What has earth building got to do with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?
There was a bit of a debate over in the Natural Homes forum about my earthbag house, because obviously it isn’t 100 percent natural. And I think it’s fair to question the use of polyproplylene in a home, even if it's a small enough amount to fit in a suitcase. Yet while earthbag isn’t wholly natural, it is incredibly sustainable. Perhaps it pays to discuss the difference between natural building and sustainable building, because they are not the same thing. Though in truth I’m hesitant about entering finicky fact-lobbing debates. All too often they miss the point. Because beyond the natural and the sustainable, there's something else. It could be called Quality...
But first, let’s get finicky and cleave apart the natural from the sustainable.
Natural building utilises purely natural (ie. non-manufactured and non-chemical) resources such as wood, earth, stone, bamboo, resins, oils, sand, straw and clay. As long as your house consists of purely natural resources it qualifies as a natural home. This doesn’t necessarily make it sustainable though.
The word sustainable means you can continue doing something at its present rate indefinitely into the future. It means you’re not depleting resources faster than you’re replacing them. Nor are you polluting the atmosphere.
Sustainable architecture comprises many techniques. It could utilise materials that don’t cause huge depletions of fossil fuels or generate high carbon emissions, or it can reuse and recycle rubbish (often unnatural rubbish such as plastic bottles or tyres*) that would otherwise have languished in a landfill, or it may utilise fast-to-replenish natural resources such as bamboo.
If I were to build my house out of Lebanese cedar or old growth teak (or any other fast disappearing tree), it would be natural, but it would not be sustainable. If I live in an area where a particular material is in short supply, such as clay or sand, and utilise large amounts of it in my house, this isn’t sustainable either. Probably I ferried the material in from somewhere else using plenty of fuel in the process. Or I depleted my local reserves.
What about wood?
Theoretically, wooden houses are sustainable because trees can be replanted. However, if one takes into account the rate at which the world’s forests today are disappearing, it could be argued that using any wood that isn’t reclaimed or from a registered sustainable plantation, isn’t currently sustainable (because right now the reality is we are not planting nearly enough trees to replace the cut ones). And then there’s the power used to cut the wood and sand it...yeees.
Lest anyone think I’m leaping upon my high horse here or pointing fingers, I’m definitely not. My floor is made of wood, for a start. Anyway, once we delve into the vast quagmire of environmental consequences most high horses start sinking fast.
True, I have taken a stand against Portland cement. Why? Because it fails on every count: It isn’t natural. It isn’t sustainable (cement production is at the time of writing the second largest producer of CO2 emissions globally)**, and it isn’t even necessary, or nice to work with, or beautiful, or comfortable to live in. Cement makes no sense on any level, and yet is used more than any other material in mainstream building techniques.
But as soon as we move beyond cement, there is an awful lot of grey. This is why snap judgement really isn’t helpful. People throw too many misleading and uncorroborated facts about when discussing the environment. They hoist themselves upon soapboxes (mahogany? Bees-waxed?) of righteousness. And it’s utterly counter-productive. All that results is that Mr or Ms potential new eco-builder drowns in overwhelm, guilt and confusion in the face of a hundred and one competing environmental, physical, bureaucratic and security needs. From what I see, nine times out of ten when people are unsure, they choose concrete. Because concrete is a known, and if nothing else, fast.
Every person has to reach their own conclusions about their home, and these are generally based on climate, geology, resources, environmental impact and very importantly money. Yes let’s not forget money. Because natural and sustainable building isn’t simply the domain of the wealthy middle class in developed countries vying for the next spot on Grand Designs. Large tranches of the developing world don’t enjoy the luxury of deliberating over casein in their lime wash, or hiring the last stone mason in the region. What am I saying? 1 in 5 Americans are on food stamps, so presumably they don’t enjoy that luxury either. Much of the planet requires a very cheap, disaster-proof house in a hurry. I get it. I’ve been there.
Yet none of this is the point. Essentially, it isn’t about the money, or the resources or the materials. It’s about something else. Something more fundamental. And this week I was reminded of another way of expressing that 'fundamental' via a random conversation on Facebook (people do more than share cat photos on their timelines apparently).
Back in 1974, Robert Pirsig wrote the philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Back then at the tender age of three, I didn’t quite grasp it. But I read later it in 1999 at a time I was seeking some sort of enlightenment. Many have tried to define the great ocean of awareness that lies beyond thought. Pirsig’s metaphysical contribution to this was the term Quality. Quality, for Pirsig, is the fundamental force in the universe driving everything to manifest and evolve. Something akin to the Chinese concept of Tao.
What's this got to do with natural and sustainable building? Quality building is not about cob walls, thatched roofs or linseed oil. It’s about tapping into that fundamental force Pirsig talks about. It's about the Tao.
Huh? OK. Let's return to my earthbag house as a case in point.
First, why didn’t I go 100% natural?
He he...Well, there are all the logical reasons, such as its performance in earthquakes, floods and hurricanes (all of which descend regularly upon Turkey’s Mediterranean coast). Then there are the financial excuses; I only had $6000 at my disposal. There are the environmental reasons; pretty much everyone in the world could build an earthbag house and it would be sustainable because the polypropylene amount is so tiny. Finally there was the survival factor. I was living in a tent and winter had just arrived in the form of a hurricane. I needed something in a panic.
But ultimately none of these was the deciding factor.
Do you know why I built an earthbag home? The real reason?
I felt like it.
Yup. It was a feeling, not a rationale. An intuition. Because I had spent half a year camping on that piece of land and connecting with it. I listened to it and it inspired me; with shapes and materials and form. I sensed its power underfoot. I let it transform me, and my needs. The soil on the land was perfect for building with, wonderful to touch, wanted to participate. And the energy of the space was feminine. Circles bloomed in heart. A ring of earth, safety and love.
It just felt right. Perfect. Quality. Meditators, hikers, martial artists, inventors and creatives all know this zone. The pristine space far beyond rational argument where Quality ideas originate.
And in my opinion whatever home you decide upon, it’s this Quality that counts above all else. It doesn’t matter what you do, if it is inspired by that which is simultaneously within and beyond – that zone of Quality – whatever you create is perfect. Just right. Appropriate. In ways we might not yet even understand.
But how can you know if you are in the Quality zone? By cultivating awareness and moving into the zone beyond thought. By forgetting the numbers and arguments for and against. By sensing rather than thinking; subtle and beautiful feelings of clarity, intuitive feelings, a stirring in the heart. Without the heart, what is a home anyway? If the process is filled with kindness, trust, openness and allowing, and everything seems to fit miraculously together, these are good indications you’ve hit the zone.
Now I’m not saying rational knowledge is worthless. Or that things like available resources and environmental impact won’t play a part. You might feel inspired to build a dome out of gold bars, but unless you’ve stumbled upon the keys to the Federal Reserve, it’s unlikely to manifest. And constructing a reciprocal roof without some basic mathematical skills could prove interesting too.
Quality construction is a marriage between the Quality zone, reason and materials (and yes I realise there is a bigamist in that espousal). However, reason can’t go it alone. It is not an effective decision-making apparatus. We can’t balance the house of our lives upon a see-saw of pros and cons, because a single action can spawn infinite consequences, all unseen to us now. We don’t live in controlled Petri dishes, but in an infinite universe brimming with unknown factors.
Quality building is not about your carbon footprint. Nor is it some prodigious ego mission to prove yourself the most environmentally sound person alive. It’s not about showing off to your neighbours or even "saving Gaia" (whatever that might mean). It’s about being in the Quality zone. About connecting with yourself, the planet and the Beyond to make miracles out of the earth. Forget the clever debate and the misplaced moralising, if you’re not experiencing the Quality of it, you’ve missed it. And that’s that.
Anything to add to this discussion? I love to hear constructive ideas, so feel free to share in the comments box below.
Photo: Melissa Maples
Note: Many thanks to Peter Lloyd and Dyske Suematsu for unwittingly inspiring the conclusion to this post. I was wrangling with it for a couple of days when I happened upon their conversation on Facebook and poof! The article became a different place (and that's exactly how the Quality zone works;).
*It is often debated whether the recycled use of tyres and plastic bottles in earthships is indeed sustainable or not, as both these emit chemicals as they rot (though they would also have done in a landfill.)
** The carbon dioxide CO2 produced for the manufacture of one tonne of structural concrete (using ~14% cement) is estimated at 410 kg/m3 (~180 kg/tonne @ density of 2.3 g/cm3) (reduced to 290 kg/m3 with 30% fly ash replacement of cement). The CO2 emission from the concrete production is directly proportional to the cement content used in the concrete mix; 900 kg of CO2 are emitted for the fabrication of every ton of cement, accounting for 88% of the emissions associated with the average concrete mix
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Atulya K Bingham
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