Excerpted from the Summer 2018 edition of Communities, “Eco-Building”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.
There are several natural buildings at Earthaven (Black Mountain, North Carolina), designed and constructed with the Earth in mind—both to use as much of what we find right here on this patch of her, and to use materials with little to no negative impact on the planet. Some are timber-framed, some have simple rectangular designs, many have sheetrock interior walls, and most have earthen and lime plaster on the outside.
Those built primarily from earth and straw (and wood) are quite small—experiments to see how far folks wanted to venture into new and traditional modalities. They’re all still standing and in good use today. One community-sized splendid result of our early forays into natural building is the 13-sided earth, wood, and straw Council Hall. If a room has ever been loved, it’s this one!
I’m not sure why I latched onto the idea of natural building. The idea of building simple structures we could live well in, made out of easily available materials, thrilled me. I’d never owned a home, so I knew nothing about construction, but I was romantic about the aesthetics of spaces; the round, earth-toned warmth of a natural house promised me a luxury and comfort I felt I needed to feel.
When it came time for me to develop the homesite I’d leased at Earthaven, I got involved in what turned into a mystical journey that carried me from the most rudimentary sense to an ongoing experience of the dance of design and manifestation. “Leela,” a sensual, earthy, womb-toned being, part temple, part hideaway, part evolving dreamscape, led the way.
In the eighth year of Earthaven, after several ideas for building within a pod design (shared facilities with radiating private spaces) disappeared into other folks’ priorities, I got the idea of gathering my permie girlfriends for a design charrette on Site #7 in our Bellavia Gardens neighborhood, not far from the Village Center. We gathered outside my trailer on a lovely fall day, and I talked about my dreams of a home within the bigger home of Earthaven. Then we took measurements on the site, talked about water sources, wind tunnels, and solar angles, and dispersed to work on sketches focused on the key features I’d need to start with, including orientation, entrances and exits, facilities, connection to the commons, and so on.
When we compared all the sketches, some details were obviously similar and some unique, but I felt encouraged. I would have to mull over the designs, make some choices, and figure out the next step. But as the unfolding mystery would have it, one of the gals was an adventurous budding natural builder who suggested we walk back to the site and take a stab at designing the house. We stood where I thought the door was likely to be, and I followed her instructions about closing my eyes and imagining walking into the house. What would I see?
As I described where I imagined the walls would be, how far from each other, how they curved, she took notes. She jotted down where I said different things took place, adding questions to round out the sketch she was making. Where would the bathroom go? Would the toilet be in it? The resulting sketch could only be called an amoeba, but it didn’t stop my friend from taking it seriously.
Another friend was learning the new AutoCAD program folks were talking about, and he agreed to mess with my amoeba. His result was a more symmetrical structure with more clearly defined areas. Then I made another deal: I said I’d have the foundation ready when my friend returned in the spring with a group of natural building interns.
Getting from sketch to foundation, however, became complex enough for its own chapter in this epic. Suffice to say, I was still figuring out how to dig the foundation when the group appeared. I had no foundation, no frame, no roof—and nothing much to offer a builder to get started on. There was an interlude for building accessory structures that helped the interns carry on learning about natural building, and we had some delightful plaster parties led by my friend (and Earthaven member) Mollie Curry of MudStrawLove.
Steveo is a local transplant, like lots of us, with considerable conventional building experience and a talent for sculpture. He’d worked with my natural builder friend on an adobe project and relished the idea of taking on a full-scale natural building project. His upbeat and confident personality got my attention, as he walked around the site, observing the little progress we’d made on the footprint, talking about rates for carpentry versus those for the mud and straw work. When, in a couple of hours, he’d already built a small shed out of scraps he found lying around, and set the tools and other materials inside it, I felt we were onto something with potential.
It took five years to build Leela (a Sanskrit word for “divine play”). During our first year, Steveo designed the timber-frame and we got several resident carpenters to put it together while he completed another job. We managed to pull a permit with the building department by explaining that the building was basically a timber-frame with masonry walls, and with an engineer’s signature assuring them that the ridge beam was broad enough. Neighbors at Earthaven built an Earthship (tire house), and they dealt with the county’s lack of data by finding a local engineer who signed off on plans that had been approved in New Mexico.
Even with the roof up, though, it had to be slow going; one, because Steveo had other things to attend to and, two, because we could build only from May to mid-October since earthen and plastered walls that aren’t completely dry will crack when they freeze.
In the beginning, we practiced techniques, embellishing our design as we went along. We hosted long weekends and weeklong workshops with dozens of pairs of hands plopping cob loaves onto foundation walls and smushing them into place, or pitchforking straw through clay slip for upper wall systems or (later on) mixing and spreading plaster on the interior (and even later on the exterior) walls. Though most folks were novices at this work, Steveo and good friends Mollie Curry and her partner Steve Kemble made sure that surfaces were well-shaped and smooth.
Leela is a 900 (somewhat) square foot, timber-frame construction with walls of cob, clay-straw, adobe brick, and a few other systems developed as we went along. On the second-story curved walls, for example, Steveo and several interns came up with the chorizo, a long, flexible sausage-like panel of clay-straw laid into wide strips of burlap, then rolled around a bamboo stake and carried up the scaffolding, where the bamboo could be gently removed as the panel was pressed into place.
Following principles of passive solar design, most walls were made at least 24 inches thick. For the east, south, and west walls, we wanted plenty of thermal mass to radiate the sun’s warmth into the house. (Remember, in summer the sun is high above and mostly beams its rays straight down, rather than at a penetrating angle to the walls and windows.) For the north wall, we wanted insulation instead of thermal mass, to shield the house from shady, windier zones, so we chose strawbale construction, learning to create specially shaped bales to fit angular spaces created by the roof line, managing—with Steve Kemble’s expert guidance—to follow the curve in our foundation and meet the straighter side walls in unbroken connection. Steve brought many innovative techniques for “cutting” and “sewing” bales together, and we also used bamboo poles as studs to firm up parts of the strawbale “bricks.”
On the inside, we designed an earthen wall with an arched opening above the hearth and an arched entryway into the kitchen and dining alcove. We were able to use compressed earth blocks (CEBs), made in a contraption that extruded big, dry blocks faster than we could pile them up. Although we didn’t get our hands on that technology until all the exterior walls were in place, we got to use the blocks to create the arches.
To complete the design for the roof and upper-floor windows, Steveo built a clay model and we played with various cardboard roof panels and several cathedral-like rounded window shapes. Leela was built with wood, clay, and sand almost entirely from Earthaven. We bought pine floor joists wider than our trees could provide, and for some uses chose builder’s sand rather than the cruder sand from our creeks. We made lime plaster for both interior and exterior walls to minimize mold, but were able to cover the interior arched walls with a reddish earthen plaster as they would be dried by the fire in the wood stove. Selecting pigment was an adventure, and Mollie was a patient provider of samples and test panels as we attempted to guess what a small patch of color would look like on an entire wall.
The other interior clay walls are plastered with a mixture of builder’s sand and lime, which resulted in a beautiful shade of tan that complements the warm colors of all the poplar and pine posts, beams, and paneling. The deep rose-colored pigment we chose for the arched wall brings a rich and healing energy into the space. Each one of these decisions was treated with great care, some of them taking us weeks or longer to settle on.
Once Leela was all walled in, we could work through the winter, though often we had to quit when it was too cold. Perhaps the most challenging of all the aspects of the project were the earthen floors, which we only much later discovered are really sand floors, at least in this climate, with the lesser clay part essential for holding all the sand together. Our first few attempts, however, using a clay-heavy recipe, resulted in so much shrinkage and cracks that we had to do two out of three of them over. Luckily, our interns at the time were so determined that they worked tirelessly to fill, tamp, and repair the myriad cracking that made the living room floor look like a giant topographical map. Then Steveo did a hero’s job of soaking and then pressing all the repaired surfaces into a smooth, flat, shining (after nine coats of linseed oil) floor. It took us two more floors before we got the recipe right, but Steveo always managed to come up with a way to make the best of things.
The last phase of construction was spent trimming, tiling, and delighting in opportunities to add lovely features and many spontaneously creative details. Meanwhile, the electric wiring, propane lines, wood heat, and water systems were finalized, the composting toilet was ordered, and a second-hand wood stove was refurbished and installed. Our final intern was with us the whole last year, and she was able to help us complete our work in time for me to move in at the beginning of winter in 2010, with wood heat, gas cookstove, bathtub, and on-demand propane-heated running hot water in place. The following year the photovoltaic system was designed and installed by neighbor friends learning the tricks of that trade.
Seven years later this past December, I can say I have logged more compliments and praises for the house than I ever could have imagined, not to mention the joy and comfort of living in it! There are still things to improve, such as adding insulated window and door shades downstairs on the south side, where we were a little excessive with the amount of glass we installed. (Classic passive solar design would have recommended at least one less window in the dining alcove and, possibly, one—not two—sets of French doors in the living room. I had to replace the initial solar panels and batteries by the time I learned how to manage the system, but now I’m getting additional amps twice a day from a shared micro-hydro station in the creek below, which has eliminated the use of a generator in our neighborhood for the past year.
While my experience planning, building, working with others, and living in my house has been a dream come true on so many levels, others in my community have not been so enthusiastic about working with earth and straw as their primary materials. Many folks who come to Earthaven now seem to be more excited about jumping into community life with both feet, meaning they prefer to move into something already built and available (though these are still in limited supply). And if they do have to build, they have mostly preferred to take the fastest route and use more common methods.
During the years we were building Leela, we started a nonprofit project called The Natural Building School and ran all our workshops and internships through it as a project of Culture’s Edge. Within a few years after I moved into my house, though, the options for more natural building education became pretty limited, as no one had yet decided on building a natural house or other structure folks could learn on. There have been several natural building classes, introductions that let folks experiment with the basic techniques, but in general the Natural Building School is on hold here until someone comes up with a project we can sponsor.
In the meantime, there’s plenty to do in an evolving ecovillage, both administratively and in developing our neighborhood, as new folks move in and the commons become a feature in our deliberations. I’ve started to pay long-needed attention to Leela’s outside appearance, and a few features—stone knee walls, a stone patio, a swinging bench—have been added in the last few years that make a promising big difference. At the rate I’m going, there won’t be a stage of completion, only the turning of a corner. But I can say, with a very happy heart, that I have managed to create a beautiful home that people will enjoy for generations to come. Praise be to the ancestors!
Arjuna da Silva was among the team of intrepid cultural revolutionaries who started Earthaven Ecovillage in 1994 and the educational nonprofit, Culture’s Edge, in 1996. Her semi-professional life included many forms of psychotherapy and group counseling, but her passion for transformative community has used most of the last two decades in the unfolding Earthaven experience. Arjuna still focalizes the work of Culture’s Edge at Earthaven. She was given the name “Shunyam Arjuna” (which means “emptiness of the morning sun”) by the great spiritual master, Osho.
Excerpted from the Summer 2018 edition of Communities, “Eco-Building”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.