Natural Building in an Unnatural World


So I decided to build a natural hybrid house. This project started about three and half years ago, and is almost done. It is what I call “my giant sculpture”. The big question is whether I would do it all over again. Such a hard question to ask at this stage, since I have to say, that I am a little exhausted. But before I answer that question let me tell you a little about it.

My house is post and beam from a load bearing stand point, with straw bale and light straw-clay infill for wall systems, finished with lime plaster. I have one flat roof, which in time will be partially living with the addition of planters. I have built 80% (ball park figure) of it on my own and have worked hard to stick to natural, low energy embodied materials.


Natural house building has seen resurgence in the last while and there are a lot of books out there on it. The books generally touch on why to go about building with natural systems, what to expect, and lots of how too. They are all very good albeit a little ideal – at least that’s what I found. So I want to clarify a couple of myths that perhaps exist at least from my perspective. 

Many of the books encourage you to find property where building code does not apply so that you do not have to deal with the hassle of building inspectors since the building systems do not exist in the code for the most part. However, as ideal as that might be, most places close to municipalities or populated areas are affected by building code. Here on Gabriola Island, I am subjected to the building code, so I did have to deal with that. The short way around that is getting an engineer. People in general seem to want to avoid the cost of an engineer, but given that I was building a unique house, I didn’t mind having an engineer as a resource, since after all, I do want the house to remain standing. So yes there is the extra cost, but also peace of mind.

Building natural can be a very laborious process. Making clay slip, preparing light straw clay infill and packing walls is very hands on and takes time. It is not rocket science and anyone can do it, but it is a slow process. Again many of the books encourage you to find a community of friends and family that will help with this. A great idea, but I found most people my age have pretty full lives and to expect them to come and give their time to me on any grand scale, doing pretty dirty work, to help me build a house can be a lot to ask. That is not to say that I did not have help from time to time from friends who wanted to give it a try, but it was generally for a day here or there. Given that my house walls took probably about 8 months of continuous labour over the space of two years to get in place, a day here or there only goes so far. Not that I didn’t appreciate it, I most certainly did, but what I am trying to say, is that this too is something that can’t be taken for granted.  Also I am not of the personality type to ask too much from others.


Some books encourage you to live like a pauper during your house building stage. Well again, I think it takes pretty exceptional people to do this. Since my house has taken over three years to build and given that I have built as I could afford instead of taking a construction mortgage, for me to have spent the last three years or so living off toast and beans and never going out would have just been crazy making. No, I needed to continue to have a life, because you never know when you might be hit by a bus, or pressed into the beach sand and crushed by an old growth drift wood log on the West Coast, but that is another story for my next article. The point is, did you enjoy the moments that led up to that? 

So would I do it again? I would with the following changes. I would make sure that I had enough money in the bank to afford the construction from beginning to end so that I could work full time on the house instead of working another job and trying to do the house in my spare time. Also I would probably use more contract help instead of trying to do most of it myself, as that can result in burn out. But aside from that, since time and money have always been my limiting factors, that would probably handle the most challenging of the elements. 


So after all of this, what do I have? I have a solid elegant home that smells natural (no VOCs anywhere here*), little construction waste, highly efficient from a heating and cooling standpoint, with gentle bright undulating walls. The home emits a positive energy that most people note upon entering. Unique features make it unusual but not weird. I am proud of my house and what I have achieved. It has been a long haul and I am not quite done as some siding and trimming are still awaiting my attention. My motivation tends to come in waves (remember the upcoming drift wood log crushing story?) instead of being there constantly as it had been the first year and a bit.

I had originally started the project with another person. Unfortunately, any house building can be a stressful endeavour, especially when it spans 3 or more years. That relationship did not work out. A shame really, not that that particular relationship did not work out, but that it became a project of one instead of an accomplishment achieved by two. You see I have always liked the line from the movie Mahogany with Diana Ross. Her love interest in the movie said to her at one point, “Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with.” That is how I feel a bit now as I am nearing completion. I sit in the house alone and feel a little sad that I do not have this to share with someone else who can appreciate all that went into it. 

You see the energy of two can overcome many of the challenges of such an endeavour, whereas on your own only so much gets done and it is hard to refill your energy tanks. So what have I learned from this house building? Aside from learning lots about building and natural systems, I have also learned a lot about life, about relationships and about meaning. So building is much more than the sum of its parts. Putting shelter over our heads is one of our innate needs. It feels good to be able to do it for myself and it feels good to have done it with as little impact on the earth as I was able within my framework. Would I do it all again? I don’t regret anything, so I guess I could say yes. But for now, I think I will take a long holiday and just enjoy being in my giant sculpture.


**Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemical compounds that have high enough vapor pressures under normal conditions to significantly vaporize and enter the atmosphere.

Sara-Jane B. graduated with a degree in Biology from Queen’s University in 1990.  She has augmented her education continually adding journalism, horticulture and personal training to the list. Since moving to BC in 1996, she has been self-employed offering services in research, strategic and community economic development planning, facilitation, program and process coordination, and instruction. She is passionate about the environment and keeps herself busy building an alternative natural hybrid home of straw bale, clay infill and cob.

All photos submitted by Sara-Jane.