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The Art of Natural Building: Social Justice


"Modern building is a big-money industry, with all the problems associated with other industries. In the race to maximize immediate profit, long-term concerns like the health of the environment and its inhabitants are often overlooked. The rich and powerful are able to make their own homes and lives pleasant at the expense of those less privileged, often far away in distant countries. Furthermore, the building industry and regulations concentrate power in the hands of the government and selected corporations, by enforcing compliance with a limited set of options. If the code says we have to use concrete foundations on every building, just think how much money the cement manufacturers will make!


We grow up being told you can't build a house unless you're a professional builder. If we want a house, we have to work full-time at a job we usually dislike to make enough money to pay a builder who probably hates his job, too. Since we're convinced we need to spend $150,000 on a 2000 square foot house, we chain ourselves to a thirty-year mortgage which forces us to keep working at unsatisfying jobs for the rest of our lives.


But it doesn't have to be that way. By using local, unprocessed materials like earth and straw, building smaller than the conventional house, and providing much of the labor yourself, you can create a home that is almost unbelievably affordable. As the price tag drops from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands or even a few thousand dollars, it becomes easier to shrug off the yoke of loans and mortgages. You can also save yourself money in the long run with a smaller, more efficient house that uses simple passive solar technology for heating and cooling. As a result you may find your cash needs dropping. You can cut down the hours you work and spend more time with the kids, or grow a big vegetable garden which will save you even more money.


Techniques which rely on human labor and creativity produce a different social dynamic than those which depend on heavily processed materials, expensive machines, and specialized skills. When you build with straw bales, cob, adobe, or rammed earth, the whole family can get involved. A building site free of power tools is a safe and supportive environment for children to learn valuable skills. Or invite your friends and neighbors for an old-fashioned barn raising. Offer them food and an education in exchange for their time and energy. It's a good deal for everyone, and a lot of fun. While building your home you're also building a different kind of social structure where people depend on themselves and each other to get their basic needs met, instead of handing over their power to governments, corporations and professionals. When those of us who are relatively affluent use a smaller share of the Earth's resources, more becomes available to the less privileged and to future generations."-Michael Smith


Michael Smith was a founding director of the Cob Cottage Company. He teaches natural building and permaculture throughout the western United States, Canada and Mexico. He is also a founder and organizer of the Natural Building Colloquium. Permission to quote has kindly been given.

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