Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Down to earth 

When most of us in the "developed" world think of "home," the building that comes to mind is one constructed of wood and brick, of steel and concrete. However, according to the Earth Architecture website, "One half of the world's population, approximately 3 billion people on six continents, lives or works in buildings constructed of earth." Earth building goes by many names: adobe, rammed earth, mud brick, compressed earth. Some types of earth building technologies use cement or other modern building materials for stabilization; others use only combinations of natural, completely biodegradable materials: earth, straw, cactus, manure.

In Presidio, Texas, a small border town in the Big Bend region, a non-profit organization called the Adobe Alliance is working to increase the population housed in earth buildings, using all-natural adobe. In the 1970's, Alliance founder Simone Swan apprenticed with Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, and was "inspired by his use of earthen materials and his interest in reviving indigenous building techniques for owner-built cooperative housing." When Swan established the Alliance in the late 1990's, she located it in Presidio County in part because of its 37% unemployment rate. Teaching the local population to build homes for themselves and others is part of the Alliance's plan:

The purpose of the Adobe Alliance is to build low-cost energy efficient housing that is climatically and environmentally compatible and to fill widespread needs for sustainable, salubrious housing while enhancing the unique landscape of the Big Bend region of West Texas and other desert environments. Means to reach this goal include:

The use of local renewable, recycled resources and building materials to considerably reduce cost and environmental impact, avoiding the use of industrial materials;

Providing roofs in the configuration of adobe vaults and domes, a unique yet ancient design feature which eliminates the use of wood, an increasingly scarce natural resource;

Designs which harness natural energy for heating and cooling. Adobe walls retain heat in the winter and stay cool in the summer, eliminating the cost of mechanical heating and cooling systems;

A system to meet local housing needs using indigenous skills, thereby providing a source of employment and simultaneously incorporating, preserving and enhancing local architectural heritage.

An appropriate building technique for chemically sensitive individuals, using only materials that are totally non-toxic.

This article in the Desert-Mountain Times described a hands-on workshop held by the Alliance in February:

On a mesa a few miles east of this border town, a dozen men and women scooped up handfuls of mud and hurled them at the sides of a small adobe building. They stepped back, admired the sound and effect of mud hitting the wall, and reached for another helping. It bothered no one that the secret ingredients in the mud were prickly pear cactus and fresh horse manure that had been cold-brewed in a "tea" before being mixed with earth and straw.

One young man leapt as though making a game-winning lay-up and, plop, hit his target about 10 feet up the wall. His friends cheered.

The walls weren’t the only thing affected by their enthusiasm. Their hair and clothing were becoming spattered in the process. No one seemed to care. Indeed, they expected it. This was part of what the participants paid $250 to $300 each to do.

The mud-throwing men and women spent a long weekend last month at the seventh annual Adobe Alliance workshop three days of education on what to do and how to do it for an increasingly popular form of building. Some got their first taste of building with adobes; others honed their skills.

The rest of the article is here.

Reading the article, I immediately wanted to sign up for a workshop. Never mind that adobe is not a suitable building material for the Pacific Northwest. I've always loved playing in the mud. Imagine putting that childlike pleasure to such a very good use.