"One bucket of dirt, two buckets of sand; add water and straw to consistency."
on a mountainside under a blazing New Mexico sun a woman shouts
instructions over the din of a concrete mixer as mud is mixed
with straw. A group gathered around her takes notes: "One
bucket of dirt, two buckets of sand; add water and straw to consistency."
The clumpy mud mixture is dumped into a wheelbarrow and examined
by class members, then wheeled into a dark, cool room where an
instructor lectures on wall plastering. "A nice finish is
beeswax and linseed oil melted together," says pretty, dynamic
Carole Crews, a Taos (New Mexico) artist and an expert on interior
finishes. "Everclear alcohol makes a good natural thinner,
believe it or not," she adds, laughing. "And make your
first plaster coat a lighter mix. Work from lean to fat."
Today's project is a mud (adobe) floor. The wheelbarrow mixture
is dumped in a corner and four women on their hands and knees
with trowels begin working it into a smooth, even surface as Carole
watches and fields questions.
a group of 20 listens as Doni Kiffmeyer and Kaki Hunter discuss
exterior lime plaster. "It takes about 120-150 gallons to
cover 1,000 square feet," says Doni, lean and cowboyesque
in his boots and hat. Pencils scribble furiously. "You want
it to bubble, like this," Kaki holds out a 5-gallon bucket
full of whitish-gray goop. Doni chimes in, "This is carbide
lime slurry, a by-product of acetone production. It looks like
cement and smells like a woman who just had her hair permed."
The class laughs. Dark curls peek out from under her straw hat,
as Kaki continues, "The beauty of lime plaster is that it
doesn't harden if you keep the air out. You can make up a whole
house's worth at one time." "We like to use a satellite
dish," says Doni. "Just put plastic under the lime and
cover it all with water and then plastic again. It works really
and Kaki pass out gloves and safety glasses and demonstrate a
technique of prepping the wall with limewater and then throwing
plaster on and pressing it up with the palm of the hand. Students
begin brushing on limewater and then throwing the plaster mixture,
flattening it as they go.
building they are working on, the strawbale Tree House, was built
during a similar gathering in '99. Hosting the gathering is the
Lama Foundation, located 20 miles north of Taos, New Mexico. Lama
is an intentional community known for its connection to spiritual
teacher Ram Dass, and the classic volume Be Here Now which he
wrote there. Five years ago a fire raged across Lama mountain
and burned the center to the ground. The natural builders are
here for their second summer convergence, helping to rebuild Lama
while experimenting with new techniques. By using the labor of
many to put up a number of structures, participants are able to
experience a variety of building techniques and observe projects
from beginning to near completion.
hundred feet away two men are stomping a mixture of mud, sand
and straw with their bare feet. "This is cob," explains
Luis, 25, smiling. Luis is from Mexico City and intends to pursue
natural building as a career. His stomping partner, Timothy, 31,
is from LA; he works for a firm that specializes in interior environmental
design, improving "sick" houses and bringing natural
products into the city.
cob mixture is loaded on a truck and taken down a wooded incline
to a sauna built of woven bamboo, which is being covered with
cob. Inside the triangular structure stands Kyle Young, wearing
a T-shirt that says "Hawaii Bamboo Society." He pauses
to explain how he harvested the bamboo and which species are being
used. Kyle is passionate about bamboo's potential for building
and is here to train others in its structural use for shelter.
sound in the distance; it is time for lunch. Participants layering
cob stop to wash off the mud, hungry and glad for a break. Soon
everyone gathers at Lama Foundation's outdoor dining area and
170 builders, staff and children "circle up" before
lunch the learning continues: "I did a particular method
this way and it didn't work. What did work was ..." Participants
and leaders alike question each other, compare notes. After lunch
there will be talks and more hands-on workshops, then dinner and
slide shows in the evening.
Build Here Now 2000 it seems that the learning - and the connecting
- never stops. On the final night a celebratory circle-dance spontaneously
erupts into drumming and more dancing. When things quiet down
groups of musicians gather for a last chance to play together;
the jamming continues until midnight and beyond. Hearts are full
at the final sharing-circle the next morning, and it is obvious
from the oft repeated, "When I get home things will be different,"
that more has been built this week than just shelter.
One result of our profit-driven culture is that the shelters
in which we liveand work, and shop, and playare not
environmentally sustainable and rarely fill our lives with beauty
and delight. While the cultural ideal is to inhabit a shelter
that far exceeds our needs, the reality is that most of us cannot
building is a movement to design livable forms of shelter that
are easy on the planet, in harmony with the natural environment
and careful in the use of resources. Part of sustainability is
the creation of dwellings that feed the soul as well as shelter
the body, spaces that are comfortable and aesthetically pleasing
and incorporate beauty and joy and a sense of spirit. It is important
that these designs be affordable and accessible; building methods
available only to the wealthy are not sustainable for the human
buildings going up today use modern construction framing (known
as stick-frame construction). Contractors who want to be more
"green" are using recyled materials (e.g., recycled
lumber and concrete), and building supply companies are developing
less toxic versions of building materials. But the area that holds
the most promise for a truly sustainable futureand where
the most exploration is happeningis the field of natural
building (i.e., using naturally occuring, locally available materials
is here that ancient methods are being revived and refined, and
new techniques and materials explored. But because this area is
so new, and the work is developing regionally (across North America
and the world), most of us are only acquainted with one or two
methods. That is why I've chosen in the next section to paint
(with very broad strokes) an overview of the developing vocabulary
of natural building.
Grass, Trees and Canvas
Sustainable shelter has many faces. One of the prettiest, probably
the oldest, and certainly the most popular, is mud. People have
been building with mud for thousands of years; by some estimates,
50% of the world's population currently live in some form of earthen
for building with mud vary from tamping down layers of mixed sand
and clay into wall forms (called rammed earth, used mainly by
professional contractors) to adobe bricks, dried in the sun and
stacked by native grandmothers and Hispanic children in the Southwest.
A recently revived form, cob, comes from England and involves
adding extra straw as a binder and building thick mud walls one
handful at a time. Since cob was so successful for centuries in
rainy England, it's not surprising that the revival on this continent
started in Oregon.
new kid on the mud block is earthbag construction, a variation
of the rammed earth approach in which moistened earth is placed
in polyvinyl feed bags which are then stacked row upon row and
tamped down. Barbed wire laid between courses acts like a velcro
mortar, holding the rows in place. Earthbag construction is developing
into a user-friendly method that combines durability with structural
tire home, or earthship, is made of used car tires filled
with tamped-down mud and stacked to form U-shaped rooms. South-facing
windows take in winter sun, which warms up the thermal mass of
mud-filled tires and earthen floors making winter heating virtually
unnecessary. Earthship design is self-sufficient, with roof water-catchment
systems, greywater release into planters and solar panels for
is growing in popularity worldwide. The fact that it takes only
months to grow grass for straw makes it an eminently renewable
resource. Strawbale building is fairly simple: set the bales on
each other like giant bricks to form a wall and then cover the
bales with layers of plaster to make the structure impervious
to rain and rodents. Another structural option is to erect a timber-frame
and in-fill the walls with straw bales.
the Earth's fastest growing grass, has a tensile strength equal
by weight to steel. Kyle Young (see above) explained to me that
the US is 20 years behind the rest of the world in our use of
bamboo. Apparently in the 40's the lumber industry saw bamboo
as a threat and lobbied congress to ban its importation. Folks
like Kyle are working hard to help us catch up in our ability
to grow and build with this most useful material.
next time you load up a stove with split firewood, imagine stacking
the wood as a wall, with mortar between the wood pieces. That's
the idea of cordwood building, a method whose virtue lies
in being good insulation and having high thermal mass (i.e., heat-storing
are a natural building material, and many folks love the warm,
natural feel of a log home. However, building a log home adds
to the demand for an already stretched natural resource. On the
positive side, many log home companies use only trees harvested
as "standing dead" (i.e., killed by fire or wind or
an insect infestation), which can actually help a forest stay
healthy or grow back. But there's a good chance that the cheaper
log home kit you see advertised in a magazine was produced from
a one-acre clear-cut of living cedar in Canada. The most important
thing in building a log home sustainably is to where a company's
logs come from and how they are harvested.
final form of sustainable shelter that is light on the land, flexible,
affordable and accessible is fabric-based shelter. The best-known
forms of fabric shelters are teepees and tents. I know families
who live in tents and find them workable, but most folks would
feel cramped living in tents or teepees year-round. The most livable
fabric structure is the yurt, a round shelter with a conical roof
and a skylight at the top, adapted from versions used by nomadic
tribes on the high Asian steppes for over 2,000 years. The modern
yurt adaptation was created by Oregonian Alan Bair when he started
Pacific Yurts in Cottage Grove over 20 years ago. Many who live
in yurts find them delightful and prefer them to other more rectilinear
spaces. Having lived in yurts for three years myself, I agree!
Fall Equinox is past, there's a nip in the air and you can feel
the rain coming (if it's not falling already). It's not the time
to sign up for a natural building workshop or start a project
of your own. But don't worry, there's so much to learn that you
can spend the entire winter researching and reading about just
one form of natural building, and you will barely have scratched
the surface by the time spring rolls around.
favorite way to connect with new forms of building is to visitwalk
around inside, check it out, see what it looks like and feels
like. I went to the Southwest this past summer to see styles that
were new for me: earthships, adobe, cordwood and other forms of
alternative architecture. I talked with designers and innovators,
and hung out with people who had taught themselves and built their
own homes. It was an amazing, engrossing, captivating journey
(visits to hot springs along the way made it relaxing as well).
would heartily recommend this hands-on approach to anyone interested
in sustainable shelter. Why not stay in a yurt at a state park
for a few days, or find a cob or strawbale house in your area
to visit? And, if you wish, choose an idea from the list below
to asist you on your personal journey towards shelter that sustains
up by the radiator with Daniel Chiras' The Natural House and
get a well-written overview of natural building techniques.
The extensive resource guide at the back is a great place to
find books, journals, organizations and videos worth pursuing.
out web sites for natural building and sustainable living on
the Internet. If you don't have access at home, use the computers
at your local library. It's easy!
a journal like The Last Straw or Environmental
Building News and subscribe to get regular input and
listings of upcoming events.
your local EcoBuilding Guild and attend lectures, or organize
a monthly meeting on sustainable shelter at your library or
community center. You might watch videos on natural building
or have a builder come and speak.
you look at web sites and read newsletters and journals, keep
an eye out for next summer's building and workshop opportunities.
It's possible to spend anywhere from a week to a whole summer
on work-exchange projects, so start planning now.
reading Alternatives. In future issues we'll look
at new directions in sustainable building and hear from folks
who've built their own houses. We'll also take a more in-depth
look at specific alternative building techniques, the builders
who've developed them, and workshops you might find interesting.
reading and learning. May you stay warm and dry and may your spirit
be nurtured as your body is sheltered.
Kemery is a union carpenter and cook. She was kitchen coordinator
at Breitenbush Hot Springs before leaving last May in search of
sustainable building adventure. She currently lives in her '76
VW bus (named Turtle) and intends to spend the winter writing
Top | eMail Alternatives | Home