Natural Building and building with earth are great for many reasons but one of them is that it’s a way we can combat climate change. With all of the materials needed to build a conventional home as well as the energy needed to heat and cool them, residential homes account for over 20% of the United States’ energy use and carbon emissions.
With smart design, smaller footprints, and the use of local and natural materials, we can build nontoxic, beautiful, and long-lasting homes that actually make a difference in fighting the climate emergency, not to mention living well.
I see teaching others how to build with earth as part of my work, one of my contributions, in creating a better future for people and planet. In teaching with Conrad Rogue of House Alive and through our Be the Change Project since 2010 several patterns hold true for our workshops year after year. If you’re considering taking one in the future here’s some of what you can expect:
Who Shows Up?
1. More Women than Men. Often 2 to 1. One reason is the dearth of building opportunities afforded women in the male-dominated construction world outside of natural building. Another reason is that building with earth is democratic — anyone of any size, age and skill level can figure out how to get in the mud and create at a pace that works for them.
2. Wide Range of Ages. Twenty something enthusiasts, young families, and retirees finally freed up from jobs, kids, relationships…to follow their dreams
3. Hippies to Preppers. Enviro types predominate but those of the prepper and religious right persuasion are common. All share a desire to use the earth under our feet to create shelter, ovens, walls, etc.
4. Urban and Rural. There’s about an equal split of those looking for a backyard addition, those with dreams of land, and those already with land ready to act on their dreams
5. Artists and Creatives. Artists, former art majors, illustrators, interior decorators…and always a couple musicians. They always leave some beauty behind with their cobby sculptures, finish plaster work, or perfectly shaped niches.
6. Newbies and Experienced. A couple truly new to building, maybe half with some carpentry experience, one or two in each workshop are actual carpenter types. Most have little to no natural building experience although we do get repeat participants seeking to deepen their skills and understanding or become teachers themselves.
Why Natural Building Students Attend
1. Love of Earth (the material). The desire to live in an earthen building, maybe rounded, well-designed for its environment and inhabitants, that ages well, which tugs at some ancient and primordial urge, and just simply feels “right”.
2. Dislike of Conventional Materials. Violently extracted, mass produced with little care for environment, workers, etc, and controlled by global corporations, toxic…there’s a lot to dislike if we let ourselves go there.
3. Knowledge. Getting hands-on technical experience for each part of a wall, cabin, or oven.
4. Time with the Materials. Building with earth is way different from what we’re used to and “time on the wall” is essential.
5. Empowerment. Developing the confidence that one can build their own home or shelter. Often, this is a result that people don’t expect at the outset but recognize it at the end because it is such a powerful feeling they’re left with.
6. Community. Finding like-minded folks and being able to tap into an established network of builders is huge for some people. We also offer “lifetime tech support” to all our workshop participants to help them be successful with their projects.
7. Fun. It is building with mud, after all, and using one’s hands and feet and simple tools with these materials in a workshop setting is a joy.
8. Lifestyle Change. Each workshop has at least a couple people seeking simpler or more connected living solutions, or escaping from our dominant and destructive paradigm, or divorce, or mid-life opportunities.
What Makes a Successful Workshop?
Putting on a successful workshop takes a lot of work and attention to detail. There are a lot of moving parts that must come together to make the experience as valuable, helpful, and memorable as possible for the participants. Here are questions to ask:
• Are the materials staged properly?
• Is the curriculum dialed-in and the content accessible?
• Is the cook up to the task?
• Is the food delicious, nourishing, and plentiful?
• Is there a balance between physical and mental work?
• Are needs for hygiene, shelter, and basic comforts being met?
• Can adjustments be made due to weather or circumstance?
• Is the know-it-all guy who talks too much being reined in without being put down?
• Do the quiet types have space for their voices?
• How are different skill sets and experience being utilized?
• Is there room for spontaneity, fun, extracurricular activities?
We have three or sometimes even four teachers (one may be an apprentice teacher) for each of our workshops. Our current teaching staff has decades of teaching experience both in conventional and workshop settings and shares a love for the art of teaching. It’s hugely rewarding when we discuss the workshop reviews together and see that a workshop or event was a success.
Inevitably, though, there’s something that didn’t go as well as we hoped and it’s humbling to see how we missed the mark. Having a team that’s open to feedback is essential to improving future workshops.
In the past, natural building workshops tended to focus on one technique such as only cob or just strawbale. Over time, we’ve come to value being generalists so we work with cob, adobe, stone, earthbag, light straw clay, straw bales, wood, etc., as the needs of a project or locale dictate. In our longer complete cabin workshops, we also do a fair amount of carpentry where many develop new skills and comfort with power tools. We’ve found that when people leave our workshops with a diverse set of skills they’re more likely to actually do some building on their own.
The Daily Schedule
We try to create a consistent flow to the days of our workshops whether it’s a 10-day or 5-week experience. We do the harder work of making and mixing cob in the mornings and then take a long lunch break so folks can recharge, take a dip, or talk shop over iced tea with new friends.
The afternoons are a mix of lighter work (like plastering) and discussions from design to how to deal with building codes. Evenings might offer a natural building film or slideshow, music, or talent show.
For our longer workshops, we allow for days off so participants can rest or explore whatever area we happen to be building in. Natural building is physical work but we also pack in a lot of new information and some philosophy of simple living so tracking people’s wellbeing is essential and a little extra time to chill or recover could be called for. That’s yet another reason we like to have several teachers on hand.
If 2022 is your year to go big with natural building, check out our VersaTerra workshops here.
Kyle Chandler-Isacksen is a tinkerer, natural builder, and community organizer in Reno, Nevada. He and his family run the Be the Change Project, a fossil-fuel-, car-, and electricity-free urban homestead and learning space dedicated to service and simplicity and inspired by the principles of Gandhian Integral Nonviolence. They were honored as one of MOTHER’s Homesteaders of the Year in 2013. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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