Remembering Material Relationships | A Conversation with Ace McArleton


100 • Cycles

Volume 10, Issue 01
February 23, 2024

Ace (he/him/his) is a founder and director of Vermont’s New Frameworks, a multi-racial, women-, queer- and trans-owned design-build cooperative that utilizes local straw bales to create a “kinder sort of building.”

Michael Brittenham

How does your work play into the idea of cycles?

Ace McArleton

I would challenge us to ask if it ever doesn’t. We as humans are animals, we are nature, and we are the four elements, air, water, earth, and even fire. We’re at a point where the colonial myth of being separate from each other or nature is deeply under question.

I always think about the Frankfurt School of philosophy that emerged out of those fleeing Nazi Germany. To these philosophers, like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, the self, the other, and nature, were interconnected. You can’t have one without the other. Once we try to control one aspect of our world, all three enter into a state of domination.

And we’re seeing right now that ideas of superiority, of domination, are falling apart at the seams. So our work is an effort to reconnect and remedy the connections that already exist. I mean, it’s funny, right, because we’re not really reconnecting anything, we’re just remembering those connections. We’re reminding ourselves of them, we’re noticing them, and then we’re caring for them.

Since the beginning, we’ve believed that natural building is about relationships. It’s not about any single wonder material; it’s an approach. It’s a way of practicing and it’s a way of being in relationship with the earth, with ourselves, and with each other. It’s a way of remembering.


How does this manifest in the details of your work? What is “high-performance natural building”?


Super practically what it means to me is we use plant-based or mineral-based earth materials in ways that last, that are durable. They provide an interior conditioned space that is comfortable, safe, and healthy for people to live in and build with.

We’ve designed a system of everything from materials sourcing, to material processing, and labor. We work together as a worker cooperative. We have a bilingual company, Spanish and English, and many of our worker-owners are immigrants from various backgrounds.

We think a lot about our global responsibility. I’ve been in the natural building community for a while now and I love that there’s this great tradition of people putting things together with whatever they have and figuring it out along the way. There’s a lot to be said for that, but I think where it hits its limits is when we end up with buildings that don’t perform well over time because they were built without much regard for moisture and thermal dynamics.

So to us, high-performance means that if we’re going to use these materials that are amazing and so resilient, we’re going to use building science and technology to build things that last. Straw has awesome properties for being in a cold and wet place. It’s vapor-permeable, which means it can transfer moisture through it rather than getting trapped inside.

The idea that we could design water out of a building is a funny one. Water’s life, man, we know that. So we work with water. We ask, what are water’s properties, what does water want to do? How do we then intelligently design with water in mind, not design it out?


And what about air? When people talk of “passive” houses they’re referring to super tight envelopes that don’t permit air to pass except through a machine, which feels ironic.


I think mechanical ventilation does feel a little strange especially when we’re trying to make buildings that reconnect people to nature. I remember in the nineties when everybody started insulating the crap out of old buildings. One of the first apartments I lived in Montpelier underwent one of those energy performance upgrades where people threw a bunch of insulation at this old building but didn’t attend to air sealing or ventilation. What happened to that house is that all of a sudden it’s much warmer inside, but there’s nowhere for that warm air to go. Anywhere there were cracks, the hot, moist air would condense against the cold exterior sheathing or the cold window or whatever it was, and it had a lot of mold and mildew problems. This is not a good thing for human health.

So I’m not saying we need a machine to pump air in and out of a building, but we do have to be extremely intentional when working with pressure and temperature differentials. And it’s not just mold and mildew risk, but also things like CO2 levels. Balanced ventilation is critical to keep people and interior spaces healthy.


Buildings often get demolished at the end of their utility, resulting in massive amounts of waste. How do you design for the ultimate reuse or disassembly of your buildings?


I think the end is just a new start. So we work with prefabricated straw panels. We readily mark and indicate fastening patterns so that in 50 years someone can take it apart if they need to and alter it or expand on it easily. We build our structure with wood and use only nontoxic finishes. The straw, the framing, the paint, it can all be composted. It can become animal bedding. It can be burned and turned into biochar.


What is your engagement with architects like? What would you say to burgeoning architects and students who I feel are becoming more and more passionate about natural building as a way forward?


Well, first of all, that’s so awesome. To me the beautiful vision and promise that we have within our industry of architecture, engineering, and construction is that we get to build new things and imagine new futures. Unlike a lot of people who look at these global problems and don’t know what to do, we have a tangible thing that we can do. It’s so exciting.

I think architects need to go beyond simply an aesthetic approach to buildings and really incorporate materiality. Back to this idea of relationships, I would love to see architects build genuine, embodied relationships with Earth materials, plant-based materials, minerals, things that are in the local region, and really touch it, experiment with it, try things with it. It’s through that relational embodied experience that we then can understand the possibilities of form and the possibilities of aesthetics.


Speaking of relationships, I would love to hear about the challenges of running a truly progressive company within quite a conservative industry.


Even if we build with awesome materials, if we work in a negative-dominated way that harms either ourselves or each other or excludes people, it doesn’t get us where we’re trying to go. So, yeah, we have an intentionally feminist, trans-positive, queer, welcoming, bipoc-centered worker cooperative.

We obviously can’t have apprentices running job sites, but in terms of governance, we’re flat. Everybody gets a say in how we work safely together, what we need, and how we operate our company. And we take this directly democratic approach to the workplace and apply it to trade knowledge and manufacturing. We don’t keep any secrets about what we’ve learned over the years. This is the people’s work and we share it with anyone who is interested.

But I will say that especially recently, there has been such a turn of the tide. Because we have a clear vision, that this is the world we’re trying to create, in an industry that struggles to find workers and interested candidates, we’re often oversaturated and flooded with inquiries. People are interested in practicing this beautiful craft and doing something positive. So we’re at a point where we desperately need workforce development, we need training centers, we need to build up an ecosystem for people to be metabolized into this visionary approach to building and construction and design.


What should it feel like to enter into, and to exist within a building?


At the end of the day, it’s all about simply the feeling of walking inside and being somewhere. I think many of us want to feel embraced, to feel held, to feel safe, but also inspired and able to open up. A house is not just a retreat, but also a place that nourishes us through connection and openness. Feeling like we are reminded of our connection to place in any building that we enter or leave, we feel both our unique needs met as humans alongside the rest of our relations, you know, the forest, the trees, the soil, the fungi, everybody.