What do we really know about the home we live in? The materials and the processes used to make our modern dwellings are often as foreign to us as another language, the structure and parts confusing and meaningless without extensive study and training. But what if there was a kind of home we could almost build ourselves without a construction background or architectural degree? Human beings have in fact built their own dwellings since the dawn of time, from the crudest structures built to keep out only the wind and rain, to our modern fortresses designed to keep out strangers, the elements, even fresh air. In recent years, however, a shift has begun in the world of home building. A resurgence of earthen structures made of straw, clay, sand, and rock now dot colonial- industrialized areas slowly making their way back into our cultural consciousness. In most cases their peculiar, organic curves offer a respite from the now normative sharp right angles and the stories high glass and steel structures connected by concrete highways. Their more ‘natural’ appeal has given natural building a way back into our collective imagination, and ever so quietly, back into our communities.
As a natural builder, Bryce Ehrecke has been getting his hands dirty mixing and making cob, and working with other natural materials to create all kinds of structures, for the better part of the past 10 years. It was because of natural building and a trip down the West Coast visiting and learning from other natural builders that he met his now wife, photographer Kelly Brown. The two now live in Victoria, BC, but spend part of their year traveling, either teaching at natural building workshops or exploring the American West Coast.
Bryce: The key thing is keeping the materials as close to their raw natural forms as possible, and interacting directly with the environment around you. For indigenous cultures around the world, it only made sense to use what you have right in front of you. So it’s about recognizing those materials and developing a vernacular from there, instead of putting something natural through an intensive refining process to make it into something else and then shipping it long distances. Our current system is so complex and energy intensive, but it also deeply disconnects you from those materials. With natural materials, when you decide you want to take out a wall, everything in that wall is somewhat reusable, or compostable at the very least. But when a conventional house gets torn down or renovated, it becomes a jumble of materials that is so difficult to deal with, it all ends up in the landfill to decompose in a toxic way. Disposing of those materials ends up being a cost to all of us, but because we’re so removed from that process, it makes it really easy to do it that way. It’s a cultural problem with how easy it is to disconnect from all of those negative effects of shelter, as well as disconnecting from all of the positive effects of creating your own.
Bryce: Social needs are huge. I think conventional homes are built to be a pretty sterile environment for your social and creative needs. There are plenty of ways to dress up a conventional house, but there’s something so different about a natural wall. In a conventional home you’ve got paints, drywall, vapor barriers, and insulation with all of these fire retardants, and other not so healthy chemicals in them. The industrial building world has also moved more towards building an airtight house, so it relies on all of these extra ventilation systems to make sure you have good indoor air quality. With a natural wall system you have clay in the walls which can absorb and regulate humidity. It can breathe, in a sense.
Bryce: The snowball effect that eventually led me to Arcosanti, was realizing that you can change the materials that you use to build a single house, but what we should really be looking at is the larger structure that you’re trying to change. The bigger picture is looking at other ways that nature has made things so much more efficient than we have. You look at beehives and how efficient that structure is; it gets your mind spinning. How can humans learn to shift their perspective to make something similar to that more possible?
Aiming at the larger concept of Arcology is especially important with the human and space/time scale that we’re in currently. There are so many people on earth, that all need x amount of things and space. We have a limited carrying capacity on this planet. When you add in all of the geopolitical complications, you have to come up with some pretty complex solutions in a short enough amount of time to make a big enough difference. Building one house at a time, you’re only achieving so much. But if you can make a system that’s more efficient, not only is it more cost and resource effective, but you can have all of these added ecological and social benefits.
I’d like to integrate natural building into a larger structure for a bigger group of people, which in itself inherently uses far less resources no matter what materials you’re making it from. You’re making this incredibly dense urban/rural ecological environment that’s combined and complex. It’s vertical, so you’re sharing a roof and walls. Current cities have some of those things, but the negative aspects that come along with that density currently make it, for me, a nightmare. There’s traffic, and an enormous amount of waste. How we deal with that volume of humanity in the current system isn’t really working that well. The way things have been built over the last hundred years isn’t necessarily built to last, either, so there’s going to be a restructuring at some point. In my mind it’s all about positioning our mindsets to restructure in a much more positive way. I also find that cities tend to look the same. It would be amazing to start to see the natural materials from the landscape surrounding that city move back in and characterize that place. Just seeing that landscape reflected in the structures has a huge impact on our subliminal consciousness.
Kelly: I think a lot of it, too, comes down to the systems that we’ve erected that make it really difficult to do anything outside of official building code and a system that’s been institutionalized. There are obviously a lot of great reasons that we have building codes which are mostly based on keeping people safe, but there are parts of it that have more to do with the ease in which larger systems can create rules and check off boxes. It just becomes something about which you actually don’t have to think very much.
Bryce: The problem is so large. But in the big picture, there are so many things already happening in the world to help soothe the damage that’s been done, culturally and physically. If you look at colonialism in North America alone and all of the damage that it’s done to indigenous cultures, you realize you have to heal everything together. You can’t just pay attention to one thing. But at the same time you’re just one person. I might be doing natural building but I’m also trying to be cognizant of all of the other aspects of my daily life, and taking steps toward building a community that can address those bigger, deeper issues.
Within the natural building community, everyone is so generous and willing to share to make things work. Everyone connected to it is trying to change the faults in the way things are going. You learn in this community that there are no secret recipes. People are really open about what they know because it really is such basic knowledge. The materials, too, are so simple. It’s just sand and clay. But for a lot of people they seem so foreign, because they can’t just go to the hardware store and buy a thing that they know is going to work a certain way. A big part of it is just breaking down the mental barriers people have. Seeing people overcome those barriers, and other barriers on their path to healing is really what gives me hope.
Kelly: Bryce and I talk a lot about wanting to feel more connected to everything that we do. The loss of connection in our culture, whether it’s to food or shelter or community or nature, really affects our psyches so much more than we realize. I think not feeling connected causes a lot of systemic issues in our society. So for us, a lot of our journey and our travels and the way that we approach the way we run a business and how we want to spend our days really has to do with creating connection. With natural building, obviously that begins with connecting to the space that you’re living with, but more so connecting to the environment. Traveling is really fun because everywhere you go that changes. You have so much to learn in every new environment that you’re in and you get to see the systems that nature has put into place and how you can learn from that as it applies to building. Not only are the materials available to you different, but the needs are very different. Thinking about those things helps you understand a place, and I think it encourages a respect for that place, too. Natural building is definitely our focus, but when you pursue that deep connection in one aspect, it naturally seeps into other parts of your life. Because consciousness spreads; everything is interconnected.