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LoreSpring 2023Straw

Mainstreaming the Values of the Natural Building Movement

By Massey BurkeAugust 30, 2023October 5th, 2023No Comments
More and more frequently, I find myself describing natural building as “open-source building”. What we call natural building is the continuation of many living, revived, and reinvented traditions of community-held building practices based on the use of local materials and multigenerational building knowledge. This is not to say that all of this knowledge was or is available to everyone all of the time: these practices have had specialists, guilds, exclusivity, and professional secrecy to varying degrees. But to my knowledge these vernacular building traditions, while sometimes closely guarded, tended not to be completely proprietary. Indeed, that would have been difficult, since the basic materials were readily available and difficult to monopolize. The open-source quality of natural building has supported the growth of a community of modern practitioners that is unique within the modern building industry: While there is of course some competition among natural builders, there is at least as much collaboration and mutual support, as well as a lot of not-for-profit open-source work on best practices, building code, and other aspects of our collective work. I got some recent feedback on this uniqueness from a filmmaker who is new to the natural building community and is working on a straw building video. When I recommended that he speak to several other people in our community for his project, he expressed how refreshing it was that everyone he interviewed told him to talk to several other people. He said “when I film people in other industries, they are always trying to forefront their own stories or agendas. In this community, everyone keeps advocating for each other.” 

 

Never has the very existence of vernacular open source building been so severely threatened as it has been in the past century, during the time period of cheap oil that began with the industrial revolution, continued with the meteoric rise of a globalized industrial building culture after World War II, and proceeded until the first oil shocks of the 1970’s and the growing awareness of climate change. This interim period of industrial building, which I suspect we will eventually look back on as the “Weird Period” in human architectural history, is characterized by many elements of building that are also unique (and weird) in the history of human building. The global use of materials, such as concrete and drywall, has supported the rise of huge companies and even material producer cartels. Standardized industrial construction methods have birthed a whole host of complementary building products, all owned and developed by specific companies who had no impetus to monitor the impacts to the commons, or people working along their supply chains. This has given rise to a culture of construction, which includes expectations around what materials should cost and how they should perform, that is dependent upon a wide array of specific products backed up by a system of intellectual property and legal liability. The whole system of revenue and liability limitation has contributed to a feedback loop of less transparency, more specialization, more commercially-driven building code development, and more opaque and inaccessible supply chains. This makes it even harder for communities to manage the bigger picture of the built environment and deal with the externalized costs of industrial building.
None of this is news to most Last Straw readers, since we all know plenty about the origins and unsustainability of most modern building practices. I’m also not trying to claim that everything coming out of this industrial building period is bad, since I like standardized hardware, waterproof membranes, and Frank Lloyd Wright as much as the next person. My point is to remind us just how strange and unique to human history the Weird Period really is. What we think of as “normal” building is really quite strange from a big picture perspective on human history, not to mention from a biospheric perspective. My point is also to highlight the open-source values of the natural building community and to articulate what I feel is a deeply-held distrust within the natural building movement of the proprietary, product-based aspect of modern building culture. Examining this distrust is important, because the natural building movement is about to have a big opportunity to infiltrate this culture and potentially change it from the inside, if we do it right.
 
At first glance it may seem that the product-driven building economy and the natural building movement are at complete odds with one another. Certainly the values that drove the birth of the modern natural building movement were intentionally the antithesis of industrial culture, questioning the value of pretty much every aspect of industrial building systems and assumptions. I very much respect the stubbornness of the community on this point: after more than two decades of growing skills, communities, and best practices, almost entirely in the context of freely shared information, we have grown the pool of lineage holders considerably. We have a network of nonprofits that occupy the space that is held in industrial building by corporations. These nonprofits work on drafting building codes, testing building performance, carbon footprinting, educating, developing a workforce, and more, mainly within the open-source context. This is no easy task given all of the pressures of modernity. I hope to see this robustness grow. I plan to help that growth as much as I can by working through CASBA (The California Straw Building Association) and other nonprofits to keep expanding our organizational capacity and tools for supporting our communities of owner-builders and building professionals. Buildings are embodied culture –thank you to Miya Kitahara for this well-phrased point–and the open-source natural building movement expresses this in the best possible way.

Never has the very existence of vernacular open source building been so severely threatened as it has been in the past century

My impression is that many, if not most, of the members of the natural building community feel very guarded about taking natural building into product development. This guarded stance may or may not be as real as I think, but it is understandable since the movement came into existence to question and oppose the dominance of industrial building. But times are changing, and it might be interesting to think about how product development with natural materials could be a positive next step in the lineage of modern natural building. I’d like to invite the community to give it consideration as a potentially very important opportunity to grow the value and impact of the natural building movement, and to discuss how to do it in the right way.
 
Thinking about this question collectively requires some defining of terms. What exactly is a building product? We tend to think of a building product as something that inevitably has a huge list of unpronounceable ingredients, completely mysterious sourcing, negative environmental and social impacts, huge factories, distant boards of directors, and CEOs with no accountability to anyone other than the shareholders. In fact, a building product is arguably any piece of a building that is manufactured off-site and installed, rather than site-assembled. According to that definition, both adobe blocks and straw bales are building products, albeit with very short and transparent supply chains and no intellectual property. We all know how wonderful the experience is of assembling a building from raw materials without a logo in sight, but we also all know how labor intensive that process is, which expands its access to some people even as it limits its access to others. 
I propose that introducing a very small amount of prefabrication could significantly expand access to natural materials and methods without compromising the values of natural building. Chris Magwood uses a phrase that I feel is really applicable to this point: “human-scale industrial processes”. Prefabrication and product development do not lead inevitably to glossy marketing and C-suites. There is considerable unexplored middle ground both in terms of physical materials and approaches to building, and in the concept of a proprietary product or company.
 
There is also a worry that natural building products will displace or diminish open source, site-built natural building. I don’t think that this will happen. There are simply too many situations where the simplest, most hands-on approach is still the best, and the number of these situations will likely grow with the increased supply chain, energy, and cultural disruptions that are expected with climate change. However, in the current economic context at least, there are many areas where open source site-built natural building is unlikely to penetrate easily, or at all. Well-designed natural building products can expand the accessibility and values of the open-source movement to these areas. In addition, achieving high performance with natural building is also less simple than we sometimes would like, and the open-source natural building movement would benefit from the exacting building science and testing that will be required to create natural building products. 
I propose that we take the bull by the horns and co-opt the concept of a “building product” to serve and express the values of the open-source natural building movement. I am no expert on either product development or business structure, but I now have a little bit of experience with both, and some starting points come to mind. I propose that the basic principle is to develop building products in reciprocity with the open-source community. This means that we need to ask how products can be developed in a way that supports the robustness, resilience, and technical toolkits of the open-source natural building community, as well as how the open-source community can support product development.

How can products contribute to the open source community?

  • Products can help the open-source community develop more robust tools & resources for code and best practices by keeping their technical research as open-source as possible, or donating tools, like thermal testing equipment, to one of the natural building nonprofits when no longer needed for product development. 
  • Products help scale the values of the open-source community to contexts where site-built custom construction is not an option for various reasons, including cost and space constraints.
  • Products help express the relevance of natural materials to the more mainstream green design world—a “gateway drug” if you will.
  • Products help expand the collective bargaining potential clout for certain material supply chains by demonstrating there is a market to support production.
  • Products that grow out of open-source building knowledge can make a point of acknowledging their lineage, and foregrounding the importance of an open-source community in the development of more products, rather than taking credit for community knowledge.
  • Some natural building products can actually enable net climate-beneficial buildings. These are bio-based materials that can sequester carbon in the materials themselves through their physically embodied carbon (such as straw, hemp, or bamboo), while contributing to highly energy efficient structures. Such products may offer the most effective bridge between the existing open-source site-built natural building community and off-site and prefabricated building systems. 

How can the open-source community support product development?

  • Nonprofits can act in a fiscal sponsorship or grantmaking capacity for products in early-stage development that are mission-aligned with the nonprofit. If properly structured this allows product companies to accept funding that is tax deductible while still in start-up phase (i.e. before they are sufficiently developed to offer equity in exchange for capital). 
  • Nonprofits can help set up coalitions to create pipelines to beta testers for new building materials. These coalitions might include other housing nonprofits, large contractors, and developers with a green focus or interest in ambitious climate action.
  • Nonprofits can act as the holders of carbon emissions data and tools to create product data repositories like life cycle assessments (LCA) and environmental product declarations (EPD), so that these documents don’t become siloed and dictated by commercial interest. 

Where does academia fit into all of this?

Academia needs to be careful with its integrity around open-source content. I’ve had some experiences where academic partners have taken credit for discovering what is actually long-held traditional knowledge that simply hasn’t been expressed in a formal academic language or context. Academia can do much to elevate natural building methods and values by foregrounding the importance of experiential knowledge–both from modern practitioners and from pools of collective tradition. Accordingly, academics should do a much better job of listing practitioners as authors in papers where you draw upon experiential knowledge of any type.  
As I mentioned above, I am no expert either in product development or business structures. However, I do feel that the time is ripe for the natural building movement to tackle this question, and I hope that this article will at least start a discussion on the topic!


Massey Burke is the director of the California Straw Building Association and a natural materials design/build consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She works on research, design, and implementation of natural, low-carbon and carbon-sequestering building techniques, with a specific interest in supply chains and bringing natural building materials into the urban fabric.  

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