What is "Natural" Building?
This essay is based in experiences I had at a week-long cob building workshop in the summer of 1997. I have no intention of writing a blow-by-blow description of that cob building workshop - the best advice I can give is to go and take such a workshop and have one's own experience of it. I am instead going to focus on some particular aspects of the workshop that sparked my curiosity and caused me to think further and deeper about certain questions. These further ponderings were triggered by events and experiences before, during and after the workshop itself. Therefore, in the spirit of wholistic systemic designing - and the ongoing discovery of my implicit assumptions - here are some thoughts on "natural building."
At various times during the workshop, Ianto Evans, co-founder of Cob Cottage Company, commented on natural building materials in comparison to the highly manufactured materials used in most contemporary industrialized-nation building methods. The word he used that stood out the most to me was "violence."
Most of these industrial materials, he suggests, are the product of intrinsically violent processes - sawn and milled lumber, crushed rock, and so on. He echoes this sentiment in a video that his company offers, talking also about how most construction sites are populated by young males, harsh, loud music and even louder electric and gasoline power tools. He indicates that building homes for human beings is more deserving of peace, natural materials and joyous human voices than of harsh sounds and materials born of violence. I could hardly agree more, especially after the experience of the workshop - but the topic does not rest so easily in the larger contexts of life.
Portions of some of these thoughts had come to me before. I remember a radical environmental group that had been involved in tree-spiking - driving large metal spikes deep into trees that were then hung with signs informing the timber companies that the trees had been spiked. The intent was to stop the cutting of the trees, as the spikes were difficult and costly to locate and remove and the trees could not be run through the sawmill safely with the spikes in them.
When a few such spiked trees did get put through the sawmill, the saw blades shattered, expensive equipment was damaged and mill workers were at risk of serious injury or death. The timber industry vilified the tree-spikers as criminals willing to kill innocent mill workers and called tree-spiking an unconscionably violent act. The portion of the response from the tree-spikers that I found particularly relevant was when they suggested that their actions, done with full warning to the timber company, were certainly less violent than thoughtlessly taking chain saws to trees hundreds or even thousands of years old.
In this way I had come to consider the violence inherent in cutting ancient living trees for construction timber, or pulp, or what have you. Not until Ianto's comments in the workshop and video, however, did I reflect on the process that produces lumber for construction after the tree has been felled - a process that is essentially the same for an ancient forest giant as it is for a third-growth timber plantation tree.
A few weeks after the workshop, I found myself backpacking in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. Wandering from lake to lake on the edge of the timberline, I frequently crossed talus slopes, boulder fields, rock slides and the debris of ancient glacial grinding and gouging. Together with the thoughts about trees, lumber and violence in building materials and methods, this experience gave rise to a veritable swarm of questions about what might be called "natural" building.
Is crushed rock from a rock-crusher somehow more a product of violence than crushed rock from a glacial moraine? Is sawmill lumber from a plantation tree less violent in its genesis than sawmill lumber from a 500-year-old forest monarch? What about the felling of the former compared to the latter? And the violence of a monocrop agroforestry timber production system? Is it more or less violent to remove gravel wash from an existing river bed than to quarry it from a hillside that was a river bed millions of years ago? These are a few of the questions that arose in me as all these relations coalesced.
There are no easy answers to these questions, and the attempt at answering gives rise to yet more questions. For example - in an attempt to draw my own lines and determine what feels right to me at present - crushed rock. I do not feel like arguing with natural processes - if this material is produced by rock slides, glacial action and the like and it suits my needs I will certainly use it. Where it is produced by giant industrial rock-crushing machines, would I be foolish to refuse to use it? Knowing for myself that this production process is unsustainable, I would perhaps eschew the products of it. However, is one process intrinsically more or less violent than the other? When we consider what we call "the violence of nature," is it any different from the "violence of humankind?" If so, then how?
In the case where buying industrial crushed rock contributes to the demand for industrial crushed rock and perpetuates the rock-crushing industry, I would prefer to avoid using it. Using it in carefully-planned "alternative" construction methods where it would function for tens of decades rather than merely tens of years seems more acceptable to me. Were the rock crushed by human power, at what I would call "human scale," I would be happy to use it, especially if I had done some of the crushing myself.
From the above brief and limited example, I notice that to me process and intent are significant factors in how "natural" I regard a building material or method to be. Regarding processes: is the process that creates the material one that occurs in nature outside of significant human influence, or under human influence that works with rather than against existing long-term natural processes? The more it is so, the more acceptable the material is to me - and I must still consider the sustainability of my usage. If I take this much, when (if ever) will it be replenished by these processes? How long did it take for the amount that I take to be created? Am I helping or hindering, directly or indirectly, the processes of creation and/or replenishment?
Timber is a good example for these questions. Trees, and the forests they populate (in conjunction with countless other plants and animals), grow and die continually. If I can make use of portions of dead or dying trees, that may be preferable to cutting live and healthy trees - but there may also be cases where the health and productivity of the forest as a whole will benefit from removal of certain trees even if they are relatively healthy as individuals. Also, if I take more over time than the forest can produce in that time, there will be consequences for myself and/or my fellow humans, as well as other animals and plants.
This manner of questioning bears recursive application to interrelated processes. Some materials will exist where I use them; other may not. Do I need to transport the material from where it is produced, and if so what means do I use? What is the source of the energy used to transport it? What are the consequences of using that form of energy? Is the particular material really necessary? Have I perhaps chosen an inappropriate place to build, lacking in all basic building resources? And if I am shaping the material (such as wood or stone) beyond the form it is in when I obtain it, the same recursive line of inquiry appears again - what means of shaping? What source of energy? What consequences?
Where intent is concerned, using a given material at or near its "highest use" is to me more natural than using it wastefully or inappropriately, even if the material is the product of petrochemical industries or the like. The concept of "highest use" is not easily pinned down precisely for any sort of material, and depends on dozens or hundreds of interrelated factors. To me it depends on a combination of what guides the builder's choice of certain materials over others and what determines how they are used.
If wood is used for a particular element, what is the depth of reflection behind the intent? Is the wood used for a variety of relevant reasons, or for one particular aspect or effect only? Considerations such as strength, durability, esthetics, renewability, workability, availability, embodied energy and more combine to determine highest uses for various materials. Considering only one of these attributes in the choice of a material is likely to result in wasteful practices. The more waste, the less natural the material or method - natural ecologies do not produce waste! Only our species seems to have imagined such a thing, and having imagined it, we imagine it exists in nature and begin to see it everywhere.
Some examples: pouring a thick concrete slab foundation with the perimeter dug down below a four-foot frost line is wasteful. Using a minimal concrete bond beam to secure a hand-laid foundation of locally sourced stone in a seismically active area is closer to highest use. Cutting a tree solely in order to mill it into a square post is wasteful. Cutting a smaller tree that is used unmilled for the same structural purpose is closer to highest use, more so if the tree is cut as a result of selective sustainable forest management rather than at random or for aesthetic reasons only.
In the arena of natural building, a great number of materials and techniques are being rediscovered. Straw in various forms and uses, thatching, earthen walls, earthen plasters, use of found wood and minimally processed wood, stone and much more is being incorporated into ways of building shelter. None of these are new; rather, they are often quite ancient and have simply vanished out of sight in the vast wastelands of industrialized building. Some of them are still in use by large portions of the world's population.
Pondering again Ianto's comment about the population of building sites by young males, loud music and louder power tools, I notice that when one of these rediscoveries comes into use, there are immediate attempts to suit the method to our madness rather than temper our madness with the method. Specifically for cob, there are ongoing discussions on how to use industrial machinery to make the mix - tractors, mortar mixers, cement mixers, and so on. For earthships there are discussions on how to use pneumatic tamping machines to ram the tires full of earth; for earthen walls there are now systems that use concrete pumping equipment, wood and steel forms, backhoes and bulldozers. Earthen plasters are applied with equipment originally designed for spraying concrete. The "natural" building site is populated by young males, loud music and louder power tools...
Neither the processes nor the products of these sorts of endeavors are to me "natural building." Pumping earth through fossil-fueled industrial machines into plywood-formed walls strips the material of its connection to natural processes. To those less moved by such spiritual arguments, I suggest that the change in materials from concrete to earth is like the change from a thirty-mile commute to a twenty-nine-mile commute. Even if everyone does it, it will not be significant in the larger context. The basic rules of the game, the reliance on industrial infrastructure, remain the same.
In a nutshell, the modern industrial building process does not respect any of the elements it depends on for its continued existence. Land is used wastefully, at far from highest use. Wood, rock, metal, glass, earth, and so on are commodities and nothing more. Materials are brought from great distances for aesthetic purposes only, and the esthetics are dictated by an ecologically disconnected economic system which does not account for the true costs of extraction and transportation.
Perhaps saddest of all, the human aspect of building is all but eliminated. Creativity and craftsmanship is "uneconomical," as are diversity and richness in design and fabrication. Housing is but another commodity, factory-built for mass consumption. What does this say about our images of ourselves, that we house ourselves and our fellow humans this way? And where does it lead us?
If the rediscovery of more ecologically connected materials for building is forced into the existing process, it will fail to realize its full potential. The processes will (and has already begun to) commoditize the materials, and the lessons the materials might otherwise teach will be missed. Building is perhaps more important for the potential richness of the process than it is for the end product. Consider the Amish, who still have barn-raisings in the style common everywhere only a few generations ago. Entire communities come together and cooperate in the construction of what may be quite a large structure - three stories high is not uncommon!
The result is not simply a barn, although that is indeed one product of the event. The larger result is that nebulous process called community, about which so much is lately written and for which so many industrialized humans seem to be clamoring. If the barn had been built by a commercial construction firm, the process of community would have been absent - before, during and after the creation of the physical artifact "barn." When building shelter becomes a commodity process done only by a small group of specialists, is it any wonder that processes of community are diminished?
The barn-raising, then, accomplishes much more than just the raising of the barn. "Many hands make light work" of what would otherwise require industrial equipment to complete. The work is done on a human scale, not only in terms of materials and methods but in terms of interaction and cooperation. There is time and space (and quiet!) for important lessons to be learned - not only lessons about how to build a barn, but about how to work together, about how the barn relates to its surroundings and the uses that will be made of it. The same applies to building with cob, straw bale, light clay, and so on - even stick-framing!
The idea of "human scale" previously mentioned is a slippery one, yet the consideration of what is human scale and what is not is where I see the gap between natural and "unnatural" building most clearly. Pumping earthen walls through concrete machines is to me not human scale; pouring and tamping them "by hand" is. Using a crane to place a large roof beam is not human scale; using the cooperative energy and ingenuity of a group of people is.
When I try to get a feel for how close to my idea of "human scale" a material or method called 'X' is, I ask questions such as "can the people using/doing X make and/or maintain and/or power X with their local resources and skills?" For concrete pumping equipment and fossil-fueled cranes and bulldozers and countless other examples, my answer is "no." These, to me, are not human scale activities - they are industrial-scale activities. Not only are hundreds or thousands of people separated by great distances and economic disparities required to make these machines or materials, but also a petro-holic binge beyond imagining. In the balance of energy these activities are running a huge debit that they can never pay off, burning up millions of years' accumulations of organic matter in a dozen decades.
Human scale activities are to me the basis of natural building. I find it helpful to remember that what we modern industrial beings regard as "The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World" were all built using human (and sometimes domestic animal) muscles and ingenuity. There were no steel cranes, backhoes, bulldozers or the like in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome or China. To say that these works and hundreds of other examples around the world were built using slave labor or the like is to miss the point. They could equally well be built, if desired, by cooperating free individuals - or those individuals might choose to use their energies more wisely than to serve the desires of a despotic ruler or mad tyrant!
Perhaps the biggest challenge in natural building, one that has already overwhelmed industrial building and its symbiotic bureaucracy, is the risk of taking oneself too seriously. Dogma of any kind is the death of innovation, inspiration and creativity. There is no "one right way" to build and no limited set of perfect materials. Each site and situation is a unique design opportunity.
A friend of mine was relating his annoyance with a man he knew who was building a straw bale house. Apparently this person was a bit holier-than-thou in talking about how completely "natural" and ecologically and politically correct his building methods were, and my friend found it a bit much at times. Laughter being one of the best medicines, I suggested he ask the builder a simple and straightforward question, like "how did that straw get into those bales?"
Copyright © 1998 John Schinnerer