Editor’s Note: Sasha Rabin is someone with enviable skills in natural building. She has been building, and teaching others to build, with natural materials since co-founding Seven Generations Natural Builders (SGNB) in 2002. She recently co-founded Vertical Clay Construction. Sasha has a degree in Ecological Design from Evergreen State College and apprenticed at the Cob Cottage Company. She has taught natural building classes at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School, The Solar Living Institute, and the Institute of Urban Homesteading. And guess what? Sasha will be co-teaching a natural building course at the ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’ site (the new PRI-owned Greening the Desert replacement site) in Jordan, on a five-day course beginning 27 February, 2011. This is not to be missed. Read on, and book here to get onto the course!
by Sasha Rabin
Inside a cob cabin in CA, USA — built by Sasha Rabin with the help of many
Not very long ago, villages were built by the people who used and inhabited them. Today the buildings we live and work in are designed and built by people outside of our direct community of people who interact with those structures. How do we recreate a society that has a living relationship to the buildings we inhabit, and through that process create modern vernacular building traditions that reflect the true needs of our local communities as well as respecting the limitations of our local environments? One part of this question involves looking at the materials we build with, and the other part involves re-engaging people with the building process.
Ever since humans began building permanent houses 10,000 years ago, earth has been the most commonly used material for building structures. All inhabited continents, and almost all countries, have a history of building with unbaked earth in some form. Even today, more than one third of all humans live in homes built of earth. In many developing countries, it is estimated that about 50% of people live in earthen homes. In Africa the earthen building may be more widespread than anywhere else on earth. From river banks in Niger to granaries and humble huts in Cameroon, to town houses in Mali, earth is by far the dominant building material. In the Middle East earthen architecture also has a long history. Techniques of barrel vaults and domes were perfected in Iran, and in the southern region of Yemen there are cob buildings more than 10 stories high.
In China, in the provinces of Henan, Shanxi, and Gansu, more than 10 million people are estimated to live in homes dug out of the loess layer of earth. These living earthen building traditions are not limited to developing nations. In Germany houses that are ½ timber framed with an infill of clay and straw fibers still can be found in abundance. In England the countryside is still covered with cob buildings several hundred years old. In the southwestern part of the US there is still a plethora of adobe buildings.
An earthen building in Burkina Faso
The methods of construction, style, and technique of earthen building vary greatly throughout the world, even sometimes from one village to another within the same region, depending on local available materials, traditions, cultures, climactic needs, and local skills and knowledge. Different methods of earthen building have developed organically over generations to fit with the needs of the culture. Most of these structures are made with some combination of clay soil, aggregate, fiber and water; but the different proportions of these materials can produce a multitude of techniques and composite materials for a large variety of uses. For example, the fiber used can range from horse hair to branches; the aggregate may range from sand to large stone. In all parts of the world earthen architecture reflects the local environment and the spirit of the builders, dwellers, and history of that place. This is due to an understanding of the importance of a sense of place, as well as a necessity to use the materials at hand. Without the means of mechanical transportation, we would all be building with the materials found closer to our building sites, and our structures would inherently reflect the natural and cultural surrounding.
Wood fired cob oven, built during a cob oven workshop
taught by Sasha Rabin and Massey Burke
With the development of fossil fuel powered transportation, our ability to transport building materials was born. People no longer had to rely on their local environment for materials to build their houses. As the transportation systems developed and increased, so did the homogenization of our built environment. Today building materials are transported all over the world, enabling the ability to create identical buildings in all parts of the globe. Today’s natural building movement is rooted in the decision and choice to return to the use of local materials. This choice is based on a philosophy that places the highest value on social and environmental sustainability. Natural building is about integrating our built environments into their local ecologies and communities with a minimal amount of adverse effects on local and distant environments and societies. It allows us to show deep respect for our immediate environment and gives us the chance to make responsible decisions regarding distant environments.
The challenge we face today is to create a culture of building that has a connection to the place and people from which it comes, and reflects the needs and traditions of those people. I have talked about bringing local materials back into the building, but perhaps even more important is to bring people back into a relationship with the building of the structures in which we live and work. A building culture that engages as many people in a community as possible is going to reflect the needs of that community far better then one that doesn’t. How do we facilitate people’s re-engagement with this process?
Kids helping mix cob in a project in Washington DC
We need to engage children in the building and creation of the built environment that surrounds them, after all, they are the ones that are going to be using and taking care of these buildings. We need to engage the elderly in the building process, and learn from their experience. We need to engage as many people as possible. In order to do this we need to make the building process fun, and use materials and methods that lend themselves to non-professionals. Many methods of earthen building have elements when kids can enjoy helping in the process, and most of the building techniques are ones easily learned. By using materials that are free or very low cost, we have the potential to make the building techniques accessible to people regardless of their economic wealth.
There is no one way to engage in community building, and no one technique that I am advocating, rather a change in the relationship we have to the buildings that surrounds us. From this process and re-engagement the buildings will naturally start to reflect the place where they are built, the people who build them, and the local vernacular of that place will re-emerge.