Healthy Buildings

What do you mean, healthy buildings?

The primary differentiation between the healthy buildings we, the natural building community, strive for, and the standard in conventional building lies in the structure’s breathability.  In conventional construction, the aim is to seal the building up as much as possible, to wrap it in plastic and plug all the leaks.   Yet, even if we succeed in the goal of keeping the moisture out, the simple fact is that we create moisture inside.  We exhale. We make tea. We take showers.  By creating a situation where moisture is trapped, we set ourselves up for a loosing battle against stagnant dampness. This results in a stagnant, moldy environment, which is not healthy. Just to keep such a space functional, we have to add artificial energy systems. But these costly heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems don’t necessarily make a home or office safe.

Ill buildings make their inhabitants ill. We all know about sick building syndrome by now.   Architecture has power. Too often, those powers are misguided and misused, or completely ignored. That is how we end up with building systems and materials that make us sick.

If architecture has the power to make us ill, then conversely, with a good design and with appropriate building materials, it should have the power to make us well.

Earth buildings (buildings made out of clay/sand/straw, wood, stone — natural, dynamic materials) are naturally and constantly regulating the temperature and moisture levels between inside and outside.  In the natural building world, this is referred to as “Breathing.”

Clothes are often referred to as our second skin. In that case, buildings are our third.  Skin serves many functions — it regulates, absorbs, perspires, encloses, and protects.  Wrapping up our homes in Tyvek and latex paint is analogous to dressing it up in a polyester pantsuit. It would be very uncomfortable to wear a polyester pantsuit 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.

The healthy and comfortable alternative is to building with earthen materials. Creating the most comfortable structure is best achieved through regarding your specific landscape.  In other words, the key is finding the right “outfit,” so that the building (and all the people dwelling inside) doesn’t feel like it’s wearing a miniskirt in a snow storm, or a wool sweater in the tropics. The materials, if placed appropriately, utilize the properties they naturally possess and, in the process, just happen to be keeping your home as comfortable as humanly possible.

An artisan in the building trade is someone who can figure out how to most gracefully and efficiently coax beauty and function out of these dynamic earthen materials so that this wood, this clay, this fiber and this aggregate combine into its best possible self.

It takes years of training in order to become such an artisan — to be a participant in this conversation with materials. In other times and cultures, there have been structures in place – apprenticeships — to guarantee you could get properly trained in your trade.  One important aspect of building with care and craftsmanship, building responsibly, is to build with an intention of longevity, so that structures are still around to shelter our grandbabies.

When it comes to earth building in the United States, we’ve had to re-invent the practices of good vernacular architecture, resurrect it, breathe life back in to it. This has required a healthy dose of experimentation. An unavoidable result of the youth of the natural building community in this country is that, without the test of time, it is difficult to know which methods are best, which ones are tried and true.

These are obstacles that have necessitated a spirit of innovation in this field. We would like to acknowledge, with thanks and gratitude, all of our teachers and mentors, peers and allies in this natural building craft.  We’re good at enjoying the process, knowing in our bones that there’s something essential and primal about getting really muddy.  We also know how healthy/cleansing/detoxifying it is to be covered in clay. And it is entertaining and inspiring to help empower families and communities in the process of learning to build their own homes.

This building community is very open about sharing information, a curious crowd, always driven to learn and expand what we know.  The amount of excitement we’ve conjured from our natural building peers when sharing our plans for the JEPE has given us confidence that everything we learn will be well received when we bring it back home.

We feel strongly that by following this thread, this extraordinary opportunity to study with Japanese masters, not only can we work to keep the important tradition of Japanese earth plasters alive, we can share their techniques so they can be used together with local practices to improve the quality and durability of future creations in every landscape.

May your structures be healthful and beautiful, may we all be comfortable in our skins

— Angela Francis

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