Natural/Earthen building uses products that are not processed, are found locally, and can go back into the earth when the structure is no longer standing. Some common materials include wood, rocks, clay, sand, dirt, and lime. During my natural building apprenticeship I made a few observations. Earthen materials are much like people, while the building process is similar to life.
• In both natural building and life there are countless lessons to learn and countless ways to go about reaching one’s goals.
•Earthen materials come from the ground and can return to the ground. It’s a perfect process with no waste.
•Clay is shaped and molded to get a specific result.
•If you make a mistake, you can go back and make improvements.
•There are many variables to getting the right mix of clay, straw, sand, and water.
•Getting to the finished product is a learning process at almost every step of the way.
•Never are two mixes exactly alike. It all depends on something else!
•Every so many years you have to touch up the outside of the building.
•Earthen homes allow air in and out just like a breath.
•Perfection is not necessary. Earthen walls don’t have to be perfectly straight.
•Earthen buildings come in many shapes and sizes.
•Earthen buildings mimic nature and lend themselves to structures other than rectangles and squares; there are a lot of curves, rounded corners and round buildings entirely, and the level of creativity is endless. I have no building background and maybe that was a good thing because I wasn’t too concerned with plum walls. Curves are sexy in many aspects of life, and as Darryl Berlin says, “If curves bother you, go to therapy.”
Building an earthen home is also a lesson in building community. In an era where many of us don’t even bother to meet our neighbors, it’s refreshing to know that this type of construction also lends itself to building a social network. Building with the earth requires time. You are basically creating the materials to build your home instead of buying them. Most of the earthen homes I have seen and read about don’t require a thirty year mortgage. The advantage is not only monetary, but also lessens the impact on the environment. Instead of mining the earth, processing materials, and shipping them all over the world, one actually goes through these steps to create the building materials. Obviously, this takes time and in order to speed things up, you make friends who share your beliefs. Work parties are very common in natural building in order to get jobs done and this really isn’t a new concept. Many communities around the world come together to help each other build structures. This community building practice begins to form the basis for economic reliance. Communities rely on each other for various resources that can’t be made or grown on one’s own property. Although Emerald Earth has fresh milk, cheese, fresh vegetables, fruits, and generates their own electrical power, they still rely on some outside resources simply because it’s too time consuming to do it all. Having community nearby that can provide some of the missing pieces is essential to living off the grid and lowering our impact on the earth.
There is something that is difficult to explain when I went through the process of digging up clay, slaking it, mixing it with sand and straw, and using it to build. Maybe it’s just empowering but it goes beyond the knowledge that it simply makes sense. There seems to be something primordial about it. Earth is the oldest building material and three quarters of the world’s population lives in earthen structures. It’s everywhere, non-toxic, doesn’t cost much, durable, and it doesn’t require a college degree to use it. In Egypt the grain stores of Ramasseum built using adobe in 1300BC still exist. The Great Wall of China has sections built with rammed earth over 2000 years ago. Iran, India, Nepal, and Yemen all have examples of ancient cities and large buildings built by using various forms of earthen construction.* Yemen has cob apartment buildings over 10 stories high. Most of us rarely think about the structures in which we live and we assume that someone is looking out for us and making decisions based on what is best for people and the earth. However, modern homes use toxic and highly processed materials that take a toll on the earth and our health. When you spend time in an earthen home, you feel the difference because an earthen home will actually move air and moisture though it’s wall structures.
We are now, in many parts of the world, re-learning what used to be mainstream building techniques. Unfortunately, current buildings codes are set in place and don’t necessarily take into account what is best for the people and the earth. There is testing being done to prove that earthen materials can be safe, even though they have been used safely for thousands of years. But, with many things in life, what makes sense is sometimes difficult to achieve without jumping through some hoops. It’s currently not easy to get approved to build a purely earthen home but it is becoming more common.
I suppose there is a final lesson in natural building, and that is one of patience. It takes time to build with natural materials and it’s going to take time to learn to look outside of our own society for answers. New technologies aren’t necessarily better. We have to accept that maybe we aren’t the experts in this area and that we have a lot to learn from other cultures. Unfortunately, this isn’t a strong point in our country. As with any change though, it all begins with education, and it is happening in many places. Slowly, we can hopefully re-evolve and learn the lessons that the earth has been offering for so many years.
I want to thank Darryl Berlin, Michael G. Smith and Brent Levin for sharing their knowledge and their personal experiences with building. I learned a great deal about natural building at Emerald Earth, but not nearly as much as I learned about myself.