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Health Benefits of Natural Earthen Construction

Somehow or another, the modern day, industrial world in which we live convinced us that dirt is unclean, impure, and well…. dirty. We worry when we see our children headed for a mud puddle, we agonize when a mud footprint makes its way onto our kitchen floor, and we´ll gladly walk an extra couple strides on the sidewalk to avoid even a step or two through the dirt.

The idea of actually living in a house made from dirt is unthinkable to most people, despite the fact that mud has provided shelter to the vast majority of humans throughout history. But maybe it is time for us to rethink our “mud-phobia.” Most of the houses that we live in today are built and finished with dozens of materials that are toxic both to our own health and for the health of the natural world. They may appear clean and comfortable and make us feel as if we are protected from the disorderliness of the world of rain and mud, but the unseen chemicals that fill these homes deserve our concern.

If hidden, cancer causing chemicals weren´t bad enough, the mortgage that will take you a lifetime to pay off might dissuade you from building that new 3,000 square foot home. The fact that people willingly accept 30 years of debt to live in a chemical-laden house shoddily built mostly from 2×4´s and plywood is one of the great enigmas of our time.

But what options do we have? The earth beneath our feet is free from toxic chemicals, free from mortgage debt, and forgiving enough that even an amateur (with a little help) can learn how to mold the earth underneath him into the walls of a beautiful, creative, and healthy home.

Toxins in Modern Housing

When we walk into a recently finished new home, we may marvel at the “fresh new-home” smell. Unfortunately, that smell is probably rising from the combination of several poisonous materials that are still leaching their toxic gasses into the home. According to the Huffington Post, the list of toxic materials used in modern housing “include neurotoxins, carcinogens, hormone mimics and reproductive disruptors, which could be playing a role in a number of today’s increasing health problems.”

There are literally hundreds of strange chemicals with hard to pronounce names that could be used in your home, but we will look at two of the most common. Volatile, organic compounds (VOC´s) are found in almost every type of paint used in the modern day construction business. The Daily Mail reports that “when VOCs are inhaled, they can cause eye, nose and throat ­irritation. In large quantities, ­animal ­studies have linked these chemicals to birth defects, cancers and damage to the central ­nervous system.”

You probably remember that formaldehyde was a pretty disgusting smelling substance that you used in your high school biology class when you dissected a frog. What you don´t know is that large levels of formaldehyde are probably hidden within your house. The Natural Center for Health Housing has found that “in homes, the most significant sources of formaldehyde are likely to be pressed wood products made using adhesives that contain urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins. Pressed wood products made for indoor use include particleboard, hardwood plywood paneling, and medium density fiberboard.”

Though the formaldehyde in your plywood might not smell like the form you dismembered in high school, it is extremely dangerous and can cause respiratory problems. Furthermore, it is a known carcinogen in elevated levels.

Health Benefits of Natural and Ecological Construction

Ecological construction or natural building is focused on creating living spaces where you and your family won´t be exposed to toxins that cause you asthma, skin irritation, or different forms of cancer. Furthermore, this building method focuses on using natural materials that can be locally sourced and that are friendly to the environment.

According to the website LiveStrong “in the United States, buildings account for 72 percent of electricity consumption, 39 percent of energy use, 38 percent of all carbon-dioxide emissions, 40 percent of raw materials used, 30 percent of waste output and 14 percent of potable water consumption.” Apart from being toxic to your body, this housing situation is clearly unsustainable and thus detrimental to the health and balance of the natural world as well.

Ecological construction contributes to the health of the environment by avoiding unsustainably sourced and toxic chemicals. Earthen construction is one of the most common forms of natural building. Traditional adobe, wattle and daub, and cob are three different methods of building homes with nothing more than earth, water, and straw or some other type of fiber.

All three of these forms of natural construction allow for a much improved indoor air quality that is beneficial for people who suffer from asthma and other respiratory related diseases. Not only do these naturally built homes not contain formaldehyde, asbestos, VOC´s, and the dozens of other chemicals leaching dangerous toxins into the air, but the earth itself is a natural air filter. affirms that “cob (and other forms of earthen construction) actually “breathes” through its tiny pores and keeps air fresh and clear. If you suffer from indoor allergies, then living in a cob house could significantly improve your quality of life by eliminating the toxins that may cause them.”

Building with Cob

Cob is an earthen construction technique that originated in England several hundred years ago. It combines clay, sand, water and straw/fiber into a homogenous mixture that can then be molded into a variety of shapes and designs.

What sets cob apart from other types of earthen construction such as adobe is that it is generally considered to be stronger and anti-seismic. There are no square forms or masonry joints making cob more like poured cement than cinder block construction. The individual grains of sand mixed with the clay give cob its compressive strength while the abundance of straw or other fiber gives it a high level of tensile strength.

Furthermore, the sand and clay in cob construction is carefully mixed in correct proportions to avoid cracking and give the aggregate maximum strength. Typically, cob walls contain 20-30% clay and 70-80% sand. Cob is usually mixed by foot, though it can be mixed with tractors or in cement mixers as well. Since there are square forms or bricks, cob walls can be built in any number of shapes, allowing for curved walls, built in book shelves and a number of other design possibilities. For people with an artistic hand, cob lends itself to sculpting. Simply wet down your wall and you can transform a boring, straight wall into a sculpted piece of artwork.

Why the Earth is Your Best Bet for Housing

As long as you keep your earthen home well protected from the rain, it should last several lifetimes, much longer than your typical plywood and 2×4 home. Furthermore, since the earth beneath your feet is free, you can avoid long term debt while building a chemical-free home, crafted with your own hands that your grandchildren will one day enjoy.

Tobias Roberts

After working in the development industry for over a decade, Tobias decided it was time to stop advising Central American farmers how to do things if he didn´t have a piece of land to live coherently with what he taught. Together with his family he runs a small agro-forestry farm, tourism cooperative, and natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador.

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