Versaterra

 

Versaterra is a holistic design, building and living philosophy, celebrating clay-soil as its primary building material. Clay-soil is:

  1. plentiful, inexpensive (mostly free), durable, easy to maintain and modify and endlessly reusable

  2. non-toxic, breathable, soft, beautiful, displays superior performance in a wide variety of climates

  3. sculptural by nature and simple and inviting to work with, without needing complicated tools or methods, easily combines with other natural and recycled materials.

By focussing on these qualities of clay-soil, we can make the design, building and living process a conduit for community revitalization and personal transformation, while creating dignified housing for humanity.

 

The versatility of working with clay-soil is expressed in three different ways:

  1. Clay-soil can be used to make a great variety of things, such as structural walls in the form of cob or adobe, infill methods such as light-straw-clay, as well as floors, plasters, paints, ceilings and even roofs.

  2. It has been practiced by many people in many places and for a very long time. From Native Americans in New Mexico to desert cultures in Yemen, to villages in Bulgaria, clay-soil has been part of the building vernacular. Consequently it has been successfully used in many different climates, from the plains of South Dakota to the tropics in Mexico.

  3. The designing, building and living processes become more than just merely physical or technical event. It also has the potential to greatly affect the way we relate to our greater communities (family, neighborhood, city, planet) as well as how we develop as psycho-spiritual beings.

 

 

Dignified housing

 

People who aim to house themselves with dignity may work towards the following:

  1. mortgage free living, creating adequate housing without being shackled to financial institutions. This could be in the form of land/house ownership, but may just as well take place in some form of community housing, shared land, nomadic lifestyle or “houselessness”

  2. a non-toxic environment, devoid of off-gassing petro-chemicals, nearby polluting industries or overpowering “traffic jungles”

  3. minimizing and simplifying personal indoor space while maximizing outdoor and community spaces

  4. home as the primary place of being, living, working

  5. reverse development: rich countries embrace simple earthen construction as a way to improve their overall life, poor countries honor their tradition of earthen construction and learn to enhance it to meet changing standards and needs. (safety, cleanliness, structural soundness, natural light, etc.). In the end, may we all “live simply, so that others may simply live”

  6. a living environment characterized by harmony and beauty.

 

Community revitalization

In Versaterra we use the design, building and living process as an opportunity to stimulate community revitalization by:

  1. bringing ritual to the building process such as thanksgivings, sharing circles, prayer, etc.

  2. celebrating through humor, music, and dance

  3. having the majority of the labor be of low or medium skill so all feel confident to participate

  4. having the building site be mostly devoid of constant noise and power tools in order to create a safe environment and stimulate conversation and connection

  5. ensuring that, when possible and practical, all are invited: Male and female, young and old, those from far and near, those who we need to heal relations with

  6. regenerative building: working towards practices that will enhance, strengthen, secure local eco-systems rather than destroy distant ones. This is a sure way in which we can also secure a worldwide system of life, health and healing.

 

personal transformation

By using clay-soil as a primary building material and by encouraging community revitalization as described above, the following personal transformation have great potential to take root:

  1. I’m not alone, many others want and believe the same things as I do

  2. I’m capable, I can build things

  3. I can be a provider of housing for myself and others, without having to do demeaning bread labor and/or be tied indefinitely to predatory financial institution

  4. I am part of something larger than myself and within that, I matter

  5. I am unlearning: concept with regards to creativity, design, housing, economics and community, embedded in us by the dominant anglo- european culture and schooling, are unraveling. New sensible ideas start to take shape by the new space created

  6. my building practices are strength and health creating and may have regenerative effects on my body and soul.

 

 

Principles

 

Versaterra can be most successful when we understand and feel comfortable with the following principles:

 

Hierarchy of materials: Earth first!

  1. Primary natural building materials: local clay-soil, sand and fiber (straw, grass, etc.). These ingredients become the default setting when it comes to choosing materials. Most of the building is made out of these materials.

  2. Secondary natural building materials: local wood, timber and stone. These are in particular useful for foundations, second story support and roof structures

  3. Thirdly: recycled materials: putting the waste stream of society to good use. This can include anything from chunks of concrete to electrical materials to waste plastics for insulation

  4. minimally used: new industrial building materials such as steel, hardware, plastics and wood

  5. minimally used: stabilizers and natural preservatives such as lime, cement and oils

  6. To be avoided: other petro-chemicals, such as paints, glues, silicones, spray foam, etc.

  7. in climates where the temperature dips below 50 on a regular bases, glass greatly improves the livability of a space. In wealthier places it is easy to obtain this for free out of the waste stream.

 

 

Embodied violence: Hitler's cello

I have a friend who is a professional cello player. He recently bought a cello that was built by a student of the famous Stradivarius. However, that was not the most special thing about his new cello. He also found out that it at one point in time was owned by Hitler… Whenever I tell this story, people always gasp. Immediately questions arise, spoken and unspoken: would I want to play or own that instrument? Will it sound different now because Hitler played it? If Hitler’s energy is in the cello, can it be undone, for example by having it played by people full of love? The immediate rise of these kind of questions suggests that most people feel that material goods can hold energy.

 

In versaterra, this energy is expressed through thinking of the presence or lack of violence in the building process, referred to as “embodied violence”. Versaterra is uniquely equipped to create structures with a very low embodied violence.The following factors increase the level of embodied violence in a building (These factors refer to all activities, including mining and harvesting materials, transportation, assembling):

  • the use of fossil fuels and other high amounts of energy input (including solar electric)

  • The distance materials and people had to travel to get to the building site

  • The danger all activities cause for humans and all other life

  • The level at which builders are abused, demeaned, under paid and in general disrespected. these factors will lead to anger, resentment, poor quality of work

  • The cost of the building. Higher cost often means abuses outside of the building site by businesses where the money was made or by financial institutions handing out loans. (or both!)

  • The presence of hard materials such as steel, marble and concrete as these often require loud, violent machine and high levels of energy for processing and installation

  • The amount of petro chemicals that were used, creating health problems down the line for the producers of the chemicals, the installers, the inhabitants of the building, surrounding eco systems and all of life that will be affected by the chemicals after the house has ended its useful life.

  • The speed in which a building is constructed

 

While in use, the entire lifestyle and human relations of the inhabitants of a building will have a major influence on the level of embodied violence: it can be brought back down, just like playing the cello lovingly can get the Hitler out of it…

 

House as process, not as product: Wabi Sabi

“Wabi-sabi represents Japanese aesthetics and a Japanese world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete". It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence, specifically impermanence, suffering and emptiness or absence of self-nature” (source: Wikipedia).

Wabi-sabi goes hand in hand with versaterra:

  1. we treat a building as a living unit, not a static one. The life of the building starts with the people coming together to build it and ends with the clay-soil returning to the earth. over the course of this lifetime there is always change, movement, damage and repair, growth, shrinkage and aging. All these processes can be appreciated and can help us understanding life in general. By looking at a house as a living thing, we are invited to relate to it, get to know it, fill it with our spirit. All of this is very different from a house that is seen as a product, finished and sold and then deteriorate from there on.

  2. Because building with clay-soil creates buildings made out of unstabilized materials, (meaning, if you make it wet it will become soft again, unlike concrete for example) it has impermanence built in. It shows soft sign of wear and tear and can be modified and repaired without changing the character of the material. It shows age and life at the same time. This is a sharp contast with static building and spaces. The subtle changes will remind us of “the nature of nature”

  3. because we can sculpt earthen building materials to our liking, we create imperfections in the process. This way we automatically eliminate the feeling that manufactured materials give us, for example in the form of perfect flat surfaces or hard 90 degree angles. It makes buildings look and feel more natural and eases our stress levels that would be created by the lack of natural phenomena in our structures.