You might be drawn to the idea of natural building for many reasons: maybe you want to live your healthiest life in a home free of industrial products and chemicals, maybe you love the aesthetics and feel of a home made of earth or maybe you feel you’ve maxed out the green potential of your conventionally-built home and you’re ready to level up.
Is a Natural Home Right for You?
Natural building is an adventure zone and if you want to explore it you will need to make sure you’re ready for it. Pause a second here and consider some questions:
- How handy are you and your friends? You’re far more likely to have to build something from scratch than to find a natural home already on the market.
- How flexible are you? If you decide to use a builder, your plans might have to depend on their area of expertise. Not every builder will have experience with every kind of natural home.
- Can you purchase a home outright? Banks will often refuse to offer financing on a natural home.
- Are you game to spend time with your local building inspectors? Getting permits for your natural home might be trickier than you think. You might need to work with your local inspectors or modify your plans to make sure they’re up to code.
- What are your thoughts on maintenance? Every house needs to be properly constructed and maintained, of course. Repairs and maintenance on your natural home might actually be easier (if you use renewable materials), but they also might be more frequent (because renewable materials are also biodegradable ones).
- Do you want to transform your life? Many types of natural houses are designed to work off-grid, to passively heat and cool themselves and to reduce their owners’ environmental footprint. You can live very conventionally in a natural home, but that’s really not the point of them.
If you’re intrepid, committed to sustainability and either a) ready to learn about specific building techniques and to work hard at perfecting them or b) able to pay someone else to do that for you, natural building might be a great fit for you.
Still on Board? Here Are Some Options
Adobe is basically soil mixed with water. It’s been used across the globe in housing construction for thousands of years. There are two main building techniques. The first is to slowly pile the adobe up to form walls, letting the material settle and dry in vertical layers. The second is to form the adobe into bricks and build structures from the bricks, using mortars selected to match the adobe’s tendency to expand and contract with moisture and temperature changes.
Things to Consider
- Regional availability – adobe is a soil local to dry regions like northern Africa, the southwest U.S., and Mexico, to name a few. Importing it to another region in the quantities you would need to build a home would be cost-prohibitive.
- Climate – moisture is destructive to adobe. In wet climates, this kind of structure benefits from large eaves and a raised foundation.
- Interior temperature – adobe heats and cools by thermal mass. It’s not a good insulator. In regions that get cold and stay cold (or hot), you’ll have to consider how you’ll keep a comfortable interior.
- Maintenance – adobe is strong, but surfaces exposed to the elements are prone to deterioration and need to be protected with a surface coating. Depending on the surface coating you choose, yearly maintenance might be required.
Read more about adobe buildings and construction from the National Park Service.
Cob houses are built from a mixture of clay, aggregates, water and fibrous materials like straw. Like adobe, this kind of house has been in use across the globe for thousands of years. Traditionally the mixture is combined with your feet, formed into big lumps (called cobs) and applied to the walls by hand. The walls are left to dry in vertical sections to ensure structural integrity. Walls and floors are sealed with a plaster or whitewash. The cool thing here is that you/your building team will essentially be sculpting a house so you can build it in whatever shape you want and put in highly custom architectural details.
Things to Consider
- Labour – building a cob house is by all accounts really fun but it is also labour intensive and you will need a team for this.
- Time – you can’t move in right away. It takes a cob house about a year or two to fully cure and it’s good practice to let the house dry out for several months before you move in.
- Moisture management – cob houses are used in areas of high moisture but they do need solid raised foundations, large eaves and moisture-resistant finishes to keep them at their best.
- Interior temperature – cob houses have a higher straw content than adobe, making them a bit better insulated. In regions where the temperature stays consistently hot or frigid, though, you’ll need to consider heating and cooling options.
The Cob Cottage Company has lots more information if you’re interested.
The concept here is similar to sandbagging. Walls, and even full domed structures, are made with bags filled with earth. These are laid in rows and tamped down. Barbed wire is laid between rows to anchor the bags to each other. The structure is plastered over in the final stages of building.
Earthbag structures aren’t prone to moisture damage or rot. They’re also cheap and easy to make. They stand up to fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and other extreme weather events, in addition to being resistant to bullets. In case you need that.
Things to Consider
- Design limits – circle shapes and curved lines are the best options for earthbag builds. Although they can be made in rectilinear forms, this shape generally needs more expertise to build.
- Interior temperature – your climate should determine what you use for fill. Soil fill creates a thermal mass effect, while a fill of crushed volcanic rock creates insulation.
Learn more about earthbag construction and leading earthbag architect Nader Khalili at the California Institute of Earth Architecture.
An earthship is an earth-bermed structure whose walls are constructed with recycled materials like used tires and aluminum cans, which are plastered over on the inside. Banks of windows provide light and some heat.
Originally created by architect Michael Reynolds, earthships can be found all over the world. Designs (and therefore costs) vary from the simple to the luxurious.
Things to Consider
- Labour – these are labour intensive builds and they are not simple. If you do this yourself you will spend many, many hours literally packing dirt into tires.
- Lifestyle changes – these buildings are about radical sustainability, i.e. passive heating and cooling, green energy technologies and water saving and recycling systems. They also integrate facilities to grow food.
- Interior temperature – these homes operate on the principle of thermal mass. If you live in a cold climate, they can take a couple of years until they’re warm enough to be cozy in the winter. There are reports of earlier models overheating in hot climates.
You can read more about earthships on Reynolds’ Earthship Biotecture website.
In straw bale construction, bales of straw are stacked to form walls. Plaster is applied directly to the bales as a finish. This type of construction began in the American mid-west in the 19th century. In those homes, the bales were actually load bearing.
Modern construction techniques tend to use the bales as fill between a structural frame. Materials are usually inexpensive and the houses are quick to build, although finishing the house properly (such that moisture, insects and mice can’t get in) benefits from an experienced hand.
Things to Consider
- Climate – straw exposed to moisture is naturally prone to decay and to mold. Straw wall surfaces must be vapor permeable so that moisture doesn’t become trapped in the straw. Water itself must be kept away from the bales at all times but especially during construction.
- Maintenance – gaps in the plaster coating should be sealed quickly, as they can lead to moisture problems and to insects and rodents building nests in the walls.
- Movement – if the house is built without a frame, extra care must be taken to make sure the structure is sound, especially in areas that experience high winds or seismic activity.
Check out Straw Bale Building Canada to learn more.
These are just a few of the many options out there. To find the perfect natural home for you, read widely, talk to your local natural building associations and enjoy your adventure!