Building new lifestyles: a community effort

19 Feb

Earthbag house in process

I infrequently follow a few blogs on alternative building. One that I check daily is the Earthbag Building Blog by Kelly Hart and Dr. Owen Geiger. Geiger, an engineer and licensed contractor of alternative buildings, is also the former director of Builders Without Borders and founder and director of the Geiger Research Institute of Sustainable Building. Hart is host and co-author of a website,,  amassed with information on all kinds of alternative construction and techniques. I was recently motivated to post a comment and a thank you to Hart and Geiger on their blog (see excerpt below).

The Earthbag Building Blog is deceptively named because the content is not confined to earthbag building. On the contrary, it contains blurbs, theoretical and hypothetical techniques, photos, videos, book and DVD reviews, and personal testimonies from all forms of alternative construction and materials. What strikes me most is the realization and documentation that some people out there, around the world, are utilizing and practicing alternative construction. It’s a light shining in the darkness. In my world and in my travels I rarely see any examples of construction outside the mainstream industrial building fever (sickness?). Unlike thirty-some-odd years ago when I lived in Maine where outside of greater metropolis areas, nearly all homes (note the use of the word ‘home’ instead of ‘house’) were either 50-100 yo farmhouses or structures built by those who lived in them (or ‘group’-built, similar to the Amish convention). Maine had a large pool of top-notch craftsmen and builders practicing centuries-old techniques using mostly local resources.

Then everything went wrong.

Thirty-plus years and two small houses later, and a circuitous series of moves from New England to the Pacific Northwest to Texas, no one knows how to build quality homes; no one wants to know. No one cares as long as they are huge and expensive. These cookie-stamp buildings use high-energy, synthetic and long-distance materials, are energy-inefficient, and expensive (in both raw resources and money) to maintain. It’s not uncommon to see three people and 1.5 dogs living in a 3,000 square foot house in which they physically occupy no more than 12 hours/day, if not less. I have followed the progress of one of these houses being built, often visiting the structure in progress when the work crew was gone for the day/weekend. I was appalled.

What will happen if (and when) the economy collapses, and the building industry follows suit? Will we fight each other for housing (and food, but that is another story)? Will the suburbs empty and move in-mass to the cities for the service infrastructure? How much more can the modern building industry check rising resource costs (and scarcities) and reduce input to keep the industrial building industry alive? Or will it fall, along with the cheaply-made houses? Will the mainstream building industry ever set aside their profit-margin goals, acknowledge and adopt alternative construction? Will current and future homeowners, as well as policy makers,  ever look past status and prestige to see the current monstrosities as wasteful and consider alternative building? Even in the face of change, how will builders, both commercial and owner-builders, gain new knowledge, learn new techniques, and acquire new skills? How can the old techniques and skills of yesterday survive and translate into those of today?

Unfortunately, don’t count on common sense, or a prevailing sense of conservation in this modern age of excess consumption. Changes will not occur until people are forced to change, both thinking and behavior. Meanwhile, many people are now becoming aware of our inadequacies and our limitations, both human and environmentally. More people are adopting conservation and simpler lifestyles. Some are taking steps to tap into local resources for self-provision: energy, food, and shelter. The concept of small communities is being revitalized. Even neighborhoods within urban centers. A bottom-up (aka ‘grass-roots’) movement is growing, battling the modern top-down approach which dictates our lives more than people are aware (ironically, corporations and governments are well aware).

Adobe block building & construction

However, we need to unite and form a cohesion for a grass-roots movement to spread and prosper. In the context of ‘community’, we need to connect and support each other with common goals. As one whom is a product of the ’60’s, I have seen  irony in the full cycle, and the cycles before that (Great Depression, Dust Bowl, etc). History is our best teacher. Let’s take those lessons of history -social, environmental, and even building- and let them teach and guide us.

Modern technology offers us a great opportunity of information dissemination: the Internet. I still remember as a youngster reading science fiction stories about such a concept of mass communication via giant digital machines or tiny modules worn on the wrist (I’m showing my age here). Now people are plugged into the virtual world in so many ways and unaware of life without it (although, I remember and still value face-to-face interaction and hands-on learning). The most value the Internet can offer us now is a central hub, a network that unites and ties together all forms of information and education exchange. Endless websites and forums exist that focus on individual topics of alternative building. Few collectively offer an easily navigable and central ‘warehouse’ that serves as a central hub. Alternative building (and lifestyles) badly needs this. Geiger and Hart’s websites help fill in that void. If any readers know of similar sites, you are welcome to post links and comments.

The problem is that our housing industry (at least here in the US) is locked into conventional building techniques and materials, using industrial resources. They don’t know anything else. Since the idea of the tract house, most of all our typical American houses have evolved from that (growing into insatiable monsters) and suburbianism.  And the driving force is not quality but quantity, and cheap, at that.

So we have a situation where all these old skills, such as building with mortise and tenons, pegging, etc, are almost non-existent here. A few individual builders still have the knowledge and skills, fewer use them, and even less teach them. These skills are dying. Mainstream industry is not interested, and using old techniques takes too much time (compounded by lack of skilled craftsmen).

The only way these building techniques will come back into vogue is: 1. when modern resources become scarce (which will likely happen), 2. when people stop demanding instant, wastefully huge, cookie-stamp houses, 3. when there are enough skilled craftsmen to increase the supply as demand grows and make such building construction affordable. I see the first becoming a reality before the latter two.

That leaves the owner-builder. Again, this is also scarce. I can guess the statistics on the number of owner-builders versus owner-buyer. The building industry follows suit; each drives the other, and it is a vicious cycle. I am hoping that as awareness grows, both of low-input (material resources and $), conservation and aesthetics, interest in building alternative (compared to contemporary and modern) homes will also grow. But to satisfy, and feed into an increased demand for these alternative resources and building techniques, knowledgeable and skilled builders will be required. Potential owner-builders will need education and training, too.

We need a teaching -education and training- wave in this country. Now more than ever. There are a few small pools existing; I knew several very skilled craftsmen in Maine (masonry, cabinetry, construction, etc), old and young, who learned their skills from mentors and old-timers before them. It’s like the oral stories of our ancestors; in time they die out and the stories (and skills) are gone with them. We need to resurrect them all. We need the remaining craftsmen who will share their knowledge and skills, and expand that teaching (that is affordable!!).

After building two small homes (Maine and Oregon), I have begun building a third using adobe and recycled materials. We have been taking workshops and classes from adoberas, reading everything we can get our hands on, and experimenting. Meanwhile, also collecting used materials and salvaging others. I see more people interested in this and following suit, but not enough. One reason I enjoy Owen’s blog is the range of alternative techniques and materials (not just earthbags), and reports of experiments and projects of other people.

I would like to see a virtual central hub for a network of alternative building knowledge, skills, and techniques. Especially the former: workshops, courses, apprenticeships, internships, etc. If we start at one point in the cycle, perhaps it will propagate and grow. Hopefully soon and large enough before a possible economic collapse so that people can independently build their own, or form building ‘communities’ (e.g. Amish style). Who knows, perhaps it will even trickle into mainstream conventional market and industry by sheer force.

Thank you for your time and blog.


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