Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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A Natural Way of Building (2002)

**A Natural Way of Building** (this article originally appeared in Convergence Magazine)

Convergence*Permaculture designer and teacher Rob Hopkins of The Hollies Centre for Practical Sustainability in West Cork has been involved in natural building for more than 5 years. He has taught 2 straw bale wall raisings and workshops in other natural building techniques. In this article he looks at what distinguishes natural building from a more conventional ‘green’ building approach and what it is about natural building materials that inspire him.*

It is a beautiful summers’ evening in Mallow, and a group of people are relaxing after a hard day’s work, building the first straw bale house in Co. Cork.
As the rays of the evening sun stream into the house, the straw is turned a beautiful golden orange. The house is circular in shape, and on this first day the walls have been half built, by 15 people, largely with no previous experience of building. All the excess straw generated by the day’s activities has been tidied away into the inside of the house, which now holds about 3 feet of loose straw, a perfect mattress to recline upon. While the tired builders lie back in the evening sun, Gionata, one of the crew, serenades them on the Italian pipes, while standing on top of the walls.

sbA straw bale building project offers many moments such as these. Straw bale construction is accessible, safe and fun. Anyone can do it, as a result of which, building teams tend to comprise men and women in equal measure, as well as children and older people. It demystifies and revitalises the art of creating shelter, something that 100 years ago we could all do instinctively but which now, like so many other things, we feel we need experts to do for us.

Straw bale buildings are safe, affordable, durable and incredibly well insulated. A straw bale is essentially a building block and insulation all in one. It is very safe in terms of fire, being so tightly baled that it is similar to trying to set the edge of a telephone directory on fire (try it!). Although it is still an experimental building material in this climate, all the evidence so far is that its breathable walls are very well suited to our damp weather, and all the buildings erected thus far are performing excellently. Indeed, when compared with cement, which is hard and cold and non-breathing and has been blamed in some quarters for the high levels of asthma in our children, I would turn the question back round and ask “is cement suitable for this climate?