstrate what's available for healthy construction and invite questions from clients and visitors.

"The main thing I'm trying to do with architecture is look at it differently," Millard says. "What are we building? Where do the materials come from? What is the final product?"

Millard grew up in Pennsylvania and graduated from Temple University; he moved west in 1985, settling in Sandpoint. His small office upstairs in one of Sandpoint's historic downtown buildings, the Farmin Building at 111 Cedar, has some of the more typical items in an architect's office, too: elevation drawings of some of the buildings he has designed; a computer system hooked up to an electronic drawing pad; photos of finished homes; copies of newspaper and magazine articles; and academic memorabilia.

But his departure from academic architecture is still the most evident.

"The single-family home is at the core of the American dream, but we have lost the sense of home in the housing we build in this country. The houses don't grow out of the soil and rock.

"I want to build buildings that, when the building goes down, it goes back to the soil. When you take a 1990s building down, it's like a toxic waste dump. Now is the time we need to begin to learn how to live, build, design, manufacture without waste; with the idea that the house's decay will be beneficial to the earth."

Reflecting those ideas are the material samples around Millard's office: insulation made from surplus denim from a jeans factory instead of spun glass (very hard on the lungs) or petroleum-based foam; a furniture-building board made of pressed straw that contains none of the formaldehyde found in chip board or particle board, manufactured in a plant that costs 25 percent of a wood-based composite plant; pavers and building block made by mixing a minimal amount of cement powder with soil from the building site and pressing in a simple-to-operate hand mold; practically indestructible 2-inch-by-6-inch decking made from recycled plastics and the fine sawdust generated by furniture factories.

His favorite alternative material, though, is one of the cheapest, most easily obtained materials in any agricultural country and already a time-honored ingredient in buildings all over the world: straw.

"There are straw-bale houses in Nebraska that were built in 1915 and are still being lived in. There are mud-and-straw building centuries old standing in Europe," Millard says. "A straw bale has an R-value (measurement of insulating quality) of 45 and takes three months to grow. If architecture reflects the reality of the society, we should be building with it."

And he is.

Among other straw-bale projects, he has designed a prototype house for SNAP (Spokane Neighborhood Action Program.) Construction was finished in the spring. The prototype is used to demonstrate the insulating and sound-proofing qualities of straw as well as long-term energy savings and low maintenance.

Millard points out that the use of straw also means cleaner air ­ straw is an agricultural waste product that is often burned ­ and reduced demand on our forest reserves.

Architecturally, Millard is also a sun worshiper. "I think we need to bring in the sun, let the house breathe," he says. "Lots of people, including a lot of architects, place their houses with no idea where the sun is. That's a very basic thing. I got involved in the solar design business in the early '70s, and I've worked with the sun ever since.

"The sun is constantly in my mind in design ideas. As a heating element, the sun is great in spring and fall, and also in the cold clear days of winter.

"Light is very important in a building. That's why I design buildings with big windows and high ceilings."

If it seems that the physics of heating and cooling would make such a building hard to heat, Millard suggests using one of the most efficient means of heating ­ an in-floor radiant system.

Millard is also concerned about architecture that uses climatary design, regional design elements and fits the building site.

"In any city in America, the houses look the same. There's something wrong with that," Millards says. He adds, "Some of the most beautiful sites have some of the most poorly planned buildings. The beauty of the site is gone once they build an oversized house and garage and park too many toys on it.

"It doesn't need to be that way. To be an architect for the community, you have to be concerned about the health of the person (you are designing for) and the community more than filling the site."

Millard says that building the right product for clients means you have to ask questions.

"I really try to do a very personalized design, and that means asking questions, sometimes difficult questions about lifestyle.

"Where are your priorities? Are your priorities toxic boxes or spiritually lifting, sun-filled houses? What about health? I see people taking care of their health, but they are building unhealthy houses. If our livers are absorbing petrochemicals and we're being bombarded by electromagnetic fields, how can we be healthy?"

"We go to Disneyland, Mexico, Europe; all to escape the environs we live in. Why don't we build what we want to escape to?"

Sandy Compton is an editor and freelancer and a regular contributor to Sandpoint Magazine.

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