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Choosing Natural Building

Building using natural materials comes from a desire to get closer and more connected to our environment; the natural patterns of life in and around us. Living in a home that fits into the landscape rather than being imposed upon it, that seems to grow out of the earth and keeps us comfortable with a minimum of environmental impact, can shelter and nurture us in a way that gives us a sense of belonging.

A growing sense of isolation in western culture has had a great many side effects, many of which are detrimental to the well-being of life on this planet. Environmental awareness and science have alerted us to such things as global warming, holes in the ozone layer and species extinction. The industrialized world is using the finite resources of the planet at an unprecedented rate, while contaminating air, water and soil along the way. And much of the developing world is hot on our heels. In a mad rush for progress, we act as we have forgotten that trees support us as much as our bones, that clean water gives us life as much as our blood does.

Choices Matter Over Generations

Even though we can’t always see how the choices we make in our daily lives affect our back yards, we can see the cumulative effects. Turning on a light or cranking the heater doesn’t immediately appear to pollute the air in our rooms or around our houses, but when we see a power plant in operation, or get a headache from chemical fumes coming from a building material in a new house, we begin to make connections. Today, we have more choices than ever before, and each has its own set of consequences, some apparent and some almost invisible. The more aware we become of the consequences of our actions, the more we are able to respond accordingly, and make choices that reflect a shifting consciousness towards connectedness and interrelatedness. Natural Building is an extension of this awareness into how we create our living and working spaces.

Most of us would agree that the most basic human survival needs are food, water, clothing and shelter. These issues are a daily concern of every human, and how they are dealt with has a cumulative effect over a lifetime and over generations. In the last century, western culture’s relationship to sheltering ourselves has changed dramatically. Prior to this, most housing needs were met by hand-crafting the natural materials available nearby (wood, rock, soil, grasses) into climate-appropriate structures that stayed relatively comfortable year-round. With the rise of industrialized society, new materials and methods have been developed that make building faster and easier than traditional building methods, meeting the needs of a rapidly growing population. The accompanying widespread availability of centrally generated power has lessened the need for climate-appropriate design to achieve comfort levels. These newer methods often rely heavily on resource extraction, manufacture and long-distance transportation. Compounded by population explosion and redistribution, the unintended consequences of modern industrialized building include planetary resource depletion (forest clearcutting, drilling, mining), pollution and other damage to the earth’s life support systems.

The use of highly manufactured materials and toxic chemicals in the building industry has also had unintended impacts on the health of factory workers, construction tradespeople, and the families living in these houses. Major emerging health threats include increasing chemical sensitivities and environmental illnesses due to toxins in our surroundings. Buildings account for one-quarter of the planet’s yearly wood harvest, two-fifths of its material and energy use, and one-sixth of its water use. Figures such as these make it clear that a shift in our approach to building could have significant impacts. A growing number of people in the western industrialized nations are now realizing that technological solutions to housing are not without their global consequences. The process of building a house represents the largest concentration of resource use that many people will experience in their entire lifetime. There is a movement towards blending more traditional building approaches with a judicious use of modern industrialized materials. Natural building is experiencing a resurgence growing from a conscious choice to honor the interrelatedness of our resource use, our own health and that of the planet.

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About Steve Kemble

Steve started his career as an engineer, where he developed a great capacity for detail and integrated design. He went on to become a certified Permaculture designer in 1990, which led him on the path of natural building. Steve jumped into straw bale building “with all fours” by attending the first ever workshop on the subject in 1990 and immediately going home and designing his own house. Steve applies his skills in design, innovation, and hands-on application, along with a focus on care for the earth, to all of his work in natural building. In the course of numerous projects over the years, he has figured out ways to build straw bale and other natural building structures efficiently and effectively and has incorporated his discoveries in his designs, advice and teaching.