The Be the Change Project’s Top Tips for Regenerative Living, Part 6: Building with Earth

Reader Contribution by Kyle Chandler-Isacksen
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The boys and I putting the final touches on the Tadelakt finish of our cob oven.

This series is based on the belief that our small, individual actions are important.  Sure, climate change, environmental degradation, structural inequality…are big problems that need big, systems-based solutions and one person’s worm bin won’t save the planet.  But I also know that not having a worm bin and plopping my food scraps in the trash causes bad things to happen.  It subtracts from the balance of life and health. Rich worm castings improve a plant’s life, a garden’s health, make better carrots, feed a few thousand worms.  That’s an addition. Plus, it’s an action we can take, daily, share with our kids, our friends, scale up. Combine that with a lifestyle of plusses and we start to get places.  I also know that if I don’t try to live regeneratively, that if I don’t act in my community, demonstrate alternatives, that I’ve already given up. But this piece is not about worm bins but building with earth and is our Top Tip Number 6 for regenerative living.  

By earth I mean clay-rich soils and sand.  Building with earth falls under the broader umbrella of natural building and the even bigger one of green building.  For this article, I’m sticking with just building with earth: cob and adobe, natural plasters and clay-paints.

Why earth?  People have been living with earth for millennia and maybe a third of all people today still are. I suggest it’s a part of us and the human experience as much as music and storytelling.  There’s a deep affinity within us that feels primal, natural, right when we enter an earthen home or run our hands along a sexy, slightly undulating earthen-plastered wall. Earthen construction has curves, like nature. It has personality and character and flaws that make it lovable.  Earth ages well and looks timeless, like it belongs to a place or helps a place to belong.

Clay-rich soils and sand are abundant and can often be sourced locally, not requiring big companies and damaging extractions.  Earth is non-toxic: there’s no off-gassing and ill-begotten wars needed to secure it. Clay soils come in a variety of colors: the clays on our land are dull-red and brown but we also bring clays from afar when we travel including a vibrant red-orange clay from over the hill in Auburn, California.  We also ScAvenge! leftover pottery clay from art studios and classes which isn’t local but is salvaged and provides other colors. Earth is fun to work with and building with it is democratic – anyone can do it.

Here’s a short rant: Have you seen the Sherwin-Williams logo “Cover the Earth” with the earth getting drenched in blood-red paint?  Dear god, is there a more awful logo out there?  

We purchased our broken down house in 2011 and have fixed it up since then with a lot of earth inside and out. Building with earth is not just for new houses and cabins but also for remodeling conventional homes, like ours.

Here’s what we’ve done (consider this my list of tips):

Applied clay paint over our existing paint in our bedroom 

Earth-plastered our living room over our old paint and drywall 

Added an earthen floor section to our living room

Repaired original stick-framed walls with light-straw clay infill and earthen plaster in our mudroom and bathroom

Built earthbag landscaping walls to define spaces and create beauty

Built a cob pizza oven in our front yard and a cob “stoven” on our porch for summer slow-cooking 

Made earthen plaster art and paintings for around the property (easy to do onold drywall pieces)

Earthed-out an existing shed and transformed it into a lovely summer cabin

Used earth to encapsulate and decorate a wood-fired hot tub

Made a thick, heat-retaining wall of earth in our greenhouse

And, down the block: Poured an earthen floor in my mother-in-law’s mother-in-lawcabin, an earthen hearth in her home, and built the One-dayCob House in her backyard

Do you live in a rental but want earth in your life? You can hang a piece of clay-plastered or painted drywall over an existing wall.  But own or rent, just start.

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