The Natural House Catalog: Everything You Need to Create an Environmentally Friendly Home

The Natural House Catalog: Everything You Need to Create an Environmentally Friendly Home


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684801988
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: 01/01/1996
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 8.29(w) x 9.66(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


This chapter is about the whole house, its materials and construction, its siting and planning. When faced with creating a house that is environmentally sound and healthy, there is a confusing array of choices. Where should I site the house? Do I use this or that material? What would be the best type of home to build — should it be brick or timber construction, and what about earth and straw-bale? Where can I source the right materials and advice? Should I build a new house or retrofit an older property?

Starting with the home site, this chapter gives you introductory guidance on how to analyze the basic local conditions you will need to work with — climate, soil, and water. Via Permaculture, you can transform your garden and backyard into a productive and sustainable asset. Other, less well understood aspects of the site include being sensitive to the subtle ground energies beneath your home, and being aware of the ancient principles of Feng Shui and how they help to orient, lay out, and furnish your home.

Your natural home design should balance the environment, health, and spirit. If you neglect any of these or give undue emphasis to any one over another your home cannot be expected to reach its full potential as a healthy, harmonious, and ecologically sound environment. To reach a balanced approach, follow the practical advice on creating healthy homes plus the inspiring options for organic and spiritual designs.

The choice of building materials and construction methods is very diverse and much will depend on the vernacular traditions of your area, as well as on your budget. Older traditions have often been replaced with newer nationwide anonymous alternatives: a house on the East Coast may be built of much the same materials as one on the West Coast. It is always worth finding out if some of the rediscovered methods such as earth building or straw bales could be used. These may make a more sensible, affordable, and sustainable alternative for you. There can be pitfalls in using natural materials, just as there are with synthetic conventional materials, but proper advice and the latest environment-friendly technology can help you use natural materials wisely.

The growing use of reclaimed materials represents one positive step forward. Rehabbing or retrofitting an older property (rather than building new), combined with the reuse of as many locally salvaged and recycled materials as possible, is both resource-efficient and affordable. Before buying new products, even if they are billed "green", first look for reclaimed products locally. Every time you do this you will be taking pressure off the environment and saving energy and pollution at the same time.

When you walk into a well-designed natural home, you are immediately aware of something different and special. You feel more alive and positive. The air is refreshing and you can breathe freely; there is plenty of natural daylight and you feel awake; colors, forms, and spaces invigorate and relax you. A natural house is a home fit for all the senses, and a home in complete harmony with you and with the environment.


Meaning literally "wind water", Feng Shui is the ancient Chinese art, and science of placement. Akin to geomancy, which is known in many cultures, it aims to bring human an beings into a harmonious relationship with the universe through appropriate siting, landscaping, architecture, and interior design. Taoism, on which it is based, seeks harmony by following the "natural" way. Feng Shui locates places of harmony with good ch'i, the vital life force or cosmic breath, and avoids sha, or "noxious vapors". It is an extension of oriental healing practices such as acupuncture, tai chi and meditation, all of which help to balance female Yin and male Yang elements and revitalize the ch'i of body and soul.

Using Feng Shui

Feng Shui is increasingly relevant today. In Hong Kong designers and occupants of public buildings, offices, and homes make use of a Feng Shui consultant to advice on proposals for new buildings and changes to those in use. In fact, without Feng Shui no business or home in the area would expect to have health, prosperity, or good luck. Many of today's Feng Shui skills are devoted to curing modern ills such as noise polution, overshadowing, and lack of light — the "noxions rapers" of urban apartments and offices. Among devices used to fend these off are plantings, water features, mirrors, flower arrangements, mobiles, and crystals. Fundamental changes may also be recommended, such as reorienting a room's layout and furniture, adapting rooms to have a greater harmony and symmetry of shape and form, or re-siting various activities in different locations altogether.

Various introductory books and courses are available or you may wish to contact a trained Feng Shui consultant.

Geomagnetic fields

The Earth has natural terrestrial magnetic fields to which all life has been attuned for eons. Known as the Schumann frequency, the Earth's natural beat is at a rate of 7.83 per second (7.83 Hz). Building biologists consider that it is essential for our health and well-being to maintain our exposure to this natural frequency. One problem occurs through the many artificial electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in today's homes created by the plethora of electrical circuits and equipment. These are mainly generated by alternating currents (AC) at a frequency in North America of 60 cycles a second (60 Hz), causing continual disturbance to the earth's natural rhythms. Subterranean geological features such as rock fissures, water courses, and variations in rock type and sub-soil also cause natural distortions to the Earth's magnetic field. Areas where these occur are called geopathic zones (geo=earth, pathic=disease). Long-term exposure to these zones (such as sleeping in a bed over them), plus exposure to artificial EMFs, microwaves, and other sources, is claimed to cause geopathic stress. This, added to the other stresses on our bodily systems caused by pollution, can increase the risk of disease, possibly even cancer.

Dowsers and building biologists offer ground surveys and house inspection services that help to locate geopathic zones. They can then advise on the best ways to avoid and protect against them.


Wherever you decide to live, ask yourself some detailed questions about the site. As well as finding out about amenities, sources of pollution and noise, and plans and policies for the area, try to build up a profile of the geologic features, soil types, and microclimate. Understanding these factors will allow you to produce a responsive design that works for your particular environment.

The elevation and orientation of your site are important and the microclimate will be affected by its position (for example whether on a hillside or in a valley), by the direction and force of the prevailing winds, by seasonal temperatures, and average hours of sunshine. You must also analyze local vegetation, so that your landscape will be a natural part of its environment. Detailed soil analysis can provide vital information about the geology of your site, and it is important to know your local water courses.

Soil analysis

Whether you plan to use the site soil to construct a building, to grow food, or to develop into a natural garden, you need to know your soil.

Soil is a mixture of mineral particles, organic matter, air, water, and living organisms. The nature of the underlying rock largely determines the type of soil formed above it by the action of roots, animals, and the weather. Soils can be sandy, clay, or silty, depending on the type of particles.

The acid-alkaline balance, or pH, of the soil is important in allowing plants to absorb mineral nutrients. The lower the pH, the more acid the soil. The best pH for garden plants in temperate soils is 6.5, although 5.5 to 7.5 is adequate for most. Various sampling and testing kits are available to check your soil or you can use a consultant to provide an analysis of nutrients in your soil.

Water analysis

The position of a site in the watershed is of major concern whether you want to harness water for its energy, drink the water, or avoid adding pollutants to any watercourse. Knowing where your water comes from, and where it goes to, is fundamental in planning harmonious construction. You need to discover if there any underground watercourses, and analyze any groundwater problems. It is vital to ensure good drainage for your site.

If there is a water source nearby find out if is it constant, or if you will need to implement water conservation and rainwater collection. You need to test water quality to assess any need for filtration and purification.

Finding out

Neighbors are a good initial source of information about prevailing weather conditions locally. Local high schools and colleges will probably have weather records, or contact the local weather station for access to their records. Another good source is the local newspaper; find out where their weather information comes from.


The need for small-scale, sustainable agriculture at the end of the twentieth century underlies the principles of permaculture. Pioneered in the 1970s by two Australians, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, permaculture aims to design "an integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animals species useful to man." Permaculture designs form complete, sustainable, low-energy, high-yield agricultural systems that can be adapted to suit any climate. The system is based on the idea that humans are stewards of the earth and must plan long-term solutions to feeding the population without further damage to the planet. Permaculture is closely related to the Edible Landscape movement.

Working with nature

The main principle of permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature. Permaculture systems are constructed to last as long as possible, with minimal maintenance. Systems are typically fueled by sun, wind, or water, and produce enough for their own needs and those of the humans controlling or creating them. In this way, they are sustainable. When designing and constructing a permaculture system, make sure the system will store or conserve more energy in its lifetime than you will use in its construction and maintenance.

Plants in a permaculture system should be as diverse as possible. This ensures that invasions of pests never reach epidemic proportions as they can do under mono-cultural systems. Where possible, maintain local diversity by choosing plants specifically suited to your particular bioregion, and make sure of maximum health and production by opting for companion planting.

Permaculture followers do not just take resources from the environment, they also put them back through positive interaction with nature.

Permaculture design principles

You must work with nature, rather than against it, for you are part of it. Rather than applying chemical pesticides, encourage natural predators. The more we try to fight nature and do things differently, the more nature will fight back. Permaculture believes you should see every problem as its own potential solution. Instead of trying to change something that looks like a problem, see it as a potential benefit and use it as such. If, for example, your site has strong cold winds, use a wind generator and channel the cold air into a cold storage room.

Often the smallest changes have the greatest possible effects. Pollarding and coppicing will produce much more timber than felling trees, and raised beds can be at least as productive as, and less disruptive than, deep digging. Another principle is that the yield of a system is limited only by your imagination and knowledge, not by other people's prescriptions.

You can use observations about other species' effects on habitats and systems to influence your own actions. A properly managed poultry system is a good example of permaculture in practice: the heat naturally produced by chickens might be used to heat a greenhouse to grow fruit and vegetables; chickens will peck out weeds, eat insect pests, and provide eggs and meat. Such a system can be self-fueling, self-regulating, and satisfying.

Forest gardening

The principles of forest gardening echo those of permaculture. Widespread in some upland areas of India, a forest garden is a sustainable mini-forest, requiring minimal maintenance and providing fruit, nuts, root and perennial vegetables, and herbs throughout the growing system. It is an intensive and sustainable land use, appropriate for urban or rural areas.


We want our homes and household practices to be in harmony with the environment. Yet an average US household discards 1800 plastic items, 13,000 individual paper items, 500 aluminum cans, and 500 glass bottles annually. As for garbage — calculated over a lifetime, an individual will throw away around 600 times their own weight! Worse, domestic consumption is a linear one-way process which takes from the environment without giving anything back. Clean tap water, used once, is polluted with chemicals and flushed down the drain to distant sewage treatment plants. Valuable energy generated from non-renewable fossil fuels (gas, coal and oil) is wasted powering inefficient lights and electrical equipment, and on heating and cooling under-insulated and poorly weatherproofed homes. Even the materials we use to build and maintain our homes take too much energy to make and transport. We must change from one-way to cyclic processes that reuse and recycle resources and use them with economy and efficiency.

Design for harmony with the planet

Site, orient, and shelter your home to make the best conservative 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. These should be non-toxic, non-polluting, sustainable and renewable, produced With low energy and low environmental and social costs, and biodegradable.

Use resources intelligently to complement natural mechanisms. Use sensitive and 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, always garden organically, and use natural pest control — no pesticides. Recycle graywater and use low-flush or waterless toilets. Collect, store, and use rainwater (see Chapter Three).

Find out exactly how much energy and water you are using at present, and how much garbage you are throwing away. Survey each room (and the yard) to assess where these resources are being used. List and prioritize your ideas for reducing consumption and waste. Gain advice from utility companies, act on this, and monitor utility bills to check that reductions are being achieved. Remember at every stage to reuse, repair, and recycle.

What sort of house?

Domes and circular buildings may conserve the greatest amount of materials and heat because they have the least surface area to volume, but small compact homes built in protected locations are also very economical. Even better, homes situated in apartment blocks or row housing will benefit from the shelter and insulation of their neighbors. And, close proximity to workplace and local community activities is a key factor in conserving time, energy, and human resources.


Today's "soft energy" technology allows you to unplug from utilities and live in an autonomous or "independent home", (see Chapter Two) or an "Earthship" which provides for all your needs on site. Digging the house into the ground or using earth-sheltered walls and roofs (sod roofs) makes real sense in harsher climates such as hot semi-desert areas or cold northern regions. Designed properly, underground homes are extremely comfortable, have little or no visual impact on the environment, and use minimal energy for heating or cooling.


The National Research Council estimates that around 15% of the US population experiences environmental illness and hypersensitivity to toxic materials and chemicals. The National Academy of Sciences expect this to rise to 60% by 2010. The Environmental Protection Agency has found indoor pollution levels 100 times greater than those outside.

Alfred V. Zamm's Why Your House May Endanger Your Health (1980), was one of the first popular books to alert the public to the potential health hazards that lay in and around their homes. He charted the enormous rise in synthetic chemicals since World War II and described how they had permeated almost everything in the home and the environment beyond. He also warned of the explosion in artificial sources of radiation and electromagnetism affecting the home. Since then, concern has grown as studies have confirmed that many homes are indeed unhealthy.

Air pollution

Indoor pollution has many sources. These include air pollution from combustion gases (carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide) and smoke particles arising from burning fuels in open fires, stoves, furnaces, and cookers. Natural gases can be a problem; in certain areas radon seeps up from the ground and is carried in water and some building materials; ozone is emitted from photocopiers and brush-type motors.

Perhaps the most pernicious are the diverse and growing group of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which "outgas" (give off harmful vapors at room temperature). These include formaldehyde found in certain interior and building boards, furnishings, carpets, clothing, and bedding, and, until banned, in UFFI cavity insulation. Then come the organochlorines and phenols found in a host of common household items such as synthetic plastic products, carpets and furnishing, stain-resistant and other special finishes, paint solvents, adhesives, wood preservatives, household cleaners, polishes, air fresheners, and insecticides.

Added to this are particles, fibers and dust from asbestos (now banned), microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, molds, spores, and pollen) in the air, and trace elements from metals such as lead, aluminum, copper, mercury, and cadmium.

Light and water problems

Lack of sufficient natural daylight in our homes and workplaces, especially in winter, and our reliance on artificial light has been shown to contribute to lethargy and depression.

Domestic water is often polluted with toxic chemicals such as chlorine and nitrates and may contain trace elements of metals. Radon gas can be transported through your water supplies and released from tap water far from the original source.


The trend to increased energy efficiency led, at first, to our homes becoming increasingly airtight and sealed off from the outside without adequate ventilation. This allowed high and often toxic concentrations of indoor air pollutants to build up. This problem has now become more generally understood and better ventilation systems are being built into newer homes. But be aware of this hazard in older homes that have been retrofitted and "super-insulated" to make them more energy-efficient. Check that your home allows sufficient ventilation. Keep your house healthy as well as energy-efficient.


These days we are surrounded by electrical equipment, TVs, computers, and microwave cookers. This leads to concern about "electrostress" (the possible harmful effects of our long-term exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and radiation) from domestic equipment and other sources. The presence of harmful "ground energies" and "geopathic stress" (their negative effects) are becoming more widely recognized when siting a new home and positioning furniture, particularly beds, in a beneficial location. Dowsers using simple divining rods or modem electrical detectors, can give guidance on ground energies; so too can practitioners of the ancient Chinese art of placement — Feng Shui.


The package of hazards described on the facing page, plus their effects on people, have come to be known as "Sick Building Syndrome. Fortunately, not every home has all these problems. However, you may be surprised to find quite a number of potential health hazards in your home. So what should you do? The basic strategy is to identify potential hazards, and then minimize or eliminate them. Try doing a room-by-room hazard survey of your home yourself. Various publications, including The Natural House Book can help you evaluate problems, or you can employ professionals.

Clinical ecology

In general, it is wise to lessen your exposure to synthetic chemicals, EMFs and, of course, radiation. Everyone has different reactions to such exposures; some people apparently suffer no ill effects to exposures well over current government permitted limits, while others react violently to only minute exposures. Such variations are the subject of clinical ecology. Some hazards, such as secondary cigarette smoke, asbestos, and radiation, may take years to show their effects. Vital to all this is the level and period of exposure. As the saying goes, "The poison is the dose". So, as well as identifying a possible hazard, you need to know if you, or members of your household, are allergic or chemically hypersensitive to certain substances. If you suffer from persistent allergies, consult a qualified clinical ecologist.


One of the most interesting developments in the philosophy and practice of healthy building is a movement started by medical doctors in Germany some 20 years ago. Termed "Baubiologie" or Building Biology, it is concerned not only with how buildings and their environments impact on our health, but also with the more positive emphasis of the holistic interaction between human life and our living environment. Every aspect of design and building has been studied afresh and fundamentally reassessed from the point of view of how to build in a healthier way. Fresh air, pure water, natural materials, generous daylight, equitable temperatures and humidity, EMF protection and beneficial siting to avoid harmful ground energies are all aims of healthy building, Baubiologie-style.

Wider environmental concerns about pollution and waste are also embraced to balance Baubiologie with ecology. These ideas are gaining ground in North America via publications, advisory and educational organizations, and projects.

Creating healing environments

Essential as it is to minimize and eliminate environmental hazards, if this approach is taken too far it can foster a rather negative approach, one preoccupied with problems of pollution and their avoidance. Over recent years, there has been a reaction in North America, and elsewhere, to move beyond this. Many people now prefer to think (and act) in a positive and proactive way about how they can create a home that is not only non-toxic, but one that is harmonious and therapeutic — a healing environment. This involves a personal re-evaluation of the elements of space, form, color, light, scent and sound and the use of their rejuvenating qualities to make your home more life-enhancing for body and soul. A key aspect of this is connecting your home with the natural world by using plants, encouraging wildlife habitats, and acknowledging the seasons.


The outstanding exponent of organic design in North America is undoubtedly Frank Lloyd Wright. Following in the paths of America's great nature poets and writers such as Emerson, Muir, Thoreau, and Whitman, Frank Lloyd Wright was an ardent lover and observer of nature.

The forces and forms of nature completely captivated him and and emerged as inspirations for his plans, building materials, furnishings, and decorative motifs. Bold spreading cantilevers, arching domes, shimmering skylights, geometric glass designs and delicate patterned screens resemble branching trees, thrusting plant stems, seedheads, and reflections in ponds. The textures and finishes of walls contrast the roughness of rocks, and tree bark with the smoothness of wood grain and river sand. Fallingwater, Wingspread, Hollyhock House and Wright's own Taliesin, among his many other masterpieces, stand as testament to Wright's genius for organic architecture and love of nature.

American organic heritage

Wright has inspired a number of talented American architects and designers. Among the better known are Bruce Golf, Arthur Dyson, Bart Prince, Ken Kellog, and James Hubble plus the Native American Indian architect, Douglas Cardinal. Each has developed a personal interpretation of organic design and created beautiful, unique, and memorable projects. If you want to explore the organic approach, books are available and some architects specialize in this form of design.

Alternatively, you may wish to create and build to your own designs. Get structural advice to ensure that all unconventional roof and wall forms, plus any cantilevers, are adequately constructed and supported. As organic designs are unusual and will probably be something quite new in your area, discuss your plans at an early stage with local government offices to check if special approval will be needed.

Anthroposophic design

A separate root of organic design in Europe and North America is inspired by the anthroposophic philosophy and teachings of Rudolf Steiner. Anthroposophic architects and designers believe that our surroundings affect us physically and spiritually; they can either desensitize us morally and socially or positively support the inner processes of growth that are the foundation of health.

People's physical and spiritual needs are the starting points for a Steiner-inspired building. Designed with love and heart, a building will strengthen our attitude towards life and help our natural self-healing processes. When this approach is developed organically in the building design, it enlivens and delights all the senses - sight, scent, sound, and touch.

Steiner building principles

Straight lines and right angles are thought to constrain and cramp body and spirit so they are avoided or softened by other angles and curvilinear shapes. Organic room shapes are complemented with sensitive contrasting qualities of light. Transparent color glazes also give a special luminous and living atmosphere to the interiors. Pure water and clean air are important, supplied by subtle purification and ventilation systems.

The spirit of water is ever-present in and around the buildings via water sculptures and cascading water "flowforms". Luxuriant indoor planting, outdoor courtyards, and natural gardens complete these practical and truly holistic organic designs.


Besides organic design, there are many ways you can begin Your pilgrimage to find and make your spiritual home. The choice will ultimately depend on what has personal meaning for you. You may have strong beliefs centered on one of the established religions. Ecospiritualism has been embraced by some faiths and this may be your natural starting point. Many people feel, however, that the deeper healing and spiritual role of the home was better understood by older cultures and beliefs, and that valuable clues for modern life can be obtained through studying the remains of these cultures.

American Indians

Native North American Indian traditions can help us to reach a deeper understanding of our role in nature. To gain insight into their beliefs and lives, and the lessons they can teach us today, visit the many fascinating exhibits, museums and reconstructed buildings in State and National parks and the communities of the Pueblo Indians and the Navajo Nation (see Publications in The Directory, Part Two).

Spiritual influences

The influence of Eastern philosophies and religions as a gateway to inner and outer harmony can be found via practices such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, and acupuncture. Chinese and Japanese cultures continue to inspire the West with the beauty and simplicity of their traditional artifacts, houses and gardens.

Sacred geometry and "divine" proportions derived from European architecture, ancient Hindu vedic building knowledge called Sthapatya-Ved, and Chinese Feng Shui can all guide us toward more harmonious designs. The inspiring writings of architect and teacher Christopher Alexander also help us see the timeless universality of spaces, forms, and details in building patterns and language.

We should all try to re-sensitize ourselves to the spirit of place. This is equally important when looking at a simple and peaceful garden in town as when considering the earth energy of a mountain vortex in Sedona, Arizona.


No more than one-third of the world's population live in houses built of industrially-processed materials. By far the majority are sheltered by materials obtained directly from earth — by stone, rammed earth, wood, or unbaked adobe blocks. Long regarded as primitive, earth building is undergoing a revival. What was a necessity for many has become first choice for many environmentally-conscious architects and builders.

Earth materials have minimal impact during refinement, use little energy, and are free from toxins and pollutants, but check for radon. They can be derived from the building site or close by, reducing the environmental costs of packaging and transport. Minimal processing of materials is needed, so local decentralized production is often possible. This also encourages owner-built housing projects.


Adobe is made from wet mud, or barro, with sufficient clay content to ensure cohesion. The more sand in the mixture, the crumblier the adobe block will be. Some makers add straw to the mixture; this accelerates drying, hinders cracking, and increases the tensile strength of the mud brick. Sometimes bitumen or cement stabilizer are added to resist water erosion.

The wet mixture is molded into blocks by hand or machine, and dried in the san. After several months of drying in dependably warm weather, the blocks are ready for use and construction with adobe blocks and mud mortar can be rapid. The blocks are generally larger than bricks, typically around 14 x 10 x 4 inches, and each weighs about 35 pounds.

Unbaked earth

Unbaked earth blocks made of turf, laid grass-side down, are used in South and Central America, in Central Europe, Ireland, and the United States, where the turf blocks are called terrones. Another method involves directly, quarrying earth blocks from a bank of hard material, a technique called cangahua.


A simple earth-walled construction requires only basic construction skills. Earth walls can be left in their natural state, or sealed, plastered, or stuccoed. They are fire, sound, rot, and termite proof, but check local building codes as some areas require "improvements" to rammed earth walls.

Rammed earth

In the rammed earth technique (pise), earth is rammed into temporary formwork. The mixture should be 70% sand, 30% soil, and a small amount of cement. The earth is allowed to dry, then the formwork is moved upward for the next course. Ideally, each layer should be pounded down with a pneumatic tamper. When the mixture is compressed, the walls become rock hard. Rammed earth looks like rock, and has a density of about 130 pounds per cubic foot. When properly constructed, the walls have ideal thermal qualities, keeping the interior warm in winter and cool in summer. The houses require little supplemental energy for rooms not heated passively by the sun.

Insulated walls

Lighter density mixes, that increase the insulation effect of the earth wall, are also an option. In the German "leichtlehm" (light earth/clay) method, a much higher proportion of rye straw is mixed with clay/earth, sand, manure, and water. This can be rammed or used as a filler in timber-frame walls, covered with timber siding, lime, or clay plaster. Current experiments include dipping straw bales in a clay slurry to make economic thick insulating walls.


Baked-clay bricks and tiles have been used for over 5000 years. Stronger and more durable than earlier sun-dried earth bricks, they were first employed in Middle Eastern countries as a longer lasting and more imposing outer facing to earth-brick walls.

Baked bricks spread rapidly throughout the world, first as material to build bonded solid walls and more recently, as a facing to cavity wails. Clay bricks and tiles are valued as greatly today as ever for their diverse qualities of warmth, solidity, texture, and beauty. Brick is an incredibly versatile building material, but if you live in an earthquake zone remember that unreinforced masonry is unsafe.

Environmental impact

Bricks and tiles have a high "embodied energy" (the total energy expended in extraction of raw materials, production and transport). Although deposits of brick clays appear to be in good supply, open quarries can be a visual and environmental problem. Ideal clays near the ground surface (the traditional source) often become exhausted and alternatives have to be extracted from deeper down. This uses more energy both in the extraction and the processing. Firing in kilns at very high temperatures adds significantly to the energy input and, unless strictly controlled, consequent smoke emissions cause atmospheric pollution.

Clay products are heavy and therefore costly to transport over long distances, so try to source locally-produced products if you decide to use new bricks or tiles. Before buying new, check out suppliers of reclaimed materials.

Durability and reuse

Bricks and tiles are extremely durable. They are capable of lasting many hundreds of years with relatively little maintenance. They can often be salvaged and reused as good quality building materials. Handmade bricks, reclaimed or new, with their subtle mixtures of colors and textures, are always in great demand for new building and renovation.

When reroofing, a large percentage of original roof tiles can usually be saved, and local reclamation centers may be able to offer a matching service for the rest. Even broken bricks and tiles are useful as rubble under concrete slabs or ground up for path and landscape finishes.

Modern insulated cavity wall constructions faced with brick are extremely energy-efficient. Thin brick facing tiles offer economies of cost and material, while choosing larger bricks means you use fewer bricks and less mortar per square foot, and build in less time.


Bricks and tiles suit virtually any design style: colonial to Georgian; Victorian to modern. Open any good brick and tile catalog and you will be surprised at the range of colors, finishes, and special shapes available in extruded, molded, and handmade varieties.

Bricks are also affordable. The relative additional cost between a brick-built home versus a sided home can be as little as 5 per cent. Brick-built homes also generally appreciate faster in value than houses made from timber or earth products, and usually have lower insurance premiums.

If you choose to build with brick yourself, get some instruction first to master the basic skills. Both bricks and tiles lend themselves to fancy designs, but if you opt for patterning it is probably best to have professional help alongside.


Stone is another ancient and enduring material which can be used and reused for centuries. Impressively solid, or astonishingly delicate, stone buildings have been traditional throughout the ages in many cultures. Medieval stonemasons brought the art of building in stone to an unparallelled state of perfection and grace, as exemplified by the slender soaring columns of 11th century cathedrals.

Stone houses are visually attractive with their solid thick walls and mellow exteriors. Stone is also a preferred landscaping material for many garden However, as with so many of our traditional materials, we must be aware of the environmental cost of continued use of stone. Conventional quarrying has already produced many destructive and potentially disastrous consequences.

Disappearing landscape

Large-scale quarrying has meant that whole hills, mountains, and valleys have literally disappeared as millions of tons of stone have been removed for use as building material or as raw materials for cement, aggregate, and road base.

This not only causes irreparable damage to the natural beauty of many wilderness areas but destroys wild species' habitats, forests, caves, sacred sites, and underground water reserves. Quarrying also produces noise, dust, and polluted water. Public pressure and planning controls have sometimes been successful in restricting quarrying in certain areas of outstanding beauty. This must increase if, like forests, quarries are to be treated as an "environmentally-managed" resource to be operated in a responsible manner with minimal impact.

Using stone wisely

Apart from stone walls and flooring, many lovely features of old stone buildings — mullion windows, door surrounds, roof gables, arches, columns, and moldings — can be reclaimed and reused. Entire stone buildings have even been taken down, the stones numbered, and re-erected elsewhere! If you buy an old stone house, rather than repairing it with new stone, try to source local matching reclaimed stone.

Generally, if you decide to use stone, try to reuse old stone. If you must choose new natural stone, use it as economically and selectively as possible and try to combine stone features with timber, brick, or plastered construction.

For economy of cost and material, you can build "stone style", using stone veneers inside and out to face concrete block cavity walls. A variety of composite blocks are also available which resemble stone in looks and qualities.


Wood is an invaluable natural material for house construction. It stabilizes air humidity and helps ventilation; it filters the air and absorbs sound; it smells good and is warm to the touch; it provides textures attractive to both the eye and skin. In short, wood is good for all our senses. Yet we have destroyed most of the world's natural forests, and are rapidly using up the rest.

Roughly half of the world's wood is burned for fuel, producing carbon dioxide, a "greenhouse effect" gas. Forests in the industrialized world are being damaged by acid rain, pollution, and the clearcutting of old growth forests. In other areas, wood clearance is causing soil erosion and habitat depletion. Worst, the "Earth's lungs", the tropical rainforests, are being cleared to provide western markets with tropical hardwoods and cattle ranchers with more grazing land. We must stop such destructive trends by supporting sustainable forestry and using reclaimed timber.

Sustainable forestry

In sustainable forestry the forest ecosystem as a whole remains intact, and the timber that is removed is replaced by natural regeneration. Portable, hand-operated mills are used instead of heavy machinery, so that the forest floor is not destroyed nor soil over-compacted. Logs are sawn where they fall and carried on foot to distribution points. Roads are kept to a minimum. Leaves, brushwood, and sawdust are left as ground cover. Trees are not felled on steep slopes where rainfall will more readily erode soil; and no felling takes place near streams, avoiding water pollution. Trees are felled in the direction causing least damage to other vegetation.

Suppliers of timber produced in these ways also support managed plantations where alternative, non-threatened species are grown, making acceptable alternatives to those tropical hardwoods and native North American timbers endangered by logging. Relevant social and economic issues are also considered: the principle is that the forest will become more valuable to local people standing, rather than wholly felled.

Timber treatment

Most conventional treatment products against rot or pests are toxic either to humans or wildlife. Ask your supplier about non-toxic timber treatment. If you are building from scratch try installing termite sand barriers or use natural pest control.

Responsible purchase

Ask questions about the source of any wood you buy: if your supplier does not have the answers, don't buy. Find an alternative. If you are unable to find a supplier of reclaimed wood, ask one of the organizations below about local outlets. These woods are certified, so insist on seeing the seal of approval before you order. Labels to look for are the Green Cross and the Smart Wood™ symbol.

The regulator for certification is The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC); while principal certifiers are the Rainforest Alliance of New York City, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) of Oakland, California, and the Rogue Institute of Ashland, Oregon.


Cedarwood has been used continuously for centuries in North America. To the Indians of the North Pacific Coast cedars were "trees of life". They used the wood for shelters, houses, dugout canoes, and carved totem poles. They wove the stringy bark into blankets and clothing, used the aromatic cedar boughs for bedding, and prepared remedies from the bark. The Western Red Cedar, Thuja Plicata, helped settlers to build their cabins and farms. Homeowners have appreciated the natural warmth, earthy colors, and subtle textures of red cedar ever since. Cedar shakes and shingles remain among the most popular natural materials for roof and wall coverings.

A Problem of sustainability

Although cedar shakes and shingles are beautiful, traditional, and practical, there is a growing problem with their sustainable production. The last remains of the great old-growth forests of the Pacific northwest and western Canada are under threat from logging operations and, added to this, the Western red cedar happens to be a particularly slow-growing climax species which does not easily regenerate.

Therefore environmentally-responsible houses should avoid (or minimize) the use of newly-manufactured cedar products. Always check if you can obtain reclaimed cedar products from your local building salvage centers or demolition sites.

Resource-efficient alternatives

Other options may not have the same charm and attraction as the real thing, but come from renewable and recycled resources which will help to save our ancient forest heritage. These include fiber-cement composite shingles; shakes made with fiber harvested from small diameter and fast-growing species, or fiber reclaimed from wood waste; organic asphalt shingles made with a base of recycled "mixed" waste paper, and roof shingles made from recycled plastic resins (which are recyclable too).

If these products are not appealing or right for the particular situation, then other types of roofing should be considered such as clay tiles, fiber-cement composite slates, and recycled metal roof decking. Look too, for reclaimed roofing materials.

Shake or shingle?

Shingles are sawn and have a smooth surface while shakes are split and have a thicker natural grain and textured look. Shingles can be used on roofs and on exterior and interior walls. They come either square-edged or in many "fancybutt" designs including octagonal, diagonal, diamond, hexagonal, and fishscale which can be combined in an unlimited range of patterns. Thicker split shakes are usually used as roof tiles, giving a roof characteristic strong shadow lines and an attractive rustic appearance.

Shakes and shingles may be used in their natural state, or you can get fire retardant or wood preservative-treated types. Check that treated products are free of any toxic chemicals that could harm wildlife or cause health or pollution problems.

The Cedar Shake & Shingle Bureau has developed quality and grading standards. Its "Certi" labels certify shake and shingle products made by its membership.


Boards and sheets began to replace solid wood as a building material as early as the 1930s. Diminishing timber resources and developments in wood and adhesive technology created a host of new, more resource-efficient products that also often proved lighter, stronger, and cheaper than the traditional material. Plywood, particle board, and hardboard quickly became indispensable building products.

Today, a wide range of available boards and sheets suit almost every need. Numerous developments continue to make ever more resource-efficient products. These include oriented strand board (OSB) manufactured from small diameter, fast-growing trees such as aspen or alder; hardboard made from waste wood, and fiberboard front recycled newsprint or agricultural by-products.

Appropriate uses

Externally, plywood is the most common board for sheathing framed structures, but exterior-quality formaldehyde-free medium density fiberboard (MDF) can be used instead. Formaldehyde-free medium board and low-density fiberboard make ideal "breathing" wall constructions when combined with cellulose, wool or cotton insulation. Alternatively, structural stress-skinned panels can be constructed off-site using OSB outer skins bonded to a foam core (check it contains no CFCs) or other forms of insulation. This reduces on-site labor and produces an energy-efficient wall. Many recycled products are suitable for structural roof decking, sub-flooring, sound control, carpet underlayment and for internal wall paneling (prefinished with burlap or cork coverings).

Honeycomb and molded panels are also available. Made from 100% post-consumer wood and paper waste and plant fibers, they are also lighter and stronger than conventional plywood, particle and fiberboard alternatives.

New generation products

Although many pressed wood boards and sheets are efficient in their use of resources, there can be a problem from the high levels of formaldehyde-based glue used in the manufacture of particle and fiber boards. Formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen, can outgas from the boards into the indoor air of the home. To overcome this, there is a new generation of low-formaldehyde or formaldehyde-free boards, same of which use only lignin, the natural bonding agent found in trees.

When choosing products, you need to ensure that they are non-toxic, and always check that any wood products come from a sustainable source and not from North American old-growth forests or tropical rainforests.


In the past, our homes had gaps around windows and doors, open chimneys, and little or no insulation. They were often drafty and improperly heated compared to today's standards. Yet, traditional buildings of brick, stone, timber, and plaster could breathe, and few synthetic chemicals existed to pollute the indoor air. Apart from problems with smokey fires, their occupants did have the benefit of plenty of fresh air!

Today the indoor air quality of many homes is under threat from modern energy-conserving practices. As you caulk and weatherproof doors and windows against drafts and block air-infiltration through the structure with polyethylene sheeting, you dramatically reduce the amount of fresh air indoors. Unless you take steps to install adequate ventilation systems, this can quickly lead to a build-up of humidity, pollutants and toxins in the indoor air which cannot escape. Unintentionally, you may be converting your home into a "sick house".

Walls that breathe

Inspired by simpler low-tech building techniques of the past, and confirmed by modern scientific experiments, Building Biologists have perfected what they call a breathing wall. This relies on the principle of increasing natural ventilation of the interior of the house by allowing controlled diffusion of air and moisture through a structure without losing energy-efficiency. To do this it is necessary to select hygroscopic (porous) and permeable materials such as clay bricks and tiles, timber and building hoards, gypsum plaster and lime plaster. Correctly used, these materials absorb and release excess moisture thereby helping to regulate condensation and indoor humidity and expel pollutants.

Tests have shown that a modern breathing wall needs to be constructed of layers of permeable materials on both sides of the insulation, which must also be permeable. Cellulose insulation is ideal, so too, is cotton, wool and straw bale. The construction needs to be appropriate to the climate zone in which you live. In temperate climates, for example, the layers must be graded from those with low permeability (more vapor-resistant) toward the inside, to those with high permeability (less resistant) toward the outside. For temperate areas the permeability ratio of layers, outside to in, should be at least 5 to 1 to be sure to avoid condensation. Check first with "breathing wall" specialists for the right construction and insulation materials for your area and climate.

Airtight walls

Current building science and energy-conservation practice advocate making the shell of the house as airtight and moistureproof as possible. This is done by applying a "vapor barrier" to walls and ceilings on the inside surface of the insulation. This barrier may be made from polyethylene sheeting, aluminum foil, or foil-backed sheetrock. Wall and roof constructions must be adequately vented to the outside to avoid moisture build-up occurring within the structure. Such "interstitial condensation" occurs when water vapor present in warm inside air passes out of the home through an external wall; when this warm air reaches the colder drier air, it cools, reaches saturation point and condenses to form water.

This can be serious as it not only reduces the effectiveness of the insulation but it also encourages fungal growths such as wet and dry rot and can eventually lead to structural decay and collapse. Moreover, the air inside the house will also need ventilating and this usually involves a whole-house mechanical ventilation system plus an HRV. These systems are expensive to install, maintain and run, and can themselves cause problems such as bacteria, micro-organisms, and changes to air ionization.


In a land with few trees but plenty of grass, what do you use to build with? Straw bales, of course! This is exactly what the settlers started to do in the Nebraska Sandhills in the late 1800s. Examples of old straw-bale houses and those built in the 1940s and 50s exist today which still serve as sturdy, warm, and comfortable homes.

Despite isolated attempts to revive the technique, little happened until straw-bale enthusiasts Matts Mhyrman and Judy Knox sparked media interest. In a recent publication Judy stated that straw-bale building "taps into an ancient memory, of a time when we really were connected to the earth. It looks like the earth, sounds like the earth, and it's friendly like the earth. It's not beyond us; the technology is very user-friendly." Now, via publications, hands-on workshops and their own company, Matts and Judy have helped to re-establish straw-bale building as a practical modern alternative construction technique.

Building with straw bales

The original Nebraska-style homes were built of load-bearing bale walls (bales stacked in courses and pinned together to support the roof). These are officially approved today in only a few locales. However, non-load-bearing straw-bale walls, which rely on a timber frame to take structural loads have received Code approval in some states, such as New Mexico. With these, you either stack the bales outside the frame or use them as infill between frame members, bedding the bales in adobe mortar. You then plaster both sides of the walls with adobe. If you finish the inside with a coat of lime-rich adobe plaster this will also protect against moisture, fire, and vermin. Insert window and door frames as the bale walls rise.

The cardinal rule is to keep the walls completely dry. So make sure you have good moisture-proof foundations and an adequate overhanging roof.

Pros and cons

Built and protected properly, straw-bale walls need little maintenance and can last for hundreds of years. Consisting of abundant annually-renewable materials, they are highly resource-efficient. Their economy, added to ease of construction, makes the materials ideal for owner-builders. Straw walls over 18 inches thick not only give excellent thermal insulation, with R-values of 40 to 50, they have the beauty of hand-crafted surfaces and textures, plus the value of providing quiet interiors. Certified fire tests have shown straw-bale walls to be surprisingly fire-resistant.

But some questions need answering: What levels of residual herbicides exist in straw and do they present a health problem? Do chemically-sensitive people react when building with straw? Even if dry, is it necessary to do anything else to protect the straw against fungal growth? Before you decide to go with straw, contact the Straw Bale Construction Association for the latest information and results of recent tests into the health and safety of strawbale building.


Windows provide light, views, ventilation, and visual character to both the exterior and interior of the home. More recently, low-maintenance and energy-conserving designs have become fashionable for all the best environmental reasons. However, when you consider the design of your windows, you must balance these factors.

Windows made from the newer more thermally-efficient materials, such as metals combined with plastics, may have an unacceptable esthetic impact on visual style (and sometimes market value), especially of older homes. Energy-efficient windows also, by definition, reduce ventilation in houses and, unless adequate alternative means are incorporated, may lead to a consequent deterioration of indoor air quality. Take all these factors into account before you renew or renovate.

Recycled windows

Apart from sourcing old windows from building material reclamation centers, consider if any of those you are to discard (particularly any with handmade glass) could have a new lease on life as internal windows between rooms or rooms off a sunspace. Bear in mind that windows made of composite materials, such as plastic-coated aluminum, cannot easily be reused or recycled.

Increasing daylight

In cooler climates it is important to bring as much daylight and sunlight into your home as possible — both for general health and for environmental reasons. You can add new windows or increase the size of existing ones via, for example, bay or bow windows, awning windows and, on the sun-facing sides, solar and sunroom windows.

To bring daylight deep into your home, install skylights and high-level clerestory windows, or try using a roofmounted reflector and mirrored tube. Increasing window area will often have the added advantage of making rooms appear more spacious and open to fresh views. You can make the most of borrowed light by placing windows in internal walls and doors.

Energy-conserving windows

A fifth to a quarter of the total energy used in the average home is used for extra heating and cooling to compensate for leaky windows. So, whether you are renovating an old home or building a new one, energy-efficient windows must be a high priority. But before you tear out the old ones, see if all or some can be reused either by installing secondary glazing on the inside or by replacing single-pane glass with double glazing. Either course of action should reduce window heat loss by a half and cut energy bills dramatically. If new windows are needed, choose replacement windows in almost any style including casements, sliders, awning windows and, the dominant North American style, double-hung windows.

For maximum efficiency, choose double and triple glazing with various coatings, films, and gas fill. Ensure that gaskets and weatherstripping are included in the frame to prevent air infiltration and that window frame materials and construction also have a high thermal performance. Check if window units have any built-in ventilation devices, known as "trickle" or "weep" vents. The introduction of strict industry performance standards in the '80s monitored by three independent organizations, plus certification and labeling programs, is very helpful when choosing the appropriate energy-efficient replacement windows or window kits for your home.


Although glass can be considered a sustainable material since its basic ingredients of sand, soda and potash are in plentiful supply, its production does use a great deal of energy. Reuse of existing glass products, recycling of glass jars and bottles plus choosing recycled glass products are all ways to conserve materials and energy.

Glass can be a versatile building material — in sheets for glazing, shrives and table tops, in blocks for walls and partitions, and as fiber-glass for insulation. There have been important advances in recent years in the vital area of heat-conserving home glazing.

Reuse, recycling and recycled products

You can reuse glass products in many ways around the home. Try to buy soft drinks, beer and milk from sources which accept return empty bottles for reuse. Also find out if there are stores in your area that offer a refill service.

Recycling centers are now widespread and accessible or you may live in an area with a door-to-door recycling collection program. There is also growing availability of products made from recycled glass jugs, vases, glasses and candle holders.

Building with glass

Colored glass in windows or doors is especially good to lift the spirits, particularly on cloudy days. Architect Mike Reynolds also makes use of bottles (and cans) as "bricks" in the walls and roofs of his "Earthship" houses in New Mexico. Filled with water and ranged on shelves, bottles can serve as an effective and colorful heat sink in sunspaces or solar sheds. Old windows can find a second life in the backyard as coldframes.

Heat-conserving glazing

For greatest efficiency, double and triple glazing comes with low-emissivity (low-E) coatings on the glass or "Heat Mirror" film suspended between the layers of glass. R-values (resistances to heat transfer) are often given for the glazing by itself, but this can mislead as you need to know the performance of the whole window unit (glass plus frame and weatherstripping).

The National Fenestration Ratings Council (NFRC) has developed a performance rating system, and encourages manufacturers to label all their windows. The system uses U-value (a measure of heat loss rather than resistance to loss). A wood-frame window with single glazing has a U-value of around 1 and a double-glazed, low-E unit rates about 0.4. So far, the most energy-efficient window units available use double "Heat Mirror" film plus argon or krypton gas fill; they have a U value of around 0.1. Remember that window glazing is just one part of a general insulation program.


Ahandsome and durable front door is a matter of obvious pride. Doors made from endangered woods such as mahogany, teak, cedar, and redwood are still much sought after, but there are many equally attractive alternatives available from sustainable North American softwoods and hardwoods.

Before ordering ready-made doors, or the timber to construct your own, check the certification programs. If you incorporate glass, try to avoid buying new, and follow the guidance for glass and glazing.

Good insulation values

Make sure that external doors have adequate R-Values for your area. Rather than replacing older and less energy-efficient doors, add a lobby inside or enclosed porch outside. But however energy-conserving a door may be in itself, it must be well weatherstripped around the frame to exclude air infiltration.

Be aware that as much as 75% of heat loss occurs around the door, not through it! A standard door with only a one'-sixteenth-inch-wide gap all round is equivalent to having a 15 square-inch hole in your wall. It is absolutely essential to weatherstrip older doors by caulking them from the inside.

When choosing new, consider pre-hang door and frame units. With these, the door is engineered to fit the frame closely and durable weatherstripping is already pre-fitted. Don't forget the smaller details and make sure that the keyholes have draft covers too.

Low-energy and renewable materials

If you are buying new doors choose materials that are low-energy and low-impact on the environment. Choose doors made from sustainable-source lumber rather than steel, aluminum or plastics. Even better, see if you can source doors made from local lumber (to reduce the toll of transport energy, pollution and costs on the environment). Ironically, you will probably find they will cost more than doors transported half way across the continent or those imported from abroad.

You should avoid metal and plastic doors (and plastic-covered lumber or metal doors) as they use very high-energy and high-impact materials. Only consider using them if they are recycled or if the manufacturer will certify that they are made from high-recycled content metals and plastics.

Reuse and recycle

Doors are popular salvage items, available at building recycling and exchange centers. They usually provide a wide selection of interior and exterior doors in materials and styles to suit almost any taste. Reclamation centers are the places to find good solid used hardwood doors made of endangered woods, such as mahogany and redwood, thereby avoiding buying them new and adding to the demand that is destroying both tropical and North American old-growth forests. Also, older doors are often made of thicker section and better quality woods. If you are renovating, you may find doors that match those already in your house. Old doors may have interesting features such as stained glass, leaded lites, unusual moldings, or hardware that can enhance your home.


Recycling centers and curbside pickups for cans, bottles and newspapers are becoming the norm. But, beyond this, increased awarenes s is extending the concept into the reuse and recycling of building materials. A single-family home in North America typically generates between four and six tons of garbage during construction (wood, drywall, masonry, packing, steel, and topsoil). This accounts for almost a quarter of landfill volumes, so there is plenty of scope to cut this dreadful waste.

Whether you are building a new home or rehabbing the one you have, keep thinking "reuse/recycle" when choosing materials. If you are using an architect, interior designer, or builder, ask them to investigate local sources, and specify reclaimed and recycled materials wherever possible.

Job-site recycling

Although a building site can produce a massive amount of waste, there are many ways this can be reduced and recycled. A number of organizations and local government offices have produced booklets to help braiders economize on waste and find recycling facilities. It is always worth dropping in on building and demolition sites to see what's available. This may be the cheapest way to find just what you are looking for (and you could come across some interesting and unusual items you weren't expecting!).

Health and Building Inspectors

Reusing old materials can be hazardous, however. Avoid asbestos (as found in some old insulation, roofing, and flooring), and lead (as in plumbing and old gloss paint you plan to strip). And be aware that some plastic products can offgas.

If you want to reuse old wood for structural purposes, you must first check with the Building Inspector on sizing and grading requirements. Also, you may have to adapt old toilets, faucets, and plumbing to meet local water conservation standards. Check before you start work.

Salvage materials

Throughout this Catalog we recommend you use reclaimed building materials. Ranging from wood to brick, stone to tiles, sinks to toilets, windows to doors, plumbing to hardware, once-used materials can usually meet at least part of your needs. Some companies deal exclusively in salvaging high-quality timber from demolition sites. Old nails and screws are removed, the wood is sorted, re-milled and structurally regraded before shipping to the customer. Post-logging salvage is another useful source. Reclamation, salvage, and material exchange centers are spreading in North America. There is probably one near you - check the Yellow Pages.

Recycled-content materials

An increasing variety of recycled-content materials is now available. This includes composite lumber — cedar waste plus recycled plastics; carpet made from recycled PET bottles; ceramic-style floor tiles from 75% recycled and reclaimed glass; cellulose insulation from recycled newsprint and recycled plastic shake-style roofing. Recycled tires may be used to make tiles.

Decks, railings, and fences may be made from 50% sawdust and 50% post-consumer recycled polyethylene. Steel and aluminum doors and windows can be found with high-content recycled metals, and many ceiling panels contain recycled newsprint and recovered mineral wool. You can even find attractive stone or brick substitutes made with a high proportion of recycled materials, if you can't reclaim the real thing.


Born of the long North American tradition, owner-building is enjoying a renaissance today. If you want a more individual home or simply cannot afford to buy an existing house or apartment, owner-building may be for you. This can range from designing and building an entire house yourself, with friends and family, to buying a kit house and erecting or finishing it yourself.

In addition to determination and commitment, you will need help and advice. It is worth contacting owner-builder organizations and reading practical magazines, but the best beginning is to learn the basic skills. Sign up for hands-on home-building classes, seminars and workshops. If you are interested in communal living, there may be a "CoHousing" (co-operative housing) or sustainable community project you could join.

Community housing

Housing co-operatives and Mutual Housing Associations offer individuals, professional groups, and other housing and food co-ops an opportunity to deposit their savings into the MHA's co-operatively owned credit union or bank.

A MHA can then buy land and place it in a community land trust to ensure continuing affordability of co-op housing built or leased on the land. Even though MHAs have not typically been set up with primarily ecological aims, this could prove a positive dimension for inclusion in future projects.


There are a number of ecological disadvantages in building new homes, however energy-efficient they may be in themselves. If, as is often the case, they are built on previously undeveloped land, this leads to even further encroachment of towns and cities. Even when built on developed land, new homes use up considerable resources and energy via new materials and construction. They also cause significant impact on local environments.

The majority of the population lives in older houses and apartments and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It is quicker and more resource-efficient to concentrate on repair and renovation of this older stock making use of much of the existing structure and materials. Retrofit, to good ecological standards, should be the priority for most environmentally-aware homeowners. This can be taken to extremes: The Dollar House in Berkeley, California (pictured) was bought for $1, taken apart, moved to a new site and completely retrofitted!

If renovation of an older property is combined with new additions such as sunspaces, and loft and basement conversions, you get the best of both worlds. And, by weatherproofing doors and windows, insulating the structure, and installing new energy- and water-conserving features such as heat exchangers, photovoltaics, solar water heating, wind generators, and low-energy lighting plus low-flow toilets, faucets, and showers, you can achieve just about everything that a new eco-home can offer.

Some retrofit costs, such as solar water heating, will be a little higher than if it was installed as part of the plumbing of a newly built home. But, in general, an ecological retrofit may offer you more it can give you the technology of the new world combined with the history and charm of the old.


Kit homes have come a long way from the early standard and limited range of styles and designs. Now, kits are available for most conceivable types and styles of home, traditional and contemporary. You can choose timber frame or log homes, rectangular or circular, and for the less conventional, domes, yurts and tipis. Kit homes today can often be arranged or modified to suit individual needs and desires, and to blend in to a variety of locations. Companies usually offer a range of options, and customers can adapt standard models or custom design their own home with the professional help of architectural staff.

Quality materials, factory production, tried-and-tested construction details, and quick erection on site, plus known costs and warranties, all help to make kit homes attractive. When choosing a style and materials, check on energy-efficiency and whether the company applies environmental policies in the choice of materials and factory processing.

Circular homes

Leaky geodesic domes are an abiding image of '60s and '70s alternative living. But now you can choose from many other forms of circular homes as well as watertight domes. One manufacturer markets circular timber homes in sizes ranging from 500 to 2000 sq ft. For more space, these are joined side-by-side or, more economically, "stacked" up to three levels under one roof. The trussed roof spans the whole width of the space to give a spacious open interior and, with no-load bearing walls, allows the owners to arrange interior partitions to suit any floor plan. A range of doors and windows can be placed anywhere around the circle making for extremely versatile home design, adaptable to nearly any setting.

Timber frame homes

Traditional timber frame homes are growing in popularity. Their hand-crafted solid construction and quality finishes are cherished by those who live in them. Some or all of the construction is available in kit form.

Yurts and tipis

Circular nomadic dwelling forms have an ancient history, and always arouse curiosity. Yurts of the Mongol tribes (circular latticework covered by layers of heavy felt) and tipis of the Native American Indians are fascinating for their light yet sturdy structures which give comfort and protection even in the severest weather. Although some are used as homes, many today have recreational uses, or are used as spare rooms, studios, meditation spaces, and workshops.

Log homes

Mention of a log home often conjures up a picture of a small vacation log cabin in the forest. But, increasingly, modern log homes are being chosen as primary residences and are built to similar sizes and levels of amenity as conventional homes. The average size is in excess of 2,000 sq ft and homes in the region of 4,000 to 6,000 sq ft are not unusual.

Log homes are designed to fit a much wider variety of tastes than formerly, including newer, modern styles. For a modern look, one company advises choosing flatter-faced contour logs and square house comers rather than traditional log overhangs. Painted, these styles have a clapboard effect more suited to conventional suburban housing areas.

The natural insulating quality of logs has been enhanced via cavity construction and sheathing filled with insulation materials to give increased energy-efficiency ratings in the region of R30 for walls and R40 for roofs.

Authentic versions are available as mail-order kits, or you can take workshops to experience old ways of living and help pitch yurts and tipis yourself. Their ease of construction and siting also offers huge potential as attractive temporary housing.


What is essential to timber framing is the integrity of the frame, where the joiner's art takes a pile of raw lumber and turns it into a single whole organism with a life of its own..." enthuses Ed Levin, one of the founders of the Timber Framers Guild of North America.

A timber frame home may conjure up the picture of a series at closely spaced 2-by-4s nailed together to make a frame, covered with plywood, dry wall or plasterboard. Although this is how most of our modern homes are built, there is a traditional option. Until the mid-1800s a different form of timber framing was typical in North America. Stemming from ancient carpentry techniques of the Middle Ages, structures were built using large section solid wood members joined by strong hand-crafted woodworking mortise-and-tenon joints secured by wooden pegs, without using nails.

Building a timber frame

Large pieces of carefully selected solid timber are first cut and jointed by hand. These are then laid out on the ground and assembled into "bents" (cross-sectional frames made of posts, beams and rafters). Finally, these are raised by a team of people or by crane and pegged together to form the skeleton of the house. Recalling Amish barn-raising scenes, this is an exciting and rewarding experience for all involved. Once assembled, the frame is covered by various types of stress-skin insulated panels. Choose from a wide variety of exterior finishes including board-and-batten, clapboard, stone, stucco, brick, or a combination of these.

Timber frame revival

In the mid-1970s a number of young idealistic East Coast carpenters started to explore the traditional use of natural materials combined with energy-efficient techniques. The network of carpenters and small woodworking companies that grew out of this subsequently formed, with others, the now large and active Timber Framers Guild of North America. Through conferences, exhibitions, hands-on workshops, newsletters, and advice, the Guild has spread the word and captured the imagination of many homebuilders who want to live in an individual, solid, hand-crafted home.

Today, numerous experienced companies across North America can offer timber frame only or a complete custom design-and-build service for a finished energy-efficient, traditional timber frame home. Check if the company has environmental policies regarding use of sustainable timber, reforestation programs, use of recycled timber, plus minimization and reuse of timber waste materials.


ECO — Environmental Construction Outfitters

Paul Bierman-Lytle, an architect from New Canaan (CT) was one of the first in North America to pioneer and promote healthy and environmentally sound homes. It all began when Paul began coughing and sneezing and getting headaches during his work as a builder. "We prided ourselves on high-quality homes" recalled Paul, "It never occurred to us that the products were potentially hazardous."

Since then he has committed himself and his company to pursuing his guiding principles, asking: "Is the house a health hazard to the end user, producers, or installers? Is it a renewable resource? And, is the waste biodegradable?" Via his design and contracting organization, the Masters Corporation, founded in 1980, he has built numerous innovative projects across the United States. His houses are built without synthetics, solvent-based glues, formaldehyde-based plywoods, or wall-to-wall carpeting which harbors dust mites and mold. Instead his home designs specify full-spectrum light bulbs, hardwood from sustainably-forested sources, and resource-efficient heat recovery ventilators. Natural materials decorate the home (see Chapter Seven). Healthy building doesn't have to cost more, it is often a matter of using affordable nontoxic alternatives rather than conventional hazardous material. Even if the initial cost is more, most people are willing to pay the extra to have the satisfaction, pleasure, and security of a truly healthy home environment.

Accessible Products

Through his work Bierman-Lytle became very aware of the difficulty that most architects and builders experienced in researching and sourcing environmentally-sound and healthy construction materials and products. To help overcome these problems he founded Environmental Construction Outfitters (ECO) with Paul Novack and Ira Russack.

ECO now specializes in the design and construction of environmentally sustainable residential and commercial buildings. Its aim is to serve architects, contractors, designers, decorators, and all construction trades such as painters, carpenters, insulators, floorcovering specialists, and cabinet makers. Every product goes through a tough evaluation process and has to meet extremely high environmental and health standards. The headquarters and large showroom, in the SoHo District of New York's Manhattan, have a wide range of products and systems on display, and trained staff can discuss customers' needs. Orders are shipped anywhere in the United States and Canada.

Many well-established building manufacturers and suppliers are at last beginning to provide sound environmental options at affordable costs, accessible through their own channels. Acknowledging this, Paul Bierman-Lytle has recently moved on to develop a computer-based shopping medium as part of The Musters Corporation and is no longer involved in ECO. Via the new concept, the Corporation will be acting more in the capacity of a "broker" for manufacturers.

ECO continues to offer state-of-the-art building products, services, and technologies. The company is a growing and innovative force which is helping to make accessible the materials for healthy and environmentally sound building.


General organizations

American Institute of Architects
ERG Project, 1735 New York Avenue,
NW, Washington, DC 20006
Tel: 202 626 7331 Fax: 202 626 7518

Build Green Program
2395 Speakman Drive, Mississauga,
Ontario, L5K lB3, Canada
Tel: 416 8222 4111

Builders for Social Responsibility
RR 1, Box 1953, Hinesburg, VT 05461
Tel: 802 482 3295

Center for Resourceful Building Technology
Box 3413, Missoula, MT 59806
Tel: 406 549 7678

Eco-Design Resource Society
PO Box 3981, Main Post Office,
Vancouver, BC, Canada, V6B 3Z4
Tel: 604 738 9334

Institute for Bio-Dynamic Shelter
86 Washington Road, Waldoboro,
ME 04572
Tel: 207 832 5157

International Institute for Bau-Biologie & Ecology
PO Box 387, Clearwater, FL 34615
Tel: 813 461 4371 Fax: 813 441 4373

National Center for Appropriate Technology
PO Box 2525, Butte, MT 59702
Tel: 800 428 2525 Fax: 800 428 1718

Natural House Building Center
RR 1, Box 11SF, Fairfield, IA 52556
Tel: 515 472 7775

Rocky Mountain Institute
1739 Snowmass Creek Road
Snowmass CO 81654-9199
Tel: 303 970 3851 Fax: 303 970 3420

The Shelter Institute
38 Center Street
Bath, MA 04530
Tel: 207 442 7938

14555, Ouest Boul de Maisonneuve,
Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H3G 1M8
Tel: 514 848 8770 Fax: 514 848 3198

Feng Shui

Natural Habitat, (Valerie Dow)
PO Box 21, Haysville, KA 67060
Tel: 316 788 1793

Melanie Lewandowski
PO Box 536, New Hope, PA 18938
Tel: 215 62 5788


Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute
PO Box 631, Basalt, CO 81621
Tel: 303 927 4158

Permaculture Drylands
PO Box 133, Pearce, AZ 85625
Tel: 602 824 3456 Fax: 602 824 3542

Permaculture Resources
56 Farmersville, Califon, NJ 07830
Tel: 800 832 6285
(or) PO Box 1173, Cedar Crest,
NM 87008
Tel: 800 874 1641

Home and environment

Planetary Solutions
PO Box 1049, Boulder, CO 80306
Tel: 303 442 6228

Solar Survival Architecture (Earthships)
PO Box 1041, Taos, NM 87571

Sustainable Building Collaborative
815 Southeast Clatsop, Portland,
OR 97202
Tel: 503 235 0137

Environmental Building News
RR 1, Box 161, Brattleboro,
VT 05301
Tel: 802 257 7300 Fax: 802 257 7304

Healthy home

Environmental by Design
PO Box 95016, South Van CSC,
Vancouver, BC V6P 6V4, Canada
Tel & Fax: 604 266 7721

EOS Institute 580 Broadway, Suite 200, Laguna Beach,
CA 92651
Tel: 714 497 1896

12 Alfred Street, Suite 300,
Woburn, MS 01801
Tel: 617 933 2772

The Healthy House Institute
430 N Sewell Road,
Bloomington, IN 47408
Tel: 812 332 5073

Natural Building Network
PO Box I 110, Sebastopol, CA 95473

Building with Nature, (Newsletter)
PO Box 4917, Santa Rosa,
CA 95402-4417
Tel: 707 579 2201

Safe Home Resource Guide
24 East Avenue, Suite 1300, New Canaan,
CT 06840
Tel: 203 966 2099

American Society of Dowsers
Danville, VT 05828

Carol Venolia
Debra Dadd-Redalia

Organic and Steiner building

James T Hubbell
930 Orchard Lane, Santa Ysabel,
CA 92070
Tel: 609 765 0171

Bart Prince
3501 Monte Vista NE, Albuquerque,
NM 87106

Arthur Dyson AIA
754 P Street, Suite C, Fresno, CA 93721
Tel: 209 486 3582

Malcolm Wells
PO Fox 1149, Brewster, MA 02631
Tel: 508 896 6850 Fax: 508 896 5116

Rudolf Sterner Center
9100 Bathurst, Toronto, Ontario,
Canada L3T 3N3

Rudolf Steiner Institute
PO Box 0990, Planetarium Sta,
New York, NY 10024

Earth building materials

California Earth Art and Architecture Institute (Cai-Earth)

Friends of Adobe
PO Box 7725, Albuquerque, NM 87194
Tel: 505 243 7801

Rammed Earth Institute
2319.21st Avenue, Greeley, CO 80631

Southwest Solaradobe School (Earthbuilders Encyclopedia)
PO Box 153, Bosque, NM 87006
Tel: 505 252 1382

Terra Group, Ltd
1058 2nd Avenue, Napa, CA 94558
Tel: 707 224 2532

Bricks and tiles

Brick Institute of America
11490 Commerce Park Drive,
Reston, VA 22091-1525
Tel: 703 620 0010 Fax: 703 620 3928

Sustainable timber

Rainforest Alliance (Smart Wood)
65 Bleecker Street, New York,
NY 10012-2420
Tel: 212 677 1900

Rogue Institute for Ecology and Economy
Ashland, OR
Tel: 503 482 6031

Forest Stewardship Council
PO Box 849, Richmond VT 05477
Tel: 802 434 3101

Institute for Sustainable Forestry
PO Box 1580, Redway, CA 95560
Tel: 707 923 4719

Scientific Certification Systems

Shakes and shingles

Cedar Shake & Shingle Bureau
515 116th Avenue NE, Suite 275,
Bellevue, WA 98004-5294
Tel: 206 453 1323

Breathing walls

Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (Max Pot)
Pliny Fisk, 8604 Webberville Road,
Austin, TX 78724

International Institute for Bau-Biologie & Ecology

Swanson Associates
601 23rd Street, Fairfield, IO 52556
Tel: 515 472 8217 Fax: 515 472 1678

Straw bale construction

Out on Bale (publications)
1037 E Linden Street, Tuscon, AZ 85719
Tel: 602 624-1673

Straw Bale Construction Association
31 Old Arroyo Chamiso, Santa Fe,
NM 87505
Tel: 505 989 4400

Strawbale Research Fund and Community Research Center (CIRC)
PO Box 42663, Tucson, AZ 85733

Glass and glazing

National Fenestration Ratings Council
(NFRC) 1300 Spring Street, Suite 120,
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Tel: 301 589 6372

Canadian Institute for Research and Construction, Building Materials Center-
20, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0R6
Tel: 613 993 2463 Fax: 613 952 7673

Owner-building and Retrofit

Center for Resourceful Building Technology

National Association of Housing Cooperatives
1614 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22314
Tel: 703 549 5201

Owner-Builder Center
1516 Fifth St, Berkeley, CA 94710
Tel: 415 848 5950

Innovative Housing, 2169 East San Francisco Boulevard, Suite E,
San Rafael, CA 94901
Tel: 415 457 4593

Kit homes

Living Shelter Crafts
PO Box 4069, West Sedona, AZ 86340
Tel: 602 230 4283

Wilderness Log Homes
PO Box 902, Plymouth, WI 53073-0902
Tel: 414 893 8416 Fax: 414 892 2414

Timber frames

Timber Framers Guild of North America
PO Box 1075, Bellingham, WA 98227
Tel: 360 733 4001

Copyright © 1996 Gaia Books Limited, London
Text copyrigh © 1996 David Pearson

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