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
The Case for Natural Building
What is Natural Building?
Natural building is any building system which places the highest value on social and environmental sustainability. It assumes the need to minimize the environmental impact of our housing and other building needs while providing healthy, beautiful, comfortable and spiritually-uplifting homes for everyone. Natural builders emphasize simple, easy-to-learn techniques based on locally-available, renewable resources. These systems rely heavily on human labor and creativity instead of on capital, high technology and specialized skills.
Natural building is necessarily regional and idiosyncratic. There are no "right" answers, no universally appropriate materials, no standard designs. Everything depends on local ecology, geology and climate, on the character of the particular building site, and on the needs and personalities of the builders and users. This works best if the designers, the builders, the owners and the inhabitants are the same people. Natural building is personally empowering because it teaches that everyone has or can easily acquire the skills they need to build their own home.
Natural building is not a new idea. In many parts of the world, almost all building still conforms to these criteria. Until the Industrial Revolution, the advent of cheap transportation, and the professionalization of building and architecture, the same was true throughout Europe and America. Pioneer families in the United States built their own homes out of local materials, as the First Peoples here and everywhere always have. Our modern building industry with its resource-extractive, energy- and capital-intensive, toxic, and inaccessible practices must be seen as a temporary deviation from this norm. Let's look at some of natural building's many advantages over conventional modern building practices.
It's no secret that the global ecosystem is ill. The housing industry is a major contributor to the problem. Here in the Northwest we see the evidence all around us; the trail from clear-cut to sawmill to building site is easy to follow. Other major modern building components depend on destructive mining: gypsum for sheet rock; iron for hardware, rebar and roofing; lime and other minerals for cement. Every material used in a typical modern building is the product of energy-intensive processing. The mills which saw our lumber, the factories which make plywood and chipboard, the foundries which make steel, the plants which turn natural minerals into cement by subjecting them to enormous heat, all consume vast quantities of power, supplied either by the combustion of coal and oil, the damming of rivers, or the splitting of atoms.
These manufacturing processes also release toxic effluent into the water and hazardous chemicals into the air. The manufacture of Portland cement, for example, is responsible for an estimated 4% of greenhouse gasses. And even after our building materials are made, modern construction depends on an endless stream of polluting trucks to deliver them to us, usually from hundreds of miles away.
In contrast, straw and other materials favored by natural builders are biological by-products which would otherwise create a disposal problem. Enough straw was wasted each year in California alone to build tens of thousands of family homes. Until recently, nearly all the straw produced in California was burned in the fields, but clean air legislation has outlawed that practice. Faced with the problem of what to do with all the straw they can no longer burn, California rice growers have thrown their significant political clout behind legalizing straw-bale building, with the result that the state of California drafted and adopted straw-bale building guidelines.
Of course, it's impossible to build a house with no environmental impact, but it's our responsibility to minimize and localize the damage. Digging a hole in your yard for clay to make a cob house may look ugly at first, but it's a lot less ugly than strip mines, giant factories and superhighways. Nature has enormous capacity to heal small wounds; that hole in your yard would make an excellent frog pond. Many of us religiously protect the trees on our property, then go to the lumber yard to purchase the products of wholesale clear cutting. If we choose to build with wood, it seems a lot less hypocritical to take down a few select trees near our homesites and run them through a small portable mill, or thin overcrowded woodlands of small-diameter poles and build with those. Keeping our environmental footprint under our noses helps ensure that we will minimize our impact and protect the health of our local ecosystems, since we see them from our windows and walk through them every day. Building with natural, local materials also reduces our dependence on the polluting and energy-intensive manufacturing and transport industries.
Many of the most fervent supporters of natural building are people with acquired chemical sensitivities and other environmental illnesses. These people are particularly aware of how modern buildings make us sick, but we all know it. Even the mainstream press carries frequent stories of cancers and respiratory problems linked to formaldehyde-based glues, plastics, paints, asbestos, and fiberglass, to name a few favorite culprits. The toxicity of these materials impacts everyone associated with them: the workers in the factories and warehouses, the builders on the construction site, and the inhabitants of the poisonous end products. Natural materials like stone, wood, straw and earth, on the other hand, are not only non-toxic, they are life-enhancing. Clay, one of the most useful natural building materials, is also prized for its ability to absorb toxins and restore health. Natural healing traditions rely on it heavily, for both internal and external applications.
There is increasing evidence that modern buildings also compromise our psychological and emotional health. Right angles, flat surfaces that are all one color, and constant uniformity don't exist in the natural world where our ancestors evolved. They may trigger a subconscious reaction which tells us "there's something wrong here," keeping us continuously nervous and stressed. Most modern homes certainly don't stimulate our senses with the variety of patterns, shapes, textures, smells and sounds that our pre-industrial ancestors experienced. The uniformity of our environments may contribute to our addiction to sensory stimulation through drugs and electronic media.
Apart from that, there is a good feeling we get from natural buildings which is difficult to describe. Even though conditioned to prefer the new, the shiny, and the precise, we respond at a deep level to unprocessed materials, to idiosyncrasy, and to the personal thought and care expressed in craftsmanship. Nearly all the natural buildings I have seen, regardless of the level of expertise of the builders, are remarkably beautiful. Living in a hand-crafted cob house, I grew to expect the looks of mesmerized awe I saw on the faces of first-time visitors, and the difficulty they had prying themselves from the warm earthen benches when it was time to leave.
Modern building is a big-money industry, with all the problems associated with other industries. In the race to maximize immediate profit, long-term concerns like the health of the environment and its inhabitants are often overlooked. The rich and powerful are able to make their own homes and lives pleasant at the expense of those less privileged, often far away in distant countries. Furthermore, the building industry and regulations concentrate power in the hands of the government and selected corporations, by enforcing compliance with a limited set of options. If the code says we have to use concrete foundations on every building, just think how much money the cement manufacturers will make!
We grow up being told you can't build a house unless you're a professional builder. If we want a house, we have to work full-time at a job we usually dislike to make enough money to pay a builder who probably hates his job, too. Since we're convinced we need to spend $150,000 on a 2000 square foot house, we chain ourselves to a thirty-year mortgage which forces us to keep working at unsatisfying jobs for the rest of our lives.
But it doesn't have to be that way. By using local, unprocessed materials like earth and straw, building smaller than the conventional house, and providing much of the labor yourself, you can create a home that is almost unbelievably affordable. As the price tag drops from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands or even a few thousand dollars, it becomes easier to shrug off the yoke of loans and mortgages. You can also save yourself money in the long run with a smaller, more efficient house that uses simple passive solar technology for heating and cooling. As a result you may find your cash needs dropping. You can cut down the hours you work and spend more time with the kids, or grow a big vegetable garden which will save you even more money.
Techniques which rely on human labor and creativity produce a different social dynamic than those which depend on heavily processed materials, expensive machines, and specialized skills. When you build with straw bales, cob, adobe, or rammed earth, the whole family can get involved. A building site free of power tools is a safe and supportive environment for children to learn valuable skills. Or invite your friends and neighbors for an old-fashioned barn raising. Offer them food and an education in exchange for their time and energy. It's a good deal for everyone, and a lot of fun. While building your home you're also building a different kind of social structure where people depend on themselves and each other to get their basic needs met, instead of handing over their power to governments, corporations and professionals. When those of us who are relatively affluent use a smaller share of the Earth's resources, more becomes available to the less privileged and to future generations.
The Natural Building Resurgence
For all these reasons and other personal ones, some individuals have always challenged the modern building industry paradigm, preferring to build for themselves using local materials and traditional techniques. During the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 70s, thousands of people found themselves desiring to build their own homes from available resources, without professional assistance, without much training or money. They were inspired and aided by the example and writings of contemporary pioneers like Helen and Scott Nearing (Living the Good Life, etc.) and Ken Kern (The Owner-Built Home, etc.) The energy crisis of the mid-70s focused public attention on our use of natural resources and on the energy-efficiency of our buildings. At that time a huge amount of research and writing was done on passive solar building, alternative energy systems, and sustainable resource use, much of which was subsequently swept away by government policy and public apathy during the 80s.
Although no longer receiving much popular press, the experimental work of conservation-minded builders continued throughout this period. In the late 1980s, a flurry of activity surrounded the rediscovery in the Southwestern United States of straw-bale building, a technique which had risen to brief popularity in Nebraska in the early part of this century. In Tucson, Matts Myrhman and Judy Knox started Out On Bale, an organization devoted to popularizing this elegant and inexpensive construction system. Around the same time, Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley, inspired by the centuries-old earthen homes in Britain, built their first cob cottage in Western Oregon. The interest generated by this wood-free wall building technique, which had proven itself well-suited to cool rainy climates, led them to found The Cob Cottage Company.
Meanwhile, Iowa-based Robert Laporte had combined the traditional techniques of timber framing from Japan and Europe with straw-clay, an insulating infill of clay-coated straw from Germany, and was teaching his natural-house building workshops across the United States and beyond. Persian architect Nader Khalili had established Cal-Earth, a center in Southern California devoted to developing, educating about, and gaining code acceptance for earth building systems. Also in California, David Easton was building and writing about monolithic rammed earth walls, while others experimented with compressed earth blocks.
By the early 1990s, there were dozens of individuals and small organizations in the United States researching, adapting, and promoting traditional building systems. These visionaries proceeded with their work independently, largely unaware of the existence of the others. Then as the straw-bale boom in the Southwest took off, attracting the interest of national periodicals like The New York Times, National Geographic, and Fine Homebuilding, and as increasing numbers of natural building workshops were offered and people were trained, the "experts" began to hear about and meet one another.
In 1994, The Cob Cottage Company organized the first "Alternative Building Colloquium," inviting natural builders and teachers from around the country to spend a week together in Oregon. The idea was for these leaders to get to know each other, to share the building techniques they knew best, and to begin to join their various philosophies and experiences into a more cohesive system of knowledge. During that gathering, and the six Natural Building Colloquia which have followed in New Mexico, California, Maryland and Oregon, workshops were given on wall-building systems ranging from adobe to wattle-and daub, roofing techniques like sod and thatch, and foundation systems including rubble trench, dry stone, and rammed-earth bags. Lectures and slide presentations filled the heads of all those present with information on recycled materials, designing with natural forces, bamboo, greywater systems, co-housing, creating sacred space, structural testing and building codes, composting toilets, architectural education reform, steam generation, and a hundred other topics. Traditional yurts, timber-framed structures and straw-bale vaults sprang up and were decorated with multi-colored clays. Ideas and techniques collided and merged, coalescing into hybrid structures including a straw-bale-and-cob dome, and a straw-bale/cob/clay-straw/wattle-and-daub cottage on a stone and earth bag foundation.
Out of these Colloquia and the numerous other gatherings and collaborations of people interested in natural building, a few things have become clear. One, that we are all working together. Even though we may have chosen to focus on different techniques or aspects of natural building, we are all motivated by the same concerns and our personal experience makes up part of a consistent larger body of knowledge. Two, that we are not alone. As word gets out to the greater public, we find enormous interest and support from a growing community of owner-builders, professional builders and designers, activists, educators, writers, and conservationists. And three, that together we hold a great deal of power. The power in our ideas and collective action is capable of influencing the way our society thinks, talks, and acts regarding building and resource use. We are helping to create a society where some day, natural building will again be the norm in the United States as it still is in much of the world, and where a new cob house with a thatched roof in any American town will draw only an appreciative nod.
Michael Smith was a founding director of the Cob Cottage Company. He teaches natural building and permaculture throughout the western United States, Canada and Mexico. He is also a founder and organizer of the Natural Building Colloquium. email@example.com
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