The Marriage of Natural Building with Conventional Building

Posted on June 7, 2008 by

Author: Brandy Gallagher
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #139

British Columbia is known to some as the “green building capital of North America.” At O.U.R. Ecovillage, we are working to widen the margins of the very concept of “green building”—specifically, to involve authorities and get our buildings permitted, while simultaneously pursuing the “natural building” edge of the field.
This has turned out to be no simple task. In fact, many times we have said that, had we known where we were headed, we would have put our tails between our legs and run.
But in my optimism, I (Brandy) have often claimed that we simply had to marry all the perceived opposites: natural building/conventional building, organic process/regulatory process, architects/engineers, artists/accountants, and boys/girls. I still believe in the possibility—in fact, the necessity—of uniting these concepts, but I no longer see it as a “simple” journey.
Faith in the Possibilities
As I write this, I have spent the last week in a crisis of faith in humanity. My idealistic nature crashes hard when I run into the very realities that I have tried to outrun by getting involved with natural building and activism. Things I thought were possible are turning out to be—well—if not impossible, then very difficult. Yet it is only by having faith in what can be possible that we will ever achieve our desired advances within the natural building movement. So writing this article is good medicine for me.
Because this article is about what is possible. At O.U.R. Ecovillage, in Shawnigan Lake, British Columbia, Canada, we have tried to create new possibilities by merging much of the best from the worlds of natural building and conventional building—and we have achieved some gratifying accomplishments.
O.U.R. Progress
Elke Cole and I have attempted to go where few others ever wanted to go before. First, in 1998, we organized small workshops and projects. Then we co-created the 2000 Natural Building Colloquium. Finally, we started a summer natural building school, audaciously inviting regulatory authorities along for the ride.
For the past eight years now, O.U.R. Ecovillage, Cobworks Canada, and Elke Cole Design have worked with inspectors, engineers, and regulatory agencies in order to receive full permission for O.U.R. green building projects. These projects include strawbale, load-bearing cob, dry-stacked stone foundations, chip-and-slip wall systems, pond systems for wastewater, rainwater harvesting, and other previously unpermitted technologies.
The approval from these teams of building officials has made O.U.R. Ecovillage’s 25-acre sustainable village a unique model for Canada. Recently we celebrated the final approvals and the completion of the development permit process for our nine-home “eco-housing cluster.” We have pledged that this is to become a precedent-setting showcase for the country.
As we continue to build teams of building and land-use authorities, engineers, universities, building inspectors, health inspectors, conventional builders, other building schools, and homeowner-builders, a new groundswell of advocates and educators is being created.
Specifically, we are encouraging those in the “green building” movement to begin examining some of the ways that their materials and techniques are not so green after all. For example, our educational programs create dialogues about the embodied energy in building materials (the energy used to manufacture and transport the materials), the toxicity of many of their ingredients, and their effect on the waste stream when they are no longer in use. We not only open their eyes to the many options of using more natural materials, but also involve them in discussions on advocacy, social economy, social justice, and ecological design.
Brandy’s Story: The People-Making Behind the Place-Making
Ever since the moment I met Elke, I have been imagining new possibilities in sustainable community building. I recognized that it takes a community to build a village— especially a village of natural buildings. I was not deterred by the hard work or the less-than-glamorous amount of mud and manure. And I became determined to marry all those perceived opposites—like natural building and conventional building—to arrive at a new, more integrated way of living and sheltering ourselves.
Inevitably, despite the attraction between those opposites, pushing them together has led to resistance and conflict. Differences can be the juice of life, and we know enough not to try to avoid them. But they drain us nonetheless. In the average North American, there seems to be a deep-seated need to be “right,” to find the “right way” or the “right answers.” Yet the more I work within the field of natural building, the more right ways and right answers I see, and the less they appear to contradict each other. In fact, the “right way” often seems to be a combination of a variety of methods that at first appear to be in opposition.
But it can take time for people who think they are “right” to accept other possibilities. The Us-vs-Them mentality is still deeply internalized in our culture, and we have a long road to walk as we heal from this and create a more cooperative society.
I have come to realize that our real work—and the really hard work—is not so much the building of physical structures as the “invisible” building of social connections and cooperative structures. It’s the people-making behind the place-making.
This is a big job. It requires transforming our concept of conflict and differences until we can see them as natural, honest, and healthy. It means welcoming conflict onto the building site for its power to enhance and enrich our experience—and our dwellings.
At O.U.R. Ecovillage, we are willing to take this on as our next big work. As we go into a new season, we have faith that we can “build” a new cadre of committed, skilled, and focused natural builders.
Throughout North America, many of the first line of natural building teachers are moving on to new aspects of their work. The time is ripe to nurture a new generation of builders who know how to find balance among the many ways of being “right,” who feel empowered to collaborate positively and productively with the many regulatory authorities, and who see this as their professional and personal development path.
Elke’s Story: From Dream to Reality
Building an ecovillage has some things in common with natural building. An ecovillage emerges from a dream of a simple life, a good life: growing one’s own food, living close to the land, and being part of natural rhythms.
Natural building stems from those same values: simplicity, small scale, and independence from complex, high-tech systems. The dream of a natural home leads us to gather stones for a foundation, mix cob for the walls, and add some windows to catch the sun. We shape the building to fit our bodies and our movements, and create places for special things inside our walls. Put a roof on, and there we have it. A dream home.
Except… here comes the wake-up call: The sun goes down at 4 p.m. in the winter and I’m not ready to go to bed then. So I want lights. And my computer is important to me. And in the morning I like to have toast and listen to music. Suddenly I’m no longer dreaming—I’m living in the stark reality of my desire for electricity, requiring the integration into my home of a quite complex, high-tech system indeed.
And there’s another part of the dream that is difficult to bring into reality. Natural building encourages methods that are easy to learn and do not require many tools, enabling owners and friends to get together and build small, beautiful houses for each other without spending lots of money. The dream is to stay out of debt, which means being able to spend less time earning money and more time growing food and being with friends and family.
Yet in order to build legally, we must learn to work within building regulations and codes—or change the regulations and codes from within. Natural building pushes the limits of our officials’ knowledge, but as we educate them and team up with engineers, we find those who are willing to think creatively and run experiments with us. Suddenly we face testing, numbers, scores—and a much higher price tag on that simple, beautiful house. Add this to the high price of land (at least in our area), and it becomes nearly impossible to build even the simplest house without a mortgage.
Idealism is an important driving force towards change. We all know that change is very much needed, and a vision for that change is created by our dreams. Yet crossing over from dream to reality involves taking many steps—sometimes small steps one at a time, sometimes a huge leap of faith. By living in community, we can support each other in making these steps—and challenge each other to go a little further.
In community we have the opportunity to build private places smaller by sharing some facilities and services—simultaneously keeping individual costs down and reducing some kinds of complexity. We can help each other at the times when labour is called for. We can work out the regulatory approval process as a replicable model, simplifying the path for others both within and outside our community. So hold onto that dream and let’s see what we can do to together to bring reality closer to our dreams.
Faith in the Journey
Our crisis of faith has not stemmed from doubts that we can pull off a merger between natural building and conventional building. This lack of faith has been centred on a concern that many North Americans may not want to give up the mainstream values that are often expressed by conventional building.
Seeing high-end construction companies build huge “ecologically designed” houses for the rich and famous was not what we were aiming for when we began the work of transforming regulatory processes. Mainly we wanted to build credibility for natural building without losing the ideals of participatory design, cooperation, accounting for embodied energy, and affordability.
How can we ensure that these values are upheld? One way is to have building inspectors, engineers, and other professionals come into our ecovillage to teach and facilitate our courses. For example, in our recent partnership program with a major Canadian university, we have not only an engineer teaching at our Natural Building Program, but also PhD engineering students working closely with O.U.R. builders to document the construction process. While doing so, our guests are compelled to examine some of the ways that our buildings and our cooperative lifestyle are linked.
Another way is to make sure that our rising standard of excellence in the natural building profession includes not just design and structural integrity, but also a high level of collegial support and cooperative learning connections— all operating within an overall model of social justice, healthy and affordable homes, and responsible place-making.
These steps help to lessen the gap between natural building and conventional building, while conveying to the latter some of the ideals that are central to the former.
Faith in this journey returns when we see these worlds actually beginning to merge, with conflict transforming into collaboration. We are committed to this journey because we believe it is vitally important to the future of the environment and humanity that we find a different way to build, live, and work together.

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