“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 otherwise would have required a crane.
Fortunately, many parts of natural building, while requiring many hands or hours of work, are technically simple. Almost any group of people can help you peel your poles and carry them to your site, or mix straw with clay slip and stuff it into a wall cavity. You don’t need to hire a crew of professional builders—just invite over your family, friends, and neighbors. Give them a good meal, an opportunity to help and to learn, and your appreciation, and most will consider it an excellent exchange.
All of this helps explain why intentional communities have been such fertile nurseries for experimental building during the last few decades. The communes of the 60s and 70s saw many young idealists building their own homes, armed with energy and creativity and, in most cases, unconstrained by any training in the trades. Results varied widely, but the door had been opened to owner-built, think-outside- the-box construction, and it has tended to remain open in many more recent communities. Several American intentional communities are recognized today as training centers for natural building—not only Emerald Earth where I live, but also Earthaven, the Lama Foundation, and Dancing Rabbit, among others.
And if communities have helped to nurture the growing natural building movement, the reverse is also true. Natural building techniques are recognized for their power to create community in different kinds of groups, from workshop participants to intentional neighbors. Anyone who has been part of a timber frame raising or a strawbale wall raising has felt the sense of belonging that comes to members of a well-coordinated group accomplishing together a monumental task. And many a cob workshop graduate knows that after getting muddy, sweating, and working hard together toward a shared goal for days on end, the people in the group are often almost as tightly bonded as the clay, sand, and straw in the wall.
This tendency for building together to break down social barriers and create a shared identity can be used to help meet other goals besides getting construction work done. A stellar example is City Repair in Portland, Oregon, a group whose objective is to rebuild the social structure of a village within the urban landscape (see “Urban Ecovillages” in this issue). Among other strategies, City Repair uses natural building projects on residential street corners to enhance neighborhood identity and commitment to public space. The resulting dramatic reduction in crime and traffic-related accidents has catapulted City Repair from an informal collective of outlaw activists to a semi-official consultant group with several departments of the city government.
When I helped start the Cob Cottage Company fifteen years ago in Oregon to research and teach earthen building for humid climates, there was no such thing as a “Natural Building Movement” in the United States. There were surviving remnants of pre-industrial building traditions in some regions of the country, notably adobe in the Southwest and timber framing in the East. The strawbale revival was in its early stages, just beginning to radiate out from Arizona and New Mexico. And there were a handful of natural building pioneers scattered around the country, most of them focused on developing and promoting a single technique such as cordwood masonry or light straw-clay.
When we began traveling around the Western states teaching cob workshops, we initially encountered (and reciprocated) skepticism from advocates of other natural building techniques. Strawbale enthusiasts would say, “Don’t bother with cob. It’s too slow.” And the cobbers would counter with “Don’t build with bales. They’ll rot if they get wet.” The feeling of divisiveness stemmed from two roots: attachment to the technique each group was promoting as “the best way,” coupled with a genuine ignorance regarding other natural building techniques.
In part to build bridges between these camps, Cob Cottage Company organized the first Alternative Building Colloquium in 1994. We invited strawbale builders, adobe enthusiasts, roundwood framers, experts in light straw-clay and earthen floors and plasters, and anyone else we had heard of who was doing something interesting with natural materials. The weeklong event was a revelation to many of us. It turned out that each of these techniques and materials (and many others that have since been added to the tool box) has its own set of unique strengths and applications, and that by learning as many of them as possible we could exponentially increase our ability to make good decisions about sustainable design and construction. That exciting week also strengthened a lot of personal connections, out of which developed many working partnerships and lasting friendships.
The following year, Catherine Wanek offered to host a similar event at the Black Range Lodge in New Mexico. She changed the name to the Natural Building Colloquium because she wanted our techniques to be seen not as an “alternative” but as the natural way we humans have built throughout most of our history—and the way many people in less industrialized cultures still do. The event was a huge success, and the natural building movement had a name. Many of us stopped referring to ourselves as “cobbers” or “timber framers” or “strawbale builders” and instead began to call ourselves natural builders and to identify with both a large body of technical knowledge and a growing community. That community has continued to expand rapidly, from a few hundred dedicated enthusiasts fifteen years ago to hundreds of thousands today.
The Holy Grail of modern physics is a single unified theory incorporating mechanics, gravity, electromagnetism, and particle physics—fields that were previously seen as completely separate. In the same way, I expect that in the future the natural building movement and the communities movement will no longer be considered distinct. Just as the tapestry of natural building was woven together from many originally disparate threads, I see a new coalition emerging, perhaps also encompassing local food, “primitive” skills, permaculture, shamanism, and earth-based spirituality. What do these various pursuits have in common? They are all ways to ground our lives in relationship, meaning, and connection. If things go well, concepts like communities and natural building may lose their significance entirely; they will simply become, as they were in the past, parts of the way we humans live on planet Earth.