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Natural Building Techniques

     Over the past several decades, numerous vernacular building methods have been investigated and, in some cases, revived and improved upon by visionary architects and builders. These techniques are often grouped under the label "natural building," implying materials and techniques which are ecologically sound, culturally sensitive, reliant on local resources and skills, and which are within economic reach of the millions who cannot currently afford shelter.
     Natural building has emerged as a response to an increasing concern for our built environment. Natural materials can provide an alternative to toxic substances which have led to widespread environmental illness. Those seeking to simplify their lives can build their own homes using these techniques with community help and local, inexpensive materials. Still others, decrying the environmental, social and economic costs of our current ways of construction, see natural building as providing part of the solution to these complex problems.
     While interest has surged in the Industrialized West, the ancient roots of natural building are being lost in many traditional areas in favor of industrial building methods with their emphasis on capital- and energy-intensive systems. In the name of "progress," crucial cultural and technological riches are being abandoned for concrete blocks, tin shacks and other degraded symbols of an untenable Western dream. Ironically, builders in the industrialized countries are now turning to these very cultures for solutions to their building problems. It is to be hoped that increased interest and research into vernacular building systems will increase respect for these timeless ideas in their native lands, and through diligent efforts by a number of people, many of these techniques are indeed being revived, studied and implemented throughout the world.
     Though often appropriate in their original contexts, many ancient techniques are benefiting from modern scientific and engineering study, creating applications for a variety of new situations. Structural and other code tests are validating many techniques and are pointing out directions for further research and improvement.
     As natural buildings are constructed by courageous and ingenious innovators, projects from diverse cultural and geographic realms increasingly demonstrate its efficiency, economy, strength and beauty. Furthermore, articles about these ideas by such mainstream publications as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal bring them out of the alternative shadows and into the mainstream.
     Several practitioners involved in this emerging field have recently realized the necessity of sharing ideas and knowledge in order to make these ways of building available to a wider spectrum of society. Towards that end, a series of natural building colloquia have been held over the past few years in an effort to bring together architects and builders involved in various aspects of the field. In fact, it has been at these gatherings that "natural building" has been largely defined.
     The colloquia have been incredibly successful: engendering a sense of community, bringing down barriers between specialized disciplines, making available new ideas, and synergistically furthering the state of the art. The power in these gatherings has been in their heterogeneity, the free flow of ideas leading to new projects and building technologies, and the mutually increasing knowledge, skill and wisdom so needed to create an architecture for a hopeful future.
     As natural building and design is still in its infancy (or perhaps more accurately, "second childhood"), the state of the art is in constant flux as practitioners and techniques, hitherto isolated, are identified and brought into partnership with others. Thus, this review is really the beginning of the much larger task of gathering and presenting these techniques in a systemic fashion.
     This paper will focus on brief reviews of several techniques, including its pros and cons. Emphasis will be placed upon the situation in North America, with mention of important developments elsewhere in the world.

- Joseph F. Kennedy, M.Arch., M.A. (1996)



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