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Natural Building Defined
Natural Building has been given many different definitions by various people. The simplest way to describe natural building is “building a structure with materials found in the structure’s environment”. A more complete definition I would give, especially when applying natural building to a house, is “building a healthy, comfortable, climate-appropriate, beautiful home from sustainably-sourced materials that are as local as practical”. I think every part of this definition is important in what a home should be, but I will concede that a house can be natural without being beautiful.
Our homes need to be healthy in order for us to be healthy. Most people spend far more time in our homes than we spend anywhere else, many more than everywhere else combined. Unfortunately, the typical conventional home in the developed world has bad indoor air quality. Air quality problems come from a variety of sources—from off-gassing to combustion and even breathing.
Natural homes have better indoor air quality. Using natural materials rather than paints, glues and carpets that are full of chemicals which will off-gas for years is very important for people who are sensitive to such chemicals, and best practice for any home. Avoiding combustion with appliances or at least making sure they are vented properly is another good step for maintaining indoor air quality. Putting people in a tightly sealed building without proper ventilation results in a buildup of carbon dioxide (not carbon monoxide) which is not good for our health in high concentrations (just how high is still being studied). Because of this every home should have adequate ventilation. This should include passive ventilation (operable windows) and in cases where buildings are tightly sealed (recommended in many climates) mechanical ventilation.
Energy-efficiency is often touted as the holy grail of green building, but it can be hard to sell when it comes down to how much money some energy-efficient features cost. In general, a building that is comfortable will be energy efficient. If you don’t believe me sit by a drafty window in an old house in Northern Minnesota in January—it’s uncomfortable no matter what the thermostat is set to. If you aren’t willing to pay for energy-efficiency let me sell you a comfortable home, one that feels good to spend time in.
Natural homes should be as different as the climates they are built in. Before getting your heart set on a specific type of natural home ask yourself if it makes sense in your climate. How cold does it get where you live? How warm? Does temperature change drastically from day to night, or from August to February? Does it rain more days than not, or just a few times a year? The answers to these questions will help you decide if you need well-insulated walls, or if high thermal mass is sufficient; how much roof overhang you need, if a dome shaped house will work well, a flat roof, or a steeply pitched one. There is no natural building method that works well everywhere. Pick one that works for your climate.
The world is a stressful place and our home is (or at least should be) our refuge from the world. It should feel good to come home. A home’s beauty makes a huge difference in how it feels to come home. Not only do beautiful houses make better homes for the people who live in them; they’re better for society as well because if all new homes were beautiful they would be more affordable—if you don’t believe me check out this video. Natural homes can be very beautiful; most natural building methods allow for a lot of flexibility in aesthetics which lends to creativity and beauty. Natural homes can be built in any style whether modern, sculptural or inspired by centuries-old forms of a French country cottage or an adobe of the American Southwest.
Materials for a natural home should not destroy nature. I think this is obvious to most people interested in natural building, but it needs to be said to have a complete definition of what natural building is.
The shorter the distance materials travel to the building site the better. A big factor in construction’s environmental footprint is transportation, which is generally fossil-fuel powered. Locally available materials are also good for creating buildings that fit well in their environment leading to beautiful homes. When considering what method of natural building works well for you, think about what’s available locally—if you live in a forested area use wood, if you have clay soils use clay plaster, if you’re in a farming community use straw. This can also include recycled materials which are common in cities.
A natural home can still have modern amenities like electricity and running water even though this means compromising on everything being natural. The wiring will be covered in plastic and the piping may be plastic as well. Modern manufactured windows will outperform anything that can be made with natural materials. For the sake of practicality there are places to compromise on just how natural a building is. Ultimately, it’s up to each person and their individual situation to decide where to draw the line. Some people will build with concrete foundations, cordwood walls with cement in the mortar and asphalt shingles, others will use a dry stone foundation, cob walls and thatch roofs. These choices need to be made by each person based one their personal convictions and their environment (whether we’re talking natural, regulatory, or financial environment).