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The Resurgence of Building Basics

What comes from nature can be returned to nature without harm to the environment.

This is the comcept behind “living” houses, whose designs incorporate (if not consisting of completely) natural, low tech materials.

Natural materials have been used in building construction since ancient times and are now part of a resurgence as sustainability becomes necessary and desirable.

In fact, about half of the world’s population currently lives or works in a building constructed from earth based materials.

There are numerous raw materials being used in sustainable home designs today, but we’ll focus on the main four. Those being: tree bark, adobe, rammed Earth, and straw. It may sound like an extended version of the “Three Little Pigs” but these fab four have held up for centuries, and are not likely to give way to a little huffing and puffing.

In nature bark shields tree from insects and in some cases, fire. In home design, it is often used in form of square shingles. What makes this ruggedly handsome material great is that it is maintenance free and can last up to eighty years.  The obvious drawback being the use of trees, which requires them to be cut down, unless of course the bark can be carefully removed without damage to the tree itself (this is possible, but not likely in the case of bark shingles.)

Loose straw has been used for centuries as filler to insulate. However, since the advent of the baler, straw can be the sole material used in creating a building’s walls. Straw – not hay – bales can be stacked like blocks to build a house’s walls. The straw is then plastered or stuccoed to seal it and keep moisture out.

It may conjure images of modest pueblos or the Mesa Verde in Colorado, but this sun-baked clay can shape a convincing English style cottage just as well as it can a southwestern bungalow. Adobe is not clay, but a clay-like composite material. It is made from a combination of sand, clay or mud, water, and straw — or any other type of fibrous material. Adobe remains desirable because of its adaptability to weather patterns and can be suited to most climates. In mild and hot climates, it is already a great insulator. During the day the exterior wall of adobe absorbs heat from the sun, which gradually travels through the adobe’s mass and by the end of the day has reached the interior wall, keeping the home warm through the night. In colder climates, homeowners double wall the adobe. This not only creates space for insulation but for wiring as well.

Rammed Earth
Is a noncombustible material that is thermally massive. When properly used and constructed, rammed earth has impressive solar properties. It is created from moist soil that is tampered down into a boxy shape. This makes a wall as hard as stone. It is also easy to construct using other raw materials like lime, chalk, and gravel in addition to the earth. Like adobe, its exterior wall absorbs the sun’s heat, which then radiates through and warms the interior of the house. Today it can be found on all continents excluding Antarctica, and is even in sections of the famed Great Wall of China.

“Living Homes: Sustainable Architecture and Design” Suzi Moore McGregor and Nora burba Trulsson, 2001.

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