Shelter That Sustains by Becky Kemery
"One bucket of dirt, two buckets of sand; add water and straw to consistency."
High 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.
Outside 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 well."
Doni 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.
The 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.
A 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.
The 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.
Bells 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 the meal.
Over 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.
At 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.
Sustain-ability One result of our profit-driven culture is that the shelters in which we live—and work, and shop, and play—are 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 afford it.
Sustainable 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 family.
Most 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 future—and where the most exploration is happening—is the field of natural building (i.e., using naturally occuring, locally available materials for building).
It 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.
Mud, 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 habitat.
Methods 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.
A 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 versatility.
The 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 electricity.
Strawbale 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.
Bamboo, 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.
The 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 capabilities).
Logs 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.
One 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!
A Winter Project 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.
My favorite way to connect with new forms of building is to visit—walk 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).
I 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 you.
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.
Happy reading and learning. May you stay warm and dry and may your spirit be nurtured as your body is sheltered.
Becky 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 about Yurts.