From the Outside In: Originate’s Natural Building Materials

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Natasha Winnik likes bringing the outside in. That means making interior spaces with products that resemble and uphold the beauty of nature. She does this by working with and selling natural building materials for homes and business. Everything from countertops to fireplaces, paints and plasters to stains and sealers made with materials that are non-toxic and durable, and made from natural, renewable, and recycled resources.

Originate exterior

Originate exterior; photo courtesy of Natasha Winnik.


Winnik first learned about the materials while doing a summer internship at The Presidio Trust in San Francisco. Her task was to do in-depth research on natural materials and how they could be used.

Some years later, after being laid off from a job with an architecture firm, she decided to put her library of knowledge to good use. She bought a building in the Dunbar Spring neighborhood near downtown Tucson and opened Originate, a retail supply store for sustainable interior design and building materials.

At the time there was no other local supplier like Originate, so her goal was to make the materials accessible to people. “Back then you could only see the materials online or a 2×2 sample, so you had to envision how to use  them. There were all these barriers to using them,” Winnik said.

But she wasn’t starting entirely from scratch. There were other green building businesses across the country, and she began looking at what was happening elsewhere and assessing what was needed in Tucson.

Builders in Tucson and parts of Southern Arizona have been celebrated both for their use of natural building materials such as adobe, strawbale, rammed earth, solar and for the ways they incorporate permaculture design and rainwater harvesting on personal and commercial properties.

But when it came to the inside of homes, Winnik said, “We were going back to Home Depot and Lowe’s to buy toxic materials. I saw interior natural materials as a void in our community. I was filling a community need.”

Winnik found much inspiration from the passion and cooperation she saw in the region’s natural building movement, pioneered by local practitioners like Bill and Athena Steen, who show people how to build with local and natural materials through their nonprofit organization Canelo Project, Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox, and David Eisenberg.

“A lot of that work is based on the idea of a barn raising. The idea you can bring people together to get something done that you couldn’t do alone. I was really drawn to that spirit,” Winnik said.

Natasha Winnik

Natasha Winnik; photo by Susan Denis.


Bringing the Outside In

Winnik prefers the term “natural” over “green” when referring to materials and design because it encompasses a consideration for renewable resources from the earth as well as non-toxicity in materials. Also, because she likes the idea of using outdoor elements such as colors and textures from nature.

A home interior that uses natural materials can also make a space feel more alive, Winnik said. Renewable materials such as sorghum, bamboo, and cork have inherent surface markings. “By integrating those patterns or rhythms into our houses, it adds a layer of intricacy that is soft and delicate and beautiful.”

Non-toxic clay plasters and paints use natural pigments to bring natural colors and a warm, earthen feeling to interior walls.  “They have a soft color tone that matches the desert,” Winnik said. “I always say clay walls seem to be giving you a hug.  They envelope you with a softness versus concrete and gypsum, which are more cooling.”

Some mineral pigments come directly from the earth and are used as is, Winnik said, while others undergo a heating process that changes their tint. Either way, they are “of place.”

Here in the Sonoran Desert people find shades of gold, red, or ochre. In Sedona, pigments are redder. People have unearthed purple pigments from the Painted Desert of Northern Arizona, she said. “Once you get into it, it’s really fun. If you have a favorite place, it’s a way to bring that home with you and integrate that in.”

Exposing What’s There

Winnik recently had to move the business from its 12-year location due to the Downtown Links corridor, which will run through the former site.

Finding an old building in the inner core of the city for her company’s new home was critical. She said there’s still a false belief that the only way you can have a green or natural or a healthy building is to build it from the ground up. “I really disagree with that. There’s a resource in the bones or the structure of the building that’s inherently there. If you can reuse that it’s one of the most sustainable things you can do,” Winnik said.

Originate’s new home is a brick building in Dunbar Spring, seven blocks from her old location. It was built in 1924 had a “very active community life” over the decades, she said. For its first 24 years it was a Chinese grocery store, then it housed a barbecue pit, a cleaning business, the American Legion, a bar, and most recently, the Red Barn Theater.

Winnik has worked to expose the brick walls and has used earthen plasters in some areas and sealed the wood finishes with Tung oil, also known as China Wood oil, which comes from the seeds of the Tung tree grown in the mountainous regions of China. She used Marmoleum, sustainably harvested wood, and cork for the floors.

One of Winnik’s philosophies is to celebrate the existing materials of a site. When she acquired the new building, for example, its exterior was covered with shiny epoxy paint. The first thing she did was sandblast that off to expose the brick.  Inside, she exposed the wooden trusses. “You don’t have to cover or envelope everything. You can appreciate the pieces that are there.”

Originate interior

Originate interior with exposed wooden trusses; photo courtesy of Natasha Winnik.


Also, since the former building is slated for demolition, Winnik brought pieces of it to the new building as a way of holding that memory and recycling. The old doors from the original location, for example, are now featured in the new space. “It doesn’t make it easier, but it has a layered beauty because of those pieces.

“It’s really nice to design your space around a favorite painting or family heirloom. You can choose your colors and pigments that way, so that it resonates with your heart. That was really conscious here.”

Localism is important to Winnik, who uses local artists and suppliers as much as she can. Local artists created her logo and business materials, and she buys from local suppliers whenever she can.

Shaping the Market

Originate serves homeowners mostly, and some local businesses and designers, who together have shaped and continue to shape the market for the materials.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, for example, if consumers wanted a house paint that was “natural,” without synthetics, they had to order it from Europe. Now such paints are more available in the U.S., in part because consumers have demanded it.

Without consumer pressure, American-made materials can sometimes be more toxic, Winnik says. She gives the example of linoleum flooring, which originated in the Netherlands and Scotland. Made from linseed oil, rosins, limestone and wood flour, with a jute backing, and mineral pigments, it was naturally biodegradable and completely renewable. It was easy to clean, durable, resilient, and non-toxic.

After WWII, the use of vinyl (first introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933) in such flooring made it more affordable. And much more toxic, Winnik said, because it is made of PVC, polyvinyl chloride, which is a plastic containing carbon, hydrogen and chlorine. “It is one of the nastiest materials out there,” Winnik said.

While less expensive, vinyl linoleum is also an inferior product, according to Winnik, since it lasts only 10 to 15 years compared to the 40 to 50-year life span that the original had.

Fortunately, more consumers are choosing Marmoleum, a brand name of earth-friendly flooring similar to the original linoleum, Winnik says.

“I have been really careful about having no chemicals in the building. It’s a strong choice for me.” She said she only works with contractors who will abide by that. “I tell consumers the same thing. That they should provide materials  to the job site, not expect the contractor to make those choices.”

While consumers push for more energy efficiency in their homes, “We also have to think about what we’re putting on the inside. Not enough people consider indoor air quality.”

Winnik said she sees a shift happening towards more care for the inside of buildings, but says it’s not happening as quickly as it should: “Not fast enough to prevent too many people from getting sick from a bad remodel or exposure to mold.”

Caring about what goes into your construction and space-making, Winnik says, often results in people opening up to the world around them — that includes other people, plants, and ideas.

“Once you step in this direction, you can’t go back. It’s way beyond the building materials. It becomes about the whole environment that you set yourself in.”

This October, Originate celebrates its 13th birthday. Visit the new location and check the website:

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