Twenty years ago many of the North American pioneers of strawbale, cob, timber frame, round pole and other forms of “natural building” came together up a remote mountain canyon in New Mexico at a lovely old log mansion called Black Range Lodge. The Lodge and the small hamlet of Kingston, populated with many lovely homes of strawbale and cob, are nestled in the foothills of the 3 million acre Gila Wilderness, a taste of the Old West halfway between Truth or Consequences and Silver City. The hostess was Catherine Wanek, author of The New Strawbale Home and several other great books, whose family owned the Lodge, and who with her partner, Pete Fust, the king of "tractor cob," tried to build interest in these new versions of ancient practices.
We first met Catherine when she came to videotape our strawbale construction course at The Farm in 1996, with Jon and Mitzi Ruiz who had been sent to help us by Matts Myhrmann and Judy Knox at Out-On-Bale in Tucson. At that Black Range meeting the year before, Catherine had coined the term “natural building” to distinguish these emerging styles and philosophy from “green buildings,” “smart buildings” or other styles just coming into popular use.
Natural buildings don't require gadgets or energy systems. They can be built with tools your grandparents would have recognized, or sometimes with no tools at all. They can be built without a mortgage. They can endure long past the lifetime of many building products and styles today, and when they are no longer safe or useful to live in, they compost back into the ground leaving no toxic residues.
What are Natural Buildings?
Marcos Grossman, who sponsors the private Facebook group, Natural Builders (with 16,845 members), defines them this way:
"A natural building involves a range of building systems and materials that place major emphasis on sustainability. Ways of achieving sustainability through natural building focus on durability and the use of minimally processed, plentiful or renewable resources, as well as those that, while recycled or salvaged, produce healthy living environments and maintain indoor air quality. Natural building tends to rely on human labor, more than technology. As Michael G. Smith observes, it depends on 'local ecology, geology and climate; on the character of the particular building site, and on the needs and personalities of the builders and users.'
“The basis of natural building is the need to lessen the environmental impact of buildings and other supporting systems, without sacrificing comfort or health. To be more sustainable, natural building uses primarily abundantly available, renewable, reused or recycled materials. The use of rapidly renewable materials is increasingly a focus. In addition to relying on natural building materials, the emphasis on the architectural design is heightened. The orientation of a building, the utilization of local climate and site conditions, the emphasis on natural ventilation through design, fundamentally lessen operational costs and positively impact the environmental. Building compactly and minimizing the ecological footprint is common, as are on-site handling of energy acquisition, on-site water capture, alternate sewage treatment and water reuse."
California bambusero Kevin Rowell says,
“Natural Builders collaborate with artists, building professionals, and individuals in a range of fields, from the creation of ecological spaces, to the development of new materials, to the understanding and improvement of vernacular building techniques.”
Last month some of the world's most accomplished natural builders returned to Black Range Lodge for a 20th anniversary celebration and colloquium. Their names are too many to recite here, but many are pictured or mentioned in posts by Ziggy Liloia and Eva Edelson. There are photos of ourselves and Ziggy on Eva's site, making corn tortillas on the Rocket-Fired Griddle Oven designed and built by Flemming Abrahamson of Fornyet Energi and Max Edleson of Firespeaking.
The breadth of creative building styles was amazing. Hands-on workshops, powerpoint presentations, films and discussion groups showed us the latest in strawbale, cob, adobe, earthbag, cordwood, timber frame, greywater systems, rainwater harvesting, pallet truss and wallboard construction, papercrete moldings, treehouses, bendy-board, round pole, stone, bamboo, ovens, tamped earthen floors, mixed and troweled earth and lime plasters, tadalac waterproof finish coats, painted aliz, Japanese, Nepalese, Ecuadoran, Taiwanese techniques, old English tudor restorations, living roofs and integrated food systems. Even many of the songs sung around the campfire were informative as well as hilarious.
A sampling of our notes:
“Above all, less.” — Ianto Evans
Ianto's rules about houses: Never live with a TV, never have keys or locks, never have debt, never own anything costing more than $1000.
“The finer the edge, the clearer the transmission of your body and your craft.” — Robert LaPorte on sharpening tools.
Before applying clay to wattle, cob or plaster, Japanese master craftsmen ferment the clay with chopped straw for one month to one year. It makes for better drying without cracking, good adhesion, and ability to absorb shock.
Lime is active when it is wet. Keep everything dry and tools clean and you won't get hurt. Someone just coming to a site to volunteer should start by going around and cleaning everything they can find. Keep the site and the tools clean at each stage of the process.
SunRay Kelley on his famous Yoga Studio door: “I don't think there is any door in the world that compares to it. It is the door we all come into the world through.”
“Wind swirls, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes — the last buildings standing are the round ones. Every time you build with parallel lines you are just setting up dominoes.” – SunRay Kelley
“Proprietary Refractory Mix” — How Keiko Denzer describes cob on construction permit applications.
Our small contribution to the colloquium consisted of a couple of “soapbox” sessions on using biochar in natural buildings to sequester carbon, clean indoor air, and provide other useful functions. Part of our process is helping others to understand the key difference between labile and recalcitrant carbon.
Soil organic matter is made up of different pools which vary in their turnover time or rate of decomposition. The labile pool, which turns over relatively rapidly (< 5 years), results from the cycling of fresh residues such as plant material (leaf litter, dead roots and branches) and living organisms (earthworms, beetles, animal scat, bacteria and fungi). This is normal organic decomposition. The byproducts are gases such as carbon dioxide and methane – which waft up into the atmosphere adding to the greenhouse effect for a few years before raining back down on land and sea – and organic soil carbon, which cycles to feed microbiota, plants and animals such as ourselves.
More resistant labile residues are physically or chemically protected and are slower to turn over (5-40 years). Protected humus, peat, and decay-resistant woody biomass falls into this category. Much of this labile carbon pool is necessary to provide free carbon for the formation of new growth. So, for instance, if the stalks of corn are consistently removed or burned in the field after harvesting the grain, after some time the soil in the field will be too low in carbon to produce tall corn, even with chemical fertilizer. The traditional method would be to graze cattle, who are woody-biomass ruminants by nature (not grain or grass feeders) on the corn stover, and the manures they deposit would contain all of that carbon, processed into a form that will be most easily used by the soil microbes and available to next season's plants.
The labile carbon pool has been to shown to be influenced by the retention of stubble residues, with a decline in nitrogen supply of up to 4 kg/ha/day on removal of these residues. Green manure crops and phase pastures are an ideal way of providing soil with a ‘pulse’ of labile carbon that can have benefits over several years, but in most Australian farming systems crop roots, stubble and animal by-products are the usual carbon sources. In tropical soils, increasing amounts of labile carbon have been associated with higher grain yields.– Fran Hoyle (Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia), Daniel Murphy (The University of Western Australia) and Jessica Sheppard (Avon Catchment Council), soilquality.org.au
There is a form of carbon that makes up the stable soil organic matter pool which can take hundreds to millions of years to turn over. Recalcitrant carbon in the form of man-made biochar can be found dating back 8000 years in the Central Amazon and was a key component of the Terra Preta soils that enabled the rise of great civilizations in the Americas before European contact. The oldest known forms of recalcitrant carbon trace back long before the ascent of man, to the earliest forests on Earth, 500 million years ago. For a form of carbon to remain that long undigested by microbes, it must really be recalcitrant!
|Infilling straw foundation with pumice|
- could as easily be biochar
To change the direction we are headed, we need to take concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere (and other trace gases that also trap heat) back to pre-industrial levels. We are now one degree warmer and the atmosphere contains 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Paleoclimatology tells us that 440 parts per million should translate to 7 to 10 degrees of warming, so we know that is baked into the cake at this point, we just haven't allowed time for equilibrium to be achieved. We'll speak more to this in forthcoming posts from the Paris climate talks. How do we get from 400 or 440 ppm back to 350 or 260 ppm? Recalcitrant carbon.
Changing agriculture may or may not be enough to reverse climate change. That is a big claim, and while we respect many of those who make it, we question whether labile carbon sequestration is enough to do the trick. We think recalcitrant carbon is more than enough, but why limit our pallet to agricultural operations? Biochar applied to living roofs makes them more drought and flood resistant; applied to plasters allows them to absorb pollen and pollutants while moderating humidity of indoor spaces; applied to stains provides color while preserving woods and reducing mold and mildew in closets; and applied anywhere locks up carbon for the life of the building and then beyond, for thousands of years.
In a recent post to our Facebook page, Michael Tobis commented:
I haven't hear the words "labile" and "recalcitrant" in this context before, but that seems about right. Restoring preindustrial soil works out to be woefully inadequate to getting CO2 back under control. If we could contrive to have ten or twenty times the natural soil that would be another matter. I would love to have an idea whether this is possible. But I am finding it hard to engage soil experts in the question of whether and how that would be possible. …
A lot of people think agriculture is the key carbon problem. It all comes down to food in the end of course, but as someone who is now happily meat and dairy free except on rare occasions, I am not worried about the food supply as such. People are starving due to concentration of wealth, which leads to excess production of luxury goods at the expense of basic foods for all. It is not due to a physical incapacity to produce enough food. But the carbon problem is about new (OK, well, ancient but long-buried) fossil carbon suddenly injected into the biosphere. If there's a solution to rolling the problem back (rather than just slowing the ratcheting up) it has two parts 1) pulling the extra carbon out of the air (or ocean) and 2) putting it somewhere. No matter how good we get at part 1, it's no help without part 2.We agree with what was said by Michael, and we would add this: human civilization is already in massive “overshoot” of CO2 emissions to the tune of some 1380 GtCO2 added to the atmosphere after we passed the critical point at around 330 ppm where we guaranteed eventual warming of 2 degrees. This carbon debt is currently increasing at a rate of about 40 GtCO2 per year pushing us further into climate debt and higher up the thermometer. The UN targets for Paris propose an emissions allowance of a further 950 GtCO2 by the end of the century (about 1 trillion tons), which could push temperatures to 5 degrees by then, and much higher later when equilibrium is reached. It would be game over for mammals such as ourselves on this planet.
We need to reduce concentrations, not merely slow emissions. We have to go to zero and then beyond. By 2050 at the earliest and 2070 at the latest, concentrations need to have come back to 330 parts per million. We have only a few decades to get that much into the ground.
The suite of carbon farming tools can, taken to scale, account for 50 GtC/yr removal annually. Biochar (which could be coming from ethically managed biomass energy systems) is 10 to 20 percent of that and it is recalcitrant; integrated grasslands, agroforestry and land management practices make up the rest, and although made of labile, they are capable of pushing the cycle longer than 5 years — out to several decades, which is what we need right now. A universal overnight change of agriculture and energy systems alone could remove 1400 GtC from the atmosphere in 28 years, although it will not scale that quickly, but 50 years is certainly within the realm of possibility. One way to make it go faster, and last longer, is to find more applications for biochar.Biochar is the latest tool in the natural builders' toolbox. Returning after a week at the Colloquium, we got this message from someone who had also attended:
Tonight I snuggled with my boys and said prayers as usual. Tonight my 4th grader Alex said, "If I was running for President I would make sure that everybody supported the biochar solution. And that everybody also supported natural building solutions." Yeah! Maybe you should focus on speaking to the younger generations! Their time is NOW!