November 9, 2002 - Saturday
It's not only the size of the boat, but also the motion in the ocean
Jim Schley's article, linked from the Halloween HUB, brings up a very important topic: size does matter. Below, I mostly say what he said (because it's that important), but using different words.
In the January 1999 issue of Environmental Building News, Alex Wilson wrote, "It is easier to reduce the embodied energy of a house by making the house smaller than by searching for low-embodied-energy materials." The same issue points out that house size in America has more than doubled since 1940, while the number of people living in the average house has dropped by over half.
In the bigger, global picture, buildings account for one-fourth of the world's wood harvest—that's 25%, a quarter of the whole pie; and they're responsible for two-fifths of the world's material and energy usage—that's a whopping 40%, nearing half; and they swallow up one-sixth, or about 17%, of the world's fresh water. Alarmingly, these figures represent a point in time when only two billion of the planet's almost six billion people live and work in the kind of resource-intensive buildings we take for granted. Meantime, the rest of the televised shrinking world—which is principally driven by programming from the west—is developing the same insatiable appetite we have for always-bigger houses with ever-increasing degrees of factory sheen.
Ah, but we've found the solution! We'll build our houses with things like straw and mud!
Well, it's an good step in an excellent direction—but let's face up to a couple facts: 1). A strawbale, cob, straw-clay, earthship, underground, cordwood, or any other "natural" home built to meet contemporary western expectations of housing and lifestyle just isn't going to do all that much to make the world better simply by virtue of virtue. 2) Despite what we're sometimes told, when assembled into a house, natural materials don't magically make a person warm when they're chilly, or more comfortable when they're too hot; they don't change the local weather, or the universal laws of physics. Nor do they spontaneously generate extra time, money, or happiness for its occupants.
Certainly, anything that improves energy-efficiency, cradle-to-grave ecological lifecycle costs, and occupant health (both physical and emotional), contributes to the measure of sustainability—or better yet, regenerative qualities—of our built environment. And well beyond a merely pragmatic consideration, a vitally important part of that equation are the financial aspects: because the embodied costs of earning the money to pay for that luxurious strawbale palace could more than counterbalance the total diminished negative environmental effect of building an expensive, theoretically ecologically-sensitive house, rather than a conventional one.
It seems that many people—perhaps most of them—thinking about building with natural materials are doing so with an antithetical paradigm for a foundation. In issue #30 of The Last Straw (Summer 2000), Michael Smith (author of The Cobber's Companion, and co-author of The Hand-Sculpted House) interviewed Buddhist monk / architect / teacher Steve Beck, who said, "I think that the American dream-house, in most of its guises, is clearly based on the ideal of the mansion. Part of the purpose of the mansion is to provide a conspicuous display of wealth. In consequence the mansion as a housing model has no need to use space and energy and material and structure efficiently. The mansion-based cultural model of dwelling operates in ways that we are unconscious of most of the time. Even when seeking affordable housing using sustainable materials, we end up replicating the mansion model, although the house may be so modest that it doesn't appear to be mansion-like at all."
It seems evident that a good scrutiny of our understanding of what housing is—not just its component materials, and not just its design—is in order. But we can do immeasurably better than that. We can take a good hard look at our expectations—not just of our houses, but of our lives. We can think way beyond what we live in, and consider how we live, the effects of the choices we make every day, all day long. I'd like to recommend an insightful interview with Athena and Bill Steen, originally published in Designer/Builder magazine, which sets an ideal tone for this sort of self-examination. I'll pause here for those who want to go read the link.
Somebody told me about a book they were reading in which the author elegantly defined "liability" as something that costs, and "asset" as something that enriches. Think about it. How does that apply to housing: with regard to your finances, to the environment, and to the way they interact and interconnect? For that matter, how does it apply to any given aspect of your life? Is it a liability or an asset to your happiness? your health? your bank account? to the little kids down the road?
It's a puzzlement, for sure... and no two people will ever come up with the same answer.
This isn't just new-age tree-hugger stuff for blissed-out greenie-wackos, no; just about everybody seems to want to live more simply and contentedly in beautiful, well-functioning houses; to have more personal time and less capital expense; and to do it without actively destroying the world around them. What kind of fool wouldn't want those things? The tricky part is figuring out how.
"Natural building" is equal parts logic and compassion, and is a means to an end. It's most effective in the context of a lifestyle rooted in the same attributes.
Mark Piepkorn is a former editor of The Last Straw. He isn't promoting a book, or trying to sell you anything. He's just passionate about certain topics. As of this writing (Nov 6, '02), he's wintering in Ithaca, New York, and looking for good work. He's posted about 500 natural building pictures at his website; feel free to browse.