How Revillaging and Natural Building Are Increasing Climate Resilience

Yves here. This post describes some approaches to building housing and designing communities to reduce their environmental impact. However, this sort of thinking is long overdue. Even though many of the ideas, such as constructing communities so that daily needs are all within walking distance, I am still concerned that implicitly, these changes require construction, which even with careful choice of materials, has a climate and environmental cost. In other words, too many in the “green transition” movement keep promoting the idea that more clever consumption can get us out of our fast approaching climate train wreck, when the first line of response needs to be radical conservation.

On top of that, this post unintentionally illustrates the tendency of progressives to talk to themselves. I found the writing style to be extremely offputting, such as the cheerleading and use of buzz-phrases that seem designed to resonate with NGO funders. I hope you can read past that, since there is still a lot of informative detail about these approaches.

By April M. Short, an editor, journalist, and documentary editor and producer. She is a co-founder of the Observatory, where she is the Local Peace Economy editor, and she is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she was a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Good Times, a weekly newspaper in Santa Cruz, California. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, LA Yoga, the Conversation, Salon, and many other publications. Produced by Local Peace Economy

The way we build our structures and organize our cities can have a significant impact on the way we live, interact, and even survive these complex times on our planet. As the realities of climate change increase the frequency and scale of natural disasters in communities around the world, architecture needs to support climate resilience. Architecture can do this not just via the design of structures but also by supporting community engagement and empowerment. Around the world, creative architects and builders are innovating resilient and Earth-friendly ways to craft structures and organize communities—and they are teaching these practices to other people.

Revillaging Our Cities for Climate Resilience

There is an ongoing “revillaging” movement that seeks to shift the way we build and design the layouts and interactions of our modern world to combat mental illness, housing, and climate disasters, as detailed in my 2020 article produced through the Independent Media Institute. The article explores the work of urban architect Mark Lakeman, who in the 1990s began working on the concept of revillaging, which seeks to reconstruct urban spaces and the way we relate within them, from the ground up. Ensuring all of the needs of a given resident can be met within a walkable distance by redesigning the grid to operate at a “human scale,” is core to revillaging. For decades, he worked to revillage his home city of Portland, Oregon, by altering (and at times breaking) city zoning laws to carve out public squares and gathering spaces, art projects like Portland’s iconic intersection street paintings, and other elements of permaculture design. Lakeman continues to inspire change in city structures around the world via lectures, education, and groundbreaking urban design projects.

He and his team worked on part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 2013 100 Resilient Cities project, which asked designers to send in their competing plans to address climate change. Lakeman’s team created a revillaging design for the Bay Area city of Vallejo, roughly 30 miles north of San Francisco—an area that is likely to become increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of rising sea levels due to climate change. Block by block, his team demonstrated a revillaging of the city’s entire infrastructure to adapt places like schools into community centers and create various nodes of connection within walking distance.

“The vision for Vallejo—and it really should be everywhere—is to enable the transition of where people are housed into a more dynamic environment,” Lakeman said during the 2020 interview. “We added things called spot zones where living and working becomes legal, allowing people to build right up to their property lines and augment their homes with spaces that allow for live-work functions, so that people don’t have to transit the landscape to go and get their needs met. They can actually just walk to a neighborhood node. … Whether it’s Vallejo or anywhere, we’re not going to get on the climate change program without relating it to all these other things which are urgent… like equity, social justice, and fundamental accessible housing.”

Communities Learn to Build Climate Resilience in Pakistan

In many communities around the world, the devastation of climate change-related disasters has already hit home. For example, hundreds of thousands of people in Pakistan have been displaced due to natural disasters in recent decades, beginning with the 2005 magnitude 7.6 earthquake in northern Pakistan. The quake killed around 73,000 people and left more than 2.8 million homeless.

Following the earthquake, Yasmeen Lari—who retired from an esteemed career as the first-ever female Pakistani architect in 2000—came out of retirement to “go and help,” the people of her country, she told the Guardian in a 2020 interview.

“I had no idea what I could do as an architect,” she says in the article. “I’d never done any disaster work, or any projects in the mountains. I had no workforce; I’d given up my practice. But I found that, if you do something beyond your usual comfort zone, then help will always come.”

She began working with communities to rebuild their homes using debris, mud, stone, lime—and whatever natural elements and materials were available. This was the prelude to what would become decades of work at the confluence of architecture and social justice.

She began to do groundbreaking work through Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, a UN-recognized NGO that Lari co-founded in 1980, which focuses on conservation of cultural heritage and historic architecture, and humanitarian relief projects in poor and underserved communities throughout Pakistan. Lari trained as an architect in London’s School of Architecture, Oxford Polytechnic—which is now Oxford Brookes University—and in 2023 she received the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). She was also awarded the prestigious Fukuoka Prize in 2016.

Lari was surprised to receive the 2023 award, according to the RIBA Journal, which quoted her as saying, “I never imagined that as I focus on my country’s most marginalized people—venturing down uncharted vagabond pathways—I could still be considered for the highest of honors in the architectural profession.”

A video by RIBA created following her receipt of the award details Lari’s work since 2005 to teach Pakistani communities—and in particular women—to build climate-resilient structures that are environmentally friendly and made from natural materials that are readily available to the communities. Many of the communities are taught how to build structures that are constructed by women, who are dubbed “barefoot eco entrepreneurs,” and have been trained in the method Lari developed.

She shares in the video that after the 2005 earthquake, she devised a system that relies on empowering people rather than treating them as victims. The system promotes certain principles, among them is what she calls the four zeros: zero carbon, zero donors, zero waste, and zero poverty. Also key to the system are some “noes”: no to handouts, no to cement, and no to steel. The latter two noes are because cement and steel “are the most destructive architectural materials for the environment,” Lari says.

Lari learned how to make earthquake-resilient structures that wouldn’t be life-threatening, and through her program, began to teach other people how to build for themselves. Her main building materials became bamboo, earth, and lime, she shares, noting that with these materials, “[y]ou can have infinite number of possibilities, and they’re so safe and comparatively really inexpensive,” she says in the video. She also notes that bamboo is an incredibly resilient building material that sequesters so much carbon that it makes everything in these building projects carbon neutral.

The video also details how in 2010, when Pakistan experienced massive flooding from north to south, these bamboo structures held strong.

A woman named “Champa,” a barefoot eco entrepreneur, shares in the video that many houses were destroyed in the flood but not in the village shown in the video, which were built using Lari’s method. “These houses are very different,” as Champa speaks, the frame shows a circle of thatch roof structures from above, some with solar panels on top of them. “They are safe from the floods; they are built higher and stronger,” she says.

Harriet Wennberg, the executive director of INTBAU (The International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism—a global network promoting traditional building, architecture, and urbanism—says in the video that Lari is “a great advocate… for human agency” and has enabled people to learn how to build for themselves.

She notes that while much of the working concept Lari has created has the potential to be “replicable and relevant elsewhere,” it is “those local adaptations” and the idea of using materials that exist in the place where people are building, “that are key.”

Senator Nasreen Jalil, deputy convener of the Muttahida Quami Movement Pakistan, notes in the video that while visiting the villages where Lari’s carbon-free bamboo shelters have been built, one is “amazed at the way they have been designed, planned, and just the general outlook. This has become more important today because the whole world is focused on having a better environment and making it carbon-free.”

Lari says that the reason all of her projects have been successful is “because women were involved.” She points to her Pakistan chullah (stove) design, more than 100,000 or so of which had been built in villages throughout Pakistan, primarily by housewives. No money is given to communities to build these “self-built, earthen” stoves, she shares. “They do it themselves. … The beauty is that you can train people, and combined with their own skills what they’ve had… it’s a magic formula.”

A Natural Building Collective in Portugal Teaches Women to Build

“It is vital now, more than ever, that we make space for women in this male-lead industry and create a shift in this outdated patriarchal system whilst also moving away from, our planet destroying, building industries, and methods.” This is an excerpt from the website for the Women’s Natural Building Collective (WNBC) in Portugal. Like Lari, the collective is working to empower women to build using natural materials. They offer in-person training to women with little to no building experience, who come from around the world—often from Australia, the U.S., Europe, and beyond—to learn. The women who attend are between their 20s and late 70s in age and often have little in common beyond an urge to learn to build—a skill set women in particular are seldom encouraged to pick up.

“I feel most women on this planet, like me, would never believe they could build their own house,” says Lola Byron, co-founder of the Women’s Natural Building Collective. “It’s not a script we are given. We carved a very different narrative from generations before us that keeps us clean and tidy, that forces us into a box with specific roles and responsibilities, that don’t serve us anymore or never have. I feel we are breaking down the walls of confinement and it’s extremely liberating. I just want more and more women to feel it, the pride and accomplishment, the connection and fun.”

She adds that she is consistently impressed by what 12 women with no building experience can accomplish during their week-long courses, like building a timber frame earth house from the ground up. Beyond learning a new and empowering skill set, Byron says the women who attend these courses often have another motive in common.

“There have been students, teachers, IT specialists, web developers, massage therapists, marketing directors, yoga instructors, and so on, but it does feel like there is an underlying common thread: a want and need to make a change,” she says. “We hear very often of people being sick and tired of the ‘rat race’ and wanting to step out of a social system they no longer trust, where they don’t feel safe or seen. They share a feeling of being ‘burned out’ by the pressures of life and work, and of fearing for the future of the planet. They are looking for ways they can contribute to a healthier future.”

The Women’s Natural Building Collective not only uses local, natural materials but the houses are also specifically designed to work in harmony with their surrounding environment.

“We study the climate and the external energies that will affect the house,” Byron says. For example, the collective takes into consideration where the water flows when it rains, and where the sun path will be throughout the year in relation to each building. They ask how the roof, walls, and windows will need to respond to these elements in order to control the temperature inside the house.

“By doing so we can eliminate the need for fossil fuels to heat and cool the home,” she says.

Byron found her way to starting the building collective in a roundabout way. She began as an artist, studying fine art with a specialization in sculpting, then taught art in Cardiff, Wales. However, she says there was a persistent feeling that something was missing.

“I had everything I was told you need to have to feel you have accomplishments in life—job, car, and partner—but I felt a churning of dissatisfaction and emptiness in me, this feeling of ‘is this it?’” In 2010, she saw an ad for a Permaculture Design Course and signed up for it on a whim.

“It changed my life entirely,” she says. “It was like someone had opened a hidden door into a beautiful and hopeful new world where things could work harmoniously and in tune with nature; where collaboration outweighed competition; and where people were doing what they could to create a better and brighter future.”

During the course, there was an afternoon focused on natural building and Byron was “hooked.” She had a “eureka moment” realizing she could put her sculpting skills to use to create “a functional, practical, and living piece of art that could also bring attention to the housing crisis and the destructive building industries,” rather than to create something that would sit on a gallery shelf.

Following the course, an instructor offered Byron a chance to rebuild a damaged earth structure at a festival. When she replied that she had no idea how to do the job, the instructor replied, “Of course you do, just mix some mud and feel it out!” This gave her the courage to try, and she spent two months rebuilding the structure and learning as she went along.

“I felt an indescribable intuitive connection with the earth I was building with, like it was a practice I already had the tools for, like it was engraved in my DNA from my ancestors who had once created shelters with earth,” she says. “Now, I was tapping into that hidden knowledge and it felt amazing, liberating, and empowering.”

“We have the power to move mountains together and it’s an incredible feeling,” she says.

Following the experience, she says all she wanted to do was learn more about building, so she “quit everything” and went to Southeast Asia on a journey to learn what she could. She settled in Thailand where she shadowed local village builders, staying in their earth homes and spending months observing and practicing their techniques.

“What I realized was that to become a better builder, I had to keep on building,” she says. “I needed to listen and connect with the raw materials. The more I worked with [the materials], the more I understood their limitations and potentials.” Her skills and confidence grew as she studied and practiced with international builders, and she eventually landed a dream job as a natural building manager with a permaculture project in northern Thailand.

Byron spent nine years in Thailand where she fell in love and gave birth to her daughter, who is now nine. Eventually, her family moved to Portugal and found a community of like-minded people. She began running natural building workshops until the COVID-19 pandemic started. When all work was paused, she worked with a neighbor to build a straw bale and cob house that needed to be finished. It was the first time she worked on a team of just two women—herself and the neighbor.

“It was just the two of us together, building, sharing, crying, laughing, and growing. The energy was incredible,” she says. “We held a couple of ‘workdays’ where unintentionally only women turned up, maybe six or seven of us, working with so much joy, playing music, sharing good food, laughs and sometimes tears, facing challenges on the build together, seeing our strengths and encouraging one another. As we stomped the mud with our bare feet, we organically created a circle as we worked, where our problems, challenges, and life stories could be safely heard and held.”

Byron says it was then that she knew the group was creating “something very special.”

“And I knew I wanted more,” she says. So, the WNBC was born.

“It’s a long story but this is how the WNBC was born: from connection, sisterhood, and empowerment; from a deep driving force to create change in our lives, and for the lives of our children’s children.” The collective, she says, came together from a shared drive to “stand up and do something, to push the boundaries of what is acceptable, and to break stereotypes.”

She shared the idea to create a women’s building company, to design and build ecological houses, and to train others to build, with the women she had been building with. Everyone loved the idea.

“I learned how to create a website, we sat and laid the foundations of what was fundamentally important for us, we got our first job, and we have been growing and building ever since,” Byron says.

As the housing crisis is skyrocketing around the world and so many people are unable to afford a home or basic shelter, Byron says she hopes natural building can help inspire solutions.

“Natural building uses the local materials at hand and the price [of building] is drastically reduced,” she notes. “I feel like the challenge at the moment is that cement/concrete is being used as a symbol of wealth in developing countries; if you have a concrete house you are seen as being more westernized. We are seeing so many natural structures being torn down and replaced with brick and concrete houses that don’t work with the climate and are uncomfortable to live in.”

She says their collective wants to help educate people on how natural construction is not a primitive way to build— it is a necessary one.

For those interested in bringing natural building practices to their own communities, she says the best place to start is to look at the building methods and materials people were using in the area prior to concrete. Often, she says, those structures will respond better to the landscape and the climate. From there, she recommends finding other people who are still practicing these techniques and learning the skills to build.

“I never really realized how sickeningly destructive our building industries are, how much waste and greenhouse gas emission they produce, the toxic materials they use, the capitalist system that has been created in the housing market, and so on,” she says. “Once you look into it, it’s really depressing. And we can’t continue like this, with this exponential growth to build more and more. It’s not sustainable and it’s also not necessary.”

She feels that for the survival of our species, we humans will need to change our building methods and build more naturally and consciously.

The WNBC has several workshops planned for 2024, as well as some small build projects, Byron says.

“We have the solutions,” she says. “That’s why we continue to build, teach, and share this knowledge.”

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Interest in this topic goes back decades – arguably back to the Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th Century – but there are always problems with craft and self building, not least modern building codes/regulations. Many an attempt to create local houses with local materials has floundered on these (Michael Pollens ‘A Place of my Own’ has some very elegantly written analyses of what happens when a craftsman meets the local Building Code guy). And of course local materials were often abandoned for modern materials for a very good reason as anyone who has slept overnight in a traditional timber home in Japan or an old stone cottage in Ireland can testify. Self building in local materials can work wonderfully in somewhere like New Mexico (lots of wonderful adobe houses and more modern earthship interpretations), but less so in wet and windy climes or places prone to storms.

    The most successful attempts at sustainable architecture marry local materials and craftmanship with modern tech. No ‘traditional’ ope can match a modern triple glazed window or skylight for comfort and reduced energy use and while open stone fires are simple and lovely to see, they are far less sustainable than a modern low energy system.

    A lot of the problems, as always, comes down to the malign mix of financial incentives. I know many people who wanted to build more sustainable houses with traditional materials and innovative designs, but faced obstacles from mortgage companies, insurers, local planning/building code officials, etc. Most based on well meaning or even very sensible rules (such as fire safety regulations), but with unintended outcomes.

    But ultimately there are more important things than who built and what materials are in a building. No matter what its made of, a 5,000 sq foot detached suburban house with a garage is never going to be as sustainable as a 1500 square foot apartment in a dense urban area. Resilience isn’t just about building materials – its about people being willing to put up with a bit of discomfort in favour of better communities – smaller homes, no default to car use, no perfect year round interior climate control.

    1. juno mas

      PK observations leaven the loaf. Here’s an energy conservation optimized design from 1990 that touches many of his points (and all code requirements):

      As you can see it is in a high elevation (cold), rural (no utilities) location. It serves a specific need. It combines many of the concepts developed decades ago (1970’s) by real innovators. Building structures in a dense (non-rural) environment requires utilities to provide clean water and and sewage treatment (code requirements). As a small community grows in size the builders tend to consume most of the local materials; then transport costs impede importation and new materials are created, ie; synthetic insulation replaces thick timber or adobe.

      Empowering poor women (or men) to create for themselves an essential need (housing) is, of course, inspiring and motivating for a community. However, its application is not universal.

      1. David in Friday Harbor

        I’ve been living in my new-construction house in a rural area for less than a year now. Like Michael Pollan, we read A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein (1977) and also Visual Delight in Architecture by Lisa Heschong (2021). We came up with our own concept and worked with local drafts(wo)men for permit drawings — no architects were harmed.

        The most important lessons were learned by speaking with local building contractors. Because we wanted to be able to secure insurance and potentially some bank financing we built with building permits which require compliance with stringent building codes. There are all sorts of “innovations” out there, but they are all quite expensive in terms of both labor and materials. None of them penciled-out for us and we used traditional stick-built construction, minimizing waste wherever possible. We utilize renewable energy from the local cooperative throughout.

        The local community is suffering from a severe housing shortage and we were happy to be able to add to the housing stock. But as PK wisely points-out, we simply don’t want to live in the sort of densely-populated urban environment that would allow us be car-free.

        That’s the rub that I keep coming back to: the problem is too many human beings. It’s not how we build, it’s that we keep needing to build more.

    2. c_heale

      Completely disagree with this comment and in particular this point…

      “a 5,000 sq foot detached suburban house with a garage is never going to be as sustainable as a 1500 square foot apartment in a dense urban area.”

      The dense urban area is more unsustainable since it relies on more unsustainable inputs. Modern cities are completely reliant on fossil fuels and electricity, and as we have seen the non renewable “renewable technologies” we currently have cannot provide baseload electricity. For example to provide a water supply to apartments requires pumps, they cannot be fed by gravity and rainwater is unlikely to suffice.

      A detached house in the the countryside with good insulation, be reliant on minimum energy inputs and water.

  2. Amfortas the Hippie

    i agree about the odious ngospeak,lol.
    but i’m happy whenever such things find their way out there.
    all old hat to me, of course…i grew up with Mother Earth News.
    Zoning is likely to be the biggest barrier in the so called civilised West.
    out here, i often forget that zoning is even a thing…and i’m free to do as i like as far as building stuff.
    just like with the food insecurity thing, where someone mentioned how much food we waste while folks down the road go hungry….its the same with building.
    i cannot count how many perfectly fine 2×4’s i’ve salvaged from the landfill.
    as well as R-Panel, light fixtures, bricks and cinderblocks, and thats to say nothing of telephone poles.(the latter, as ive said, they are happy to get rid of, and (out here at least) will use their machines to load them.they are forbidden to do anything with them but store them or give them away)
    things like cob, straw bale or rammed earth are extremely labor intensive….and not every patch of dirt has the requisite clay.
    and for straw bale construction…that aint hay…its straw, which is the grass part of grain.
    square balers are out of fashion, these days…so good luck finding one locally, as well as the right kind of wire for them, or the parts for that machinery(all my local hay farmers only do round bales, now)
    nevertheless, alternatives are welcome…or should be.

  3. DJG, Reality Czar

    I am highly skeptical of the Womens Natural Building Collective, which has four principals, none of whom is Portuguese. The Portuguese have only been building things Portuguese-style for, ohhhh, at least two thousand years. Maybe the Portuguese know something. I cannot get the site to display in Portuguese, either. So I find it all a tad Anglosphere-invasion-y. (I am seeing some of this in Italy, with foundations and artists retreats set up by Anglophones–although they usually have the courtesy to present the site in Italian, too.)

    I just returned from a walk around my neighborhood in the Chocolate City, with the intention of checking certain buildings. To me, the issue is density and mixed-use function. Italian cities are more viable than U.S. cities because residential dwellings and shops aren’t separated. You don’t have “nodes” to walk to from one’s single-family house. Here, most of the city is large apartment blocks, descendants of Roman insulae, with a courtyard that often houses shops and offices–and the occasional car-repair shop or, in my neighborhood, the local glassblower. The ground floor of most buildings is shops and workshops.

    There are neighborhoods here for the alta borghesia with some single-family piles, but by and large, no. Of course, up in the Precollina, the Agnellis and their pals have estates, but that isn’t normal. Consider how the U.S. city is laid out. (And Portland, Ore, is only scratching the surface of the problem.)

    The model for U.S. cities may be Manhattan. Not the costly Manhattan of tourism, but the neighborhood-y Manhattan, now being forced out by speculators. The way Greenwich Village, Little Italy, and Gramercy Park once were. In Chicago, the most viable mixed-use neighborhood is Old Town, which is very old-fashioned for Chicago in its layout and in allowing residences and shops together. (It is now thoroughly gentrified, though.)

    “Revillaging” implies making villages viable. To me, that is another issue, especially here in the Undisclosed Region, where many old villages are trying to retain their population and keep themselves viable economically.

    The long and the short of it is: Doesn’t Jane Jacobs explain “revillaging” better? With more insight?

  4. Tom Pfotzer

    I’m glad to see the points PK makes above:

    a. “traditional” got replaced with “modern” for a lot of good reasons (it works better, for ex) and
    b. A design has to address all the factors that determine “fitness to purpose”, not just a few, and how big and where it’s situated (in the local topological and environmental setting) counts for a lot

    There’s a lot of literature and well-developed examples to address these issues. Bill Mollison and the permaculture strategies he championed are great examples; Christopher Alexander’s “Timeless way of building” is another slant on it. He describes the patterns – the functions of home-space, how to orient, combine, design these individual spaces to additively deliver a delightful and energy-efficient home … this material’s been around for decades.

    And at the village scale – what economic functions are supplied at the village level – this is another subject that’s been discussed many a year, and is especially amenable to further development due to the recent changes in communications, transport, local-scale manufacturing and other factors that serve to make possible now what’s never been possible before.

    There’s plenty of scope for major innovations at the home- and village-scale.

    That brings us to the “what’s in the way” question. What’s actually preventing this innovation from happening more and faster?

    Doing this sort of work doesn’t pay well. It involves risk and expense. It has to steer around many challenges, like building codes. There’s a thicket of impediments in the way, and the only way to get through those impediments is to _do_ things: to make a design, construct it, test it out, and so forth. The good ol’ product development cycle.

    And that is where we’re weakest (as a people). Not that many of us can bring the requisite design skills, the construction skills, time and money to do this work.

    We’re going to need a great number of new products (like building materials) and strategies (like designs that combine appropriate, commercially viable functions into a viable village-level economy).

    That scale of work takes a whole lot more involvement, and very well-directed involvement by a whole lot more people than are currently engaged with this work. This is going to take a lot of teamwork.

    Teamwork is not yet a well-developed skill, generally, among we humans. If I had a magic wand, I think that’s the place I’d use it.

    If we actually did have more teamwork skills, the next place I’d wave the wand is over collaboration tools.

    The collaboration tools would take the form of a website that provided a forum for people around the world or down the street to evolve designs, build teams to construct and test those designs, etc. This forum would be a place to learn about and do the work of new product development.

    These sort of tools are technically possible (fairly simple, actually) and as yet not built, and certainly not widely used if indeed they do happen to exist.

    That collaboration tool would perform as a force-multiplier, and it would serve to drastically shorten and simplify the product development cycle, reduce risk, and will also help address the shortage-of-resources issue.

    We don’t really have a technical deficit; most of the materials and techniques are present, but maybe not widely known.

    What’s needed now is to pick a place to start, and get designing and get building.

    Think how much Amfortas has accomplished. He’s not rich, but he is willing to start somewhere, keep at it, use his imagination, and … it works. That’s a pretty good example to follow.

    1. New_Okie

      Three other reasons I can think of that these practice have not gone mainstream:

      1. Cost Of Labor: Others have mentioned this, and obviously this will be more of an issue in the USA and Europe than in Pakistan or India.

      I looked into building with hempcrete. The hempcrete materials themselves are not too spendy, but the issue is the time it takes to form a 10″ wall of the stuff. Between mixing and tamping, it takes a team of workers a couple weeks. Compare that to, say, mineral wool, which the same team could probably finish in less than a day.

      Straw bale has similar issues and, iirc a similar price premium. Actually, every natural wall system I looked into cost more (though if someone thinks they know of a good alternative I would be curious to hear what it is).

      2. Financing: As far as I am aware, construction lenders in the USA won’t lend money to build a naturally built home. I think most people building “naturally” use their own savings or finance it another way (HELOC on an existing home or loans from family). So very few people make spec straw bale homes.

      3. Population Density: The kind of natural building techniques taught in the workshops mentioned in the article do not generally work for buildings taller than 1-3 stories. There are guidelines for building multi-story buildings with cob, for instance. The taller you want your building the thicker the ground-level walls must be to support the walls above them. And then there is earthquake risk, where the force exerted on the top of a wall increases with height.

      I have seen some approaches to building taller than three stories using wood–the argument being that wood may be better for the environment than concrete and steel. I don’t recall offhand how tall those buildings can get, but I suspect it is less than a modern steel skyscraper.

      So as Yves mentions, natural building techniques are not a panacea that will solve global warming. And we shouldn’t be tearing down perfectly good conventional homes just so we can build straw bale ones (though I don’t think anyone is suggesting this). But I do love that people are thinking this way, and I, for one, am glad to hear that some people in rural Pakistan have found a way to live in natural homes which are durable, inexpensive, safe, and healthy.

      1. Tom Pfotzer

        New Okie:

        I agree with all your points, and soon I’m going to not just agree with them, but live them, and try (yet again) to tackle some of them.

        Let’s consider the issue of a building’s walls. Walls have to provide structure (top-down load, and lateral “shear” strength), thermal properties (resist heat transfer, and possibly store heat), and provide a mount surface for pipes, wires, ducts, etc.

        Consider for a second the notion of “composite” materials. Concrete with reinforcing steel is an example. You combine two materials that have different properties into a new “super-material” that leverages the strengths and overcomes the weaknesses of the constituent materials. There is huge scope for development on this front.

        And now for the “doing” part.

        Later this year, I’m going to build a test-lab to build and test various materials that might be combined into an low-materials-cost, low-labor-input wall panel. I’ll start with foam-crete (soap foam mixed with portland cement). This is well-known method, it’s dirt-cheap, easy to do, takes minimal tools. Foam-crete offers an R-value of 2 per inch of thickness. That’s about 1/3 the performance of isocyanate foam insulation, so it’s decent. And cheap. And load-bearing.

        Once it cures, foam-crete has high compressive strength (600 psi, that’s about 1/5 of what concrete offers). That’s not enough compressive strength to support a multi-story building, but plenty for one story. However, foam-crete, by itself, lacks shear-strength. You can snap it in half like a cracker (biscuit for you UK readers) with a relatively small force.

        My strategy is to make a “composite” product. I’ll embed wire mesh into the foam-crete, and cast that mesh-and-foam into a rectangular panel. The wire mesh will be suspended 1/2″ below the outer surfaces, one sheet of wire mesh on each side of the panel.

        This will provide a major shear-strength boost. What will it cost? How durable will it be? How easy to manufacture (in a farm-scale setting) will it be?

        Dunno. But I’ll be finding out later this year.

        This is the sort of guerilla-warfare style product development that would be _vastly_ accelerated, and then widely promulgated if we had some sort of forum wherein teams could form around a particular, widely-applicable product, and sort all these details out.

        Those teams would post pictures of designs – which would be heartily debated, and some designs would be selected (by anyone, anywhere) and prototypes would get built.

        Then the prototypes get post-mortemed, argued over, improved, and the cycle starts anew. Each iteration would get posted-back to the forum, including strength-numbers (how much force necessary to snap it?), bill of materials (what inputs, at what cost at what ordering quantity, and even sources to order from). Pictures of manufacturing apparatus, and how it was put together would also be uploaded and argued over and gradually improved.

        That sort of capability, if just a few dozen – let alone a hundred – people from around the world got involved, would punch right through the thicket of obstructions.

        That’s the kind of team-work I want to see happen.

        Suppose a small village somewhere wanted to select a product line that would provide a revenue source for the village. Maybe that product could use local materials, and be used locally as well (displace imports). The product must come with low barriers to entry, because the village is just getting started with their econ re-design.

        Would these sort of panels be a viable product for them? Would the skills, tools, facilities, and evolving team-work the panels team created be applicable for other products the village needed?

        Maybe so.

        1. New_Okie

          Completely agree with you and I look forward to hearing how your project goes. I love that people like you are doing this. And in particular I agree that

          This is the sort of guerilla-warfare style product development that would be _vastly_ accelerated, and then widely promulgated if we had some sort of forum wherein teams could form around a particular, widely-applicable product, and sort all these details out.

          I would love to see more money put towards building science research. It seems like so much of it, at this time, comes from entrepreneurs like yourself. Which is great, but as I think you said, it would be greatly accelerated with national funding that encouraged teams to form around these ideas at an earlier stage.

  5. Susan the other

    I do like this effort but it depends the weather. Mud brick with a pinch of lime and some rocks within reach. Maybe some scrap corrugated metal for the roof. Probably won’t fly in California which is a smorgasbord of catastrophe. I’m very in favor of a new construction industry based on deconstruction-recycling. Repurposing, etc. And just saw an ad for plastic module chicken coops, big enough for three or four pet hens which was a marvel of design. Easy to clean and, I assume, also recyclable. Called an Egglu. Cute. We humans could do something like that. Modules that could stay dry and clean and might even float in floods from atmospheric rivers. Which would have the material strength to also withstand getting bumped around in an earthquake.

    1. New_Okie

      I am working on designing a home for my parents, and living in a bit if a mecca for creative building, I have heard a lot of pitches. Unfortunately, every shortcut I have run across has come at the cost of building health or safety.

      For instance the used sheet metal you mention: What is the cost to the homeowner when it leaks into the attic? If the leak is not huge it might only be found when the homeowner gets sick from the mold in the attic (and such a homeowner might not recover even once the attic has been remediated).

      Or regarding the Eglu: I have seen sheds made of probably the same material, and even once thought about building a small living space for myself with one. But a few issues came up, namely that

      1. It was not easily repaired

      2. Plastic degrades in the sun, meaning that the resale value after 10 years would probably be nil and

      3. Plastic is vapor impermeable, and in a cold climate having a vapor barrier on the exterior of a wall assembly is a recipe for condensation forming inside your wall which, if there is any airflow at all, will result in mold (I have seen it suggested that hard spray foam can prevent airflow sufficiently to prevent this, provided the home does not “settle” and there is no earthquake).

      Or another home that used pummice in bags instead of earth. Pummice has some insulation value, so on the surface it makes more sense here than a regular earth bag home. Except for the radon exposure.

      I guess I’m just saying that in my experience, builders are more than willing to take health- or safety- related risks if it saves them money. So when a cheap method based on existing technology is not used I start to wonder why it is not. In my experience the answer is usually reduced durability, repairability, or an obvious health risk.

  6. stickNmud

    Props to the four excellent commenters above. Btw, NC is the only blog I’ve found where I learn as much– or more– from reading the comments as I get from the post itself.

    I was lucky enough to get ‘lost’ in Lisbon by myself as a young teen one day on a family trip, and stumbled upon the Alfama. It appears that the Portuguese knew how to build sustainable urban neighborhoods centuries ago, such as the remarkably enduring Alfama, the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon, which survived the 1755 earthquake, and is still mostly car-free.

    I have old Super-8 film of the cobblestone steps and car-free streets near an old stone washhouse, where local women were doing laundry by hand in ancient stone tubs.

    The work of Richard Register, who wrote Ecocity Berkeley in 1987, appears to predate Mark Lakeman.

    Even earlier inspiration came from Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature.

    And let’s not forget the ecological DIY approach of the Whole Earth Catalog.

  7. stickNmud

    Props to the excellent commenters above. Btw, NC is the only blog I’ve found where I learn as much– or more– from reading the comments as I get from the post itself.

    I was lucky enough to get ‘lost’ in Lisbon by myself as a young teen one day on a family trip, and stumbled upon the Alfama. It appears that the Portuguese knew how to build sustainable urban neighborhoods centuries ago, such as the remarkably enduring Alfama, the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon, which survived the 1755 earthquake, and is still mostly car-free.

    I have old Super-8 film of the cobblestone steps and car-free streets near an old stone washhouse, where local women were doing laundry by hand in ancient stone tubs.

    The work of Richard Register, who wrote Ecocity Berkeley in 1987, appears to predate Mark Lakeman.

    Even earlier inspiration came from Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature.

    And let’s not forget the ecological DIY approach of the Whole Earth Catalog.

  8. Jeremy Grimm

    Reading past the “cheerleading and use of buzz-phrases” in this post was indeed challenging. But I did not notice much meat inside the cheerleading and buzz-phrase bun. After a brief pass over Portland, Oregon — a cutesy ‘village’ and some street paintings all the hoopla seemed to focus on lands far far away and far far away from zoning ordinances, building codes, construction labor guilds, construction firms, loan companies and the all encompassing bureaucracy that controls and burdens housing in the u.s. I did not find anything solid past the flowery verbiage and swooning over women engaged in building. I suppose it is very nice that women are becoming interested in construction. I chased down most of the links in the post and found more of the same cheerleading and buzz-phrase bun with little or no meat.

    The climate is changing — changing at an increasing rate and moving toward increasingly violent, extreme, chaotic behavior. I do not know what the future, perhaps very near future climate will be like, except that I expect it will be different than any past climate of the last five millennia. I also cannot predict what sort of assets and resources we will have to work with in the future. I believe we must collect and understand the many ways Humankind has found to deal with extreme climates at the edges of the Earth. At the same time we need to apprehend the kinds of compromises and limitations those extremes required for survival. Today Humankind possesses Knowledge unknown to the past and much of the Knowledge from the past has been lost and diminished. We must do better to preserve this Knowledge for the future. We also need to gain a much better understanding of — the climate, the available resources, the limitations and constraints, the broader implications of what future Humankind will face. This post did little to allay my concerns or broaden my understanding of what will be needed and possible.

    Construction for the future will incur climate, resource, and environmental costs. Present buildings, those that might survive, are a poor fit for purpose as housing in the future. The radical conservation our fast approaching climate train wreck will compel will be harsh. So far I see few indications that Humankind will use the small window we have to minimize how very harsh it could be. We passed that fork in the road some decades ago.

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