Clay Wall Application for Brooklyn Brownstone

Clay is a wonderful substance. It literally sucks the toxins from your body if you put it on your skin. When eaten it stabilizes your stomach bacteria to healthy levels and is full of nutrients. When put on walls it gives off negative ions and helps stabilize humidity in the air. Negative ions are the same elements in the air after a cleansing rain that make life feel wonderful and new.

Ever since people lived in dwellings they have put clay on walls. Here is an 1853 drawing of the city Timbúktu which is entirely built out of clay.
Timbúktu 1853

As green builders in Brooklyn we were excited to start using clay on Brooklyn brownstone walls. It seemed so green! When we looked around there was only one place we found that offered clay wall applications. It is a company called American Clay out of New Mexico. They offer a wonderful product.

But we had a problem with using the American Clay product in Brooklyn, NY. It is not a local resource. To truck mud half way accross the country seems a total abuse of energy.

And then there was the issue with regional building needs. New Mexico is full of clay walls. The Indians have been doing it for a very long time. Brooklyn does not have clay walls. There is a reason for this. A Brooklyn brownstone is a very different ecology than a New Mexico adobe.

Brooklyn, unlike New Mexico, is much more humid. Clay absorbs water and expands drastically. This means that clay walls in Brooklyn are going to suffer from cracking.

The other thing is the bastardization of a building technique. Putting clay over earthen adobe walls is one thing. There are a lot of reasons why you want to do that. Putting clay over a sheet rock wall in Brooklyn is a totally different thing. You have taken the clay out of context. There are many reasons why you don’t want to do that.

The main one is the huge importance to build with local materials. If you live around stone, build with stone. If you live in a forest, build with wood. These are the natural materials of the environment. They resonate locally and will work better.

The moment you put clay on a sheet rock wall you are working with concepts and not reality. You want clay because you have heard it is a really cool green product not because of any practically building need.

Despite all this, American Clay is telling the world that their product is great for Brooklyn. So we kept researching.

And as it turned out one of our clients asked for it. A certified American Clay installer did the job.

First they primed the sheet rock with their primer which makes the clay clink better to the rock.
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Once done the clay looked great.
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But it also cracked.
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The stuff cracked all over the place…..the client is pissed, the installer is blaming the clay and American Clay is blaming the installer. They are all miserable.

And it turns out that this happens all the time. We have since heard from almost all the local American Clay installers that cracking is a major issue in Brooklyn.

Bottom line, American Clay is good for some parts of the country but not Brooklyn.

But we still felt that clay has its place in a Brooklyn brownstone so we kept researching for an American Clay alternative. We wanted local and since there is no local clay wall supplier we did what Eco Brooklyn does best – we got creative.

We bought 500 pounds of various earth products – silica dust, dolomite, quarts dust, coarse sand, white sand, fine sand and lots of clay. Clay from Massachusetts, clay from NY, clay from Florida, clay from Pennsylvania. Warm clay, white clay, gray clay. Oddly enough we didn’t get Brooklyn red clay?!! We wanted something lighter since Brooklyn brownstones are so dark and we are obsessed with light.

But we will probably realize our folly and order some Brooklyn red too.

This has led us to a wonderful discovery of what clay mix works for Brooklyn. Here Gennaro Brooks-Church is applying an Eco Brooklyn clay mix to a wall.
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Here is an example of a wall with clay application.
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Here is another with some color. We kept the color subtle since we were still focusing on getting the mix right.
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We made a lot of mistakes.
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But we have honed it down and are getting great and exciting results! More on that in another post!

About the author: Gennaro Brooks-Church

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