Last Updated ( Wednesday, 27 January 2010 18:11 )
Doing What Comes Naturally
by Jane Norton
"Today, held clay in my for the first time, I hands. It felt like holding a baby for the first time — you don’t yet know this child, but you already love him." This heartfelt expression of awe and delight was spoken by Lyudmila Zaytseva of Russia, through an interpreter, to the other participants at the Natural Building Colloquium held at the historic Black Range Lodge (www.blackrangelodge.com) in Kingston, New Mexico in October 2003. This sense of reverence for earthen building materials was echoed by many of the 50 people who gathered from across the U.S and from Russia, Israel, Denmark, Chile, Nicaragua, and England to share information, resources, and expertise, and to "get down and dirty", collaboratively creating structures of nature’s abundant gifts.
Catherine Wanek, author of The New Strawbale Home, and Pete Fust, the king of "tractor cob", are the welcoming and generous owners of the Lodge and coordinators of this year’s event. The Lodge and the hamlet of Kingston, nestled in the foothills of the 3 million acre Gila Wilderness, offer a taste of the old west and a playground for natural building enthusiasts to live in nature’s beauty while exercising their creativity and developing their skills. Drawing neophytes as well as seasoned architects, designers, and builders, the magic of this event was evoked when everyone engaged as equals in hands-on applications. Participants were asked to introduce themselves to the group by speaking "what they were most passionate about" and, in addition to the scheduled presenters and workshop facilitators, all were encouraged to bring materials and offer presentations about their own work, which spanned the spectrum from personal housing, to professional building, to community scale projects.
Fueled by lovingly prepared fresh, healthy, organic food, participants chose from a smorgasbord of opportunities for learning, sharing, connecting, creating, and playing. Though the Colloquium was intensely information rich, and the schedule of activities jam-packed, the tone was inspiring, energizing and fun. Sareya Gould, a 10 year old who attended with her father and twin sister expressed that sense when explaining that prior to the Colloquium, she was "afraid it would be all work, but I discovered that it was work and play at the same time!" One of my own fondest memories from the week was of dancing in the mud as we prepared cob with our feet for reconstructing the Phoenix outdoor bread oven/bench, while a golf cart of musicians spontaneously fiddled their way around the grounds giving energy to the builders of the various projects occurring simultaneously.
The breadth of creative applications of age-old building techniques combined with innovative alternative technologies was amazing. A mix of hands-on workshops, presentations, and discussion groups offered information and real time learning regarding straw bale, cob, papercrete, earthbag, and organic timber frame construction, ferro cement water catchment, greywater systems, rainwater harvesting, aerobic pumice wick waste water systems, passive and active solar and photovoltaics, pallet truss construction, soil enrichment and tree planting, and running diesel car and truck engines on free, used vegetable oil. Collectively we built a straw bale emergency shelter, an earthbag root cellar, a tractor cob wall, solar cooking ovens, a tamped earth floor, mixed and troweled the earth plaster finish coat to a publisher’s office in town, applied Clayote plaster to the inside of a building constructed by previous Colloquium attendees, mixed and painted aliz on the interior walls of the largest meeting space, and were delighted by the "hotel" that the youngest participants independently constructed with straw bales and pallets.
Many Colloquium participants reported that they experienced benefits beyond what they expected. Todd Gould, a conventional builder from southern Illinois, said "I came to expand my knowledge of sustainable architecture, but I feel that this has been a life-changing event... that I have been put on a path that I don’t quite understand yet." He also expressed a knowing that "this is bigger than all of us." Building with natural materials in a way that honors the earth and other species can be a cost-effective way of creating housing in places where there is great need. Builders without Borders, (www.BuildersWithoutBorders.org), an international network of ecological builders working together for a sustainable future, was highlighted several times at the Colloquium as an effective vehicle for creating self-sufficiency in communities around the world.
Several authors and publishers generously shared their experiences and expectations, respectively. HopeDance, Mother Earth News (www.motherearthnews.com) and New Society Publishers (www.newsociety.com) encouraged submissions that would bring information and excitement about natural building and sustainable living to a larger audience. David Eisenberg, Executive Director of the Development Center for Alternative Technology (www.dcat.net), who has made deep inroads in guiding the building regulations industry to accept and legitimize natural building technologies, concluded his talk with a quote that suggests how to spread the word about natural building : "the way to subvert the dominant paradigm is to have more fun than they do and to make sure they know about it." This community of pioneers who enthusiastically and energetically worked and played together, each wholeheartedly offered their piece of the larger vision of creating a more sustainable, healthy world based on the principles and patterns of nature. Judy Knox, who along with her husband Matts Myhrman has been at the forefront of the strawbale revival (www.azstarnet.com/~dcat/outbale.htm), invited us to "become a demonstration of the world we wish to create." The "demonstrations" at this Colloquium exponentially boosted my level of hope for the world!
The 2004 Natural Building Colloquium will be hosted by Gaiatecture, a sustainable architecture firm and The Peaceweavers community at The Thunder Mountain Wellness Center in Bath, New York (the Finger Lakes region), June 26 - July 3. For more information, please contact
/ 585-624-2540 or
Jane Norton is Chief Visionary Officer of Eartheal, (www.eartheal.org), a non-profit offering education and community service projects for creating a sustainable world, and President of Natural Re-Sourcing Partners, a coaching/consulting firm facilitating development of sustainable lifestyles and organizations.
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 27 January 2010 18:15 )
Last April South Coast Permaculture Guild did a presentation on Earthships as a part of our monthly meeting at the Community Environmental Center in Santa Barbara. In the audience was Gary Duncan, from Smart Shelter Network in southwestern Colorado, and we were lucky enough to spend time with him before he left Santa Barbara and learn of his immense knowledge of natural building and alternative building design.
Strawbale, cob, and adobe. We’ve all heard about them, maybe even dreamed of building and owning one, but what exactly is involved in building one of these non- conventional structures? Since they have been around for so long, why don’t we see more of them built?
Gary Duncan had many of these same questions and a curiosity to learn more. He began Smart Shelter Network as a result of an illness caused from years of working with toxic building materials. He had also observed how many alternative building structures were being built in his area of southwestern Colorado, and dreamed of forming a network, to share and exchange knowledge. This network would not only share information on how to build, but what was involved in financing, insuring and permitting these structures. This wonderful vision became a reality, and now the network provides advocacy and education to code officials, bankers, material suppliers, the media and public. It is composed of members who form task forces dealing with specific issues such as water catchment, ferro cement, strawbale, bamboo, pressed earth block and more.
Gary Duncan will share some of the experiences in upcoming lecture and slide shows (see ad in this issue for specific details) with over 3000 slides of documented case studies he has collected over the last six years, and later in a half day workshop.
Where’s the positive way out? As news of the increasing destruction of our planet’s environment escalates, more and more people are seeing that effective personal action is not only advisable, but absolutely necessary. Gandhi kept turning our attention to personal responsibility. Pro-active environmentalism is necessary. We need to put pressure on the electric energy producers, the developers and auto manufacturers to turn the tide of global warming and resource depletion. But the lion’s share of effective changes will come not from those who produce commodities, but from changing what we consume.
Of all the purchases we make in a lifetime, the buildings we live and work in pack the largest environmental wallop. They are responsible for the loss of old-growth forests. They are heated and lit with electricity... the number one contributor to global climate change. According to the EPA and World Health Organization, 30% of materials used in construction harbor toxins sufficient to produce environmental illness in some dwellings.
There are a couple of beacons of hope on the horizon. Some of them are delightful surprises, which is often characteristic of profound solutions to perplexing problems.
Bucky Fuller’s concept of "Synergy" stated the seemingly impossible. He insisted that solutions could be found. Solutions which will produce more energy than they use. Strawbale Hybrid Solar Design is just such a solution. A natural home built of soil and bales not only reduces the slaughter of trees, it produces super-insulated, sound-proof, affordable homes for those with the spirit and desire to step out of the ordinary.
After you’ve felt the interior ambience of these "Natural Homes," of which I’ve been through a couple of hundred now, you realize Bucky’s synergy extends to the subjective and spiritual realm as well. These homes feel and live on levels impossible to describe until you’ve felt them and definitely far above that of conventional dwellings.
The second irony of natural homes has to do with their cost and the attitude of their owners. We have found here in Western Colorado that people who consider the environmental impacts of their homes end up paying 10-30% less than other traditionally built homes.
Much of the experimental era in Natural Building is over. The cutting edge explorers who were willing to tackle desert and isolation to create this new architecture laid the foundation for the most profound change in the American Building Industry. There is no longer any doubt that agricultural waste products and soil can save our forests and produce better buildings. Load Bearing Strawbale and hybrid designs are tried, tested, and in many jurisdictions, already approved. These techniques are now spreading from new construction projects to application in retrofitting existing homes. These are techniques you can use in your existing home. You don’t need to buy a new one.
Nationwide, there are several hotbeds of activity where natural building is flourishing. The area of Southwestern Colorado from Aspen to Pagosa Springs (roughly equivalent to the area from San Luis Obispo to San Diego) hosts 200 known strawbale buildings (of which 28 are load-bearing), 50 earthships, 2000 adobe structures and a healthy smattering of rammed earth, cob, poured adobe, non-toxic and reclaimed structures. This is the highest documented per-capita utilization of sustainable building techniques in the United States.
In the years to come, the availability of healthy homes (especially for those of us with environmental illnesses) and the right to build sustainably may depend on entities similar to the Smart Shelter Network which documents, studies, photographs and advocates natural building in this mountain area with bankers, insurers, builders, code officials and politicians. It acts as an independent, business-based entity to support sustainable building, in sharp contrast to the lobby interests of the multi-national corporations who produce manufactured building products and write the building codes.
Southern California already has some of the ingredients necessary to become a hotbed: California Strawbale Association, Sustainability Project, the Green Building Alliance in Santa Barbara, the Sustainable Building Council of the Central Coast and Ecohome Network located in Los Angeles and South Coast Permaculture Guild all work towards a similar goal. Some people in Southern California are actively involved, such as architect Jim Bell who brought us Santa Barbara’s first strawbale project, Dennis Allen of Allen and Associates and Wes Roe and Margie Bushman of the Santa Barbara Permaculture Network.
Networks like Smart Shelter take natural building into the business realm, creating and supporting jobs and a professionalism dedicated to sustainability. It establishes credibility with politicians, financiers and code officials by objectively studying and documenting large numbers of natural building techniques. Entering its 5th year in Colorado, the Smart Shelter service area does not contain a single code jurisdiction which does not support strawbale construction. This works because Smart Shelter bases its resources and advocacy on the professional building community as well as the person building or remodeling their own home.
On Nov 8-10, Smart Shelter will tour the Central California Coast with a 1-1/2 hour slide show on natural building in Western Colorado... an armchair tour of some of the most vibrant natural architecture in America and the characters who helped pioneer this vibrant movement.
On Saturday, Nov 11 Smart Shelter will produce a half-day workshop creating a Network of this type in Southern California (1-6 pm, CEC Gildea Resource Center, Santa Barbara). For slide show and workshop information <
> or see ad in this issue for details about the planned Ojai, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo presentations. For information about Smart Shelter Network, click to www.smartshelter.com. This event will be "FRAGRANCE FREE."
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 27 January 2010 18:25 )
Some truths about the tsunami clean-up
by Carol Pimentel
This article is a brief account of what my companion and I learned about the situation “on the ground” in Phuket, an island in the south of Thailand that was affected by the tsunami. It’s also an invitation to join us in assisting one family to rebuild their lives. In case you have wanted to contribute but, like me, have been wary of unintentionally flushing funds down a bureaucratic black hole, read on.
Mei Ling Belsom and I traveled to Phuket with the intention of finding a reliable channel through which to donate funds that would go directly to those in need, without middlemen taking cuts, but with provisions for oversight on how money would be spent. We had met two weeks earlier through a friend who knew we each wanted to go to Thailand, and when we met for lunch, we discovered we were both motivated by a desire to serve. I had been planning a post-cancer global “walk about” to explore the larger dimensions of my world family. I hoped to find ways to offer my skills as a social worker, counselor and teacher while meeting people in other lands.
Mei Ling has family in Thailand and has hosted several tours to the Phuket area. She was still suffering from jet lag from an extended visit there when news came of the tsunami and its devastation. Her family in the US asked her to return immediately and assess what was needed. “You know the area, the language and the people,” they urged her. “We don’t know what to believe from the news media, and you can tell us how to assist most effectively.” So we decided to join forces for a few weeks to learn what we could.
After one day of recovery in Bangkok we proceeded directly to a hotel in the north of Phuket and started asking questions. It was slow going. We followed several leads. Some sounded promising but failed to reveal much; others proved to have adequate funding. One TV anchor woman promised to send us the list of organizations she had personally investigated, but never followed through. It took us ten days to find an organization that fit our criteria, but we finally found it in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church School in Phuket Town. Our inquiries were welcomed and we were invited to attend Sunday services and afterwards to lunch with the congregation to meet and speak with local people.
We were impressed with Pastor Nipitpon who comes from a devout Buddhist family. As a young man, he met an Adventist couple who saw his potential and assisted him to learn English and attend university. He subsequently worked for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), the international social service arm of the Adventist Church, and later decided to become a pastor. He is not an evangelist, however, and respects other traditions, viewing spiritual service in a broad and inclusive context. We also met two staff members of ADRA working in the area. Being a social worker, I was interested in their perspective as workers for a global NGO (non-government organization, or non-profit.) They reported that in the early weeks and months following the tsunami, money and assistance poured in from businesses, governments and NGOs around the world. Their biggest problems were dealing with well-intentioned volunteers inexperienced in disaster relief, and the unavoidable chaos when calls for help resulted in ten or more groups showing up in the same place, duplicating efforts and stepping all over each other. Families were drowning in clothing and food they didn’t need, while their homes were in ruins. And of course, many folks took advantage of the situation, asking for help from several sources at once. Only now is communication in place to establish who will work where, doing what and with whom. Their advice was to wait six months and check back to see what will be needed in Thailand for long-term recovery. But locally there is an immediate an obvious unmet need, and together with school manager Mr. Nonparat, Pastor Nipitpon is working to fill it.
Not far from Phuket Town, the beautiful beach of Kamala is a well known resort area which was hard hit by the tsunami. It was here that the King of Thailand’s grandson was killed. Commercial recovery in the area has been phenomenal with most hotels and resorts repaired and operating, but the tourist industry, economic backbone of Phuket, has taken a beating. Hardest hit are the service people: hotel and restaurant workers and taxi drivers, many of whom are still without homes and without the means to recover.
The local population of Kamala is largely Muslim with a small enclave of Buddhist families. Several youngsters of both religions attend the Adventist school. Knowing from his own experience what a difference can be made person-to-person, Nipotpon’s strategy is to directly connect affected families to groups who will assist them to rebuild their destroyed homes. The church school has opened an account through which tax deductible donations can be earmarked for, and distributed to, specific families. So Nipitpon and Nonparat spent their Sunday afternoon taking two American women on a tour of the area and introducing us to people. We learned that the Thai government ordered people in the area not to rebuild until new zoning laws can be enforced, and proposed to relocate the Buddhist families elsewhere. However no one wants to move, and after long delay they can no longer wait for government aid. The Muslim family we spent the most time with has been particularly devastated. In addition to losing a small child and their livelihood in the tourist trade, (driving a “tuk tuk,” or small taxi) they recently took out a bank loan and had just completed building their modest home when it was swept away before they could “register” it with the Thai government. This means that their house has no official status, in effect it never existed. So they now owe a whopping mortgage on a home that they never inhabited, and do not qualify for the 30,000B in government relief that might (and I do mean ”might”) otherwise have come to them eventually had the house been registered.
Debriefing over dinner that night, Mei Ling and I agreed that we had found a way to meet our goal to contribute directly as global neighbors, person to person. Many other foreign visitors have been deeply moved and quite generous. A group of Swiss quickly bought materials and helped to rebuild one family’s home. A group from Kansas City is assisting another, and the pastor of a church in San Francisco is now raising funds to help a third. We propose to do the same.
Now Mei Ling and I invite you, our family, friends and community, and the circle of connections that spreads out from us all, to join in contributing any amount to help this family get back on its feet. The family showed us their plans for a smaller house, with costs for materials being $10,000 and labor estimated at $3,500. Addie Pederson of Pederson Realty is setting up an account at MidState Bank to collect funds. Contributions will be tax deductible. Any amount over the $13,500 will be donated to the library for materials to help local children cope with the trauma they have undergone.
If it were me, I would hope someone would there to help. As it happens, the shoe is on the other foot, and it is we who have the means to make a difference. Long term recovery will take years, but one large step will be to have a home again.
For further information about this family and how to make a tax deductible contribution of ANY amount, contact Addie Pedersen,
Carol Pimental is an irregular contributor to HopeDance. She can be reached at