Gimme Shelter: the eco-builders

What is your idea of the ideal living space? What are your priorities for your home? Is it convenience, size, character or price? Or simply the all important location? If you have had the chance to build your own home these are all highly relevant questions and we live with the fruits of our choices, or mistakes, every day. As we look to the future, maybe there will be some different priorities that include sustainable materials and low impact design, renewable energy for power and environmental considerations. In this issue Phil Speirs profiles some options and finds out what’s important to 21st century eco-builders.
The Spanish Association for Bio-construction (AEB) welcomed over 250 architects, students and professionals to the first seminar for eco-building and green architecture at the headquarters for the European Union in Madrid this January. This significant event may herald the start of a new attitude towards sustainable building practices at a national level, but meanwhile many are already exploring new ideas or rediscovering traditional techniques. Nick Ryan of Alpujarran based eco-casa, believes that traditional rural building techniques such as rendering with lime and sand are being annihilated by enveloping traditional walls in cement renders and plasters and plasticized paints, suffocating the walls and causing many problems. “The rush to replace ages-old knowledge with industrial-age urgency is killing old walls by undermining their structural integrity,” he said. “At a time when the evidence points to an urgent need for environmental action, cement-based products are an environmental disaster, while the traditional, less energy-intensive materials are begging to be rediscovered.”  Nick runs courses teaching these traditional techniques, although they acknowledge that with Spanish building regulations insisting on pillar and post construction of new builds their techniques may only apply to renovations, at least for now.  Nick went on to explain that the practice of building in earth, clay and lime survived and flourished for untold centuries before the advent of Portland cement in the 19th century. The practice of using cement has intensified ever since due to its low cost and rapid application. Nick argues that many of its apparent advantages are in fact a fallacy and as much PR on the part of its supporters as actual fact. When it comes to the renovation of traditionally-built houses it simply isn’t the best solution. And Nick has seen countless walls rotting because cement render prevents walls from breathing. With the cement industry being one of the largest polluters in the world it may seem timely to relearn our building history. Nick’s final words on the subject clearly show how we can move forward. “Energy-intensive construction is an outmoded, discredited, wasteful industry and there are obvious alternatives in bio-construction and traditional methods. These practices are not necessarily expensive, can be vastly more satisfying than block, brick and cement and they produce superior houses. The processes of using lime and naturally-occurring materials need not be mysterious or intimidating; they just need to be rediscovered.”

If we find ourselves with the luxury of building our own house, the choice of materials is again limited by regulations, but once more people are still experimenting with alternatives, and one of the favourites is the humble straw bale. By setting precedents and proving that structures can be made safely and securely from this cheap, versatile and abundant resource, eventually the law will have to follow. The idea of a house built of straw may seem to be unusual to many people but those that work with it extol its virtues and their numbers across the world are growing rapidly. Unsurprisingly, given its thickness, straw bale provides excellent insulation and turns out to be durable and if properly managed extremely damp and fire resistant. Magda Dysli in the Sierra de Grazalema is also working with straw bale and commented that “straw bale houses are very well insulated and consume a minimum of energy. Working with these natural materials is a source of great creativity and rich aesthetic as well as meeting environmental criteria.” These pioneers are running courses and teaching others how to build with these natural, more organic materials, trying to spread the word and ease our addiction to the grey slabs of concrete.

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This post is also available in: Spanish

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