Reflections on the natural building movement

During a week in October, a group of about 80 natural builders came together for the annual “Natural Building Colloquium” in Southern Oregon. These events began about 15 years ago, as a way to bring members of the fledgling natural building movement together to share stories and techniques, meet and get inspired. The movement has grown since then, but the colloquiums continue to be an important annual (or biennial) meeting for builders to come together and share their work.

This year’s event drew people from all over North America, including Ontario, Vermont, Mexico, New Mexico, and of course the Pacific Northwest. People shared pictures of their work and shared new techniques, as well as discussed the challenges facing the both movement and the world.

As attendees and co-organizers of the event, we were very impressed by the high-quality work that was on display, as well as the efforts people are making to bring natural building out of the “Back woods” and into the public eye. Many kinds of natural building techniques were represented, from an earthbag orphanage in El Salvador to a museum in Canada using almost every material imaginable. Without exception everything we saw was both beautiful and functional, a testament to the materials and the builders. It struck us that many of the projects we learned about would have been earth-shattering 15 years ago, but now are almost “Common place.” This speaks volumes about how much the natural building movement has grown over the last decade, and is a sign of what the future holds.

We were also impressed to see how much work is being done to make natural building more accessible in places with restrictive building codes. On a national level, Tony Novelli and David Eisenberg at the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT) continue their tireless work to convince building officials around the country that part of their responsibility in ensuring the health and safety of buildings should include considering the health of the planet. On a more local level, natural building advocates in Portland have helped to create a committee to help get natural building projects through the permitting process. The committee, called the Alternative Technology Advisory Committee (ATAC) is working with builders and homeowners to permit a range of projects, from load-bearing cob and straw bale to rocket stoves. And in the Bay Area, a group of women builders has managed to convince the city of El Sorbante (outside of Oakland) to grant them a permit for a light-straw clay infill retro-fit.

There were a number of attendees who have been successfully working as plasterers and artists using natural plasters and paints. They shared pictures of their stunning work as well as new “tricks of the trade,” in the spirit of cooperation and community. There is obviously a growing market for the beauty, ease, and environmental advantages of using earth as a building material.

A significant amount of discussion took place with regard to our changing world: There was a general sense that, with a new economic reality, a changing energy landscape and the threat of climate change, natural builders will be called upon more and more to provide sensible solutions to address these problems.

Needless to say that there were also many casual conversations, new friendships formed, music played and community created. As in previous events, these moments were often the most valuable and memorable ones, a good reminder of the importance of connecting with those around us and having fun. As our “organization” has a slightly anarchistic streak, there are no plans for a colloquium next year; however, they always seem to happen anyway…