Adventures With Alternative Architecture

From geodesics domes and yurts to underground homes to cob houses, Stephen Hren takes us along as he searches the realm of natural building to find his perfect alternative architecture.


| May 9, 2013



Tales From The Sustainable Underground Book Cover

"Tales from the Sustainable Underground" by Stephen Hren details the stories of just some of the pioeneers who care more for the planet than the rules. Join in as they navigate the waters of alternative architecture, intentional communities, green anarchism and beyond.


Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers

Activists striving for social change often find that their innovative ideas run afoul of antiquated laws and regulations. Tales From the Sustainable Underground by Stephen Hren (New Society Publishers, 2011) is packed with the stories of just some of these pioneers who care more for the planet than the rules, whether they’re engaged in natural building, permaculture, community development of ecologically based art. Ride along and meet courageous and inspiring individuals. In this excerpt from Chapter 4, “Alternative Architecture,” Stephen takes us along as he and his wife make the tough decisions — geodesic, cob, yurt or underground home — as they search for the ultimate in green building.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Tales From the Sustainable Underground.

I grew up in the burbs, a no man’s land of boxes and highways. We lived in a box, we rode around in shiny metal boxes, even time was divvied up into boxes. Bells rang and I moved from one classroom box to another, listening disinterestedly to prepackaged lessons until the lunch bell rang. Then I went to an enormous box and ate food made out of cardboard. A few more boxes of time and then I got on a giant yellow box and rode back to our box, where I would kill time watching a flashing box — Three’s Company, What’s Happening, Alf.

I would ride my bike around our neighborhood, where the most prominent feature of most homes was the garage for the automobiles, a style of building I would come to call “carchitecture.” Out front, a few small bushes would be the only green thing around, usually openly hostile holly bushes with spiny leaves that would attack you if you scraped against them. Even these bushes were shaped into boxes.

Growing up in a family where my father and three brothers were all variously employed in engineering, the built environment was of incredible importance to me. I am a builder by nature. From my teenage years, I had an overwhelming desire to build my own home. When I got together  with my first wife, we also had a strong desire to escape what seemed to be the empty and destructive existence being lived by our elders. At that time, there was little philosophy behind this motivation, more just a visceral instinct that what we witnessed around us was built on a rotten foundation. Building our own home would turn out to be an almost decade-long process, one that would be a long education in society’s rigorous reinforcement of the status quo and its ignorance and often outright hostility towards sustainable alternatives.

By our early twenties, we had used a small inheritance from my grandparents to purchase 10 acres of land about 45 minutes north of Durham. Our education in alternative architecture had begun. At first, our primary motivation was thrift. Once the land was purchased we had very little money to build much of anything, especially after putting in a well, septic and driveway. What could we build to live in by using materials readily at hand? How much reused stuff was avail- able? What would be inexpensive to operate in the long term? Coming from a land of bigger is always better, McMansions and SUVs just starting their hostile takeover of society, these were radical thoughts.

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