Eighteen Design Principles for Natural Building

These design principles for natural builders will make the most of a home's livable space.

Arched roof

The varying ceiling height under the arched roof on the second story of Hilda Dawe’s cob cottage lends itself to different kinds of usage in different areas. Against the wall, the ceiling is too low for standing, but a desk makes perfect use of the skylight above.

Photo by Catherine Wanek

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The Art of Natural Building (New Society Publishers, 2015), edited by Joseph F. Kennedy, Michael G. Smith, and Catherine Wanek, is a collection from over 50 leading voices in the field of natural building that describes dozens of eco-friendly building techniques, from straw bale and cob, to hemp and salvaged materials. The following excerpt is from Chapter 11, “Eighteen Design Principles to Make Square Feet Work Harder.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Art of Natural Building.

Before you begin designing your home, do this four-part exercise in self-knowledge:

1. Study your lifestyle very carefully.

2. Think as freely as possible about the qualities of the spaces and places you have most loved and hated.

3. Fight to minimize your clutter and accumulations.

4. Free yourself up from advertising, media imagery and pressures to consume, since if you don’t, the urge to buy will terrorize you.

Then, when you begin designing or working with a designer, use as many of the following principles as possible:

1. Minimize circulation space by reducing or eliminating hallways and paths to and from the doors. Excessive circulation space is one of the biggest drawbacks of many floor plans.

2. If you do have to have a hallway, enrich the passthrough experience with bookcases, niches, photos, mirrors, art objects, skylights or textures.

3. Avoid circulation paths that cut diagonally through a space. This almost always chops something up that would otherwise be an integral whole. (An exception is that sometimes a large space can successfully be cut into two groupings of furniture.)

4. Don’t close rooms off from each other unless you have to. It’s easy to see how this helps minimize interior walls.

5. Consider partial separations between rooms to create an ambiguity of connectedness: arches, interior windows, half-walls, curtained spaces, freestanding headboards (for beds), interior columns and similar features. Often there are reasons for partially separating one space from another, without needing to devote a separate room to each.

6. Let interior walls be as thin as possible. (This contrasts to the many compelling reasons for having thick exterior walls.) Something thinner than an inch (2.5 cm) can often serve as a wall, as with Japanese shoji doors.

7. Organize the floor plan around activities, such as eating dinner, doing a craft or hobby, or greeting visitors, rather than around preconceived rooms. Look for the centers of action, movement and attention, then shape spaces around them.

8. Minimize the number of doors, after considering your real need for privacy.

9. If a door swing seems to take up too much space or unavoidably conflicts with something else, consider a sliding pocket door.

10. Relate carefully to the different views in different directions; include connections with the heavens above, via roof windows, skylights or porch roofs high enough to let you see some sky from inside the house. Look also for ways to appreciate or enhance the smaller views, since intimate, small-scale views can be just as enjoyable as sweeping, dramatic ones. The perceptual effect of a view is to expand the space from which you see it.

11. Have easy connections between inside and outside spaces, such as patios, decks and outdoor showers, designing them as outdoor rooms with their own definition and sense of partial enclosure. Because of seasonal variations in your climate, you may need different outdoor spaces for winter and summer use.

12. Consider creating other planetary connections: a compass in the floor, a Stonehenge-like shaft of light at the equinoxes or solstices, a sundial or shadow-casting play place or prisms in a window that send rainbows flying around. These connections help make a house feel part of a much larger whole. 

13. Avoid right angles as much as is permitted by your budget, your building system and your skill in building. Where you do have them, consider softening them by sculpting your wall material, and by using trim, ornament or a built-in feature like a fireplace or display cabinet.

14. Vary ceiling height by generally giving smaller spaces lower ceilings. This will dramatize the perceived size of the larger spaces by increasing the contrast between spaces. Floor levels can also be varied — even a few inches of difference adds to the diversity and apparent size of a space. (This, of course, is at odds with the desire for maximum accessibility for potential wheelchair-bound or otherwise infirm users of a house.)

15. Avoid flat ceilings; instead, use open trusses, curved vaults or cornices. A shape that rises will pull your feelings up with it.

16. Have a diversity of windows. A single glass block or onesquare- foot (0.1 m2) window can energize a large blank wall, and “Zen views” can make much of a small window.

17. Plan lighting to create pools of light, rather than uniform illumination everywhere.

18. To extend rooms and create diversity, add “non-room” spaces, such as window seats, sleeping alcoves, niches, built-in benches and recessed shelves. Thick-walled building systems like straw bale and rammed earth naturally allow these kinds of spaces, but thin-wall methods can also incorporate them. One result on the outside might be “bump-outs.”

Of course, these guidelines aren’t absolute, and sometimes they exceptions are as intriguing as the rules! Nevertheless, I believe that by using these principles, small spaces can be intensified to become richer and more enjoyable. A vibrant level of complexity will automatically unfold.

Reprinted with permission from The Art of Natural Building, edited by Joseph F. Kennedy, Michael G. Smith, and Catherine Wanek, and published by New Society Publishers, 2015. You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Art of Natural Building