Natural Building

Is it an art or art itself?  Building with materials that easily return to the earth is a noble cause and a yes to both of the above questions.  To think about the end of the building lifecycle as simply melting back into the earth is a nice thought.  Todays building industrycob oven treeyo and its supply chain of industrial forestry and synthetic this and thats is a nightmare for the environment just like industrial agriculture.  However there are alternatives or maybe norms shall we say since still half the worlds population is living in earthen structures.  However in the west it was shunned and we once again went the chemical route thus inviting a plethora of off-gasing from carpets, paints, and plastic flooring and the sickness and waste that follows.  But we can once more look to the past and see how things were done then, then move forward with the ethics and Principles of Permaculture, and leverage strategies and techniques that are climate and context appropriate.  We can still have a cozy house, one that reminds us daily of our our committed work when building, and in the end it will still just compost back down. We export much of the hard work of building to industrialism, its wastes are not seen as they go to a landfill, and the tree that was harvested has no relationship with you.  Its out of sight out of mind philosophy of the west that is ruining our precious planet and the people around it with the thirst for capitalistic housing.  However housing can be a different model, one that spurs local economies and involves people locally with non toxic materials.

Reciprocal Roof Earthen Roundhouse at an Eco-village in New Zealand
Reciprocal Roof Earthen Roundhouse at an Eco-village in New Zealand


Natural building couples very much with appropriate technology as even orientating our houses to the sun side is a good beginning in most climates.  From there we invite other heating, cooling, cooking, and other energy saving and distributing technologies.  Natural buildings can be quite radical in simplicity but remember to make them comfortable enough for living.  And if you already have a house and still want the experience of say stomping cob there is always the cob oven project for the backyard if you will really use it.

Our inspiration, as always, within permaculture comes from observation within nature.  All other creatures make their niches with earthen or readily available mineral materials. This has given us inspiration both from their houses they create but also the sacred geometry inherent in their own physical design; pattern understanding and application.  As you can see on the slide below on the left are two nests from birds and their application.  They use earth

Box turtle, a tortoise of the eastern deciduous forest of North America who carries its house around. Geometrically patterned to blend with nature and uses lasting materials for protection and survival
Box turtle, a tortoise of the eastern deciduous forest of North America who carries its house around. Geometrically patterned to blend with nature and uses lasting materials for protection and survival

and straw just like many of our natural building techniques.  They often utilize a bit of their own ingenuity like the bottom picture with the swallow that uses a bit of its salivia to help glue everything together.  They create nooks of all sorts, depending on the species, and build for their needs of comfortable housing for their chicks until they are ready to fly.  This is in part what a buildings functions would be if you did a functional analysis. The nest serves to protect, regulate temperature, and includes space being also for tasks such as raising young. Although I have now seen some birds use plastic in their nests too, the majority remain committed to this technique as they facilitate their needs of comfort and use of available materials in that locale. And as we add art to the element and the fact that buildings need design, we can gain further inspiration from all of the sacred geometry we see in nature (below slide on right).  How do animals arrange their patterns of structure and form, and for what functions might we ask?  Those also help us to question which appropriate technologies might we incorporate given our particular climate and context.

natural building 1.002

And like other forms of industrialism vs permaculture you rely on biological resources more than those from industrialism.  In short more people are involved which often spurs the need for community to keep the costs of labour low.  But if you put on some good

natural building terra alta mud pit, mixing clay
natural building terra alta mud pit, mixing clay

music, bake some cookies and provides some drinks and atmosphere, you are likely to have people returning to lend a good hand.  It’s often a slow process but if you watch one of those birds, they prepare, they scout their material, and they collect and build over a couple of week period.  This is a short period in our scale of time but in the end a great amount of time in their lifespan. Their attention to detail and good construction is very pivotal to passing their genes on which is the ultimate biological quest within life.  Thus building a house of our own or being a company that does this for others is indeed an important and noble taks in the end.  More on the design and materials will come in this chapter ahead but never forget to look to nature for inspiration, help from your community, and how to utilize what is in your local area including recycled materials.

natural building 1.003

Written by Doug Crouch

Header Art from Rivca Doukarsky

Photo support Eva Wimmer


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