The Building Codes
Societal Impact Matrix
Return of The Village
Habitat For Humanity
Curves of Breath & Clay
Overview of Techniques
Nature, Earth & Magic
History of Cob
Cob Q & A
Compressed Earth Blocks
German Clay Building
Earthen Plaster & Aliz
Solar Water Heater
Building with Nature, Earth and Magic: The Natural Buildings of Sun Ray Kelley
It's a scene right out of Tolkien. Elves and gnomes must have come out of the mist to create these dwellings curved cottages of tree poles and cedar shakes, sculpted earthen walls, convoluted stone foundations. Roofs curve and soar like fronds or bird wings: some are topped by grass or moss.
They rise like mushrooms in a 12-acre meadow on a ridge in northwest Washington, surrounded by a fir and cedar forest that looks west across the Skagit River Valley to Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains beyond. Amidst conifers, apple orchards, berry patches and vegetable gardens, the structures in this Ecotopian fantasy world were not built by elves and dwarves at all, but by Sun Ray Kelley and various crews of volunteers and apprentices over the years. Sun Ray has lived on this land all his life, as did his father and grandfather before him. Sun Ray's School of Natural Living is also here, where he conducts workshops on the art of natural building.
"Natural building is a matter of focusing," says Sun Ray. "We concentrate our energy on the task of hand-creating a home. We use the skill of envisioning, which is seeing the structure in our minds, commonly called 'design.' We break the mold of square boxes and are free to imagine; using nature both the world around us and our own inner nature as a model for unique, livable and living homes that express our own souls and the soul of nature. We use the skill of creating, which means taking that vision and making it a solid reality in the physical world, commonly called 'building.' There's more to natural building than swinging a hammer," he grins, "though we do that too."
It began 23 years ago, with Sun Ray's first building, the Earth House: two stories of open floor plan below and a cathedral loft above, with two bedrooms like wings on either side and two attached greenhouses. The roof fans out from a high point and sweeps down in a smooth arc on all sides to short vertical walls, plastered outside with stucco and lined inside with cedar. All the timber framing was done with round, unmilled logs collected from windfalls in the forest. The roof/walls are of split cedar shakes, now growing a beard of rich, green moss. Earth House is abundant with artistic touches: a carved wooden door, stained glass throughout, a goddess-shaped carved soapstone fireplace, and cast bronze hands lovingly holding up the rafters.
"I learned a lot from my first home," Sun Ray says. "Now I'd use more insulation, and better protect the wood in the greenhouses from rot. And I'd put the kitchen in the southeast instead of the northwest, for more lighting."
"These days I like straw-bale, cob, and living roofs," he adds, "though I still love working with wood. Here in the Pacific Northwest we have some of the greatest building materials on Earth. The beautiful cedar, fir and other woods are a blessing for our creating. We gratefully take from the forest what it offers, because I believe that the spirit of the wood wants to be taken by human hands and shaped into something new. It wants to be used so it can in a sense live again as beautiful and functioning parts of our homes or as sculpture. That's how we honor the wood and the forest."
Subsequent buildings include the four-story Sky House with its radiant floor woodshop and greenhouse, and a round yoga studio. Sun Ray built the studio with 16 modular wall and roof panels pre-built in the shop. It features a sculpted a wood timber-framed and earth-sculpted, definitely feminine entryway, with diamond-shaped windows and pink plastered walls with mica flakes that sparkle in the light. His latest building project is a round timber-frame structure with a stone foundation, straw-bale walls, and a "living" sod roof.
Costs for these buildings are hard to figure. Some of the materials especially wood and clay come from the site, while most of the labor has been provided by volunteers or workshop participants. A boom truck, dump truck, tractor and power tools are already on site. There has also been some bartering for labor and materials. In natural building, materials are usually cheaper than in conventional building: however, projects may require more, or less, labor, depending on the material and the workers' skills. But labor generally requires fewer technical skills and tools.
Timber framing the core of much of Sun Ray's work is an ancient technique, native to Europe and Asia. Sun Ray uses it to join wood poles in the round, with logs not milled into dimensional lumber. He uses wood that is too small in diameter for saw logs, but which is strong and beautiful when used as round posts and beams. Sun Ray makes joints by cutting saddle-shaped notches in upright posts, in which joists and rafters are laid, or by carving holes in the underside of ridge beams where posts can be inserted. Gravity holds timber framing all together. Often he curves ridge beams to give the roof and overall house an organic shape. This beautifully utilizes curved logs usually considered worthless for milling.
Here all buildings exhibit an awareness of the four elements, in terms of their proportion, placement and joining. Earth is honored with stone, mud, wood and straw; fire with fireplaces made of cob or soapstone, or of conventional brick. These use the Rumford design, with a shallow but tall fire area, where logs burn vertically and their heat is thrown back into the room. Water is present with radiant floor heating, with tubing set in concrete slabs or earthen floors of poured adobe. Porous earthen plasters without cement stucco are used in these buildings so the walls can "breathe." (Regrettably, most codes for straw-bale construction require cement plaster on the exterior, though the substitution of lime, gypsum, wheat paste, horse manure, cactus juice or even Elmer's glue can make non-concrete earthen plasters quite durable against weather).
Nature is ever the model. Rocks stay close to the ground, trees soar upright and branch out, floors are of earth, walls are of straw with earthen plaster. Whenever possible elements are arranged as they are in nature although sometimes rules are broken and the trickster emerges, such as an upside-down tree, its rootball whimsically poking up in the air.
Roofs can also be created in more healthy, beautiful, and sustainable ways than conventional metal roofs or asphalt shingles. The latest technique used here is a living roof that can grow grasses, wildflowers or ground cover such as strawberries. After the framing is up and the rafters on, rough-cut cedar planks are overlapped across the rafters. As the roof is curved and hollowed, Sun Ray bends the planks to follow the curves easily. Then he applies "Torchdown," a waterproof modified bitumin-rubber roofing material. Applied with a propane torch, sheets of roofing are overlapped until a waterproof membrane covers the entire roof. Then a growing medium is thrown over the Torchdown. (Straw, soil or wood chips can also be used.) Throw in grass, herb or wildflower seeds; add rain and watch it grow. A living roof like this provides insulation, natural beauty and no loss of green growing area! Torchdown, the only non-organic material, costs $40 for a 39" x 33' roll, and covers 100 square feet. It's tearproof, waterproof, and all but eternal when covered with earth. [Editor's note: while the living roof concept works well in moist climates, they would need constant irrigation to survive in arid climates. However, traditional adobe/pueblo buildings did use earthen roofs they just weren't employed as living roofs.]
One of the best natural materials, and one gaining popularity in alternative building circles, is cob an earthen mix of clay, sand, straw and water. These materials are combined on a tarp in optimal ratios depending on the desired use and qualities of the soils on site. The materials are mixed by walking on them and blending them together until uniform. Then they are laid wet upon a stone or rubble foundation and built up slowly and methodically to form a monolithic wall. Cob can be sculpted into curves, set with bottles, or decorated with rocks and shells. It is durable when raised off the ground above the splash zone, and overhung with ample eaves. Used appropriately, cob's great earthen mass helps keep houses warm in winter and cool in summer. Cob is healthy to live in and dirt cheap. No wonder people around the world have been using cob for millennia.
Light is an important aspect of natural building, especially in the cloudy Northwest. All the houses here take advantage of southern exposures with windows or attached greenhouses. The glazing reveals beautiful views and keeps a connection with nature even indoors, helping occupants feel part of the landscape. Nature is invited in, enticing the residents outside.
Sun Ray's community values beautiful, healthy, natural structures that people feel good about building and living in. The stone, soil, trees and straw in these buildings have used little energy in their processing, packaging, shipping or production, and will return to the Earth without landfilling or causing pollution. Many are alternatives to products from a lumber industry that is destroying our forests and causing numerous problems with surface water, wildlife, air quality, and global warming. Straw is often burned as an agricultural waste, contributing to the greenhouse effect. However, as a building material, straw is cheap, quick and easy to install, and provides excellent insulation value. Earth, the most common building material in the world, is cheap, healthy, durable, benign and can be sculpted into beautiful shapes. And these materials contribute no harmful chemical contaminants to indoor air. But the most sacred aspect of buildings of these materials is how well and healthy the people feel who work and play within them the heart of creating with nature.
Human beings are here to perceive the beauty of the natural world, and then express it through their hands, hearts and minds. Our buildings can be works of art that blend in with and enhance the natural world, sheltering us as natural beings in a living world.
"The Earth is not dirty," Sun Ray often says, grinning through his typical end-of-day mask of dirt, hair tangled with straw, hands waving emphatically in mud-coated gestures. He must be some kind of magical creature... an elf, dwarf or gnome. Perhaps such an Earth-loving, home-building creature lives in every one of us, just waiting to come out.
Writer and natural builder Gregg Marchese has served as an intern at the School of Natural Living.
Workshops at the School of Natural Living include Plastering, Straw-bale Building, Timber Framing and Cob Construction. For more information contact (360) 854-0413; 13470 Janicki Rd., Sedro Wooley WA 98284.
This article was originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Communities magazine and is reprinted with their permission. Communities is published quarterly at Rt 1, Box 155, Rutledge, MO 63563. Annual subscription (four issues): $18
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