WILLITS, Calif. — Worldwide, construction and operation of buildings generate nearly 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). To meet Paris Climate Agreement targets, we must eliminate all GHG emissions from the built environment by 2050. Sounds impossible? Not if we work together to create new economic opportunities in ecological forest management and local building systems based on low-energy natural materials.
Round poles and locally milled wood from sustainably managed forests will provide the bones of a new climate-resilient architecture. Walls, floors, and finishes can be made of low-embodied-energy natural materials such as clay and straw. Building with locally-harvested materials reduces GHG emissions from both the manufacturing and transportation sectors.
There are dozens of ways to build a wall out of earth, straw, and wood, developed over the centuries all around the world. Some techniques, including straw bale, light straw-clay, “hempcrete” and “ricecrete”, provide good insulation. Others such as cob and adobe have excellent thermal mass. The most efficient passive solar designs require a combination of both insulation and thermal mass in the correct relationship to one another. Incorporating these principles into designs drastically reduces the energy spent on heating, cooling, and lighting buildings. This is critical because the energy used to keep a building comfortable for its inhabitants is typically greater than that used in the original construction.
A century of fire suppression and clearcutting have made our forests into tinder boxes waiting to explode in catastrophic fires. Groups like the Forest Reciprocity Group of Mendocino are demonstrating that when incentives are properly aligned and the spirit of human innovation is unleashed, social development and sustainable local economies can be achieved hand-in-hand. There is ample evidence that buildings of earth and straw survive wildfires more effectively than conventional framed buildings. At least 3 straw bale buildings are known to have survived the flames during recent wildfires in Northern California. Laboratory testing has shown that plastered straw bale construction has at least a 2-hour fire rating, far better than conventional structures. In Australia, cob and adobe are listed in the category of building materials considered safest in bush-fire prone areas.
When properly designed these natural buildings can be durable, beautiful, economical, and fire-resistant. Building with local materials can also be a lot of fun, strengthening both individual empowerment and community resilience. Many of these techniques are easy to learn with minimal investment. You can learn these skills in a series of workshops co-sponsored by The School of Adaptive Agriculture, Abuela Gardens, Polecraft Solutions, and Straw Clay Wood happening in Willits (Mendocino County) this coming May. The series is organized as four 3-day workshops, each focusing on a different set of techniques. Instructors include local timber framers/contractors/designers Colin Gillespie and Eric Lassotovitch, permaculturist Blair Phillips, and natural builder/author Michael G. Smith, who has written three books, and taught more than 100 workshops on the subject.
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