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An ecology of building: Making a house in a world without frontiers

Suddenly, it’s Spring. The temperatures have climbed sharply in the last week, the snowstorms have turned to rainstorms, and the four feet of snow that lay on the ground just a couple of weeks ago is now mostly gone. The maple sap started running only a week ago and then yesterday the temperature almost reached 60. Some of the sap we’re boiling down to syrup, some we drink straight from the tree. Yesterday we made a trip to the ocean to gather a truckload of seaweed and put it around our fruit and nut trees as a compost/mulch. Today we dug jerusalem artichokes, pruned the grapevines, and deer-proofed some of our plantings. Tomorrow we’ll go back to the ocean to gather mussels for the first time since Fall and have a wild foods feast to celebrate the first day of the year that is as long as the night. Our lives here are closely tied to the rhythms of the seasons, and this is the week we left the snug—sometimes too snug—winter harbor of our small house and moved our lives back outside.

Until the twentieth century these seasonal rounds were the norm; it was only with the advent of fossil fuels, the industrial economy, and electricity that we’ve come to spend most or all of our time in artificial, climate-controlled environments unrelated to the world outside. It’s easy to forget, from the insistent perspective of now, for just what a tiny sliver of time those conditions have prevailed. The assumption for most people, I think, is that they are normal, and therefore permanent. Only in the last few years, as oil prices skyrocketed, have even a significant minority of people begun to wonder if perhaps “normal” isn’t resting on a shakier foundation than they had supposed. Here in Maine, where 8 in 10 homes are heated with oil and winters are cold, a rise in the price of oil is doubly painful: at the gas pump and for half the year in the home. And an actual prolonged interruption in the supply of oil—I don’t think anyone at any level of our society is psychologically or politically prepared to come to terms with the implications of that.

The major part of creating an economy based on ecological complexity, and the heart of what I mean by an ecology of home, consists of embracing these seasonal rhythms, and the landscape and native ecology they create, rather than relying on massive inputs of energy and complex technologies to impose an artificial order on the landscape and to wall ourselves off from the wild green world. The differences in the habits of thought and culture that each approach requires are profound. It is the difference between the frontier speculator on the one hand and the native on the other, between an ideology of ownership and one of belonging, between hubris and proportion. In this post I want to sketch the relationship between economy and ecology where they come together to form the walls and roofs that shelter us.

For most of history in all parts of the world, people built houses with the materials at hand, mostly wood, stone, earth, and fiber. These traditions expressed themselves in Maine in the wigwam, the log cabin, and the timberframed house. The wigwam, built from poles and bark or woven mats, was temporary and portable. The log cabin, usually the first house built by frontier settlers, was temporary and fixed. The framed house, which most often followed the log cabin by about seven years, was permanent, fixed, and a store of value. Each was technologically simple and easy to build, but ingenious in the ways they used the most abundant local resource, wood, to provide snug shelter against the elements and extremes of climate.

I build timberframes, and I’m partial to that tradition. Its advantages are many: it requires only adequate timbers and a small number of forged tools; it allows for the creation of buildings of great strength and durability; it uses a renewable resource and should therefore encourage care for our forests; the body of knowledge that governs its deployment is large and easily accessible; it requires work that is skilled, enjoyable, and permits a sense of accomplishment and aesthetic expression; and as a technology it has already proven itself over a thousand-year history in the West and across a vast range of economic and cultural conditions. For these reasons, I think the “problem” of building a house in a way that doesn’t offend or degrade the local native ecology has already been solved, at least in terms of the technology.

The other obstacles are cultural; they are results of the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it, and these shouldn’t be discounted. In fact, I think they are the most pernicious obstacles we face. I can think of plenty of timberframed vanity palaces plunked down in some remote scenic locale to satisfy some billionaire’s notions of rugged individualism for the few weeks of the year when the house is actually used. I even have a book or two on my shelves that celebrate these monstrosities. They embody the frontier mentality that is systematically using up the world’s resources and waging war on the world’s ecologies. As a builder, I’m interested in a very different kind of work.

I call this approach an ecology of building and below is the set of principles that informs our practice of building houses. But it is also an attempt to align that large chunk of our economy and material culture with a story about the world where we are only one part of the ecology and use its other elements with reverence and respect. In this story, making a house is a vital first step and a major part of becoming native to a place.

Build houses to last centuries, not decades.

All human cultures build one of two kinds of houses—temporary or permanent. Our culture builds permanent ones—sort of. Actually most of what we build isn’t designed to last more than 50 or 75 years. This needs to change. We’ve had the technology to build houses that last 500 years since about the 12th century. Building a new house requires very large amounts of energy and material, so we should design them to last as long as possible. The best way to do that is to get them up off the ground on a solid foundation, use wide overhangs to protect the walls, windows, and doors from the elements, and make sure the house is usable regardless of future levels of technological complexity.

Use local, natural materials, mostly wood, stone, earth, and straw.

This is how houses were built for almost all of human history, and it is how they will be built once again after we’ve burned through the allotment of fossil fuels that has allowed us to depart from this norm in the first place. Because we live in a forest ecology, we use mostly wood: timbers for the frame, boards for sheathing, shingles or clapboards for the exterior finish, cellulose for insulation, lath to support the plaster, milled wood for the windows and doors. The foundation is stone, as is the roof and some of the floor if we use slate. Earth and straw we use for the plaster and floor. We’ve eliminated most industrial products from our buildings, including cement, plywood, and sheetrock.

Build for deep beauty in the structure, materials, and craftsmanship.

We think buildings should be enchanting, and although we build with a strong ecological consciousness, our first test for whether a building is successful is that it has to make people smile when they first walk inside. Especially kids. Since the beauty is mostly in the materials, and since the materials are natural, the beauty is subdued and hopefully timeless. And we think that is the key to durability, because if people love the building, they will be more likely to take care of it.

Build small.

Our houses are habitats, they shelter and enclose us like nests. Small houses cost less to build, to heat, and to maintain than large ones do. They’re better suited to people who like one another and who enjoy each other’s company. They help us overcome the toxic notion that everything in the world belongs to us and that more is the only goal worth pursuing.

Rely on local skills and creativity instead of energy-intensive industrial processes.

The abilities and knowledge necessary to cut timber frames, to plaster walls, to work with slate or tile, to build windows and doors, are accessible to most people. These are skills, however, and each takes a certain amount of time and commitment and study to acquire. Each requires first an understanding of the raw materials, and then sufficient practice to assimilate those skills in the hands, eyes, and muscles. In this they are very different from the do-it-yourself world of the big-box home improvement centers, which relies on standardized, industrialized components designed to permit assembly without skill or much knowledge.

Make buildings easy to maintain and alter using traditional tools and skills.

Building a house to last centuries means making certain guesses about the future. When I see the technologically complex buildings being sold as solutions to energy efficiency or sustainability, my first thoughts are always: How will the components be repaired or replaced in twenty or thirty or forty years? Who will work on the geothermal ground pump? Who will replace the triple-glazed windows when the seals on the insulated glass fail, as they inevitably do? What will be done with the structural insulated panels when the strand-board sheathing part has rotted due to water damage? Will SIPs or the tools to work with them still be available? Except for the mechanical systems, which are separate from the building itself, a 15th-century carpenter would have no trouble working on one of our houses. Only the wide wall and roof cavities filled with insulation would be new to him.

Honor the landscape and local ecology.

Our houses are part of a partnership with the land. The materials come from it, the durability and energy efficiency of the houses are meant to minimize future needs for additional resources, the continuum between human habitat and native ecology is meant to be unbroken. In the end, waging war with the landscape is a losing proposition. Like it or not, we are part of an ecology. Cultures that rely on the strength of those connections are strong; cultures that sever them suffer or, in extreme cases, disappear.

Minimize heating and cooling costs with passive solar design, thermal mass, and super-insulated walls and ceilings.

We use a lot of insulation in our buildings, with the result that they require little energy to heat. Our first strategy is passive: orient the building to the south, put most of the glazing there, and then use lots of thermal mass inside to store that heat. Only the extra insulation adds any cost to the building, and that is paid back in the first couple of years that the house is lived in. My goal is that each house should require no more than one to two cords of wood to heat each year. It’s possible to get heating requirements even lower than that, but I think the law of diminishing returns comes into play here, as does the law of unintended consequences. Prophecy is risky business, but my best guess for the future is that we’ll be cooking with wood again before the century is over, and I’d like my buildings to be usable if that comes to pass. If not, a modest change in the windows and doors would cut the heating requirement probably in half, the tradeoff being that a mechanical ventilation system would then be required.

Draw designs from vernacular traditions.

Vernacular designs embody a lot of intelligence about what works in a region, and because they evolved when buildings were made from local materials and assembled with mostly human energy, they are hard to improve upon. Because of that, vernacular traditions change slowly, and over time specific building types have become as much a signature of different landscapes as the native flora and fauna. Think of Swiss chalets, Cotswold cottages, or the low-pitched, clay-tiled farmhouses of Provence and Tuscany. That said, we’ve repaired enough rotten sills, tie beams, and window framing on old farmhouses to know that the New England vernacular would have greatly benefited from the protection afforded by much wider overhangs, and so we like to design with the widest overhangs possible.

Create a healthy, safe, non-toxic living space.

With today’s tighter houses, it’s more important than ever to eliminate toxic chemicals and VOCs. We use natural materials and finishes, and the only VOC in any of them is a very small amount in the citrus thinner that is used in some of the oils and resins we use to finish wood and our poured adobe floors.

Waste nothing.

Because we use so few industrial products, there’s almost no waste at our job sites. We don’t need a dumpster, and trips to the waste station are rare. Leftover wood goes into the wood stove, stone is saved, metal is recycled, straw is used as mulch, and earth—well, that goes back to the earth. The same will be true at the end of the building’s life: almost everything in our buildings is either biodegradable or recyclable. We’re leaving the people of the future enough toxic waste as it is. I think it would be nice if our houses didn’t unnecessarily add to the waste stream.

The first question most people ask is: So how much does it cost? The answer: No more than a conventional custom house. In fact we’re at the low end of that spectrum, although at the high end there’s so much waste and vanity and ostentatious display that housebuilding is little more than an exercise in burning up resources to satisfy shallow impulses. As I said, the biggest obstacles to integrating an economy with an ecology are cultural; but an economy is no more or less than what we choose to spend our money and labor on, and a culture is no more than the stories we tell about the world and our place in it. The houses we build are the major part of our effort to change both.

Resources:

No discussion of building in vernacular traditions is complete without mention of one of the great books of the twentieth century, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. Some of the patterns I use in every single building project I undertake.

The relatively new, three-volume Architecture and Town Planning in Colonial North America by James D. Kornwolf is a comprehensive and invaluable resource. It would keep any serious student of early American building traditions busy for years.

Native American Architecture by Peter Nabokov and Robert Easton is an excellent, amply-illustrated, continent-wide study of the many various native building traditions.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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