Intro to Earthen Building

When most people hear or think of the term “natural building” they imagine primitive dwellings or associate it with poverty; however, these buildings provide healthy, beautiful, comfortable, and spiritually uplifting homes for everyone.  They emphasize simple techniques based on locally available, renewable resources.  In fact, one third of the world´s population still reside in earthen homes.

cabin

“Modern” buildings negatively impact the environment and release tons of emissions into the atmosphere between shipping highly embodied materials and using systems to regulate temperature.  The beauty of natural building is that it responds to the environment and does not discriminate.  Those who recognize the environmental, social, and economic costs of the current ways believe that natural building will compact many worldwide issues.  It requires a responsive design in order to maximize the sites full potential.  For example, when deciding where to build your house the position of the sun is extremely important.  Facing the majority of the windows on the south facing side will absorb the most heat in the winter.  For summer months, the rays can be blocked by roof overhangs because the sun is high in the sky and since the sun is low in the winter the overhangs will not block the rays.  Other elements to consider are slope, aspect, drainage, subsurface geology, and wind direction.  Regarding materials, local availability is the most important factor.  Some materials commonly used are earth (mud) stone, gravel, sand, clay, brick, tile, sod, wood, bamboo, straw, paper, manure, lime, and recycled materials.  The possibilities are endless; just look around you.  Walls are constructed differently depending on the materal used.  Often times furniture is built into the walls, like bookcases and seats.  For insulation, straw is commonly used, but cork and cotton also prevent heat or cold from entering a building.

bathroom foundation

bathroom foundation

Foundations are usually made of stone, wood, earthbags, or concrete.  Roofs are a complex part fo a building.  It is the “hat” that protects it against the elements of nature, such as rain, snow, and heat loss or gain.  The structure component determines the shape and strength of the roof while the protective component covers and waterproofs the structure.  Wood, bamboo, and metal are commonly used.  The sheathing layer connects the structural component, spreads loads, and provides a surface for waterproofing layers.  Some examples are living roofs, thatch, seaweed, and shingles.

cosmic painting

cosmic painting

Earthen plasters and paints are the finishing features to a natural building.  In contrast to industrial paints, traditional paints are softer in color, free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and heavy metals.  Paint can be used to protect, preserve, and decorate a surface.  A binder is added to hold pigment together and adhere to the surface.  Binders range from lime, oils, and casein.  Oil based paints are mostly used in areas that require a lot of wiping, such as a bathroom or kitchen.  Water based paints are quick drying but not as strong as oil paints.  The two most popular are milk and lime paints.  There are other finishes that can be made for different effects.  Varnish is a mix of resin, beeswax, and linseed oil dissolved in alcohol or spirits.  It creates a hard glossy finish.  Waxes, stains, and laquer are also in this category.  Earthen plasters protect walls from wind, rain, and fire, while beautifying a building.  Gypsum, lime, and mud are some examples.

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