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Soft materials

It is important to consider the characteristics of the materials you bring into your house. By understanding how they effect you, you can then choose use materials that will make your living condition more pleasant, harmonious, functional, and healthy. These very important considerations are mostly overlooked in the conventional building industry.

Building materials have many different characteristics. They may be heavy or light, locally harvested or from far away, rough or smooth, synthetic or natural. One often overlooked but very important quality of materials is their hardness. Over the years I have come to appreciate the implications that harder versus softer materials have on the quality of our home and life.

The harder the materials are in your house, the louder it will be. Buildings made out of steel, glass and concrete tend to have acoustics that do not make for pleasant conversation. Concrete and hardwood floors will make hollow sounding houses. Tiled hallways sound cold. Conversely softwoods, gypsum, rugs and cloth tend to quiet down a place, make it feel more intimate and conducive to conversation.

There is a small science museum in Ashland that is made out of concrete and glass. On the weekend there are about 200 kids running around in it and the noise becomes almost unbearable. It is a lot easier to have a whole bunch of kids over to your house if you have a “quiet house,” with soft sound-absorbing surfaces. Because we connect with other people through conversation, a place with poor acoustics is a big toll on the quality of our life.

Besides hard materials, other things that will make the sound bounce around are high ceilings and very smooth surfaces. Good ways to quiet down your house are by bringing in books, quilts, throw rugs and soft plasters, such as gypsum and earthen plasters. Soft furniture also helps.

Softer materials tend to be warmer as well. In our climate, a soft wood floor feels much better than a concrete or tile floor, while in tropical climates a clay-tile floor makes your feet feel nice and cool.

Interestingly enough, our bodies don’t like hard surfaces. If we stand and walk on concrete or other hard floors, our back and knees begin to hurt. Metal park benches are easy to make and maintain, but nobody likes to sit on them. Cast-iron patio furniture looks great but is very uncomfortable. This all makes sense of course, as the way our bodies are formed is the result of tens of thousands of years of evolution, during most of which we did not use steel and concrete to give us “comfort.” If you are sensitive enough, you may notice that by walking bare-foot on a smooth concrete floor your feet will actually tell you that there is something “not right” (grocery stores are good place to try this).

Hard materials tend to be, well, hard to work with. They are what I call less “democratic” materials. They mostly have to be produced by very energy intensive industrial processes (think of steel, concrete, glass). Then they often need to be installed by professionals with specialized tools and once in place are hard to change or modify. Doing custom work with hard materials tends to become very expensive. Conversely, soft materials tend to be less energy intensive to produce and easier to install and modify. For example, there are many more amateur carpenters then amateur welders in the world.

One of the most compelling, but at the same time more obscure and paradoxical reasons why we advocate for softer materials, is that the softer materials tend to be more “alive.” They tend to change in color, texture and feel over years of use. Although they may get damaged more easily than harder materials, the damage done is often not as bothersome. Take a kitchen countertop for example. A crack in a concrete or tile countertop, or a chip out of a hard plastic countertop is immediately an unsightly blemish. But in a wooden counter top knife marks look fine and if they get out of hand, a sander will easily make it look better again. The same thing is true for wooden tables and walls.

People tend to want to buy things that will last a lifetime and won’t take any maintenance but as a result are “lifeless.” Because of their lack of life, these products quickly bore us and we actually want to replace them. Not everyone can afford to do that so some will just continue on living with their stainless steel, marble, concrete and tile. The irony is that in trying to buy things that will last forever, we actually might be replacing them sooner than if we had bought materials that were more alive. The average household in the united States spends about $10,000 per year on remodels, most of which goes into kitchen and bathrooms—typically the rooms with the hardest materials.

Cob is a relatively soft material, comparable to pine. It works very well for floors and walls, in conjunction with earthen plasters. Cob may not be the best for benches, as most people don’t like to sit on a hard bench (but you can always add a cushion). Cob is very democratic, easy to learn, requires almost no tools, and is easy to modify.

The earthen plaster in our house tends to get nicked up a bit, mostly by the kids using some of our low walls as climbing structures. Cob does not age as gracefully as wood, so I will re-plaster at some point. But, because of the texture, the feel and the fact that it was plastered by hand, the few cracks and blemishes don’t stand out as “damage.”

The materials you use in your house greatly influence the comfort and quality of your home. A friend of mine summarized it beautifully: Only use materials that you like to be close to!

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