Natural building can be defined simply as the use of natural materials to build a structure. The focus is on materials that are non-industrial, minimally processed, locally abundant, recycled, re-purposed, or salvaged. In undertaking natural building there is a focus on human energy, and it contributes to social and environmental sustainability. In Newfoundland, natural materials would include wood, rock and stone, clay, wool, and fibre. A classic example of a natural building would be a log home where, in its originating design, even the insulation (e.g. chinking between logs) was comprised of naturally-occurring dry moss.

There is much merging of the terms ‘natural’ and ‘green’, and it is good to clarify that putting vegetable gardens on the roof of building complexes or the sundecks of condominiums are aspects of ‘green’ building and not natural building. Most houses these days are a complex of wood composites and synthetics that may very well be energy efficient, and seek to reduce energy consumption through various approaches to heating such as earth-based heat pumps or air heat exchangers, but they are far from ‘natural’.

Our modern age has progressively moved away from construction with natural materials by the increasing use of synthetic products, notably gypsum for drywall, plastic and vinyl, much of which is produced from petroleum. Some professionals propose that modern houses are damaging to the health of their occupants, and to the earth, when we take into consideration: destructive mining and production of gypsum for drywall, limestone for concrete, iron for steel hardware, rebar, steel studs. There are enormous amounts of construction waste globally, and there are huge carbon emissions and fuel consumption in production of concrete.

Here in Newfoundland, almost everyone uses asphalt shingles on roofs, not considering that they are a crude oil product, and will need to be peeled off and sent to the landfill within a couple of decades. What happened to cedar shakes and shingles that can be a lifetime roof? Turns out that the overharvesting of our forests for short-term profits decreases the availability of value-added products, such as shakes from old-growth cedar, and it has become prohibitively expensive to consider this option. Some health professionals consider that the chronic uptake of these products, such as resin vapour, fibreglass, plastics, even at very low levels, may be contributing to kidney, liver, nervous and immune system damage, cancer, asthma, and various behaviour disorders. Perhaps the best-known problem attributable to building with unnatural materials is the build-up of moulds.

Building naturally is handy

In rural Newfoundland, all the traditional houses were built—mostly by the owners—from lumber harvested sustainably from the surrounding forests. Some houses, and almost all root cellars, were insulated with sawdust, a natural byproduct of sawmilling that allows the walls to breathe. Mortgages were unheard of, and just about everyone was a ‘handyman’ of some sort; it was essential for survival. In our modern age we have a plethora of “highly educated” folks who cannot do much of anything except type on computers.

We can conclude that to a great degree building is shaped by culture and may not reflect the best use of available resources.

Modern construction, like many aspects of the western lifestyle, has been ramped-up to provide housing in as short a time frame as possible through the use of resin-based plywood and especially particle board that gets covered on the outside of buildings with vinyl siding and inside with drywall. The handling and processing of wood into post and beams and other attractive features has been largely lost because construction labour, like most trades, has escalated out of affordable range.

It takes time to build with natural materials because we have to gather them, process them, and apply them. If you want to include curves and angles you need more time, so mostly everything is some form of box with 90-degree angles. You can’t go to the lumberyard and buy clay to make an earthen floor, or sawdust to insulate walls. For that matter, you generally can’t even find post or beams larger than six inch diameter in most lumberyards, and such materials require special orders — and be prepared to pay lavishly. At the Tree Of Life Sustainability Project we purchased a Hudson bandsaw mill about five years ago, and now are able to produce whatever dimension lumber we wish; all it takes is our time.

Why build with natural materials?

Natural building puts us in contact with Nature as we gather and assimilate the raw materials that she provides; and the process of building can be blissful. It turns out that natural materials such as wood and clay actually breathe, allowing an interchange between the outside environment and the inside environment. If we build a log home, we don’t (or shouldn’t) use vapour barriers, and we don’t need insulation in the walls. Vapour barriers are the beginning of moisture build-up that can lead to mould and/or rot. Think about it: the purpose of a vapour barrier gets reversed in summer when it is hotter outside than inside, and so the condensation builds on the outside of the barrier and ends up in the structural wood.

A partially-constructed shed made of pallets at the Tree of Life. Photo courtesy Ian Goudie.
A partially-constructed shed made of pallets at the Tree of Life. Photo courtesy Ian Goudie.

As a healthy alternative, we can insulate using sawdust and/or wood shavings (10 per cent hydrated lime can be added to ensure it is insect proof), which breathes and does not require vapour barriers. As a bonus in log homes, the wood provides a huge thermal mass that can accumulate radiant heat from the sun during the day, and dissipate it back to the residents at night — an awesome form of passive solar heating. With correctly designed eaves, such homes will feel notably cozy and warm in winter, while being pleasantly cool in the heat of summer. Despite being in a boreal rainforest, most houses in Newfoundland are built without functional eaves.

In 1973, Lloyd Kahn produced his classic book Shelter, which provides photos and descriptions of homes from all over the globe that humans have created using natural materials to provide protection from the elements. Building with natural materials evolved in many cultures from necessity because these were readily available in the surrounding environment. For example, it is very impressive to witness the large-scale use of rock and clay in Central American countries, such as Guatemala, where the local people will gather and use clay to make adobe bricks, and build structures using rock as if it were a national pastime.

In his classic writing from the 1800s, Henry David Thoreau built his humble log home on Walden Pond, Mass. and espoused the virtues of simplifying life. He noted our pattern to build houses like those of our neighbours and bear a lifetime of debt, the service of which ensures that our time actually enjoying our homes is very limited. So we can conclude that to a great degree building is shaped by culture and may not reflect the best use of available resources. I often say that given the availability of rock, why are we not building with it in Newfoundland? Thoreau was right, as I believe we build as though we have to have a house like that of our neighbours.

Alternative design and alternative energy

In recent years there has been an increased focus on alternative energy and off-the-grid living, and this will likely intensify in Newfoundland and Labrador as the upcoming generation starts to bear the debt to develop Muskrat Falls for so-called ‘green’ hydroelectric energy. This approach of mega-developments for energy are driven by only meeting the “demand” side of the equation without taking serious the need to adjust that demand.

In Part 1 of this series, I emphasized that anything that is turning electricity into heat is vastly wasteful. In off-the-grid living, heating a home electrically is not even a possible consideration. Yet we have an electrical grid system in our province that now must be designed to meet that one extreme day in deep winter when homeowners have their electrical heaters on maximum. As even more and more electrically-heated houses manifest in vinyl villages on the moon-scaped lands of suburban St. John’s, one can speculate on more future deep-chill blackouts and electrical woes for the future rate payers, and more mega-hydroelectric projects.

Masonry heater and windows at the Tree of Life. Photo courtesy Ian Goudie.
Masonry heater and south-facing windows at the Tree of Life. Photo courtesy Ian Goudie.

If we take designing for energy efficiency seriously, we come to understand that a house should have maximum glass exposure to the south. In other words, our picture windows face the sun and not the road. In the cul-de-sac city sprawl there is no consideration of optimizing passive solar radiation. At the Tree Of Life Sustainability Project we have a two-story Russian Fireplace, a masonry wood heating unit with about 6,ooo bricks that, in addition to being stoked with wood, periodically soaks up the passive solar radiation through the large south-facing glass panels and delivers the heat back slowly over the remaining 24-hour period. We minimized glass on the north-facing side. In January on a nice sunny but otherwise cold day, the temperature inside the main building can hold steady at about 25 degrees Celcius without any wood heating in place! An amazing outcome of the principle of thermal mass in alignment with passive solar radiation. A rock house, especially on the southern face, would provide an amazing thermal mass. So there is a lot to be said for alternative design that helps achieve alternative energy.

Designing with what Nature is providing takes us along a path of warmth and abundance. All we need is our own time and energy to work with it.

Ian Goudie, Ph.D. is President of the Tree Of Life Sustainability Project Inc., a not-for-profit association located in St. Catherines, Salmonier, St. Mary’s Bay, NL


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