Natural Building Colloquium


The Context:
Natural Building
The Building Codes
Societal Impact Matrix
Return of The Village
Habitat For Humanity
Earthmother Dwelling
Intuitive Design
Curves of Breath & Clay
Feng Shui

The Art:
Overview of Techniques
Nature, Earth & Magic
Hybrid House
Barefoot Architecture
History of Cob
Cob Q & A
Natural Composites
Compressed Earth Blocks
Adobe Oven
Earthen Floor
Honey House
German Clay Building
Straw-bale Dome
Earthen Plaster & Aliz
Natural Paints

Solar Distiller
Solar Water Heater
Composting Toilets
Watson Wick
Solar Ovens



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Colloquium Revives Ecological Building and Communal Values

The search for housing that is healthy, affordable and environmentally responsible is leading a growing number of people to take a fresh look at building techniques long shunned by the modern construction industry. Earth, straw and bamboo, once materials of necessity for indigenous and pioneering peoples the world over, are now being rediscovered as materials of choice by those who are embracing an ethic of natural building.

In June 1997, more than one hundred natural building apostles and acolytes — professional builders, architects, academicians, and budding owner-builders — gathered at the Black Range Lodge in the tiny New Mexican hamlet of Kingston for the third annual "Natural Building Colloquium - Southwest." For one intense week, they traded ideas, learned new skills and fueled a nascent natural building movement.

Hailing from as near as the next town and as far as Europe and South America, Colloquium participants came with a broad spectrum of interests and goals. Some saw natural building as a personal act of global citizenship, a way of doing their part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and resource depletion; for others it was part of a private search for an alternative lifestyle.

Not everyone at the Colloquium considered natural building to be a matter of choice; for several with extreme chemical sensitivity, it was a dire necessity. These people are so sensitive to the toxins found in many conventional building materials that they simply need to create a place where they can live without getting sick. "I'm like one of the canaries used by coal miners to detect poisonous gases," said one such person, who suffers from chronic fatigue immune deficiency syndrome. "I've come to see myself as a kind of early-warning system for the rest of us."

Then there were attendees such as Habitat for Humanity's Associate Director for Appropriate Technology, Wayne Nelson, who, having worked on housing for the poor in many developing countries, came with a motive more professional than personal. "In order for people in the world to afford a simple, decent place to live, we can no longer afford to use industrial building systems," Nelson said. "They are simply too expensive."

For all who came, the aim of the Colloquium, according to Colloquium host and organizer Catherine Wanek, was to help change the way people think about their homes in a manner that both embraces and transcends individual concerns. "We need to adopt a value system that respects the Earth and the individual in a balanced way," Wanek said.

A Comprehensive Program

Balance also characterized the Colloquium program, which managed in days and evenings packed with workshops and lectures to cover many facets of a broad subject, including siting and planning, natural building materials and methods, alternative energy technologies, building codes, and, on a more macro level, a brief look at "neo-traditional" community planning and a theoretical exploration of sustainable society.

Nearly every topic that was presented incorporated in some way the principles that lie at the core of the natural builder's ethos. These include:

·   Minimizing "embodied energy" — the amount of energy and fuel used to process, transport, install, and ultimately recycle what goes into buildings and products — by utilizing raw, local materials wherever possible.
·   Using simple construction techniques, easily learned, that require little skill and few tools.
·   Avoiding the use of toxic substances, natural and otherwise, that might create health or environmental hazards during manufacture, construction and habitation.
·   Minimizing consumption of scarce, nonrenewable resources and avoiding environmental pollution during habitation by using alternative, renewable energy sources to the greatest possible extent. This is attained through use of appropriate technologies, on the one hand, and by practicing a lifestyle of simplicity and conservation that is in harmony with the building and its environment.

Practicing all of these things will allow a natural homebuilder to realize another virtue: the natural house should be affordable to construct, run and maintain. Although natural building principles have been applied to homes of all sizes and price ranges, genuine economy and its concomitant — financial freedom — are available to those who adopt a culture of modesty.

The Colloquium was organized around two major building projects, Casa Chica and Casa José, which served as focal points for teaching straw-bale and cob construction and provided ample opportunities for on-the-job training in other natural building techniques as well.

Begun the previous year, Casa Chica is a two-room hybrid structure whose main living space and sleeping loft were enclosed by straw-bale walls and topped by a "living" roof. For 1997, Colloquium participants began a bathroom addition of "cob" on top of a shallow stone foundation. When finished, the bathroom will feature a composting "worm" toilet, the subject of one of the workshops. During the Colloquium week, the interior walls of the main space were finished with natural plasters, and an earthen floor was added.

Casa José, entirely new for 1997, offered hands-on experience in earthbag and longbag foundation systems and the actual erection of straw-bale walls under the benignly watchful guidance of builders Steve Kemble and Carol Escott. Later the bales will be stiffened with bamboo, a technique demonstrated on-site by master straw-bale builders Bill and Athena Steen, who have been applying these techniques to create low-income housing in Mexico.

Other construction systems were featured in a series of workshops that supplemented the major building projects. Columbian architect Oscar Hidalgo conducted a session on bamboo as a building material and remained at the Black Range to conduct a separate bamboo workshop the following week; Alfonso Ramirez Ponce, a Mexican architect, demonstrated masonry vaulting techniques requiring no formwork; and craftsman Frank Andresen offered an excellent presentation of "leichtlehm," a technique of straw/clay construction from his native Germany.

Several Colloquium workshops focused on simple, passive solar devices that harnessed the sun to meet occupants' needs in economical, energy-efficient ways. Mike Cormier from the El Paso (Texas) Solar Energy Association built an intriguingly straightforward solar water distillation system capable of producing up to three gallons of potable water a day from any source; architect Anthony Stopiello assembled an effective "batch" solar hot water heating system from a recycled water tank set within a foil-lined, glass-covered wooden housing and used it to provide hot showers for Colloquium participants; and peripatetic builder Moth set up a homemade solar cooker that did a fine job roasting potatoes.

Community Values

The term "colloquium" connotes a conversation among equals rather than a lecture by experts, and this format was a key to the success of the event; it fostered a spirit of communal endeavor and collective problem solving that dissolved the traditional boundaries between architect and builder, professional and novice.

While a number of people came expressly to share their considerable expertise, everyone worked side-by-side to learn from each other and advance the state of the natural building art. Morning and afternoon sessions at any one of several workshops and construction sites thus took on the atmosphere of a traditional rural barnraising with many hands sharing simple but satisfying work. And when participants weren't busy building things or attending workshops, there were afternoon and evening sessions in which anyone could show slides and talk about his/her own activities. In short, the Colloquium was a week of total immersion.

Life at the Black Range wasn't all earnestness, however. As evenings segued into nights, the collective labor and dialogue would invariably give way to communal entertainment, as the musically enabled of the group would break out their drums and guitars and others would dance and sing. There was even an unforgettable "trash fashion" show, an evening of topical levity that showcased apparel designed from recycled materials.

Toward a Sustainable Society

If there was any paradox in evidence at the Colloquium, it lay in the sea of cars, campers and RVs that engulfed the lodge's parking lot. These rolling sinkholes for embodied energy raise a giant red flag that should remind us that reducing embodied energy in our houses will do little for the Earth if we remain tethered to our automobiles.

Unfortunately, in most parts of this country, restrictive building codes drive natural builders away from populated areas where a more broadly sustainable lifestyle could be supported by pedestrian or mass transit access to schools, shops and workplaces. For this reason, David Eisenberg's efforts to incorporate natural building into state and local building codes, the subject of an informative talk, constitute a crucial next step if the natural building movement is ever to reach critical mass.

This raises the larger question of "sustainability," in which natural building can play an important role provided it is integrated into a broad array of lifestyle choices that express our fundamental solidarity and oneness with all life on this planet.

Hope for the Future

From its epicenter in the American Southwest, the natural building movement is spreading to other parts of the country and to other nations as well. The number of completed straw-bale homes has risen from a mere handful just four years ago to literally hundreds nationwide, according to Wanek, and some states and municipalities are incorporating it into their building codes. In addition, straw bales have been used to construct homes and other buildings in Russia, Belarus, Mongolia, and Mexico. In 1998, the first East Coast Natural Building Colloquium was held in Maryland.

Although the extent to which the natural building movement will percolate into the mainstream remains to be seen, Catherine Wanek believes that changing the American way of life can have a major impact on global sustainability. "We are exploring ways to live sustainably on the planet and meet everyone's needs," Wanek said. "If we create a new paradigm in America, then others might emulate it."

New York architect and freelance writer Bruce Silverberg is concerned with making societies environmentally, socially and economically sustainable at a global and local level. In addition to design and planning, he offers workshops on sustainable decision-making. Email; on the web at


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