Advocates of the back-to-the-land movement in the 60′s and 70′s aspired to build their own homes using locally available resources and envisioned sustaining themselves off the land. The energy crisis later in the 70′s focused attention on the use (or misuse) of natural resources and the energy efficiency of buildings. This development amounted to substantial research into solar and other alternative sources of energy.
The past few decades have been solidly urban, consumerist, and technology oriented, and the idea of “back to nature” seemed passé and laughable to many, a incense-scented relic of a foolishly naive era. The idea of going back to basics is nothing new. And the hippies of the 60′s and 70′s didn’t invent the concept, either. It’s much, much older than that.
More recently, environmental concerns have focused on our continued reliance on fossil fuels for energy, the impact of greenhouse gases, and the consequences of global warming. These issues have given rise to renewed interest in renewable-energy sources, sustainability, and other ecologically-minded solutions.
One such notion is “Natural Building,” a sustainable building methodology that sets out to minimize the environmental impact of our housing and construction needs. Natural building can be defined loosely as any building system that places the highest value on social and environmental sustainability. Natural builders emphasize simple, easy-to-learn techniques based on locally available, raw, renewable and sometimes recycled resources, ideally gathered from or very near the construction area.
Natural building relies heavily on human labor and creativity instead of capital, high technology, and specialized skills. Natural building technology can be applicable in nearly all geographic regions and climates. Construction includes materials such as stone, wood, adobe, cob, straw bale, rammed earth, hempcrete and straw-clay.
Natural building, in various shapes and forms, can be traced back hundreds if not thousands of years. Adobe, used as the primary building material in the Pueblo villages of New Mexico, is a common example. In South Yemen, there are medieval earthen houses rising 13 stories high. Parts of The Great Pyramids and Great Wall of China are made of earth.
Natural builders point to the modern housing industry as a major contributor to our ecological problems. The construction industry has a significant environmental footprint, especially in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. Substantial amounts of greenhouse gasses and non-greenhouse gasses that have an indirect radiative effect are emitted from construction activities and processes and during production, installation, maintenance, and end-of-life disposal of construction materials.
Modern construction depends largely on processed wood products and destructive mining techniques, gypsum for sheet rock; iron for hardware, rebar, and roofing, lime and other minerals for cement.
Reducing Environmental Risk
Almost every material used in a typical modern building is the product of energy-intensive processing. Sawmills, plywood and chipboard factories, steel foundries, and the plants that turn natural minerals into cement by subjecting them to enormous heat all consume vast quantities of power, supplied either by coal and oil combustion, hydroelectricity, or nuclear power. These manufacturing processes also release toxic waste materials into the water and hazardous chemicals into the air.
Natural building materials, on the other hand, pose few if any environmental risks and are readily available. They don’t contribute to deforestation, pollution, or mining, nor do they depend on the availability of manufactured materials or heavy machinery.
Most natural builders incorporate green building strategies into their designs. Techniques such as as sun-shading or other passive cooling techniques are widely used. Other techniques commonly found to increase sustainability and lower energy consumption are passive solar heating, the use of geo-exchange heating and cooling, rainwater collection, grey water recycling and composting toilets.
Why not go Natural
With all of these advantages, why hasn’t natural building been welcomed with open arms into the mainstream building industry? One of the problems is that very few people have experience handling and working with natural materials. Architects and builders are trained at working with cement, processed wood, and other modern building materials, and while synthetic materials may be toxic and have undesirable qualities, they are cheap, easy to make, and even easier to use.
Building codes are another issue that has slowed acceptance of natural building. Building officials are most concerned with safety and security. Because both builders and building code officials have such little experience with alternative building materials, the entire permit process can be significantly longer and more costly.
However, we must understand that the intent of building codes is to ensure that materials are used safely and suitably, not to limit the use of appropriate materials. The burden of proof for now will be on the natural builders to ensure that materials are used safely and appropriately. Natural builders of today must lead the education process for building officials, architects, conventional builders, and the general public.
Affecting major process changes in any industry is challenging. However, the time just might be right for natural builders to emerge from a subculture into the mainstream.