Over the past 15 years, the green building movement has grown phenomenally. Characterized by minimally processed materials and responsiveness to site and climate, natural building strikes a deep chord in many people. All over the country, in growing numbers, ordinary people are building homes of earth, straw, bamboo, roundwood, stone and reeds in various combinations.
Why do we do it?
Beyond the obvious reasons for building with natural materials—local availability, low embodied energy, thick walls, thermal mass, insulation, low toxicity, sculptability—there’s something intangible that pulls people. “Ianto Evans tells a classic story,” says natural builder and educator Janine Björnson, “about an elderly woman who drove her Cadillac out to the cob cottage that he and Linda Evans built. When Ianto led her through the cottage, she sat down and wept. Since childhood, she’d dreamed of a nurturing, magical home like that. I’ve seen many people have similar reactions.”
Architect Paula Baker-Laporte, who creates homes of light straw-clay in New Mexico with Robert Laporte, has experienced the same phenomenon. “When our home was featured in Natural Home (March/April 2002), we got hundreds of emails saying, ‘I’ve dreamed about a house like this all my life, and I didn’t know it existed.’
“When people come into our house,” adds Paula, “the first thing they say is, ‘It feels so peaceful.’ There’s a feeling of solidness and grounding. And it’s not monotonous; you look at a square inch of a natural-plastered wall, and you’re seeing ten colors; you’re not looking at flat eggshell white. The imperfections and the variations of the wood, the mud plasters, the earthen floors, and the natural stones are visually stimulating.”
Epiphanies in the mud
“Natural building resonates for people at a deep, core place,” says Joe Kennedy, an instructor in the EcoDwelling Program at New College of California’s North Bay campus in Santa Rosa. “After I led my first few workshops, I could almost predict what would happen. People think they’re taking a straw bale workshop, or a cob workshop, or whatever. The first day, they want information; the second day, they start to feel kind of strange; and the third day, they’re either ecstatic or they’re having a nervous breakdown, or both. At the end, they’re saying, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know…’”
Why? “I think a lot of it is the empowerment,” suggests Joe. “Shelter is such a primal need that creating our own place resonates with long-forgotten parts of ourselves.”
“For me, there are three primal elements going on with natural building,” says Tim Owen-Kennedy, owner of Vital Systems, a natural-building company in northern California. “The first is that you’re right in there with the source of the creation; it’s as close as we humans get to being the vehicle between nature and spirit. You’re working with nature as raw as it gets, and an idea as pure as it gets.
“Second, we’re making new inner space. I’ve experienced this over and over in workshops: We all stand on the land when it’s just land as far as you can see; then, after all the work, we’re inside something new. The outside space is still there, but what’s inside is far greater than what was there before.
“Finally, I think it’s the interaction with others. Natural building engenders far more cooperation and collaboration with other people than other construction techniques. That social element becomes a guiding force. So those three elements together just transform people because our culture doesn’t encourage them to go there.”
After the honeymoon…
Folks do get hooked. But, as with all love affairs, there’s more to the story. The intangibles draw them in, and the physical realities bring them, well, back to earth. Many people have the illusion that natural building is simple, inexpensive, easy to learn, and feasible anywhere.
“The natural building movement started as a grassroots movement,” says Paula. “People who couldn’t afford standard building materials, and lived where there were no building codes, started making their houses out of what was available.” When you’re not paying for labor, materials, or building permits, it can, indeed, be inexpensive. But most people aren’t in that situation.
Furthermore, there’s actually a lot to understand about how natural buildings function. It helps to know about design, heat, moisture, air movement, and structure: “building science.” Paula sums it up: “I’ve come to believe that, in order to be a good natural builder, first you need to be a standard builder, then you need to be a building scientist, and then you move on to what I see as a higher art form: natural building. With natural building, you don’t have an industry backing you; you have to know how a building comes together; you have to understand the materials.”
Then there’s the matter of local appropriateness. Paula tells people: “You need to ask: ‘Is it right for my climate? Is it appropriate for my building culture? Can anyone in my area build this way?’ If you live in a place like the Southwest, Austin, or California, where there are informed people who are responsive to natural building, you have a support system. Otherwise, you’re a pioneer; you’ve got to really want that house to fight your way through the red tape, the education, and the barriers people put up against unknown entities.”
The next horizon
These folks persevere because they simply love natural building. “Living in a natural home gives me my motivation,” says Paula. “Every day, I get to experience how good I feel and what the benefits are.”
Tim will continue to test and develop new aspects of natural building. “We’ve got a lot of energy and effort in the walls, but we need to apply our creative capacity to how roof systems can be ecologically and esthetically coherent. I’m really interested in the possibilities of bamboo.”
Joe is intrigued by urban applications. “Most of the natural buildings I’ve worked on have been out in the sticks. If you don’t have the human connections, natural building can’t make up for that. So now I’m looking at projects that can fit within the city. I like doing cob benches and earthen sculptures that people can just come across in their everyday lives.”
And Janine Björnson sums it up: “You know you’re in the right place and doing the right thing when there are no words to describe your experience. If you’re without words, you’ve found magic.”
Carol Venolia is an architect, author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988), and former publisher of Building with Nature newsletter.