Construction is booming on the Island, and energy demands are increasing. While we lounge in our monster-sized, energy-sucking homes, more than 50 percent of the world’s population live in homes built from basic earthen materials. However, earthen homes are not necessarily a sign of poverty. In fact, these time-tested construction methods are slowly finding a niche in the North American building sector. Rich and poor alike are turning to these natural homes in search of beauty, comfort, as well as environmental and personal health.
Buildings, sheds, outdoor ovens, and even garden furniture can be constructed using cobb (a mixture of straw, clay, sand and water), or straw bales. Straw bale homes are built using a concrete foundation and a post and beam frame. The bales form the walls and insulation, and are plastered over using cement or lime. For cobb, the straw mixture is layered and slowly built up to form the walls, which are then also plastered. The simplicity means that a home can be built for a fraction of the cost of traditional methods.
Building with natural materials also allows for more creativity, individuality, and beauty than traditional houses. Sculptures and shelving can be molded right into the walls and small sections can be left unplastered as a reminder of the home’s natural insulation. The shape and style can be anything from the traditional rectangular home, to grand arching doorways and ceilings, to basic huts. The variety and beauty of these buildings is astounding. I personally fell in love with straw bale buildings the first time I saw the demonstration hut at the Compost Education Center in Victoria. Small and unobtrusive, with arched entrances, gently curving walls, and a domed roof, it looked at home with the land. Returning to these natural building techniques can offer us creative individuality and closer ties to our natural world.
Earthen homes are not only beautiful, but also offer great energy efficiency. Insulation is measured using a resistant value (R-value). Ordinary houses have an insulation factor of around R-12 to 20 while straw bale rates around 30 to 50. Thus it takes very little energy to heat in the winter and it naturally keeps cool in the summer. Cobb also offers energy savings. Working as a thermal mass, cobb stores heat in the walls and re-radiates it back into the home.
Straw and cobb are non-toxic and will not contribute to deforestation or mining pollution in the way traditional construction does. In fact, switching to earthen construction can decrease air pollution, as in many areas straw is disposed of by burning. By using straw for building, this waste is avoided, and we support our local farming communities.
Our area is blessed with a number of skilled, knowledgeable builders who offer advice and courses for those wanting to learn more. Check out: Vancouver’s City Farmer www.CityFarmer.org, and ERTH www.ERTH.ca; Shawnigan Lake’s OUR Eco-village www.OURecovillage.org, Mayne Island’s Cobworks www.Cobworks.com, and Salt Spring Island’s SireWall (rammed earth) www.sirewall.com
Despite all it has to offer, earthen buildings face a major obstacle in BC, the traditional building sector, and its traditional building code. There are major corporations pushing lumber, but none promoting straw. The building industry may be slow to react, but change it must. John Freeman of ERTH writes, "time-tested techniques that are less polluting, recyclable and utilize low emission materials are better for the environment, our indoor air quality and pocketbooks. The public is demanding a longer lasting and healthier choice for their home and work place. Building with cobb and straw bale is a natural choice.”
Lindsay Hartley has a B.A. in Biology/Environmental Studies from the University of Victoria. She is passionate about the natural world, and exploring the link between nature and personal well-being. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org