Natural Building and Community

Posted on June 7, 2008 by

Author: Michael G. Smith
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #139

“When we seek for connection, we restore the world to wholeness. Our seemingly separate lives become meaningful as we discover how truly necessary we are to each other.” —Margaret Wheatley
For the last fifteen years, most of my friends and peers have been natural builders and/or members of intentional communities. There’s a large overlap between the two groups; it’s rare to find someone in one circle who isn’t at least a bit familiar with and interested in the other. I think that’s because both the natural building movement and the communities movement are, at their roots, responses to the same set of basic human needs—core drives that are often left frustrated by the dominant culture.
How would you build a house if your primary concern was to create the most meaningful personal relationship with your home? Well, for starters you would do a lot of the work yourself, and not only by assembling components manufactured by unknown workers in a distant factory, from who-knows-what original materials. Think about it. The people with whom you relate most deeply are probably the ones whose journeys through birth and growth to the present moment you can trace most intimately. The same goes for your food, your clothing, your tools, and your building materials. So to build your house of connections, you start by walking into the woods and cutting down a tree, levering up a boulder and rolling it down the hill, digging a hole, filling it with water, and stomping in the mud. You receive the gifts of your doting Mother Earth and use the skill and muscle of your miraculous body to transform them into a place where your soul will be fed every day.
This kind of building practically demands community. I’ve participated in the construction of scores of structures made of earth, straw, sticks, and stones, and seen or heard stories of hundreds more. Although there is an occasional solitary effort, hardly any of these buildings—even the very small ones—have involved fewer than dozens of people in the construction process.
Many parts of building a house are more easily and efficiently done by a group. I remember, for example, the day nine years ago when fifteen friends helped me lift the timber frame of my house into place, using ropes and pulleys, pick-poles and muscle. There was no way I could have done that by myself. Six weeks later, after being dipped in clay slip, the strawbales for my walls each weighed at least 120 pounds, and some of them had to be lifted fifteen feet into the air. Again, a dozen people happily accomplished in a weekend what