Natural Building means different things to different people. Personally, I can’t view natural building in isolation from sustainability and sustainable building, writes Peter McIntosh, natural builder, in the first article in his series about this topic.
Sustainability requires that we view ourselves as part of an ecosystem. In a sustainable system the materials your house is built out of is but a drop in the ocean; you need to consider where your food is produced, how far you travel to work, how your power is produced, and whether there is a sense of community.
A natural building could be very unsustainable if the answers to some of the questions posed above have negative answers. People could live in a natural home but travel far to work contributing to greenhouse gasses; or live in an excessively large house that requires the transport of materials because they wanted a particular product or look, which is not produced locally and thus has a high carbon footprint.
A house such as this may be natural but not sustainable.
Materials include rock, wood, straw bales, cob, rammer earth, compressed earth or and mud-bricks
Natural building is an umbrella term for a range of materials, including rock, wood, straw bales, cob, rammed earth, compressed earth brick and mud-bricks. There is a bewildering choice of materials and equally numerous ways to combine them. The trick really is to make choices that are appropriate to the area you live in. It is no good designing a rock house if there are no rocks near you or if there is environmental damage collecting them.
Natural building materials rely on combining the elements of earth, air, fire and water. A simple mud-brick is made of earth, allows for the material to breathe (air), is full of insulating and reinforcing straw, which is an embodiment of sunlight (fire) and water, which is what allows the brick to hold together through electro-static energy.
Conventional building does its best to separate these life affirming elements and alienate us from nature. It is this very notion of separateness that has led us down this unsustainable path and given us GMO food nuclear energy and traffic jams. It’s time to make a change.
Response to climate change – buildings responsible for 40% of energy consumption
For many, natural building is a response to climate change. Conventional building is responsible for 40 % of the world’s total primary energy consumption. Cement on its own is responsible for 5% of greenhouse gasses, the largest single contributor.
The use of local natural and recycled materials drastically reduces the amount of energy required to build a house. Big business, especially the manufacturing sector in conventional building externalises costs in the production phase that is not paid for directly by the consumer.
For example, a bag of cement requires huge amounts of energy to produce and in South Africa the energy mainly comes from coal fired power-stations. These greenhouse gasses have a cost to the earth, which we as a consumer do not pay financially. However, the environmental damage done as a result of the mining operations are perhaps governed by law, but never truly redress the damage caused.
In the end that bag of cement you’ve bought is not fully paid for:
You will find that money cannot be eaten
Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned,
only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money can not be eaten.
~ Cree Indian Prophecy
Natural building has a positive local social impact. Conventional building requires the import of products over vast distances resulting in large amounts of energy in the transportation and production phase, whereas natural building is more reliant on local labour to produce the product.
For example, mud-bricks can be made on site, using local materials, as opposed to clay-fired bricks that require both vast amounts of heat energy and transportation.
70% local labour and 30% natural materials
From my experience as a natural builder I can tell you that conventional building costs are split fifty-fifty between materials with a high carbon footprint, and labour. Natural building is seventy percent local labour and thirty percent materials with a low carbon footprint. Money spent on the bag of cement leaves the area you live in and the profits go towards paying off someone’s BMW.
On the other hand, money spent on a natural building tends to remain in the area and supports the people that need it most. In short, natural building has a larger economic impact in the area in which you live and the money goes where it is needed.
Through smart design our homes should become producers not consumers of energy. Natural buildings could, through good design, supply their own energy using the sun, geothermal energy, wind and bio-gas, provide us with a safe, healthy living environment, produce its own organically grown food (think living roofs, hot houses and balcony gardens), recycle grey water, produce compost and reduce water usage with composting toilets and potentially provide us with a place of work.
New homes to produce energy, good and water
Imagine the new world we could live in if we rejoiced at the building of each new dwelling, much like the planting of a tree, where each new home produces a surplus of energy, food and water and contributes in a positive way to our only earth.
Appropriate design would take the climate, landscape and the available materials into consideration when choosing what materials to use. Straw bales would be an excellent choice if the climate was hot in summer, cold in winter and not a very wet area; such as where I live in the Klein Karoo.
Conversely if the area you lived in was temperate and had a high rainfall, then straw-bales is possibly not the way to go. Firstly bales are sensitive to moisture and humidity, and secondly why loose all that floor space with very wide walls when the climate does not require a super insulated home. I often find that prospective builders are fixated on a particular technique in isolation from the available materials and what the climate indicates.
Harness the forces of nature and become part of the environment
Natural buildings harness the forces of nature to provide a healthier more connected environment that allows us to become part of rather than separate from our environment.
My advice to those looking to build naturally is to inform yourself as broadly as possible around different methods and materials and keep an open mind so that you are free, when the time comes, to make the most appropriate choice.
By Peter McIntosh
Peter moved to Berg-en-dal in 1999, where he built his own earth-sheltered, straw-bale house. Realising his passion Peter apprenticed himself to Etienne Bruwer, architect and father of green building in South Africa, and worked around South Africa, with many different natural building materials and techniques. Shortly thereafter, he started his own natural building company in the South Peninsula of Cape Town, where he honed his skills building and contributing to a diverse range of buildings.
In 2010, Peter returned to Berg-en-dal to teach natural building and transfer his passion for sustainability to students and volunteers. An important part of Peter’s life is living in a community of people where they practice permaculture, growing their own food, living sustainably, and off the grid.
Currently under the auspices of the Natural Building Collective, Peter is available to provide training, private consultation, facilitating workshops and he continues to be involved with projects nationally to further sustainable and natural building. For more information click here.