The other day I was in a large building supply center looking down long isles of thousands of products used to construct modern buildings. Even though I’ve been in the building trades for over 35 years and made countless trips to purchase building supplies, this trip was different. You see, I’ve been immersed in writing a new earthbag building book and now the differences in the way I build and the way most of modern society builds has been brought into even sharper relief.
For years, I’ve been building and writing about the advantages of using locally available, minimally processed natural building materials, such as straw, earth, stone, bamboo and small diameter wood, along with recycled products. I’ve discovered how building with these materials is the best way to create low cost, safe and healthy sustainable housing. These materials are owner-builder friendly, require minimal tools and are gentle on the planet. The stark contrast between these human-scale materials and the lifestyle that naturally develops as you return to a more common-sense way of living couldn’t be more different than what I was facing in that building supply center.
The shelves of building supplies stretched before me were laden with gleaming products made from steel, brass, aluminum, concrete, plastic and other energy intensive materials — the same materials that are helping destroy the planet we call home. Behind every one of those products, there’s a story of a strip mine that ravages the earth, a factory that spews toxins into the water we drink and the air we breathe, a supply chain that’s running full steam ahead into peak oil and peak resources with little or no thought of where the future will lead. It’s simply impossible to construct our built environment with materials that consume so much energy and use up so many scarce supplies to build things of such inconsequential value. There is no way to squeeze infinite resources out of a finite world.
Despite the idiocy in continuing down this path, most will admit there’s definitely a powerful allure to buy these things. They look good and make life easier in some ways. Builders know exactly what to expect because everything is uniform and standardized. Architects and engineers can readily look up specifications for each. Building officials can pigeonhole each and every product without thinking about the blindingly obvious alternatives. And businesses need to make a profit to keep their doors open, so they continue to sell what’s most profitable. After all, there’s little or no profit in simple raw materials with low resale value. And so the system, no matter how self-destructive, goes on and on.
What’s odd is that many or even most people seem aware of this on some level, but somehow can’t grasp what needs to be done on a personal basis. They know about global climate change and environmental destruction on an abstract level, but can’t (or don’t want to) make the connection to what they do every day. What happens when the roof leaks? Go out and buy more asphalt shingles, of course. Need to add on to your house because 2,500 square feet isn’t enough? Then it’s off to buy dimensional lumber that’s likely been stripped unsustainably from a distant forest you’ll never see, along with hundreds of other environment crushing products that are available at a building supply center near you.
Maybe we can’t save the world, but building and living more sustainably is definitely worth the effort. It reduces original construction costs, and takes less money and effort to operate. It’s easier to maintain comfort in properly built sustainable homes. And they are incredibly freeing when you have only what you really need, because you have more time and money for things that really count.