In order to make green building accessible to all, there are a few major hurdles to overcome. Issues that are paramount are cost, skill, labour force, and aesthetic value.
The cost of green building (one could argue ‘green living’ in general) is simply prohibitive to many. It seems contradictory, that using more natural and recyclable materials, should cost more but somehow it does. Over the course of our research we’ve watched many documentaries and television programs, read countless articles and books, and reviewed internet forums all with the same message, “this may cost more but it’s the right thing to do.” Really now? So my paying you an inordinate amount of money to “intern” with you (read: provide whatever labour you need to complete your projects) is somehow for the greater good? Or buying ‘eco-friendly’ paint or cleaning products is somehow preferable to looking to more traditional methods that would cost me a quarter of the price for comparable results? There are a lot of people, and companies, out there that present themselves as altruistic while profiting greatly taking advantage of people’s fears and good intentions.
Some of it is just silly and can be easily addressed but it’s a matter of doing away with a paradigm that exists that tells us that living naturally means doing the same thing with different resources. Systems for example- be they electrical or water- can cost a great deal. But the need for an expensive septic system is something that can be done away with as simply as recycling greywater and using a compost toilet (see Jenkin’s “Humanure Handbook”). Likewise, save your money on expensive stains and paints and use natural plasters and lime finishes. “Rocket Mass Heaters” (see Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson) are a beautiful and remarkably efficient way to heat your home, doing away with the inefficient and expensive forced air systems that we’re all so used to. There are so many more examples, many of which you’ll find in our finished home. The point is- if the system or product is too expensive, ask yourself whether it’s necessary and if so whether there isn’t another way to do it. And look to your resources for inspiration rather than trying to attain materials for a predetermined idea. It’s a simple shift that can save a lot of money.
Skill is another hurdle many natural builders find themselves having to overcome. There’s a great deal of skill required to build a traditional house, and a great deal of skill involved in building some non-traditional houses. A lot of people don’t have the time or resources to devote to interning for six months or more in order to learn how to build a home for themselves- and they shouldn’t have to. A single mother myself for many years, I have been particularly put off by some of the current trends out there that require you to put your life on hold and live in a tent while helping someone else to build just in order to acquire the skills (never mind the materials and labour force you’ll require later) to build your own home. It’s simply not feasible for a large majority.
There are, however, some very simple building techniques that require more practice than skill. Cob for instance. Cob is a remarkably easy, if somewhat time consuming, material to build with. Anyone can do it. You don’t need extensive training or tremendous upper body strength or a workforce of twenty of your closest friends to put up a cob house. Likewise with earthbag building. In fact- with earthbag building (should you construct a dome, incidentally the strongest structure you can build) you don’t even need the basic skills (or materials) required to build a roof- because there is no traditional roof– simply more bags.
Another of the issues we’ve come across is the need for a large labour force. Again, this makes natural building inaccessible to many. Sure, it’d be great if communities returned to a more communal way of life, helping each other as the need presented, but we simply don’t live in that kind of world at present. I’ve seen many websites and forums looking desperately for ‘helpers’ to finish up some work or other only to come up short and put their plans on hold yet again. A big part of our research was devoted to determining what building methods required the least amount of time and labour. Again, we came back to cob and earthbag building.
Finally, an issue dear to my own heart, is the matter of aesthetic value. It seems there are two camps- those who spend a fortune on “green building” and end up with a rather traditional looking, attractive home and those who go to the other green-extreme and live in a shack, or an “adorable hobbit house”, or (as a friend so kindly pointed out) a home that looks “just like what they had in Planet of the Apes”. Call me superficial but aesthetics are important to me. I like my environment to comfort, inspire, and receive me- not just provide me with shelter- but I don’t feel I should have to spend a small fortune to achieve such luxury.
Cob is extremely versatile. I’ve seen some quite incredible buildings, much nicer than traditional homes, made of cob. Earthbags are also versatile, to some extent, though many dome homes end up looking rather strange and a little too Star Trek-y for my taste. As we intend to build with earthbags though, I’ve been actively researching older buildings in search of attractive shapes that can be achieved through this building method. (Adobe bricks also lend to beautiful shapes, though are suited for warmer climates than ours.) I’m determined that we do not need to compromise aesthetic value and if we do really intend to appeal to the masses the end result needs to be attractive.
If we can overcome the issues of cost, skill, labour required, and visual appeal I believe we can speak to a broader range of people and help people of all backgrounds and means build naturally. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Helping not just ourselves but one another while preserving our natural resources and respecting the planet.
You can see some of our projects at http://www.facebook.com/pages/New-Brigden-Alberta/Canadian-Dirtbags/128912733998?ref=mf