What is Natural Building? Is It All or Nothing?

Earthbag Roundhouse 2009
Me surveying my kingdom in 2009

What is natural building?

From Wikipedia: “A natural building involves a range of building systems and materials that place major emphasis on sustainability. Ways of achieving sustainability through natural building focus on durability and the use of minimally processed, plentiful or renewable resources, as well as those that, while recycled or salvaged, produce healthy living environments and maintain indoor air quality. Natural building tends to rely on human labor, more than technology. As Michael G. Smith observes, it depends on ‘local ecology, geology and climate; on the character of the particular building site, and on the needs and personalities of the builders and users.’” It goes on to say, “The materials common to many types of natural building are clay and sand. When mixed with water and, usually, straw or another fiber, the mixture may form cob or adobe (clay blocks). Other materials commonly used in natural building are: earth (as rammed earth or earth bag), wood (cordwood or timber frame/post-and-beam), straw, rice-hulls, bamboo and stone. A wide variety of reused or recycled non-toxic materials are common in natural building, including urbanite (salvaged chunks of used concrete), vehicle windscreens and other recycled glass.”

I’m an environmentalist. Natural building and sustainable living haven’t been a career path for the past 13 years, they’ve been my life. I wrote a book called Ecological Awakening that shares many of my thoughts on the subject. When I moved off-grid and built my first earthbag house in 2009, it was to lessen my impact on the planet. I have also been shitting in a bucket for the last 13 years to lessen my impact, but that’s another story. Using earthbags, I have been able to use over 99% local (literally from under our feet!) materials. The bag is under 1/500th the weight of the dirt inside. The dirt you’re standing on at any given moment is as local as you can get. I researched for a long time before choosing the earthbag method. I had seriously considered straw-bale but I live in an area with an extremely high relative humidity (it’s a temperate rain forest), and heard tell of a local straw-bale home that had a truth window of black mold. That, my friends, is some brutal, and potentially lethal, truth. Of course classic cob contains a lot of straw as well. In creating cob, you totally saturate the straw with mud and then place it in the structure. You can add borax or other agents to inhibit mold growth but after we built our first earthbag house, plastered the walls with cob (that happened to be light on straw), and then painted it with hydrated lime, something I had never heard of or read about happened—a thick, white shag mold grew right on top of it. The mold disappeared fairly quickly as the walls dried out but it’s just an example of coming up against unheard of challenges. In our earthship-inspired earthbag house, we let the walls dry out for a long time before closing it in and didn’t have the same issues.

Years later, my wife developed an autoimmune disorder caused by systemic mold inflammation. Why do I mention all of this? To point out that some environments aren’t ideal for encasing organic matter in moist structures, as it could cause severe complications later. This is why I chose earthbag in the first place, less organic matter to turn into a mold factory. I encase very little organic material in my walls now. With earthbags, I don’t need to. 

Earthbag Tiny House
The Interior of Our Earthbag Tiny House

Are Earthbags, Superadobe, and Hyperadobe Natural Building?

I have been living this life and building this way for a long time. A recent phenomenon I’ve noticed is that some “purists” are now attacking earthbag building. What are some of the unique qualities and possibilities of building with earthbags? What is the bag to dirt ratio?

Earthbags are superior for building underground and for making things that will have lots of potential moisture contact. I built a natural, spring-fed pool using earthbags (which I am currently writing an article about for Mother Earth News) and a student of mine built a more modern styled, conventional pool as well. I wouldn’t dare try that with cob or straw bale in our moist climate. We have built cisterns and spring boxes with earthbags. Once again—I definitely wouldn’t try that with cob, straw-bale, or wood. Different materials and mediums have their optimum applications and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. I wouldn’t use earthbags in an extremely cold climate as I think straw bale or something with an innate extreme insulative value is a better option. 

I also used a geomembrane (with a possible 400 year service life) in our pool. Our soil is porous so an unlined pond will never fill up. Man-made materials definitely have their uses in my experience.

Another advantage of earthbag building is that almost any type of fill can be used. The Sand Castle built in the Bahamas by Steve Kemble, with help from Kaki Hunter and Donald Kiffmeyer, used crushed coral in the bags. Steve explained to me that clay was used in agriculture on the island and was considered too precious for building. Once again—material availability is site specific.

If you build a cob wall too quickly, slumping can happen. This is where the weight of the wall above pushes out the unset cob below. This limits the speed at which one can build a traditional cob wall. Earthbags don’t have this problem. A large, well-organized group can build entire earthbag houses in a day. The bags offer mechanical support to keep slumping from happening. Another strategy that we’ve used is to add a small percentage of Portland cement (perhaps 5%) to the cob. This lets it set quickly enough that you can keep building. I’m a fan of cob building. Every house we build has bottle walls of perlite plaster cob in them. As with all natural building modalities, there are many places where it is an appropriate method and some where it isn’t.

For those who absolutely loathe the idea of using any plastic in their homes (so much for plumbing or electricity!), one can also possibly use burlap (hessian) bags. Once again, though, they are made of plant fibers and I wouldn’t use them in any kind of very wet application as they would rot and mold like any other organic matter. They also cost 3 to 4 times as much as poly sandbags, from what I’ve seen.

Superadobe Dome Village 3
Presence in Hormuz 2, Photo Credit: Tahmineh Monzavi, Soroush Majidi, Payman Barkhordari

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Iranian superadobe community, Presence in Hormuz 2. It has become a much talked about subject of great controversy to a handful of purists. It is mostly constructed of superadobe but they used rebar and mesh to make the rounded domes and it seems they are all plastered with a cement-stabilized plaster. (I use cement-stabilized plasters as well, in areas that are likely to be exposed to lots of moisture or get rained on. Regular earthen plaster would be washed away.) They dredged sand from their local dock to use as bag fill and probably to create the plaster as well. Once again, this is a coastal habitation and they likely don’t have any access to clay, so it would have to be shipped in for them to use it, which would greatly increase the carbon footprint and cost of what they built. Can a project such as this be considered natural building? I would say yes, to a certain point. If they were able to use 85% local, natural materials on the project, I would call it an 85% natural building. Some would argue that it’s all or nothing, that a building is either 100% natural materials or an unnatural building (?).

How many modern buildings don’t have ANY modern materials in them? No screws, no nails, no glass, no screen, no plywood, no metal, no industrially harvested straw (it does have a carbon and pollution footprint, after all, and is wrapped in metal or poly twine), no milled or finished wood, no plumbing, no electrical wiring, no tiles, no cement, no plastic, no pressure treated wood, no moisture barriers, no appliances? This is, of course, only a partial list of modern materials—there are many more. What I am proposing is that the number of modern buildings that could be considered 100% natural is very small. I am personally comfortable using this percentage system when talking about natural building. Using this system, the earthbag houses that I build are over 99% local materials and over 99% natural building, by weight and volume. I would say that counts as natural building. 

Natural Building is Always Site Specific

I have found that natural building is absolutely site specific. What works in one place may be a complete failure in another. Materials you have access to in one place may be totally unavailable in another. Desert builders often build houses without moisture barriers but a house in contact with the ground in my area without such barriers would become a festering mold stronghold, and would pose an extreme danger to the inhabitants therein. Luckily, before I built my first earthbag house, I had a chance to talk to Clark Snell of Building Green fame. I asked him if I could just put straw in the floor to insulate, without a barrier, as they did in Earthbag Building: The Tools, Tips, and Techniques, and he said he would not use straw in the floor at all. Donald and Kaki built in the desert in Utah where the ground is usually very dry. I ended up using foam sheeting and it turns out it was absolutely the right choice as some untreated wood that I had at the base of the central post completely rotted away because of the moisture levels. The straw would have rotted away and become mold growth-medium as well. As I said before, what works in one place absolutely may not work in another.

Strangely, some folks I affectionately call The NBZs (natural building zealots), seem to imply that one should not use any modern materials in their structures. I ask them if they’re aware that metal screws are modern materials, and they usually don’t respond to that. I ask them if they use modern powered tools, and they act as if the means of building doesn’t matter at all, but only the materials used. I ask them if they’re aware of the immense carbon footprint of modern tools, generator power, grid power, and the like, and they act as if such facts are irrelevant. 

How many natural building purists wear wooden clogs? How many of them have wooden tires on their cars? Why do they use rubber and synthetic materials in these cases instead of wood or earth? Because the rubber performs better in those tasks. Why do they buy their food in plastic containers instead of wood or clay? Because plastic is quick and easy to produce and makes a superior membrane. It is also easily recyclable whereas it takes years for a tree to grow. As we know,  deforestation is an immense problem on this planet. Clay and ceramics also have a larger carbon footprint because of the energy required to produce them. Because they’re heavier, it takes more energy (I.e. – fossil fuels) to move them. Just as with food storage, transportation, and footwear–there are cases where it only makes sense and will have less environmental impact to use modern materials and energy. 

I have been part of an intentional community for nine years now. Early in our existence we decided to make use of power tools and industrial equipment. Also, who wants or has time to spend a month hand excavating a site that could be dug out with a backhoe in hours?  My thought is that the best use that fossil fuel energy will ever get, is to build a sustainable structure that may last 50 times longer than a conventional wooden one, and use only a fraction of the energy a conventional dwelling does, if it is built with smart design practices and principles. I have heard some NBZs attack earthships, saying that they use too much concrete and other man-made materials, to be considered natural. I understand this sentiment, but I recognize that the highly intelligent design principles that earthships use save an immense amount of energy over the decades and perhaps centuries of its existence, and that to me validates the use of cement and other modern materials. Also, these principles can be used in any structure with a great increase in efficiency. Another key point about earthships is that they repurpose materials that might otherwise end up in a landfill. I do that all the time as well, using discarded plastic and foam as insulative bag fill, etc. Also, as was stated before, clay is not readily available everywhere so to get some in certain places, you would have to have it shipped in, greatly increasing the carbon footprint of that structure. I’m not implying that I don’t applaud the zealots urge to keep it (at least conceptually) pure, but I wonder how many of them are taking all of this into account. how many of them are living in conventional, toxic structures? How many of them are using coal-based grid power? How many of them are sharing their borderline anti-technological stances using smart phones and other high technology? How many of them own a gas burning vehicle and drive a lot? How many of them use air travel? That’s one of the most energy and carbon intensive things a person can do.

For a brief time several years ago I was an honorary member of a group of folks called affectionately “The Doomers” (not to be confused with boomers!). Hardcore Doomers believe that humanity will be extinct in 10 to 20 years because of cascading global warming. Strangely most of these folks hadn’t changed anything about their destructive modern lifestyle, but instead took to social media to throw their hands in the air and say, “We are finished!” I pointed out how hypocritical that is, to be using the technology and energy you say is destroying the planet to share the message that we’re all fucked. I lost some friends among that group for pointing out their hypocrisy. I don’t regret it.

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What Would 100% Natural Building Look Like?

The only type of building that could be said to be truly harmless from an environmental perspective would be indigenous architecture, built with only the use of human and animal power and without the use of power tools, modern materials, and modern technology. Blacksmith forged tools would still have a carbon footprint though that impact could be minimized if the steel was repurposed instead of mined. Of course industrial mining for ores and the smelting and processing of them has a devastating effect on the environment. Buildings built with only human power (no power tools), using joinery instead of metal screws and only materials from the immediate environment would have minimal overall impact as well. Once you tap into grid or generator power, industrially produced tools, rechargeable batteries, etc, you greatly increase the embodied carbon of the structure. I applaud all those who embark on the path of keeping it pure, but I think, until we’re aware of all of the ramifications, we shouldn’t judge those who make use of modern materials and tools.

Let’s look at this from another angle. Would a house, built only of natural materials that had been shipped in from distant locations be a sustainable dwelling? Of course not. If we only use the materials as a criteria for natural building and not the carbon footprint and environmental impact, the very term natural building can become misleading and another avenue for cynical profiteers to greenwash unsustainable building and confuse clients and the public.

Musgum Mud Hut
A Musgum Mud Hut, shared by 2ddanga on wikipedia.

Moderates and Zealots: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I don’t want to demonize the zealots and purists, I think it behooves all of us to use as many natural, locally-sourced materials as possible and as many repurposed and recycled materials as we can, but sometimes, a technology like earthbag is exactly what allows us to do this. By the same token I don’t want the zealots to demonize me. I am a dad, a husband, a member of an intentional community, a teacher of natural building, an artist, a musician, a writer, a game designer, and many other things, and I have to make the absolutely most efficient use of my time and resources that I can. For this reason I do use modern tools and materials, to make better, mostly natural structures, that are healthier for those who live within. Technology has upgraded every aspect of human endeavor, why shouldn’t it upgrade building as well, in the service of sustainability? Am I willing to learn new ways? Yes, of course. If someone can point me to a better way of doing things, a more sustainable way of doing things, a more affordable and time and resource friendly way to do things, it will improve my craft and it will help me share that knowledge with others. I don’t want to be silenced though, as some have tried. I think we moderates have an important voice to add to the conversation. 

One NBZ, an admin of a natural building group on facebook, attacked an article I shared about Presence in Hormuz 2. Their comments were very condescending and hostile. I told them that I was going to write this article and post it, so I could think about some of the subtleties of the subject. They tagged me 10 times in one post (a tactic I see they use regularly) and I told them it was borderline harassment. Then they began censoring my posts and deleting all of my responses. Then they sent me a condescending private message and I challenged them to an open debate, one where they weren’t hamstringing me by erasing my responses. Instead they decided to make me disappear and blocked me from the group, a group that I had been a peaceful contributor to for over a decade. 

I won’t name names and I don’t harbor any hard feelings but I want to be allowed a voice. They even indirectly admitted at the end of their message (I still have a copy of it) that they attacked the superadobe article I shared because they thought plastic didn’t have a place in natural building, hence, in one stroke, they condemned earthbag, superadobe, and hyperadobe building, which have been widely and universally accepted as natural building for decades. This person claims to be a super-expert and toots their own horn continuously. I don’t care how much knowledge you have, it doesn’t give you the right to treat people like dirt. Unfortunately, their narrow view is doing a lot of damage to the natural building information available to the public. A few small minds are limiting the options and knowledge available to many.

I think we should all be allowed a voice, even if we disagree with the self-styled experts. Maybe that’s the difference between we moderates and the zealots—we don’t want to deprive anyone of their voice, even if we don’t agree with them.

Thank you for reading!


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