The Natural Building Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to Integrative Design and Construction
Reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb
For a long time, I didn’t consider myself a handyman. It sneaks up on you—this ability to build or fix things—one project at a time. But I’d never consider designing and building my own home. If I did, though, the first book I’d read is this one: The Natural Building Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to Integrative Design and Construction. Authors Jacob Deva Racusin and Ace McArleton have put together a thick, comprehensive, and attractive handbook covering almost all aspects of building—from an earth-first, environmentally-sound, considerate, socially and ecologically thoughtful approach.
My father—a man born and raised on a farm—taught me to use tools at a very young age, insisting (when I was probably seven) we build out of wood and chicken wire a cage for my pet hamster rather than buy a standard 10-gallon glass tank. After college, I found myself one summer standing high atop pump-jack scaffolding pounding nails on the new framing of my pal Nick’s soon-to-be post & beam house. Since then, I’ve learned to install lighting, swap outlets and switches, and frame-in and install doors. I’ve installed flooring, sheetrock, and toilets. My stepson recently needed a table for a school project, so together we built one.
The idea of building an entire house, though, is daunting for me. Handyman, maybe. General contractor? No. Perhaps that’s the fascination with books like Thoreau’s Walden. Or Tom Montgomery Fate’s Cabin Fever. These men who build cabins in the woods. Even if you want to tackle a small building, it doesn’t take too much reading to realize how unhealthy are some very common building practices and materials, for humans and the earth. Plywood is chemical-filled, potentially off-gassing for years. Pressure treated lumber? Don’t breathe the sawdust. PVC pipe? That’s polyvinyl chloride. The Wikipedia segment on PVC’s health issues is equally as large as the section simply defining what it is and how it’s commonly used.
What are Racusin and McArleton doing differently? They’re living and building in ways that take multiple dimensions of our world into account—not just the bottom line. They tell us, “the act of building should promote social and ecological health and well-being while creating structures that perform well in all weather conditions and are comfortable, beautiful, and long-lasting.” In case one thinks this might be a standard green-movement style tome, the authors reassure: while they support the industry efforts and movement of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, they believe these “do not dig deeply enough nor span broadly enough to address humanity’s ongoing and increasing challenges.”
So: there’s a difference between green building and natural building. As natural builders, the authors are asking questions like: Is a given building material toxic? What is the sensory experience for the folks using the material (i.e., is latex paint fun or healthy to use?). Does the material fit with the climactic demands, the local ecology, and the local vernacular building style? The final, and perhaps broadest question is if the materials used connect you to the planet. For instance, can you watch the straw grow in a farmer’s field that will eventually become the wall of your house?
The majority of the book focuses on the structural construction of a house. Framing styles, wall structure, foundations, insulation, heating, air movement, moisture control, plastering, roofs, finishes, coatings (paint). The chapters are dense. Lots of two-column text with color photos, diagrams, drawings. What’s impressive is the way the data is not prescriptive but descriptive and inclusive. There are three chapters on wall systems. How complicated is a wall one might ask? Studs and sheetrock? Racusin and McArleton know differently. They can create a straw-bale wall multiple ways. Insulation? Straw-clay, wood-chip clay, or cellulose. Natural mass-wall systems? It’s in here.
A question many readers will ask is: Why do this? Why consider straw instead of fiberglass insulation? The first five chapters of the book work to answer that. Besides the above questions on how building affects the earth, natural builders are aware of the embodied energy of a building material. Energy and its use creates and releases CO2, affecting global warming, so knowing what energy you’re using is important. Using a “cradle-to-grave” measure, the authors tell us that embodied energy includes “all energy used in resource extraction, manufacturing, production, transportation to site, inclusion within a building, and disposal.” They use the example of bamboo flooring versus concrete. Bamboo typically measures 15 megajoules/ton of embodied energy, while concrete comes in at 1,452 megajoules/ton. That is until you factor in moving the bamboo from Hunan, China to Colorado to your building site: the bamboo now skyrockets to 4,942.1 MJ/ton, far more than locally produced concrete. For reference the book includes a table with various materials—timber, sand, concrete, plastics, lime, glass, copper, cements, mortar, brick—and their embodied energy, embodied CO2, and the like.
Some of the materials and processes are more expensive than mass produced materials, and there’s a section on budgeting and financing. A big focus of natural building is community, and a potential way to lower costs is to use your community (friends, people, helping hands) as helpers in the process. The book also comes with a DVD with some instructional footage showing natural building techniques in action.
This book isn’t designed to turn anyone into an architect, general contractor, or DIY homebuilder overnight. It’s a reference book to aid in the process, offering strategies and instruction that inform how one designs a building, while raising awareness about what’s involved in the building of a home—and what should be involved, given global and local environmental dilemmas. The Natural Building Companion is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to build smarter: more naturally.
It closes with a call to action, reminding us of the need to work to make change now, and to stay connected with the relationships that sustain us. It’s a good message: “The process of natural building acts as a web, connecting us back to ‘place’ and all those who help make that place.” These are two authors and builders I’d like to work side by side with on my first cabin in the woods.
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the reviews editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook Halflives (New Michigan Press). Find him at www.AndrewCGottlieb.com.