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No. 73, Fall 2022

What You’re Getting Wrong About Building

By Cillian Barrett and The Last StrawDecember 22, 2022October 30th, 2023No Comments


Introducing Resource Conscious Construction



What is Natural Building?

The terms “natural building”, “eco-building”, and “green building” are surrounded by ambiguity and debate. There are purists who permit no synthetic materials in a “natural” building. There are eco-philosophers who insist that the conceptual categories of “natural” and “unnatural” are divisions that separate people from the earth, giving them a foundation for seeing living ecosystems as inanimate objects of mere economic value. There are corporations who add the words ‘all natural’ and an illustration of a green leaf to their packaging to catch the eye of eco-conscious buyers. The terms “natural”, “eco”, and “green” are used to describe ethical positions, political identities, professions, certifications, hobbies, vocations, and brands. 



Movement on the fringe.

One characteristic these terms share in the construction industry is that they are used to describe alternatives to mainstream building practices. Hence, the term “alternative building” comes into play. This term is helpful to bring folks together and rally counter-cultural support, but by its nature it never allows the practices to become the mainstream, for in order to be alternative they must not be conventional.

The vast majority of Earth’s human population lives in societies built on destructive practices. Colonization, resource extraction, unfettered growth, and pollution define the global building industry. For most of us, our day-to-day activities cannot exist outside of these unsustainable practices. From this position, it is our task to imagine alternatives and explore new ways of living and relating to the world. The greater our willingness to imagine and explore more extreme societal change, the more alternative we become, putting us farther on the fringe. Deep in this fringe is where natural builders often find themselves.


Those who control the language control the debate. Those who insist that we spend our time debating in the first place waste precious time.

A challenge of vocabulary arises when attempting to articulate and share visions of change. Existing terms are either inadequate or they are already too laden with meaning to suggest anything new or different. Mechanisms of commodification such as Instagram and HGTV go to work immediately to brand and ensnare any potential lines of flight under their purview. In order for fringe movements to take hold we must employ language that is fluid and that is our own. Terms are tools, like trowels, and we must take them into our own hands.



Introducing a new term: Resource Conscious Construction (RCC)

As a term, Resource Conscious Construction describes a process. It asks for a continued critical awareness, or consciousness, of the resources used in the construction process. The hope is that this process oriented framework makes the term more useful, giving it flexibility and longevity. RCC makes no claim to define the final built object, and it is not concerned so much with building performance as production. The focus is on the energy, material, and social systems that building production requires.

The focus on means of production and material history implies that we take a more holistic approach to conceptualizing and changing the construction industry. This opens two main trails of exploration. First, it takes the sole responsibility for change off of the individual and locates it at the broader systemic level of production. Far too often we are told that we must ‘be the change that we wish to see’, that consumer demand determines what is supplied, and that customers ‘vote with their pocketbooks’. These sayings may be helpful at times, but they end up placing the entire burden of responsibility for change on the individual. This can lead to debilitating hopelessness and guilt for the individual and stasis in the industry. Reorienting our focus opens up questions such as: What broader systems encourage the current state of the building production? What motivates producers and how are decisions made? What are the levers of power? How might we gain more control over the means of production and supporting systems in order to steer the building industry in a more healthy and sustainable direction?

Second, RCC asks that we consider the histories and processes that generate the actual materials that we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Like most industries the construction sector is flooded with fossil fuels, chemical pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions, and labor exploitation. However, consumers see none of this. Packaging is much more than a sleek logo and fancy box, it is the crafting of the story around a product and the careful omission of certain information. Again, we must flip the script. RCC asks that we consider the chain of events that leads to each of the nails in our wall. What hands did they pass through? From what ground were the iron-ore and alloying elements extracted? How were the furnaces fired and to what temperature? Who drove the truck and along what roads? These are the stories of the objects, and they are more than imaginary stories, they are embedded realities in the objects themselves.



A reminder.

Terms are powerful. They can generate fields of exploration, but they can also limit scope. Resource Conscious Construction is a term that implies continued exploration. As we move into new terrain, it is imperative that we label our maps wisely and that our maps don’t delude us from the ultimate, unnamable wisdom of the land itself. 

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