Time for Natural Building Techniques?


Proponents of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s and 1970s aspired to build their own homes using locally available resources and envisioned sustaining themselves off the land as well.

The energy crisis later in the 1970s focused our attention on use (or misuse) of natural resources and the energy efficiency of our buildings, leading to substantial research into solar and other alternative sources of energy. More recently, environmental concerns have focused on our continued reliance on fossil fuels for energy, the impact of greenhouse gases, and the controversy over global warming.

Certainly these recent issues have given rise to enhanced interest in renewable-energy sources, sustainability, and other ecologically-minded solutions. One such notion is "Natural Building," a sustainable building technique that is believed to minimize the environmental impact of our housing and structure needs.

Natural building can be defined loosely as any building system that places the highest value on social and environmental sustainability. Natural builders emphasize simple, easy-to-learn techniques based on locally available, raw, renewable and recycled resources, ideally gathered from the site vicinity.

Relying on Human Labor

These systems rely heavily on human labor and creativity instead of on capital, high technology, and specialized skills. Natural building technologies can be applicable in nearly all geographic regions and climates. Materials of construction include adobe, cob, straw bale, rammed earth, and straw-clay. Alternative structures are also being built of recycled materials such as tires, aluminum cans, paper fiber, and bottles combined with cement or earth-binding agents.

Parts of The Great Pyramids are made of earth.

Natural building, in varying shapes and forms, can be traced back hundreds if not thousands of years. Adobe, used as the primary building material in the Pueblo villages of New Mexico, is the most common example. In South Yemen, there are medieval earthen houses rising 13 stories high. Parts of The Great Pyramids and Great Wall of China are made of earth.

Pueblo villages use adobe as primary building material.

Proponents of natural building point to the modern housing industry as a major contributor to our ecological problems. They note that modern building systems depend on wood products and destructive mining techniques: gypsum for sheet rock; iron for hardware, rebar, and roofing; lime and other minerals for cement.

Reducing Environmental Risk

Almost every material used in a typical modern building is the product of energy-intensive processing. Sawmills, plywood and chipboard factories, steel foundries, and the plants that turn natural minerals into cement by subjecting them to enormous heat all consume vast quantities of power, supplied either by coal and oil combustion, hydroelectricity, or nuclear power. These manufacturing processes also release toxic effluent into the water and hazardous chemicals into the air.

Natural building materials, on the other hand, pose few environmental risks and are readily available. They don't contribute to deforestation, pollution, or mining, nor do they depend on manufactured materials or power tools. Most natural builders also incorporate green building strategies such as sun-shading or other passive cooling techniques, passive solar heating, and geo-exchange heating and cooling into their natural building designs to increase sustainability and lower energy consumption.

With all of these advantages, why hasn't natural building been welcomed with open arms into the mainstream building industry? One problem is that few people have experience handling and working with natural materials.

Architects and builders are expert at working with cement, wood, and other traditional building materials, and while synthetic materials may have some undesirable qualities, they are cheap, easy to make, and even easier to use. There is an entire building supply and aftermarket built around traditional materials as well.

Building codes are another issue that has slowed acceptance of natural building. Building officials are most concerned with safety and security. Because both builders and building code officials have such little experience with alternative building materials, the entire permit process can be significantly longer and more costly.

However, the intent of building codes is to ensure that materials are used safely and suitably, not to limit the use of appropriate materials. The burden of proof will be on the natural builders to ensure that materials are used safely and appropriately. Natural builders must also lead the education process for building officials, architects, conventional builders, and the general public.

Affecting major process changes in any industry is challenging. However, the time just might be right for natural builders to emerge from a subculture into the mainstream.

Tom Ricci is the owner of Ricci Communications.


Natural building can be defined loosely as any building system that places the highest value on social and environmental sustainability.


August 2011

by Tom Ricci, ASME.org