Castles made of sand and (and straw)

Castles made of sand and (and straw)

When it comes to building homes, the Natural Building Network suggests going old school — way old sc

By Jenny Lower 08/02/2007

Consider these two statements: Building the average, 2,250 square-foot American house requires a clearcut the size of a football field; demolished buildings and construction debris comprise between 20 to 40 percent of our landfills.


When coupled with the realities of a rising world population and dwindling nonrenewable resources, those facts make for a rather bleak picture. Jack Stephens, co-founder and executive director of Natural Building Network, sums it up simply: “We’re using our resources really unwisely ... We’ve got it really upside down here in the United States in terms of a healthy way to house ourselves.”

The nonprofit is dedicated to teaching people about the advantages of combining “indigenous wisdom” with modern technology to revolutionize traditional building practices. Founded in 2005 to promote the ideals of natural building and bring members of the sustainability movement together, Natural Building Network offers a hopeful, slightly whimsical alternative to environmental disaster scenarios. It encourages its supporters to rediscover plentiful materials people all over the world have been using for centuries (millennia, even) to construct their homes — forgotten choices such as straw bales, earth or cob, an adobe-like mixture of sand, straw, clay and water used in Britain for at least 500 years.

It is an idea so old it’s new, so it is no surprise that for each convert there is someone else more than a little discomfited. To those for whom the words “straw bale house” conjure up an image of the Three Little Pigs, never fear. Stephens has been invited by local activists to offer a presentation and slide show on the topic in Ventura on Aug. 2, an opportunity he hopes will answer questions, build relationships and reassure concerned homeowners there is nothing to be afraid of.

“These homes are beautiful,” he says. “They’re sculptural, they’re attractive, they’re healthy . . . There are great examples all over the world to demonstrate that these buildings are safe.”

While options for natural building vary widely depending on geography, the methods generally rely on using what is readily available and environmentally friendly — simple, non-toxic, non-manufactured materials that pose no threat to local ecology because they are part of it. Some options include earth bags, polypropylene bags filled with earth that can be stacked to form walls; rammed earth, mechanically compressed gravel, sand and clay; straw bales, which can be used as insulation between existing wooden walls or stacked like bricks; and cob, whose ability to be molded makes it more stable and attractive than its adobe counterpart.

The structures are comfortable, long-lasting, and energy-efficient. They save trees and cut down on transportation pollution by using alternatives to wood found in the surrounding community. Best of all, when they are no longer needed, the houses can be “composted” simply by abandoning them to the elements — no landfills required.

Take a cob house, Stephen says. “You take the roof off of it, leave it in the rain for a while and it will melt. You leave a roof on and a good foundation and it’ll last for a thousand years. But it returns back to the material that it comes from.”

Though the idea of a melt-and-go house may sound a little nerve-wracking to some, Stephens insists the structures are perfectly safe. He points out that wood houses, after all, are also vulnerable to water, and they’re susceptible to fire and termites where straw bale or cob houses are not. Earth does not burn, straw bales are more fire resistant than wood and bugs don’t like dirt. Cob’s ability to be sculpted in a single block also makes it more stable than individually stacked adobe bricks.

Still, given California’s proclivity for wildfires and earthquakes and its residents’ preoccupation with the market value of their homes, it is hardly surprising that Stephens often finds himself facing substantial resistance.

“I would not be doing natural building a service by saying, ‘Oh, no problem, you can build whenever you want, it’s going to be easy, building officials are going to love it, resale value’s great, realtors understand it, lenders understand it, no problem.’ That’s not really the reality, at least not in the United States.”

Though Natural Building Network is active on every continent except Antarctica and the practices have achieved widespread acceptance in Britain, France, Germany and Canada, its reception has been somewhat lukewarm domestically. One of the country’s most successful regions is the Pacific Northwest, particularly Oregon, where Natural Building Network was founded, and, increasingly, California. Its members are striving to educate the public and build relationships with the people who can make a difference.

“We’re working with code officials, building inspectors, city planners, and developers to help them widen their definition of what’s healthy and safe,” Stephens says.

At the end of the day, though, Stephens says his organization’s mission is much broader than simply influencing what materials people choose to build with. The nonprofit hopes to change how we approach basic concerns like housing, seeing an opportunity to transform our values and the way we live.

Although until recently about 60 percent of the world’s population lived in earthen buildings, since 1950 the size of the average American home has doubled while average family size has decreased by 50 percent. That means half as many people are living in twice as much space, setting a standard that is being mirrored around the world and increasing the drain on our resources.

Instead of rattling around in oversized mansions, Stephens asks, “What if we sculpted a house around the way we live? What if we lived in gloves instead of boxes?” Smaller, more efficiently-used houses, he argues, would be better for the Earth, our communities and ourselves.

They also form an important link to social justice. Naturally-built homes have been completed for as little as $500, a price unfathomable to the majority of homeowners still shackled to a mortgage. It calls to mind the “human right of habitat” by putting “affordable housing” on a whole new level of accessibility and offers dizzying potential for financial freedom.

Perhaps most importantly, Stephens says natural building holds the possibility of mending communities where neighbors have not spoken to each other in 20 years. Because natural building does not require extensive training, homes can often be built by the people who will live in them — along with their family, friends and neighbors. While purchasing materials nearby helps stimulate local economies and supports local builders, house-building parties reminiscent of Midwestern barn raisings can forge new ties between neighbors, ultimately making our communities friendlier and safer.

With natural building still in a pioneering phase and the many benefits and challenges posed by California’s natural resources and geography, Stephens hopes residents here will recognize their unique position and embrace their chance to shape the movement.

“Ventura County has the opportunity not only to lead California but to lead the rest of the world in modeling how to live sustainably,” he says. “My feeling is that if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”

Still, he admits, “It’s a slow process.”

Jack Stephens gives a slide presentation and leads a community discussion on natural building Aug. 2 at the Art Barn. 856 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura. Info: contact Carolyn Hernandez at 312-2002, or visit


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