I’ve been building with natural materials now for 11 years. What started out as an exercise in seeing how far I could go to create a zero-carbon house has today turned into a meditation on something much deeper than that. Most of us are probably aware that a naturally built structure is less environmentally damaging than a conventional modern building. But that’s not what I’m going to explore in this essay. Instead, I’m going to try and move this discussion a little beyond that…beyond the purely environmental reasons for building naturally.
People, Plants, Mud, Stone, Wood, Bamboo, Lime, Grass, Mineral Powders, Water, Sky, Light and the textural palette they offer us.
There’s a reason I’ve shown you these abstract textural images. They’re not meant to be identifiable. Instead they’re meant to evoke a feeling within you. If you liked those pictures you’re probably the kind of person who connects at an intuitive level with the raw materiality of Nature and also the intimate imprint of the human hand upon it. This is how we humans have built since the beginning on our time on Earth and it shows in how our intuition reacts.
Building with natural materials gives us all the opportunity to indulge this deep need to make those two connections- with Nature and with tangible Human Effort. Unlike a factory-made product which come to the building site in pre-processed perfection, natural materials are usually processed by human hands right there on site. This in-situ processing of natural materials leaves behind the imprint of the human hand upon the building. Such a building feels different. It evokes within us a deep sense of connection to Nature. It also offers to shelter us under a cloak of tangible human effort. This brings with it a unique sense of beauty, intimacy and belonging that we do not experience in a modern building of the industrial kind.
Why is that? As a maker of things, I see that objects are capable of exhibiting both their material origin in Nature as well as the process by which they were made by human hands and human culture. I see that a lot of what people value is this imprint of the human hand embodied in the object. Be it the imperfect hand-made artistry of a stool or the wholesome nourishment of the vegetable you have grown yourself or even the family story behind your favourite teacup, true value does not seem to reside in the cost of the object but rather in the quality of human energy embodied in the object. The object then comes to represent the great ancient dance between humans, time and place.
I fear that in a mechanized world, we’d surround ourselves with factory made stuff that does not carry either the imprint of its origin or of its human creators and without those two markers we would lose our capacity to value objects. Once we lose that capacity, more and more, we would simply buy and throw stuff away…creating a world of clutter that we don’t love anymore. We see the signs of this everywhere- our world turning into an enormous rubbish dump.
An object that is marked by the place it comes from and by the hands and culture of the people who made it has creational depth. The object itself carries the marks of the story of its creation- its own biography. This depth is what humans are built to value. The problem today is that objects no longer carry those marks. They no longer embody creational depth. For example, even though in reality each and every screw, plastic bag and apartment has been dug from the earth, often by other people, these factory-made objects appear to us as if from nowhere in a state of pristine perfection. Because they carry no marks of their past these objects appear shallow to us. Ironically, it is the very perfection of the factory-made object that stands in the way of our ability to appreciate it. What happens then is that the object’s only marker of value becomes its price. It gives us no other reason to value it, no story, no connection, no chain of relationships that connects us to it and to its source. So we end up devaluing those objects. And this is what is happening all around us in the industrial world.
Karl Marx saw this problem coming. But unfortunately, there is no economic solution to this problem. What we are doing to ourselves and our world does not have an economic meaning, it has an aesthetic meaning. Today the word value itself has come to mean cost when in fact, the word is a measure of how deeply we feel connected to an object. Something valuable is something we care deeply about. But beyond this devaluation of the word value itself, the deeper tragedy lies in our hearts’ decreasing ability to value our work, our creations, and the relationships that our objects embody between people and other people and between people and the God given Earth.
Natural building offers us the possibility of reclaiming the true meaning of the word value.
Natural building offers us-
- VALUE: the possibility of creating something beautiful and personal that we feel connected to in the ancient sense, that is something that is valuable
- HUMAN-NESS: the possibility of creating something unique and recognizably human in form and scale
- SUSTAINABILITY: the opportunity to take a step towards a world with less clutter.
- COMMUNITY: the possibility of working in community with other people and participating in the building process.
- LIVING PROCESS: the possibility of attempting perfection instead of simply buying perfection from a store
- SWARAJ: the possibility of accepting natural limitations and immersing ourselves in a process where we choose to depend more on people and Nature rather than global economic systems. When we do this, we reclaim some measure of our independence. When we separate ourselves, even partially, from the world of machines and global commerce, we connect directly with material and people and we create meaning in the ancient sense that our bodies recognize and that humans intuitively yearn for.