“The cob walls of Devonshire, which are formed of clay and straw trodden together by oxen, have been known to last above a century without requiring the slightest repair.” – Loudin’s Encyclopedia of Architecture, 1833
Contrary to popular sentiment, earthen structures have been known to stand sound for lifetimes. It’s truly incredible to see what the earth provides. Not only does it grow our food and nourish the diverse life forms on our planet, it is also a remarkable building material.
We prize our modern civility in constructing large, glossy high-rise buildings, and yet they really only serve to pollute our planet and create more waste. Ancient humans relied on the soil and other natural materials for building homes, leaving the structure to compost back into the earth once they left.
Today we typically depend on synthetic materials for our buildings, meaning they cannot be composted back into the earth. Some parts can be recycled or reused, but for the most part, building remnants find their grave in the landfill.
With rising costs in energy, housing, a global recession, and increasing concern for the environment, there has been resurgent interest in natural building. Earthen structures are cheap to build because they can use earth, clay, and water from on-site sources. You can simply use the earth in front of the space you choose to build! Natural buildings provide efficient insulation – keeping warm during cold winters, and cool in hot summers. They need wood roofs to protect from water, but other than that, they will last for generations to come.
The act of building a home out of soil and clay requires that our hands work with the earth itself – shaping it with water and hay into the form we desire. It’s not a one-person job – we absolutely need to invite the greater community to help us make our home. The work of natural building weaves community together with the earth, demonstrating the core ethics of permaculture in the process.
Not only is natural building an ecologically sustainable way of building homes and structures, they also provide spiritual and psychological benefits as well. In nature where our ancestors evolved, right angles, flat surfaces, monochrome colors, and rigid uniformity don’t exist. Most homes lack variety in shape, color, and structure, leaving our senses wanting further stimulation. With natural building, any form can take shape, so long as you can mold the damp earth. The organic curvature of natural buildings engages our creative senses and connects us with nature’s forms and patterns.
Want to know more? In the next part, we’ll talk about some different types of natural building materials.