hands-on construction using on-hand materials
Cob and Cob/Bale
Foundations and Drainage
Greenhouses and Rainwater Gardens
Drafting, Design, Writing and Illustration
Masonry: Rock Art
Kitchen Alchemy: 3-Hour Bread
Kitchen Alchemy: Special Diets
Arctic and Maritime Safety
Messy Science: Purple Plant Potions
Memoirs: Writing your Life Legacy
Concrete and cement-based mortars are marvelous, particularly in conditions of ongoing damp, such as buildings without eaves, bridge pilings, and basements. Unfortunately, the very rigid and waterproof nature of these mixtures means they can damage any natural materials used in the same buildings.
All of this means that a modern 'masonry' building is really designed to last as long as the steel that ties it together - or as long as its roof and cladding prevent damp and oxygen from attacking that steel. For any building to remain durable, it must be protected from weather by a good hat, and from ground damp by a good pair of boots.
Ancient building methods used more flexible and resilient natural materials, placing the emphasis on local ability to source, build, and repair with the same materials. Over time, systems of building developed that allowed the creation of structures like the lighthouses and manor houses of medieval Europe, and the monumental architecture and earthen skyscrapers of the Middle East. Traditional systems of building may be more labor-intensive than the modern ones, because modern 'labor' has been subsidized by fossil fuels to produce quick-installing, energy-intensive materials. This may not remain true as the petroleum age wanes. Time and skill is required to turn local, biodegradable materials into structures that remain sound and dry. However, they may also be longer-lasting, easier to repair, and healthier to live in than an all-modern building.
Mixing modern and ancient building methods requires careful thought, because modern materials can actually concentrate damp in adjacent natural materials and cause rotting or mold problems. Some winning combinations include concrete footings or basements, with appropriate ground-damp controls, under natural walls and roof; and the use of modern roofing materials (with appropriate ventilation and provision for dripline softening) over traditionally-built buildings.
For more detail on the composition, compatibility with modern materials and methods, and best building practices for natural materials in English-language sources, we like
Mike Wye and Associates, UK
Graeme North Architects, NZ
Cob Cottage Co, OR, USA
World Heritage Organization's Earthen Architecture Initiative
Our work has focused on temperate climates, and within those primarily in maritime climates, so we are most interested in concerns of damp, cold, and so on. The first three resources are excellent for these conditions.
There may be far more builders working with earth in arid, hot, and other climates. The WHO resources describe efforts in Africa, the US Southwest, and other regions. We welcome recommendations for other reliable references.
Ernie Wisner grew up on the southern Oregon coast, a stone's throw from where Cob Cottage Company now operates in Coquille, OR. Boom- and- bust cycles in the coastal economy had Ernie on the lookout for a growing, sustainable, low-cost alternative to early retirement in a trailer. Natural Building looked like a great alternative for durable, elegant, DIY housing. After a few years of researching the field, Ernie dropped his other plans and took on a two-year apprenticeship under Ianto Evans.
Natural Building appeals to Erica's interests in ecology, art, architecture, and hands-on learning. She studied drafting, engineering, and other physical sciences and arts in college, then began to actually get her hands dirty working with Portland's Village Building Convergence and local workshop hosts such as TLC Farm and Flying Hammer Productions.
All of the above links include great information and resources. You can find these and other sites through the Natural Building Network, a fabulous place to connect with builders, organizations, information, and other resources. www.naturalbuildingnetwork.org
Check our calendar for upcoming Natural Building workshops and events: