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THE NATURAL HOUSE
"There is one timeless way of building. It is thousands of years old, and the same today as it always has been." Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building.
Health for the body, peace for the spirit, harmony with the environment -- these are the criteria of the natural house. All three have deep roots in the human experience and in the ethnic traditions of home building in cultures across the world -- the "timeless way". But in the last two centuries the Western tradition has turned aside from such understanding and respect for the criteria of the natural home has moved to the fringes -- to the alternative health, environment, and holistic "New Age" groups. The pioneers of natural architecture have been many -- from Frank Lloyd Wright to the Japanese, from Baubiologie in Germany, appropriate technology in Wales, and earth-sheltered homes in Australia to biospheres in the USA. More and more, the strands of health, ecology, and spirit are coming together -- the new architecture is alive and well. Ideas and technologies that seemed revolutionary a few years ago are more widespread and natural products more available. Great areas of the planet were once covered by forests rich with a profusion of plants, birds, and animals. Our ancestors, few in number, roamed at will feeding on anything to hand and moving on as the seasons changed and animals migrated. From archaeological evidence, and from contact with surviving remote peoples, it is becoming evident that these cultures were far from primitive. They were (and, where they still survive, are) as sophisticated in many ways as modern urban society. They accumulated overgenerations a very detailed and intimate knowledge of everything around them -- climate, seasons, animals, and plants. Their lives may have been more insecure, but they enjoyed more freedom and an intimate relationship with a world still untouched and beautiful.
Home to these first peoples was their whole territory and spiritual landscape. Caves, trees, grass shelters, and hide tents provided natural and traditional temporary campsites for different seasons. By the millennial clock of our existence, it is only in the last minute of the eleventh hour that we have changed our primordial living patterns and started to build permanent homes and settlements. Indeed some archeologists now think that the life of the early hunter-gatherers was not willingly exchanged for the relative security of settled agriculturalism, but only under pressure of increasing population and decreasing wild resources. The change meant the gradual loss of that deep spiritual contact with all their fellow species, the earth, and the heavens. In their dreamtime walkabouts, Australian Aborigines still seek this today as they follow ancestral spirit paths to sacred sites.
Nonetheless, the earliest settlements and much indigenous architecture throughout history since, continued to express a close link with nature. Everywhere across the world there are diverse and ingenious types of ethnic housing, built from local materials that sit comfortably in the landscape, and respond well to local climate. They follow generic vernacular types that have taken thousands of years of trial and error to perfect.
There is a danger that when we look at houses of primitive or unfamiliar cultures we misinterpret what we see. As Enrico Guidoni stresses in his book Primitive Architecture, there is a tendency to overemphasize the influence of local climate and materials and to underestimate the importance of the social, cultural, and spiritual context. Not all ethnic houses are appropriate to their climate nor do local people, even when given sufficient natural resources and space, automatically make the best use of their materials. The houses of the Masai people of East Africa, for example, are too low to stand upright in and smoke from cooking fires fills the inside. Nevertheless, most ethnic homes around the world manage both to integrate spiritual and physical needs and to be in harmony with the local environment.
Early city builders may have understood better than we do the principles of natural ecology. The Greeks appreciated the benefits of the sun and even treated equal access to sunlight as a legal right. They planned the city of Olynthus in the 5th century BC with streets oriented so they all received equal sun. In the New World, Pueblo Bonito showed as great a sophistication. The terraced "sky city" of the Acoma Indians near Albuquerque constructed on a sheltered mesa also ensured the "sun rights" of all houses, even when the sun was at its lowest in winter. Thick adobe walls absorbed the heat of the day and released it at night while straw and adobe roofs gave insulation against the hot summer sun. Concern for healthy housing has a long history, too. Evidence from ancient cities, such as those built by the Sumerians, or in the Indus Valley, and by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, indicates a developed and sometimes sophisticated understanding of health and comfort. Piped water and cisterns, hypocaust underfloor heating, hot baths, and steam rooms, toilets and sewers, courtyards cooled with pools and fountains, and herb gardens all existed. Most of this earlier knowledge was lost in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. But in many other cultures it remained a continuing tradition, from thermal baths in Japan to the sweat lodges of the native Americans.
Today, many agencies in developing countries are seeking to draw on the rich heritage of ethnic building and combine it with modern appropriate technology to provide self-build (owner-builder) housing. And it is often to the ethnic tradition that modern natural architecture turns for its inspiration in seeking new solutions to old problems -- of climate, health, and the sense of home.
The Western tradition
In the 18th century, the vernacular, craft-based traditions in Europe were first disturbed by the Agrarian Revolution. Large land enclosures and rich landlords displaced indigenous communities, and imported foreign styles and materials were introduced for manor houses and merchant city homes. Homes and towns still, however, retained much of their former grace and maintained their integrity with the local landscape and climate.
The American settlers developed new building traditions in response to the conditions in their adopted land. New England "saltbox" houses were built with their high side to catch the sun and the low, sloping roof at the back turned to the prevailing winter winds. The ovens and fireplaces termed a central core to heat the surrounding rooms efficiently, and some rooms were closed off in winter. In summer, a pergola hung with vines shaded the sunny side from excessive heat. In the hot and humid Southern states, great ingenuity was used to cool homes with cross-ventilation. Open as well as shuttered verandahs and passages cooled the classic plantation mansions while a straight-through corridor served to ventilate the humble "dogtrot" house. In the drier Southwest and Mexico, the Spanish adapted their Mediterranean heritage to the hacienda, ranch, adobe house, and to the city square, or zocala.
It was the Industrial Revolution that finally ended the thousands of years of the "timeless way". More than the mechanization it brought, it was the new world view that was to change our direction so completely. The Industrial Age ushered in a belief in mastery of nature by science and machines, and a change to a mass society. In terms off the home, the consequences were a move away from the individually craft-built houses in villages or small towns to uniform and anonymous urban dwellings close-packed around the factory, mill, or mine and, later, radiating outward from the city centre in great bands of suburbs. People were no longer involved in shaping or understanding, their own role in the wider environment.
Not only was the ecology of housing lost but health, long neglected in the home, became a major problem. It was not until mid 19th century reformers, such as William Cobbett, decried the appalling rural social conditions and Sir Edwin Chadwick surveyed those of the urban poor that large landowners and the British government were forced to realize that improvements must be made. Overcrowding, disease, lack of sanitation, and dark and airless conditions roused humanitarian feeling. Much of the impetus of the modern age has been a progressive struggle to remedy these ills -- a struggle only just beginning in many developing countries.
By the end of the 19th century, the evils of the machine age were being attacked by John Ruskin, William Morris, and others in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Its emphasis on craft revival, appropriate use of materials, and simple functional designs, although influential, looked back toward a medieval dream world and only catered for an aesthetic dike. But the domestic revival of older English styles, as at The Red House, Kent, built by architect Philip Webb for Morris, inspired many informal and comfortable country houses, later to be emulated by the inventive and picturesque mansions of Sir Edwin Lutyens. Interest in America's historic vernacular buildings was revived by the New England "Shingle Style" and in California by the Greene brothers with their love of crafted woods, such as the redwood Gamble House.
The romantic domestic style that flourished in England from the 1890s to 1914 was also the style adopted by the early garden cities and suburbs. Popularized by Ebenezer Howard's book Garden Cities of Tomorrow, the concept of building town-housing in green environments was adopted in the United States by Clarence Stein for such remarkable projects as Radburn, New Jersey. Health was one motivation behind the Garden City Movement, with its vision of families living in well-designed housing far away from city smoke. From Reston and Columbia in America to Welwyn Garden City and Milton Keynes in England, the vision has become a successful reality; but it takes more than a generation for a mature community to emerge, with a sense of home and locality.
Far from being hostile to the Industrial Age, the pioneer architects of the Modern Movement of the early 20th century were passionately inspired by it. They sought to destroy "dead styles" and find a new honesty, advocating an International Style. Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe were the new "gods" and their influence redirected mainstream architecture into radically opposite paths from those of the past. The new vocabulary -- flat roofs, plain surfaces, white cubist forms -- and such new materials as reinforced concrete, steel, and plate glass and glass blocks were used boldly and with deliberate disregard for local conditions. Rather than the house being part of the natural surroundings, it stood out or even "floated" above the ground on steel pilotis (columns) like some sort of machine.
Ecologically philistine, the Modern Movement expressed a new health awareness in its clean, light, and airy spates, sunny terraces resembling the decks of ocean liners, and its solaria, gymnasiums, and clean, minimally furnished interiors. Since World War II, the International Style has come to dominate our cities. But the high towering block replacing streets of small houses and gardens have been highly unpopular in many countries, and many have already been demolished. As we approach the 21st century, architects are fighting new style battles -- Post-Modern, Neo-Classical, or Neo-Vernacular -- while many of the general public are reverting to the familiar and nostalgic styles of the past.
One outstanding architect remained a strongly dissenting voice in the modern age. The houses of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright embodied the deeper ecological principles of natural building. He intended them to be at home in nature and grow "out of the ground and into the light". His concept of organic architecture not only meant design that worked with natural conditions but design that was an organic whole, like a living organism. Because it was "living", it was a dynamic process and for this reason he believed that "no organic building can ever be 'finished'" -- it continues to respond to its environment and its occupants. In his own book The Natural House he also emphasized the importance of integrity -- that a house should be "integral to site, integral to environment and integral to the life of the inhabitants".
Modern architecture, in losing connection with its roots in traditional building, has lost much -- the craft of materials, the understanding of climate and adaption to site, the sense of place and locality the spiritual links of home and family and community. Had it been Frank Lloyd Wright, rather than Le Corbusier, who became the model for our age our cities and homes would have developed in a very different direction over the past 60 years. Today, at last, there is a reawakening to the needs of communities and the natural environment.
While mainstream architecture and building turned a blind eye to ecology, new directions were being explored in other fields. The twin roots of modern eco-housing were the "conservation" movement and alternative, or "appropriate", technologies.
Concern for the protection of nature is very old, but until the 19th century it was usually the prerogative of princes. Then came the great American concern for the preservation of "wilderness", voiced by John Muir, with the founding of Yellowstone Park in 1872, the Sierra Club in 1892, and Britain's National Trust in the following year. The movement continued to grow and spread. In the 1960s, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring alerted the world to the dangers of pollution; the World Wildlife Fund (now the World wide Fund for Nature), Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace were founded. The household consumer was increasingly targeted in campaigns to save energy and water, recycle, and stop using harmful products. In the mid 1980s, planetary awareness awakened and the Gaia movement emerged, inspired by James Lovelock's Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. This book describes the Earth and all its life systems as an entity; Gaia (the ancient Greek Earth goddess), which is self-sustaining and has the characteristics of a living organism. The 1980s also saw the development of the concept of "deep ecology", and its concerns with a change of personal direction. In deep ecology, the house is seen as an micro-ecosystem, interacting with the wider ecosystem of Gaia.
Thinking of the house as an ecosystem seems to strike many people as something new and strange. But it is only a current way of expressing what people once knew instinctively. The very word ecology is derived from the Greek oikos, meaning house. In the study of ecology, animals and birds are all said to live in their own "habitats" and their lives, food, andnests are part of chains, or flows, of material and energy, each dependent on the other. An ecological balance exists, since all these interactions contribute to maintaining a dynamic equilibrium. In the past, our houses used to be more closely part of the local ecosystem -- built of local materials, dependent on local energy, food, and water, and recycling wastes locally. But today, in suburbs and cities, we need to relearn this and apply it in the urban setting: making the most of the shelter from surrounding buildings, planting vegetation, and adapting for solar heating and cooling, and recycling systems.
The search for alternative, ecologically based technologies is also old. Many attempts have, for example, been made to harness the sun's energy using scientific principles. In the 1880s, the printing press of Le Journal Soleil was powered by a solar steam engine and in 1908 Frank Schuman, an American scientist-inventor, devised a prototype "flat plate" collector -- the basis of solar panels used today. For the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, the Keck brothers designed the "Crystal House" -- a show house with walls of glass and heat-absorbing masonry. In France, the architect Felix Trombe devised a glass and masonry solar wall, while from 1939 to 1961 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology systematically researched and developed solar design in their four experimental campus houses. At this time, too, the unique inventor-philosopher Buckminster Fuller pioneered startling house technologies, from the factory-made Dymaxion House to geodesic domes or "space frames" -- fertile ideas for eco-design.
In the 1960s, it was only the solar pioneers such as Dr George Lof who actually lived in solar houses -- the others were used as laboratories. Then, as he said, "there were nine solar buildings in the world, including my own house". But the 1973 oil crisis triggered the building of hundreds of solar homes, especially in the United States, as well as renewing interest in conserving and alternative technologies generally. These were then adopted by owner-builders such as Ken Kern and the emerging communal groups. Steve Baer built his dome cluster New Mexico house with its water-drum walls and insulating rooflight "skylids"; the Farallones Institute, Berkeley with the eco-architect Sim van der Ryn created the "integral urban house". In 1974 E. F. Schumacher's book Small is Beautiful was published, providing a philosophy for self-sufficiency. In Wales, The Centre for Alternative Technology became a show centre and self-sufficient community to popularize "soft" energy and recycling systems. And among people concerned for the developing world, the movement for Intermediate Technology began to develop locally appropriate building techniques and energy systems based on wind, water, biomass, and solar designs. Many research groups on eco-housing were set up in the 1980s and 90s and many demonstration projects were built. The Rocky Mountain Institute Visitor Center, Florida House, Toronto Healthy House, Earth Smart Home (Oregon) Eco Home (Los Angeles) Earthways (Missouri) and Eco House (Bristol, England) are good examples.
Alongside these developments comes a renewed interest traditional building materials -- stone, brick, and wood, as well as earth strawbale and clay -- and in building with waste materials, from car tyres and bottles to paper, board, and straw. The use of recycled-content materials from carpets to tiles and reclaimed wood has also seen a rapid growth. There has been a revival, too, of earth-sheltered homes. Architects Sydney and David Baggs in Australia. Arthur Quarmby in England, and Malcolm Wells in the United states, have all built attractive and energy-efficient homes.
Permaculture and ecological design concepts and practices are spreading. Many exciting projects integrate eco-homes with food-producing organic gardens and sustainable communities. Co-housing, eco-villages and eco-city movements are gaining in popularity too.
The healthy house
The effects of toxins inside the home, as well as those exported from it as pollutants, are an increasing concern of the ecology movements. Until recently, most people in the West felt their homes were healthy -- much healthier than in the past -- and that this had been achieved by modern technology. But we are now facing problems caused by the very technology that was designed to improve our lives -- the puzzling "Sick Building Syndrome", badly polluted air and drinking water, chemical vapours, and synthetic building materials, and fields from electrical supply and appliances all make us worried about just how healthy our houses really are. The flourishing alternative health movement has begun to spill over into housing and lifestyle. Western consumers are turning to new diets, fitness regimes, and self care health and they are increasingly aware of chemical triggers in the environment as the source of disease or allergy.
The disciplines of clinical ecology and environmental medicine reflect growing research evidence that illness is often attributable to environmental Factors. In 1980, Dr Alfred V Zamm alerted the American public to hazards in their homes with his book Why Your House May Endanger Your Health. Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) is now a recognized medical condition. Allergy sufferers and concerned consumers in North America are seeking out and campaigning for safer alternatives. Debra Dadd-Redalia's books offer choices to the new consumer, while further guidance is given in John and Lynn Bower's The Healthy House Institute. The most advanced movement at present is that developed in German-speaking countries. Born of disenchantment with much post-war building, awareness of "green" issues, and concern about synthetic building materials, Baubiologie (building biology) is a wholly new concept in architecture. It combines a scientific approach with a holistic view of the relationship between people and their buildings. The house is compared with an organism and its fabric to skin -- a third skin, which, like our own skin (and our clothes, the second skin), fulfils essential living functions: protecting, insulating, breathing, absorbing, evaporating, regulating, and communicating. Baubiologie aims to design buildings that meet our physical, biological, and spiritual needs. Their fabric, services, colour, and scent must interact harmoniously with us and the environment. This constant exchange between inside and outside depends on a transfusive skin to maintain a healthy "living" indoor climate.
Many modern homes are now sealed units and have thus become sick. Plastic vapour barriers, concrete floors, airtight windows and doors, insulation foam, and impermeable layers of plastic paints and adhesives, all wrap-up the building so tightly that it cannot breathe. Being a sealed system, it traps stale air and chemical vapours inside until they reach concentrations that can cause disease. The natural materials we used in the past have largely been replaced by, or treated with, synthetics. Not only do these emit potentially harmful vapours, you usually cannot recycle them, and so such materials add to the burden of pollution.
Baubiologie has reintroduced traditional, natural materials and building methods, such as solid-timber frames, clay blocks with lime mortar and plaster, and earth building and grass roofs, often improved by recent research. The materials are handled with great sensitivity, all the paints, treatments, and finishes are organic, and colour and light are consciously used for health. It employs techniques from eco-architecture for heating and ventilation by natural systems, together with older traditions, such as the German tile oven. And it seeks to site the house and design the interior in recognition of our links with nature and our spiritual wellbeing.
Sitting and design are also influenced by the potential dangers of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and static, both from high-voltage power lines and from domestic electricity, appliances, and synthetic materials. EMF radiation emanates from the ground, too, and when disturbed by underground faults and streams it can be a source of a disease known as geopathic stress. Homes with steel frames, reinforced concrete, and pipes and ducts, may act like a cage to block out or disturb energy fields that are beneficial to us. Indeed, Baubiologie sees our health as dependent on our contact with the normal ambient energy levels of the Earth. Ground surveys, which may include information derived from dowsing and examining plants and trees, are used to map energy zones.
Divining and dowsing have been studied by German scientists since the 1920s, when some illnesses were first linked with ground radiation. Since then Dr Manfred Curry and Dr Ernst Hartmann have proposed that EM from the ground runs in a grid or net, and sites where two grids cross are the most hazardous to personal health.
Reaching back to Goethe's humanitarianism and love of nature, and to the holistic health approach of Rudolf Steiner, Baubiologie has affinities with deep ecology. A major pioneer is Professor Anton Schneider who set up his Institute for Building Biology and Ecology in 1976 in West Germany Today, there are many biological architects and specialist suppliers in German-speaking countries Elsewhere, Helmut Zeihe heads the United States institute of Baubiologie in Florida. Reinhard Kanuka-Fuchs directs the New Zealand institute, and Sydney Baggs uses Baubiologie in Australia.
Baubiologie combines many old traditions with a fresh, new approach. It teaches a gentle art of building that brings balance and harmony to people, buildings, and nature. The insights of Baubiologie are increasingly being incorporated in natural architecture and building, and today's pioneering architects often draw on a new spiritual awareness, too. Many have been inspired by the vision of Gaia and already there are Gaia architectural groups springing up around the world.
The spiritual house
Apart from the obvious need to live in homes that are healthy for the body, there is the much older and deeper desire to dwell in a place that is healthy for the mind and spirit. The spiritual aspects are the most important for indigenous peoples. There are many accounts of how they fall ill or even die if forced to leave their ancestral homes. The modern break up of a community and its dispersal into disconnected "domestic islands" and anonymous housing produces similar alienation, stress, family breakdown, and illness and again can even be fatal. Our links with the earth, the spiritual community, and natural places are being lost and forgotten throughout the world today. In the increasingly rootless Western society, these links must be recreated if we are to be truly well.
To indigenous peoples, the whole land is home. As Sir Laurens van der Post has recorded so vividly in his accounts of the Bushmen of the Kalahari, the understanding of the land and how it is used is based on fundamental spiritual beliefs reaching far back to their creation myths. The land is not merely property to be owned, but a spiritual landscape to be honoured in the image of ancestors and heroes. For first peoples, this spiritual world can operate on many different levels: from the cosmic heavens and depths of the earth to the tribal village and family house. The symbolism may take the form of fashioning the land and the home after the primordial house built by the first couple, for example, or it may represent the shapes of the human body or spiritual beasts.
These anthropomorphic or zoomorphic models are also used to divide the home into male and female parts. The complementary forces of opposites are combined -- sky and earth, sun and moon, dark and light, fire and water, and so on. At the centre is the place of power and worship -- the altar or sacred tree -- and in the home -- the shrine, hearth or granary. Every part of the home can extend these symbols: the roof as sky or heavens; the door az mouth to another world; the window as eyes of perception; and water as female procreation. Careful choice of propitious site, orientation, and timing (of building), earth spirit offerings, and cleansing or blessing ceremonies before occupation all help to protect the home from malign forces and to integrate it into the community's spirit world.
In Hinduism, the primal energy flowing in the universe, earth and body, is known az prana. It is channelled along the energy network of the body -- the meridians -- and focused on energy centres, or chakras. The third chakra up the spinal cord is the hara, which corresponds with the solar plexus -- the main storage centre for prana. These energy centres also occur in the Earth and cosmos and are recognized in the Hindu system of sacred siting and building placement, known as Vastuvidya (or Vasta).
Another ancient system is feng shui, the Taoist art and science of auspicious siting and layout. Literally meaning "wind and water", it states that these forces help to determine health, prosperity, and good luck. Taoism seeks harmony via the natural "way" and feng shui finds harmonious places that have good ch'i, the vital life force or breath, and avoid sha, or "noxious vapours". This Earth ch'i influences the body's own ch'i to promote health and vitality. The use of feng shui in the planning of new buildings and adaptions has become increasingly popular in the West. Plants and water are used to reduce pollution and noise. The careful placement of furniture, lighting, mirrors, and wind chimes all promote good ch'i.
North European paganism and ancient native American beliefs also sought accord with the natural order. The movement of the sun, moon, and stars and the building of complex observatories to record and predict the solstices and equinoxes underlay the division of time and determined the annual festivals. Solar geometry was the basis of the orientation of religious buildings and homes. In many cultures, locations with a great focus of energy are known to be "places of power" and reserved as holy sites; but they are also mirrored in the home. To the ancient Greeks, the sacred centre of Earth energy, equivalent to the body's hara, was known as the omphalos or navel of the world. The foundation stone represented the omphalos, and the birth of the building. Foundation rituals formally asked the Earth Mother to allow the building on the soil, to guard it, and to bring the occupants good fortune. In old Norse sagas, they built around a living tree making this a symbolic foundation with its roots anchored in the earth.
Today, a spiritual revival is reflected in many aspects of natural building. One of the first visionaries to bring sacred ecology into architecture was Paolo Soleri, who proposed his "arcology" in the 1960s. His city in the Arizona desert, Arcosanti, is a growing community today. British architect Keith Critchlow is a proponent of sacred geometry and the creation of a spiritual symbolism for the home. In his Lindisfarne Chapel in Crestone, Colorado, a millstone is placed at the centre to symbolize the fertility of the earth and the turning of the heavens. At the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, long a centre of holistic spirituality, a planetary eco-village has been built. "Organic" designers who use natural forms such as spirals, circles, and curves instead of straight lines and right angles have generated many diverse and exciting houses. Following on from Frank Lloyd Wright, architects such as Bruce Goff, Bart Prince, Mickey Muennig, Dan Lieberman and Douglas Cardinal have created many memorable projects in North America. Inspired by the anthroposophic philosophy and teachings of Rudolf Steiner, other architects and designers in Europe and North America -- incuding Christopher Day in Wales, Ton Alberts in the Netherlands, Imre Makovecz in Hungary, and Joachim Eble in Germany -- have produced beautiful and subtle buildings and interiors. Personal healing is another spiritual aspect of housing, as described by Carol Venolia in her book Healing Environments.
At a simpler, personal level, many people are turning to Eastern traditions of meditation and are creating spaces in the home for quiet and spiritual retreat. Most practising religious people of all faiths have always done this -- and cherished some sacred icon, cross, shrine, statue, or lighted lamp in the home. Even the most secular of homes may have its quiet garden or corner, its object of beauty, honouring this fundamental need.
The "right" place to live
Moving to another home or a new apartment or looking for a site to build a house obviously involves all the usual criteria of value for money and position in relation to work, schools, stores, and leisure facilities. But extra priorities will help you make your natural home healthy, conserving, and happy. On a practical level, this will usually mean minimizing the problems rather than finding the ideal place. Certain houses and locations may already have many of the essential ingredients and will, therefore, require less effort.
Whereas a country location may be best for health, it may be much less conserving than living in an urban location close to most of your needs. "Instead of thinking of going places, think in terms of being places" is the advice of Richard Register in his book Ecocity Berkeley.
Proximity reduces travel, commuting stress, and the need for a car. Moreover, the countryside is under increasing pressure from development. It is much more ecologically sensitive, therefore, to improve the environment of the cities we have and live better in them, rather than lose more countryside to yet more development.
Wherever you decide to live, before moving be sure to investigate the area thoroughly to find out what is there now and what plans there are for the future. Note sources of pollution and noise, such as nuclear/other power stations, factories, incineration plants, airports and flight paths, major highways, railways and parking lots, high-voltage power lines, and telecommunication transmitters (and the direction of prevailing winds that may transport pollution). Check if there is a radon problem and ask planning departments, environmental and consumer organizations and local people about the plans and policies for the area. Look for the positive natural living advantages, too -- neighbourhood recycling schemes, the amount of open space, public transport and cycle paths, pedestrianized roads, alternative therapy and arts centres, and sources of organic food and bulk supplies.
At the spiritual level, the most important thing is to spend a lot of time in the new location getting to know how it feels. Look at vegetation, orientation, and views and assess if you respond positively to what you see. In bioregionalism, which sees areas (including cities) as ecological habitats rather than administrative units, getting to know your home involves knowing the soil, the water sources, the air, the earth history, the flora and fauna, and even the stars. Some holistic architects now also spend much time assessing the client's profile before designing either a conversion or a new home. You may be asked to give a detailed picture of your life -- your preferences, aspirations, and beliefs. Seen as "healing architecture", the design and building process are therapies, too.
Whatever else you do, before starting on the road of choosing a particular site or adapting an older house, try to look at the following factors. Taking care now can give you a home that is closer to your ideal and amenable to local ecology, and so reduce the need for expensive compensatory work and an overconsuming lifestyle.
* Orientation to the sun and any obstructions (especially to winter sun). A city plot that is sun-facing at the back away from the street is preferable to allow for a solar greenhouse or sunspace addition, large solar windows, and solar panels, which local planning regulations may not permit at the front of a building. Find out if local regulations include "sun rights" that prevent you from being overshadowed by later neighbouring buildings or additions.
* Direction of the prevailing winds and seasonal temperature, or shielding by trees and landform in cold climates, which allow design for shelter, natural ventilation, and summer cooling features. To avoid city pollution and still be cool in summer, it is best to live on the sheltered, sun-facing slopes above valleys, or near the sea, or in apartments high above street level. For energy conservation in cold climates, choose a central apartment with others above and below, or a central house in a terrace (row). If you are building a new house, make it as compact as possible (a dome or cube shape is most conserving) and shelter it from prevailing winds. You should also consider an earth-sheltered construction and the use of "breathing" materials and systems.
* Ecology of the site, including vegetation topography, wildlife habitats, soil type, and groundwater, which must be considered if the house and garden arc to be integrated with the natural ecosystem and landscape of the location. Choose a site with as much ground as possible to allow for tree planting, which acts as a buffer against noise and pollution, and for creating an organic garden. Alternatively, consider a roof garden or a large balcony if you are in an apartment.
* Geobiology of site, including radon, high-voltage power lines, ground electromagnetic (EM) radiation, underground watercourses, and geological and subsoil formation. Have a specialist survey carried out to avoid a site with excess EM radiation and geopathic zones, but also to determine the presence of beneficial energy, areas. A professional dowser may be able to locate hazardous spots.
* Air and water (rainwater and drinking) quality and levels, and types and sources of pollutants. Assess if you and think filtration and purification treatments are necessary, and/or water conservation and rainwater collection.
* Local traditional building forms and styles and techniques. The home should harmonize both with neighbouring buildings as well as with its setting. If you are contemplating a new or extended construction take your lead from traditional local styles, skills, and experience.
Choosing a house or apartment
The construction and materials of the building itself are as important as its location. Most of us will be buying an existing house or apartment, and this can be a definite advantage -- particularly if it is old, since the reuse of a building is more conserving of natural resources and of the countryside. Also, houses built before the 1950s were made largely of stone, brick, or wood. An older structure is less likely to suffer from the problems associated with chipboard (particleboard) and plywood, which contain formaldehyde, of wood impregnated with pesticides, or of vinyl flooring and plastic finishes, which give off chemical fumes. Even an old building may have since been treated with chemicals or had asbestos installed -- but unless this happened recently it should not be a problem (and asbestos can be dealt with by experts). Damp and decaying wood can be cured with nontoxic methods now. But avoid cavity wall homes with urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI).
Other bonuses with older homes are that they are often more solidly built, with heavier materials, and so noise is usually less of a problem; spaces, too, are more generous and may still include larders (or pantries); and the quality of materials is superior.
To find a building that you can convert easily to a natural home, look out for the following:
* Chemical history -- find out about the types of treatments to timbers, insulation in walls, and damp injection. Lead paint may be present in older houses.
* Fuels -- avoid fixed oil storage tanks close to or within the house structure or integral garage. Find out annual fuel and electricity consumption.
* Materials, exterior, and interior -- look for thick walls and solid-wood floors, wallboarding, and cupboards and doors. For floors, advantageous materials include ceramic tile, cork, terrazzo, stone or brick. Avoid composite boards, hollow-core doors, and thin stud walls. Avoid asbestos, vinyl tiles, plastic surfaces, and foam-backed synthetic carpets.
* Spaces -- look for extra spaces, such as larders (or pantries), attics, basements, or outbuildings, to allow natural kitchen and health areas to be developed. Look for a garden, even if small, at the front as well as back, as a buffer against street noise and pollution, and for potential sunspace locations.
Our homes are reflections of ourselves -- or should be. But the whole conformity of the modern consumer society acts against this. We are bombarded with advertising images of "successful" lifestyles and fashionable surroundings, and encouraged to buy this image for ourselves in mass-produced goods and luxuries. When we are then disappointed and ill at ease with our homes, we frequently remodel their interiors and this dissatisfaction fuels our overconsuming society. Instead, the home should grow and reflect the increased richness of our experience, reminding us of our history and friends, our loves and interests, our own unique identity. Any room that has grown like this through a lifetime will show the richness of the owner's personality.
Cultures of the past, with less, or no, access to marketed design, created almost everything for themselves -- and every object (from patchwork quilts handed down through generations to hand-painted or carved furniture and interiors) reminded somebody of its making and its maker. Today, this individuality is returning as people try to rediscover the sense of self and place that has been lost. There is now more of an aspiration for a handbuilt home, personally designed and full of unusual and innovative ideas that blend old and modern technology, and forms. A new respect for the planet and its diversity of life, and for the skills and labour of people, is reflected in a preference for objects whose individual history we know (and know not to be harmful) rather than factory-made items about which there is nothing to know.
You can create a personal natural space in the smallest rented room or city apartment. Look for the right basic ingredients -- a room with sun and good daylight, solid materials, and a view of some greenery, away from a noisy and polluted street. Ask permission to remove anything toxic or synthetic, and then start introducing natural colour, scent, and sound -- with indoor plants, a window box with herbs and scented flowers, natural fabric wall hangings, and personal items.
The Gaia house
Many people have had visions of the house of the future. Modern ones are often of a complex technological world. Built of the latest plastic and synthetic materials, the house is controlled by computers that monitor all its systems and are programmed to cater to our every whim. Robots do all the work and shop by remote control. More akin to a space capsule designed to cope with a hostile environment than an earthly home, this house ignores people's emotional needs as well as the harsher realities of the coming world. We need the ground beneath our feet; and we are approaching not a brave new world but one of energy shortages, pollution, insecurity, crime, and a crisis of poverty and debt in the developing world.
Far from expensive technological dreams, we need a "down-to-earth" vision -- a future home integrated with a sustainable lifestyle for us all. Whether old or new future housing will need to employ life-support systems, materials, and spatial designs that meet the health, conservation, and spiritual criteria below More and more people are turning to such lifestyles and we need homes that support, rather than hinder, these new aims and priorities for living.
Adapting your home will be challenging -- it may cut across your habits, as well as surprise some of the conventions. But you should never consider it a restrictive chore. It should be fun, liberating, and stimulating and a process that allows your personal ideas to come to the fore. Only do what you are ready for and can carry through. Let your imagination go to work on the house that you would love to live in. Then you can experiment, sketch, or build models, test colours, lights, and fabrics and talk to local builders and craftspeople, before you commit yourself. Don't be talked out of your ideas by professionals unless you are certain the alternative is better. Once you have begun, like the Zen masters, take delight in every step.
Building new, adapting or renovating your Gaia house may give you the opportunity to live more independently or remotely. Technology for domestic solar, wind, and water power has come a long way. Using this, combined with high levels of insulation and new energy conserving windows, now makes it possible to be self-sufficient in electricity in towns or cities, or in remote areas. High levels of insulation in roof, walls and floor can be such to achieve what is called a "zero-energy" house. In a house of this type, the heat of the occupants, lights and appliances is enough to heat the house in winter, except for the coldest days when a small back-up stove, may be needed. A masonry stove is ideal for this. Good overall shading and high insulation will also reduce the size and use of the air-conditioning system in the summer.
The setting of the Gaia house is also important. Although you can build or adapt an individual house or apartment anywhere, it is worth considering some of the other exciting options that are available. If living within a more co-operative, friendly and supportive environment is for you then why not look into "Co-housing"? Originally started in Denmark in the 1970s, Co-housing is gaining in popularity in many countries. The idea is that a group of people get together to create their own environment. They find the land, build their own houses, decide what facilities they want and how common areas will be shared. Individual houses or apartments are built around a common house. This belongs to everyone, and has shared facilities such as large dining area, childrens' play area, and laundry. Decisions on the community are taken collectively and many shared activities are organized from child minding to eating together in the common dining room. Going beyond this, there are also a growing number of Gaia "eco-villages" around the world where housing, work, school, and food-growing are part of a vision of a new sustainable way of life. Many are inspired by Permaculture as a basis. Most are in out-of-town locations but there are plans to bring this idea into towns and cities by gradually transforming city blocks and suburban neighbourhoods into eco-communities.
A Gaia house can be any style -- traditional or modern -- but it can also be a chance to be more personal and individualistic in your design. It might be a time to move away from mainly straight lines and right angles. You could go for a more "organic" design (there are many examples in the Introduction). Designing organically means not only taking more care to harmonize the house with the site, but also experimenting with different shapes, forms and materials. You don't have to go overboard though. Just incorporating a few gentle angles and curves into part of the design will give the interior or exterior a more flowing and natural appearance. For organic design with a strong philosophical content, there is Steiner-inspired anthroposophist design. But whatever approach you choose, be aware that like any design, there's good and bad organic design. Even if you are building for yourself, it may be best to employ an experienced organic designer and view some of his or her work first. There is also the problem of neighbours and the authorities. Unless you are lucky enough to live in a secluded site, you will probably have to gain permission for any unusual design to the exterior of the house. Check the local situation first. However, there is always the interior, if your creative urges are blocked outside!
The Gaia house charter
Design for harmony with the planet
* Site, orient, and shelter the home to make best and conserving use of renewable resources. Use the sun, wind, and water for all or most of your energy needs and rely less on supplementary, nonrenewable energy.
* Use "green" materials and products nontoxic, nonpolluting, sustainable, and renewable, produced with low energy and low environmental and social costs, and biodegradable or easily reused and recycled.
* Design the house to be "intelligent" in its use of resources and complement natural mechanisms, if necessary with efficient control systems to regulate energy, heating, cooling, water, airflow, and lighting.
* Integrate the house with the local ecosystem, by planting indigenous tree and flower species. Compost organic wastes, garden organically, and use natural pest control -- no pesticides. Recycle "greywater" and use low-flush or waterless toilets. Collect, store, and use rainwater.
* Design systems to prevent export of pollution to the air, water, and soil.
Design for peace for the spirit
* Make the home harmonious with its environment -- blending in with the community, the building styles, scale, and materials around it.
* Participate with others at every stage, using the personal ideas and skills of all in order to seek a holistic, living design.
* Use proportions, forms, and shapes that are harmonious, creating beauty and tranquillity.
* Use colours and textures of natural materials and natural dyes, paints, and stains to create a personal and therapeutic colour environment.
* Site and design the house to be life enhancing, and increase the wellbeing or the vital life force, ch'i, of its occupants.
* Connect the home with Gaia and the natural world and the rhythms and cycles of the Earth, its seasons, and its days.
* Make the home a healing environment in which the mind and spirit can be free and flourish.
Design for health of the body
* Create a healthy indoor climate by allowing the house to "breathe", and use natural materials and processes to regulate temperature, humidity, and air flow and quality.
* Site the home away from harmful EM radiation from power lines and also away from negative ground radiation. Design to prevent the build-up of static and EM F from domestic equipment, and to avoid interference with beneficial cosmic and terrestrial radiation.
* Provide safe and healthy air and water, free from pollutants (radon especially), with good humidity, negative-ion balance, and pleasant fragrance from herbs, materials, and polishes. Use natural air flow and ventilation.
* Create a quiet home, protected and insulated from external and internal noise, and a pleasant, sound-healthy environment.
* Design to allow sunlight and daylight to penetrate, and thus rely less on artificial lighting.
Design for a Gaia house
This design is a prototype for the concept of the Gaian house, incorporating the new criteria that will have to be increasingly part of future housing. It could be a detached house in the country or, as here, an urban terrace; it could, of course, be a new house but, perhaps more important for most people, it could easily be a gradual adaptation of an older one.
On the street-side of the building, trees, shrubs, grass mounds, and dense wall creepers (and perhaps a grass roof) all offer protection from cold winds, traffic noise, and pollution. On the rear, sun-facing side, a two-storey sunspace is a pleasant place in which to sit and relax.
The house is free of toxins, built, furnished, and insulated with natural materials. The walls, roof, floors, and the inner surfaces and finishes are all porous and allow the house to breathe. The heating (and cooling) relies as much as possible on natural mechanisms, with solar gain from the large sunspace and solar collectors on the roof. Back-up heat is provided by a high-efficiency boiler sited in the basement, with a central heat and services core running up the whole house. The core also ventilates and cools the house in summer. All excess heat is circulated and stored in deep rock beds under the house.
Human and kitchen organic wastes are collected and processed in a composter in the basement for use in the garden and greenspaces. Other wastes are presorted into bins and recycled, as is the "greywater". A larder or pantry is a cool store for fresh vegetables and bulk dry goods. The bathroom has a deep tub for soaking and a greenhouse window. In the loft, a quiet meditation space extends on to a balcony overlooking the tranquil garden.