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Having battled out in the sticks in Turkey, I would often roll my eyes skywards when someone would comment on a post “Why don’t you just go to _____ and buy _____?” I had no car, and the nearest large scale home store was probably about 1000 kilometres away. Amazon didn’t deliver to Turkey at the time either.
Dirt grafter Kristen Krash from the very inspiring Sueño de Vida project in Ecuador is apparently in the same boat. Here she offers up more gems from the real world of low-impact, off-grid living somewhere rather remote without a megastore. Yes. The gulf between ideology and reality is never easy to bridge...
Back in another life, when I had a TV, I watched an episode of some reality show about mega-wealthy people building their fantastic dream houses in remote locations. The episode I saw followed this super-rich guy to a mountaintop in Montana, where he had contracted the construction of a “log mansion”—a way over-the-top take on a log cabin, built almost entirely of huge redwood tree trunks, enormous wood beams, and various types of rock and stone, from gigantic boulders for the foundation to rare onyx and blue marble for the bathtubs. Everything had to be flown in by helicopter. And yet, despite the total ludicrousness of it all, this wood and stone behemoth is a “natural building.”
Ok, this is a pretty extreme example, but it makes my point: It is entirely possible to build a house from mostly natural materials that has absolutely nothing to do with sustainability or giving a crispy fish-stick about Nature herself. It is also equally possible to build a structure that is very sustainable and environmentally adaptive, but not very natural. Earthships, for example. One would hope that a “natural” builder is motivated as much by a respect for the Earth as a need for shelter. And yet, I see it all the time: the most well-intentioned natural builders trucking in way too many inputs and getting so technical with their materials that the end result might be “natural”, but not low-impact environmentally.
If you want to make the leap from reading this blog to building your own natural and truly eco-friendly home, here are some common traps to avoid falling into along the way:
1. A room with a view
Chances are, you’re accustomed to living in a house where clean water, power, heat, and air conditioning are piped in and trash, sewage, and water used for washing are taken neatly away to “somewhere.” Now, say you’ve gotten a parcel of land somehow and are sighting the “best” spot to build your dream natural house. It’s perfectly normal that the first spots that leap out at you will be higher, with a “view.” But if you want your home to be more sustainable, both financially and ecologically, and especially if you’re building off-grid, there are much more important things to consider.
Water: How will you bring water into your house if it’s at the highest point? You can pump it from a source below to a tower, but that requires a pump, and a tower. You’re better off building down from a slope (but not at the bottom where rain settles) so you can collect water in a pool or tank above the level of your house and let gravity bring it down. If you do it right, you can even generate water pressure!
Power: Sight your house to use less power. If you’re in a cold northern clime, south-facing windows are great for exposure to winter sun. If you’re in a hot climate, find some shade.
Ultimately, your view is what you see when you look outside. If you want a beautiful view, make one. Plant a flower and herb garden to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Build a little fountain or birdbath with stones. Hollow out tree trunks and fill them with natural fibres to grow orchids. Your view will change daily and you can feel more in touch with your surroundings. And if you want to see it all from the top, walking uphill is great exercise.
2. Truckloads of imports
It seems so obvious. You want to build a mud house and there’s dirt under your feet. So you use it, right? But oh no, somehow in our bizarre culture hell-bent on perfection, we’ve got folks trucking in bags of “pure” clay because they are afraid of what “organic matter” might do to their cob or plaster mix. Not to mention stripping river beds of sand for that “just right” sharpness. Ok, yes, a sticky-enough clay is important, a sharp enough sand is important. But guess what? There are a lot of sound natural buildings out there that pre-date dump trucks by a few hundred years because the people who built them found a way to work with what they had. If your clay isn’t sticky enough but there are cows around, add some manure. Or cook up some wheat paste. If you don’t have sand, look for reject construction sand before dredging a riverbed.
The key to being natural and low-impact is to stay local with where you get your basic materials. In our project here in the cloud forest, we use a lot of giant bamboo, which grows in abundance here. What’s eco-friendly here wouldn’t be in, say, Wisconsin, where straw bales are readily available. The more stuff you have to bring to your site and the farther it comes from means a bigger impact your little house is making on the precious skin of the Earth. So keep it local, as much as you can.
3. Special stuff
Once I was showing a visitor to our project the beautiful colours of clay I had collected from our land to make naturally tinted paints for earth plastered walls. I proudly held out my harvest of hues, shades of russet, ochre, salmon, eggshell. “Hmm,” the visitor glanced at them, “but can’t you get blue? I guess you could just order it from...somewhere.” Sigh. When meditators can’t concentrate, they call it “monkey mind.” When people can’t appreciate what is right there in front of them, I call it “Amazon Prime mind.” No, I can’t “just” order it from somewhere, because that blue pigment has to be mined, processed, packaged, and shipped. And I have a whole palette right here.
From foundations to finishes, there’s a whole bunch of exotic, but perfectly natural, things out there to bedazzle the builder: volcanic ashes to make cement that isn’t cement, silicates from speciality pottery suppliers to keep clays in suspension, powdered mica from craft stores to make your lime paint extra sparkly…it’s so easy to whip out the credit card and mail order away. “I want that!” Amazon Prime mind clamours. But before you hit confirm on that order for Apricot Blush or Aztec Indigo mineral pigment, ask yourself, “do I really need this?” If the answer is no, smile and hit cancel. You just made your natural build a bit more sustainable.
4. The internet
Well, this is ironic. Here I am, writing for an online building blog and I’m about to warn against online building blogs. I’m all for small, interactive, genuinely helpful groups like The Mud Home here. I stopped posting on the higher traffic blogs when I realized they were prowled by “experts.” I would post a straightforward question about, say, earth plaster in a humid rainforest climate. I’d peruse a few comments and go make plaster. The next day, Facebook would inform me that there were 124 comments on my post, most of them a highly technical debate between two people only a trained geologist would understand, or care about. And did nothing to answer my question.
If you want to build, build. You will make mistakes. You will learn from them and be better for the experience. If you want some advice, find a more intimate setting. If you find yourself getting sucked into some marathon thread on pozzolans, snap out of it and get back to your own test batches of plaster. There’s work to do.
5. Snobbery and in-fighting
Another problem with information on the internet is that it often comes laden with opinion. And some of it is mean, ill-founded, and counter-productive. There’s quite a bit of dissent over what constitutes a “natural” building; some folks don’t include earthbags as a natural technique because of the barbed wire and poly bags. If you get right down to it, there’s no such thing as a 100% natural building, except in very rare cases, and kudos to them. Straw bales don’t bale themselves folks, that takes a big industrial farm machine. Cob is about as natural as it gets, but most folks will eventually use a mixer of some sort to help them out. Post and beam structures, window and door frames, windows and doors, roofs...all these things require tools, nails, screws, and other things found at the hardware store, not on trees.
And don’t even get a natural building snob started on alternatives like using repurposed tires packed with dirt for foundations or plastic bottles for walls. “Toxic,” they sniff. Well, I suppose they are, if you eat them. Meanwhile in poor countries they burn old tires, and isn’t that just too bad for the people who live on top of those landfills? No, using tires and other trash to build with isn’t natural at all, but unless you’ve got a better idea what to do with all of it (and never use plastic or ride in a car, truck, or bus), I suggest leaving the garbage warriors alone to build their incredibly temperature-stable, solar-powered, grey-water recycling houses. Just sayin’.
While these petty “in-crowd” debates rage on the internet, the real world is paving itself over with concrete and erecting yet more power, water, and air-conditioning hungry towers on what’s left of our burning planet. Everything we humans do has an impact on the environment. Don’t get stuck because you’re afraid you can’t build the “perfect” natural home. It’s better to do an imperfect something than a perfect nothing. Get as much information as you need (there are such things as books, too), and get started. Stay local with your inputs, be real about your needs, and most of all, lead by example.
Kristen Krash is the co-creator of Sueño de Vida, a nature conservation centre, permaculture farm, and natural building experiment in the cloud forest of Ecuador. To learn more about the mission, courses offered, work exchange opportunities, and land for sale, see their website at http://www.suenodevida.org/our-dream/
Atulya’s Two-Penneth Worth
"It’s better to do an imperfect something than a perfect nothing." This resonated with me in so many ways. Because a perfect nothing isn't actually a neutral choice, it's a vote for the status quo. I've changed my views on many things, but one remains absolutely intact: After two years in exile, I can say without any doubt at all, living off-grid close to nature in a small homestead is still one of the most powerful things you can do both for yourself and the planet. Whether you used a plastic washing up bowl or not is completely besides the point.
Here’s my summary of Kristen’s great tips:
1.When setting up a susty world for yourself, consider the essentials first (water, weather and power).
2. Avoid importing stuff as much as you can. Spend time in your land and get to know what’s there and use the gifts she gives you. This is so rewarding, economical and environmentally healthy.
3. Quit perfectionism. Grand Designs for the most part isn’t sustainable. It’s a middle class ego trip.
4. When asking for advice, find trusted sources and/or people who have already done what you want to do. Don’t ask too many people though, or you will get horribly confused.
5. Move from your heart and do an imperfect something, not a perfect nothing.
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