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Natural Building: A new course of Action

Magical homes and cottages are popping up all over the country. Magical? Yes, very much so. When first time visitors enter one of these homes they often immediately fall in love with the place. They want to touch the walls, sit on the heated bench and marvel at the sculptural works that are integrated into all aspects of the building. They fall in love with the light, the softness and the general feeling of comfort that they haven’t felt in a home for a long time. They fall in love with a natural building.

But the magic doesn’t stop there. Once their dropped jaw is back in the original position, they usually want to know mostly one thing: How do you do this? They then discover that the owner, who had never built anything before in her life, took a one-week course in some form of natural building, and with the help from friends and neighbors built the place for $2500.

“So what’s that stuff made out of?” The visitor continues, now unstoppable in solving this puzzle. He discovers that the thick sculpted walls are made out of a mixture of sand, clay and straw, called cob. Mixed by foot on an 8×10 blue tarp and wetted down, these ingredients turn into a soft clay type consistency, which is then added to the walls in small batches. Send those same ingredients through a fine screen, make a mixture out of them with the consistency of cake batter, and you have an earthen plaster with which you can finish the walls.or the bench, or the fire place, or the earthen oven, or the garden wall, etc.

So why is cob one of the important techniques used by practitioners of natural building?

  • Materials are natural and non-toxic

  • Can usually be found locally

  • Requires a minimum of industrial mining, shipping, processing or manufacturing

  • Anybody, with a little help and training, can do it

  • Only need a few simple hand tools

  • Your house may as well become pretty darn affordable.

However, cob is just one of many techniques used by practitioners in the growing movement of natural building. Depending on local circumstances, available materials and personal preferences, people build with stone, poles, saplings, straw bales, bamboo, or any combination of these materials. The igloo is a classic example of natural building. In the United States, local materials also include the enormous amount of goods that are being shipped off to the dump. Windows, doors, lumber, sinks, furniture, as long as you have a population base near by, you will be able to find just about anything for next to nothing.

About half the world population still practices natural building in one way or another. Up to 150 years ago we were all natural builders. Toxic materials such as formaldehyde-based glues, plastics, paints, asbestos and fiberglass didn’t exist. There was no energy-intensive, sophisticated transportation system in place that could transport products and materials around the globe, causing environmental disasters far away from the building site. There were only hand tools, the neighbors, the community and the celebration of the human spirit. Innovation, creativity, adaptability and a lot of elbow grease were all necessary ingredients in the process of creating a home.

Now the earth is groaning. Here in the Pacific Northwest we experience first hand the devastation that our current building practices bring to our forests. Our homes are full of products, such as steel, aluminum and concrete, which take huge amounts of energy to produce and ship and in the process contribute significantly to global warming. People in China and other places experience the destruction of their own eco-systems and communities as they find themselves producing inferior products for our homes. These are the same products that end up in our landfills, as they didn’t satisfy us after all.

And the earth is not the only one groaning. The cost of housing has consistently outpaced inflation. This has conveniently benefited the professionals in our society who are put in charge to provide housing: Banks, realtors, architects, contractors and producers of industrial building components (and their stock holders). It has also, however, brought home ownership to an all-time low: only about 5% of the people own their homes out right. The rest either have the bank or some other entity as their landlord. When we consider that most people take out a 30-year loan when buying a home, while at the same time so many homes that are built these days only last about 50 years, then we know we are ready for a new course of action.

For the past 40 years, people from all walks of life have challenged the industrial building paradigm. From the back to the land movement of the sixties and seventies to the innovative straw-bale building revolution in the nineties, many of us felt that the search for the development of comfortable, affordable and responsible homes was a worthwhile pursuit. Independent from one another, hundreds of people expressed their concern for humanity and the earth through developing new designs and building techniques, some of which became nationally known and sometimes even accepted by building code officials. Houses were built out of bales, rammed earth, used tires, adobe, cob, and many of us lived in tipis and yurts.

Since 1994, Natural Building Colloquiums have taken place annually. Practitioners from all over the country have been coming together to share, learn and celebrate. It has been during these gatherings that natural building as a movement became more defined. We discovered that, although we came from different bioregions and used different techniques, we all had similar interests, concerns and struggles. We have become a community of people dedicated to a new course of action.

Now, thousands of people have taken courses in natural building, many have gone on to build their own natural home. In absence of land or money to by land, people have pulled their resources together and bought land as a cooperative. Eco-villages and intentional communities have been logical hosts to the natural building spirit.

An interesting alternative to buying land is gaining popularity and deserves special mentioning. There are many people with excess land who would not mind someone else building a small natural cottage somewhere tucked away in a corner. An example of a common agreement between the land owner and the builder is that the first 2 years after completion of the building are rent free, after which the builder will start paying a small rent of, let’s say, $75 per month or 6 hours of labor on the land. It is obvious how this can become an incredible win/win situation.

But you don’t have to build a home from scratch to get involved in natural building. Many of the techniques can be directly applied to existing homes. Earthen plasters can replace toxic paints, earthen floors are great alternatives to carpets and hard-wood floors, internal walls can be made out of cob or wattle and daub and different techniques using straw can make a healthy replacement for fiberglass. People considering expanding their homes through conventional methods may consider natural building design techniques. By looking at the existing space through a different set of eyes, one may likely save thousands of dollars and end up with a better home.

Thinking along those same lines one should consider outdoor natural structures as an opportunity to bring beauty and joy into your life through natural building. Earthen ovens are gaining enormous popularity, as well as cob garden walls, rock sculptures and outdoor fireplaces. Guest cottages, saunas, garden sheds and children’s play houses are all perfect ways to get in touch with the builder in you.

Last but not least, many of us are bringing natural building into the community through public projects. Public squares, bus stops, schools, libraries, these are often dreadful, lifeless structures that can truly use our help. The opportunities are endless.

So, go take a course, help someone out who is building a natural home near you, get some clay and sand and get dirty. It will change your life as it did mine. We all have inside us the ability to work with natural materials. Celebrate that ability!

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