Alternative Construction: Contemporary Natural Building Methods / Edition 1

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The first comprehensive guide to combining traditional natural materials and modern construction methods.
From adobe to straw bales, traditional building materials are being adapted to meet code-required standards for health and safety in contemporary buildings around the world. Not only are they cost effective and environmentally friendly, but, when used correctly, these natural alternatives match the strength and durability of many mainstream construction materials.
This book examines a broad range of traditional and modern natural construction methods, including straw-bale, light-clay, cob, adobe, rammed earth and pise, earthbag, earth-sheltered, bamboo, and hybrid systems. It also covers key ecological design principles, as well as current engineering and building code requirements.
Experts on each building system have contributed core chapters that explore the history, development, climatic appropriateness, environmental benefits, performance characteristics, construction techniques, and structural design principles for each method. More than 200 visuals depict both construction processes and completed structures. An extensive resource guide shows where to go for further information, training, and research.
In an increasingly resource-conscious era, alternative construction is truly an idea whose time has come. Whether you're an architect, designer, student, or homeowner, this book will help you to combine indigenous building materials with modern construction systems and design standards to create low-impact, high-quality buildings that meet the highest levels of comfort, health, and safety.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471719380
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 3/11/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 7.54 (w) x 9.19 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

LYNNE ELIZABETH is a consultant and author on sustainable communitydevelopment and ecological design. She currently directs NewVillage Press, a publishing project of ADPSR, and resides inTemescal Commons, a solar-powered cohousing community in Oakland,California.

CASSANDRA ADAMS is an architect and consultant in constructionmanagement and ecological design. She has taught architecture,construction, and environmental courses at the University ofWashington and the University of California–Berkeley.

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Read an Excerpt

Alternative Construction

Contemporary Natural Building Methods

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2000 John Wiley & Sons Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-471-71938-2

Chapter One


The Natural Building Movement

Lynne Elizabeth

Perhaps the soul could remember a little of its origination, when people still belonged to the spirit of a place. -Martin Prechtel, Secrets of the Talking Jaguar

Natural building in the United States is not just a phenomenon, it is a movement-a movement most visibly represented at the dawning of the twenty-first century by a particular set of non-industrialized construction technologies used primarily for residential applications. These include the traditional and modern earth- and straw-based building systems written about in this book, plus timber framing, stone masonry, and numerous indigenous forms.

Natural building is about far more than materials and wall assemblies, however. It encompasses a broad set of ethics, underpinned by a worldview that treats the earth as not only sacred, but alive. Its proponents concern themselves with what constitutes a healthy built environment, how to build with the least impact on the earth, and ways in which the built environment can nurture vibrant community. Natural building aligns itself with philosophies of holistic, integrated systems, such as Bill Mollison's Permaculture, Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy, or the German Bau-Biologie. Structures are understood not as isolated entities, but as parts of and within interdependent systems for providing shelter, food, clean water, energy, and waste recycling. In contrast to a pervasive dependence on mechanical heating, cooling, and ventilation that consumes vast amounts of polluting energy, naturally conditioned buildings are designed with sensitivity to the site, the sun, prevailing winds, and the seasons. They offer healthful, inexpensive comfort and preserve the tranquility of our interior spaces. Daylighting is favored over artificial lighting, as is architecture that integrates buildings with their natural surroundings.

The movement is also imbued with an aesthetic appreciation of building materials in their unprocessed or minimally processed state-the beauty of raw earth, uncut stones, unmilled wood, and woven grasses. Architecture is inspired by natural flows, patterns, and an indefinable spirit of place. These values of harmonious ecological design have been popularized by the pictorially rich books of architect David Pearson, such as the Natural House Book and Earth to Spirit.

Many within the movement hesitate to call it "alternative," lest it be perceived as questionable or in any way be hampered from entering the mainstream. There is hope that architectural historians will look back at this time and note the widespread appearance of natural building as the beginning of a new construction era based on principles of ecological balance.

"Natural" as the norm may, indeed, not be far off. In October 1999, the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment held a conference in Chattanooga to explore "Mainstreaming Green." "Green" architecture has, in the last dozen years or so, grown from a minor pocket to an enormous presence. During this period it has defined itself largely as conventional construction that has been improved to meet higher environmental standards-standards that in the eyes of many natural builders often represent compromised solutions rather than those reflecting a deeper ecological awareness. All views considered, the territories of "green" and "natural" do overlap.

The 1990s have also witnessed the rise of the cult of "sustainability," which popped into popular parlance during that period and is now used to describe almost any enlightened response to environmental, economic, or social concerns. As much as it can be understood, sustainability is rapidly being adopted by nearly every civic institution as the ultimate policy. At its core lies a recognition that the prevailing operating system of our society is not capable of being maintained at its current pace or in its current form.

Some describe the problem as being out of step with nature; hence arose, also during the last decade, a deductive scientific movement from Sweden called the Natural Step. Its mission is to adjust the misalignments of our industrialized culture with natural operating systems.

The values of natural, green, and sustainable development, then, go hand in hand as guides for ecologically sound construction practices.

The Environmental Imperative

To baby-boomers, it is usually a surprise to learn that lightweight wood framing has become the predominant building method in the United States only since the end of World War II, when returning GIs and a flourishing economy latched onto it because it was expedient and cheap. Stick-frame, as it is popularly known in the United States, has only very recently been adopted to any extent in other parts of the world. At a time when forests throught the world are being clear-cut at unprecedented rates, it is tragic that wood framing should now take the fancy of builders in wood-poor countries-countries where masonry and other indigenous building systems have predominated within a more or less balanced ecology for centuries, if not millennia.

The ecosystems on our planet most discernibly threatened by human exploitation are the forests. We have lost nearly half (46 percent)-3 billion hectares-of the forests that originally blanketed the earth, and deforestation continues to expand and accelerate. Most of this forest cover was cleared during the twentieth century for timber or to convert land to other uses. Between 1980 and 1990 alone, 200 million hectares-together equivalent to an area larger than Mexico-were destroyed. The World Resources Institute has reported that only 22 percent remains of the world's irreplaceable "frontier forests"-areas of "large, ecologically intact, and relatively undisturbed natural forests." Within the temperate zones, that encompass much of the United States and Europe, the percentage of remaining frontier forests drops to 3.

Ancient forests support roughly half the world's biodiversity; they also renew our air, stabilize our climate, and maintain our watersheds and soils. Most people take these and many other benefits of forests for granted; they consider trees valuable for fuel, construction, and paper.

Wood frame residential construction in the United States is a leading cause of global deforestation. Forty-five percent of all the wood harvested in the world in 1995 (3.33 billion cubic meters) was used for industrial round-wood-this is the wood that is used to make lumber, paper, plywood, and similar products. Nearly one-quarter of that roundwood is consumed in the United States, and 40 percent or more of this is used for construction. Ultimately, about 10 percent of the world's industrial roundwood is used by the U.S. construction industry, and most of that for residential buildings.

Despite the critical need to stop this voracious forest consumption, the warning signs that filter into the construction market-diminished quality of lumber stock and higher prices-are minimal. They give little if any incentive for significantly changing building practices.

Organizations such as the National Association of Home Builders and the Natural Resources Defense Council have published recommendations for reducing wood demand, which include more efficient framing techniques and engineered wood products. Specifying lumber from sustainably managed forests is gaining more awareness as an important solution, as are salvage and recycling options. Considering, however, population growth and the fact that the size of the average single family home in the United States has more than doubled since 1950, all these measures for improving wood-frame building, even when combined, appear stop-gap at best.

Other insidious threats to health caused by industrialized construction include toxins emanating from buildings and pollution generated by the extraction and manufacturing of building materials. Transportation of the raw materials that go into building products and transport of the products themselves to construction sites are contributors to energy consumption and pollution of all kinds. These issues are well documented in a growing body of literature addressing the ecology of the built environment (see Appendix A).

Building with locally derived, unprocessed materials-materials as simple as the soil beneath our feet-is a natural response to this crisis. It significantly reduces the amounts of energy and secondary resources needed for extraction, processing, fabrication, and shipping. Rammed earth, adobe, cob, light-clay, and straw-bale wall systems can abate our demand for wood. Coupled with vaulted, domed, or bamboo roof systems, these alternatives can significantly reduce reliance on wood. Designed with natural heating, cooling, ventilation, and lighting systems, such structures can substantially lessen our consumption of energy and resources and eliminate much pollution.

Reducing building size, designing with sensitivity to the site, and clustering development to preserve open space and lessen infrastructure demands are additional strategies for improving the ecology of our built environment. These are approaches the natural building movement has brought to the fore, but are also strategies that can be employed with any kind of development.

With so many obvious benefits for our local and global health, non-industrialized materials and systems are receiving wide recognition as solutions. Articles on the subject are appearing with increasing frequency in mainstream media such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Good Morning America, National Geographic, and Metropolitan Home. In addition, a rising number of trade periodicals cover alternative construction (see Appendix B), and a national consumer magazine was launched in 1999 called Natural Home. Architecture schools, too, are now beginning to teach alternatives that utilize earth-based or indigenous systems.

It also seems possible that the residential builders in this country, despite their vast numbers and entrenched habits, may smell the danger ahead and, like a herd of hoofed mammals all charging in the same direction, suddenly change course altogether. Perhaps, less dramatically, they will discover the greener pastures of natural building and migrate for many positive reasons. To some extent, the public is already demanding that they do so.

Building Craft, Building Community

Much of the natural building movement is underpinned by a renaissance of the blended trade and profession known as the master-builder. Christopher Alexander wrote about it more than a decade ago in The Production of Houses; essentially, it is a shift away from highly specialized roles-the architect as a conceptualizer and draftsperson and the contractor as a narrowly defined construction tradesperson-toward more overlapping, if not entirely enmeshed, roles. This holistic approach to design and building offers closer and more creative kinship with materials. The architect is not divorced from the medium and the contractor is not working under the restriction of faceless blueprints. It allows better response to subtleties of the site and the interface of building forms. It respects the unique talents of each participant in the building process and affords opportunity for greater self-expression in planning, execution, and embellishment. A master-building climate encourages innovation and is the ideal setting for the growth of alternative building methods. It has also spawned a revival of building as craft.

Pioneers of newly evolving alternative construction methods are conducting workshops and classes wherever interest springs up around the country. Timber framers, cobbers, thatchers, and many other experts in traditional building techniques have also been engaging in a great interchange of construction know-how here and abroad. Natural and traditional building schools have been proliferating (see Appendix B, "Alternative Construction Resource Centers"), and there is now an entire second generation of Americans trained to teach alternative methods.

Gatherings and conferences for the purpose of exchanging building technologies have also emerged in the last decade, most notably in the western states but now in the eastern states as well. The largest of these have become known as the Natural Building Colloquia, where during a week of long days the champions of all types of appropriate and intermediate technologies work together on experimental structures, teach newcomers, and share with colleagues what they have learned in the past year. A valuable cross-fertilization results, and several hybrid systems have been developed.

Probably nothing has nourished the growth of natural building more than the camaraderie and robust community spirit of these trailblazers, artisans, scientists, and seekers. Natural building attracts those wanting to build a healthy and healthful community. These new values include sharing the work with all, to cross gender, race, religion, age, skill-level, and just about any other social boundaries. The movement also supports self-help and community-supported building, which is sorely needed in a world of regulated, restricted, and exorbitantly expensive real estate development.

If non-industrialized building methods can be respected in this most industrialized of countries, vernacular methods stand a chance of being valued in other countries as well, and much of the beauty and wealth of human cultures can be maintained. Low-impact construction should not be associated with poverty; on the contrary, simple and regionally appropriate construction offers great freedom of expression and allows us to live closer to the riches of nature.

Mass-produced housing robs our neighborhoods of local color and our tradespeople of meaningful work. In contrast, supporting local building crafts enlivens the culture, and building with the materials and talents of the region strengthens local economies.

* * *

The job of shaping the built environment comes with a responsibility beyond the wants of the paying client, and beyond our personal wants as well. May the wisdom that we bring to our practice include an understanding of the effects of our building designs and materials choices on all beings now alive and their descendants.

Clearly, it is easy to be caught up in the concerns of the hour, the fashion of the year, and the powerful thrust of our cultural habits. To work from an awakened perspective is to feel the joy of being alive. May the world we build express that joy.

The Realities of Specifying Environmental Building Materials

Cassandra Adams

The construction technologies being developed and refined by the architects, artists, owners, and builders featured in this book are their responses to environmental, ethical, and social issues surrounding the extraction of raw materials from nature and their use in construction of the built environment. Although these building materials and methods have traditionally been considered "primitive" and therefore inferior to more highly processed materials in terms of safety, durability, performance, occupant health, and comfort, the stories and photographs in this book provide convincing evidence otherwise.

With respect to environmental issues, consumption of building products and energy within the construction industry has created a significant demand for raw materials (both recycled and virgin) and for energy production, thereby contributing to the many environmental problems associated with the extraction processes (environmental degradation, loss of genetically diverse ecosystems, etc.) and with energy production (polluting by-products emitted into the air/water/soil, which become part of smog, acid rain, global warming, etc.). In addition, the toxic particulates and gases incorporated into building products (especially interior finishes and furnishings) during manufacture are emitted later, degrading interior air quality and contributing to health problems of those with environmental illnesses.


Excerpted from Alternative Construction Copyright © 2000 by John Wiley & Sons Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

FOREWORD (Bob Berkebile, FAIA; Sim Van der Ryn)




1. Introduction.

The Natural Building Movement  (Lynne Elizabeth).

The Realities of Specifying Environmental Building Materials(Cassandra Adams).

2. A New Context for Building Codes and Regulation (DavidEisenberg).

3. Natural Conditioning of Buildings (Ken Haggard, Polly Cooper,and Jennifer Rennick with assistance from Phil Niles).

4. Structural Properties of Alternative Building Materials(Bruce King, P.E.).


5. Adobe (Michael Moquin).

6. Cob (Michael Smith).

7. Rammed Earth (David Easton).

8. Modular Contained Earth Earthbag (Joseph Kennedy and PaulinaWojciechowska with special acknowledgment of the work of NaderKhalili).

Earth-Rammed Tires (Michael Reynolds).

9. Light Clay (Robert Laporte and Frank Andresen with specialacknowledgment of the work of Franz Volhard).

10. Straw-Bale (Kelly Lerner, Bob Theis, and Dan Smith).

11. Bamboo (Darrel DeBoer and Karl Bareis).

12. Earthen Finishes Earth Plasters (Carole Crews).

Earth Floors (Bill and Athena Steen).


13. Integrated Systems with Rammed Earth
Charles Sturt University, Thurgoona Campus, New South Wales,Australia (Marci Webster-Mannison)).

14. Straw, Clay, and Carrizo Obregon Project, Northern Mexico(Bill and Athena Steen).

15. Light-Clay House Additions School/Residence in Wisconsin(Lou Host-Jablonski, AIA).

16. Variations on Earth bag The Honey House—Moab, Utah(Kaki Hunter and Doni Kiffmeyer)

Residences in Arizona and Wisconsin (Dominic Howes).

Sandbag House, Rum Cay Island, Bahamas (Steve Kemble and CarolEscott).

17. The Value of Indigenous Ways
Habitat for Humanity International (C. Wayne Nelson).

18. Building Technology Transfer
Raising Straw-Bale Housing for Farm workers in California (KellyLerner, Dan Smith, and Bob Theis).

Introduction of Straw-Bale Construction to Mongolia and China(Kelly Lerner).


Finding the Soul of Natural Building (Tom Bender).

Appendix A: Recommended References.

Appendix B: Alternative Construction Resource Centers.



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