The great thing about being on the road is that you finally have the chance to visit other natural homes. Many of them are inspirational. All of them teach me something new.
Abrazo House is a cob/strawbale hybrid tucked away in the sweeping Cantabrian hills. It’s a perfect example of a well-built natural ecohome, with a green roof that flourishes in the wet climate, earth plaster created from clay on site, and a lime wash finish to protect it. The lower floor is made from insulated cob, and the upper floor is straw bale. It is, as you can see, quite beautiful. At 200 square metres, Abrazo House is the largest self-built natural home I’ve seen so far.
Robert, the creator of Abrazo House, has executed a number of impressive eco building projects to date. There is a cob cabin on the land too, and just up the road he has two more fabulous straw bale houses on the go which will ultimately be sold. Indeed this is something of a natural house empire with a view to breathing life and community back into an abandoned Spanish village.
But here’s a little secret just to encourage folk. Something went awry in the build of Abrazo House (which if builders are honest is par for the course in construction). And what do you know? I have something interesting to write about, and we all learn something new.
So what went wrong?
Originally Abrazo house was planned to be completely straw bale. Because the climate was wet and the build took a long time (four years in total), by the time the second floor was reached, the first floor had begun to rot. I don’t want to imagine how Robert and co. felt the moment they realised this. Personally, I would have lay down in the dirt, beat my chest and howled for a day. But Robert seems a mellow chap, so he probably flipped a little more quietly than I would have. And anyway there is always a solution. Many times it becomes the most outstanding feature of the house.
How did he solve the problem?
The issue was resolved by jacking up the first floor, removing the bales and then creating cob walls in their place. The cob easily supports the bales (which are far lighter than the solid earthern walls). Thus this has become a rather magnificent example of a hybrid natural home.
How did he increase the insulation value of the cob?
The reason Robert chose straw bale in the first place was that he was concerned about insulating such a large house. Straw bale has a high insulation value. Cob, on the other hand, has a high thermal mass value but is not particularly efficient for insulation (you can read more about that here). To mitigate this issue, Robert replaced some of the sand in the cob mix with sawdust. The result is a fabulous, attractive and warm family home.
Is this house built to code?
For those ever hungry for information on legalities: This is a natural home built to code. Yup, fully legit (as we say back in Essex). To do this in Spain you must buy an appropriate piece of land (edificable), speak to officials in your local government, get an architect to draw up an official plan, and then have it signed off by various titled pen-wielders in various offices. Obviously, each time you take any of these steps you will need to inhale and exhale deeply, and spend some money too. Patience and persistence are the two characteristics you must cultivate when embarking on a self build project anywhere.
Something else I learned:
Robert was mixing his earth plaster using an unconventional method (at least I’d never seen it done this way before). We laid a large layer of gravelly sand directly on the ground, then added a layer of clay, and finally some straw. Then the ingredients were mixed using a rotavator. Unfortunately I have no photographic evidence of me doing this, which is tragic because it was truly a battle between woman and machine:) To use this method successfully you need a fair bit of experience with earth plaster first, so you know exactly how the mixture should look. It’s quite hard to measure the quantities of ingredients carefully when they are spread on the floor. But because Robert knows his dirt and his climate well, he knows from sight and can assess the state of the mixture just by handling it.
If you want to read more about Abrazo House, or would like to help volunteer, go to www.abrazohouse.org.
A superbly useful interview with Kim Siu of the charity Get Rugged.
There are two ways of building yourself a natural home, no matter which country you are in: The unofficial way. And the official way.
The unofficial way involves skirting round the edges of the system, finding loopholes and sliding deftly through them. (I’ve seen this done in every country I’ve been to so far, though while entirely possible generally appeals to more risk-taking type of personalities).
Then there’s the official way. This costs more money, but may buy some peace of mind...in the end:)
Kim Siu, who runs the self build charity Get Rugged up in Scotland, built her beautiful straw bale house the official way. I was lucky enough to stay in that house, and talk to her. Here’s what she had to say:
Atulya: What do you think is the most important thing you need to build a house to code?
Kim: Sheer bloody-mindedness, and determination. That’s the number one thing you need. You mustn’t get ground down, and always keep telling yourself there is a way. Because there usually is. Even if you have to compromise. And sometimes we have to compromise in life. It’s just like that.
Atulya: I completely agree. You need determination no matter how you build. There’s always a way. There’s no problem without a solution. And sometimes you might have to change your vision slightly, but the basic core of it remains.
Kim: Yes. We kept our vision strong, but we just had to do little pivots every now and again. We found that working with the system, rather than trying to go against it really helped. We got the planners in from the very first stage, before we even parted with a penny. And then we did a staged approach, so every time we got some designs I’d go and speak to the planners, and show them what we were doing. Now we’re doing another build, so we’re doing exactly the same. I spoke with the planners. She came on site. I’ve showed her the early stages of the concept. And again, every time we develop the designs, we’ll take it to her, and she’ll give us her feedback. It’s actually really good, because you get a lot of foresight, which you don’t have to use as hindsight:) She’s not worrying us. She’s making us aware of things. Like road access, and different conditions. So we’re not surprised later on.
Atulya: Yes and you’re not forking out loads of money first, and then regretting it. So let me just clarify. It is totally legal to build a straw bale house in the UK, right?
Kim: Oh yes. Absolutely.
Atulya: So what did you have to compromise on?
Kim: We had to compromise on window sizes . They wanted the larger ones on the bottom. They wanted everything to be symmetrical, and didn’t like anything too quirky, because it has to fit in with the local vernacular. If you were somewhere else, like Findhorn where there are more alternative buildings, you’d have more freedom It’s very area dependent.
Also planners need to be dealt with on an individual basis. You’ve really got to develop a good relationship with them.
Atulya: Yes. That is the same everywhere. Relationships are key.
Kim: There are two government bodies you have to deal with: planners and building control. Planners deal with things like local vernacular, and you have some flexibility here. You can appeal their decision too. But building control is different. It’s the nuts and bolts of the build, your house’s sustainability principles, it has to meet various regulations. They want engineer’s certificates and things.
Atulya: Did you have to make compromises there too?
Kim: Oh that was the worst bit! In our build, there was an architect, a builder, and an engineer all talking to building control. This meant it turned into a very complex process. It could have been simplified by using a design and build company, because they design the building they’re going to build. Then you know exactly how much it’s going to cost, and it’s easier.
Eventually, I went to the building control officer and asked, “How can I make this easier for you to put us through building control,” and he said, “Get your architects and get your builders, and get them all sat round this table.” Really clear communication is essential.
Atulya: Does building control happen while the building is being constructed? Or before or after?
Kim: You can’t even dig a hole until you have a building warrant, and it took us about 18 months to get through both planning and building control.
Atulya: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to build a natural home the official way?
Kim: Either get a design and build company (the easy option), or if you’re going to build it yourself get a team you can work with, get people (engineer/architect) who know the codes and can help you get through planning.
Atulya: And the cost?
Kim: The charge is dependent on the cost of the build or the cost of the site. It’s proportional. So you’re talking several thousand pounds before you’ve even broken the ground.
Atulya: Which is more than my whole house cost! But there are advantages to doing it this way. What are they?
Kim: They’re not going to pull your house down. Mine is a family house. I’ve got four kids. I’m on a B road. People drive past us, so we’d have got told on before long. You have more security this way. In truth though, the main thing was to get a mortgage. We couldn’t have got a mortgage any other way.
Atulya: There you go. I didn’t know that. So you can get a mortgage even on a self-build natural home project?
Kim: Yes. Though only certain places. We got ours at the Ecology Building Society.
Atulya: And any last tips to close on?
Kim: Create decent relationships with everyone. Planners and building code officers are human beings too. Don’t annoy everyone too much. It’s OK to dig in sometimes for something you really want, but treat people kindly, and with respect. It goes a long way.
Getting permission to build a natural home in the UK. What you have to do:
1. Get planning permission. Call in a planning officer at the beginning to look at your site, and make sure you’re able to build on it. Some tests (drainage) are done at this stage.
2. Gather an experienced team (design and build company, or an architect/builder who knows the ropes). Go for your building warrant through a building control officer. (You can apply for planning and a building warrant together.)
3. Once you have a warrant, start building. Building control will turn up at intervals to check things.
For more information go to GET RUGGED, and pick up the free self build PDF. Or connect on Facebook.
IN THE USA? It's a very similar story. Here's an article by Sigi Koko on how to build to code in the US.
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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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