What is Natural Building, Or “Do I Have to Wear Dreadlocks to Build with Straw Bales?”

This article by Clarke Snell originally appeared in the New Life Journal.

Column redux: two months ago I delved into straw; last month I riffed on dirt. Add locally harvested wood, some stone, maybe a little bamboo, an enthusiastic attitude, and we are squarely in the realm of “natural building”. What’s it all about?

Before I go any further, I need to make a full disclosure: I took a lot of philosophy in college. Red flag! That means that words like “natural” really trip me up. What is natural? Some might say that “natural” simply means that which is in tune with nature. But aren’t humans natural, so wouldn’t anything we do be natural, too? I’m sure the makers of vinyl wall coverings will be happy to hear it.

Another approach is to say that natural building uses natural materials and that natural materials are those that are locally harvested and minimally processed. Okay, then is gravel natural? It’s local, durable, and doesn’t require a huge amount of energy to harvest. However, gathering it completely destroys the specific, local ecosystem from whence it comes. (Have you ever visited a quarry?)

Yet another spiel would be that natural is synonymous with indigenous. What is the indigenous building system for our area? Some variant on European wood construction, the wigwam or other native American technique? How about the rabbit hole or bird’s nest? Even if we could agree upon the representative historical composite system, what meaning would it have for us? Let’s face it, we aren’t indigenous ourselves.

My point here is that “natural” only has meaning when given a context. It used to be that the context was distinctly local. A small group of people using locally harvested materials interacting with a specific culture and single annual climatic cycle. Today our context is global. There are lots of reasons: billions instead of millions of people, communication in seconds rather days, travel in hours rather than months. People now travel from the Philippines to Dubai to get a job behind the counter at Starbucks. The CO2 my woodstove in WNC or your car in Atlanta puts off today may change the climate in India tomorrow.

To my mind, that means that being natural these days is a lot more complicated. When it comes to buildings, it can’t simply mean using local materials anymore. It has to mean taking the full impact of a building and the lifestyle it serves into account. There simply are no easy answers. All of us heading back to the proverbial woods isn’t a feasible option. How would 3 billion small huts each with it’s own fire for cooking and heating impact the global climate? How long would the burnable cellulose hold out? On the other hand, it’s hard to even use the word “natural” in the context that most of the human population now resides: the city. What is the natural way to build for people in a huge city that contains no indigenous resources for building?

This line of thought has led me to try and keep an open mind as I’m looking at the resources available for building. I’ve accepted that human dwellings have an impact, so my goal is to create the best building with the smallest impact. If in the full life-cycle of the building that means using some mass-produced materials, high tech systems, and heavy machinery, then I’m all for it.

It’s interesting then that even in this context, my focus is still on what are traditionally called “natural materials”. Part of the reason is the typical rationale that they are locally available and therefore create less pollution in harvesting, manufacture, transport, and installation (have a lower embodied energy). Just as importantly, though, they often provide much greater design flexibility than their modern counterparts.

Let’s take straw and dirt for example. We can use these two simple materials combined in different ratios and configurations to deal with a variety of different specific situations. Configured as a bale, straw can provide incredible insulation. Mixed with a clay/sand soil, the result is cob, a simple material with amazing structural strength. A different mix of the same ingredients creates clay-slip straw with more insulation than cob and more water resistance than bales. What’s more, all of these incarnations can vary easily in width and height and therefore don’t need to fit into cavities of predetermined size. This flexibility is important in the real (i.e. natural) world because every site and even every wall on every site is in some ways unique. Materials that can be modified and tweaked to deal with different incarnations of sun, water, wind, and life forms (mold and insects, for example) are often easier to match to a given real world scenario. It’s difficult to design mass-produced materials to have that kind of flexibility.

In the end, then, I wonder if the whole “natural” moniker isn’t really just confusing the issue. If we are trying to create buildings that work more efficiently with the realities of a give site, then materials and techniques commonly called “natural” can stand alone as solid, practical choices toward that end. You may not like dreadlocks. I may not like baseball caps. That doesn’t mean that we both shouldn’t consider incorporating some straw and dirt into the next building we build or have built.

(By the way, if you want to get into some down and dirty details on this topic, I’m teaching a WNC Green Building Council seminar on July 18th called “Natural Building: What Is It? How Do You Do It? Why Would You Do It?” Call the WNCGBC or check out this link for more info: http://www.wncgbc.org.)