The Art of Natural Building:
Design, Construction, Resources

Reviewed by Kelly Hart

The first edition of this book, published in 2001, was one of the few books available that covered a whole range of natural building techniques. This second edition is much more comprehensive, with updated resources, and revised chapters, covering virtually all forms of natural building approaches. The articles are written by authorities in the field, mostly practitioners who have hands-on familiarity with their topic, so there is a wealth of very practical information.

The book is arranged into four basic parts, starting with an exploration of the context for natural building. All three of the editors have written chapters that relate to this, with Michael G. Smith making the case for why natural building is important. Catherine Wanek, who has traveled extensively, describes how natural building has it roots in traditional architecture around the world. Joseph Kennedy writes about how natural building can contribute to high LEED ratings. Other contributors weigh in about the importance of being able to house ourselves and how this relates to social justice and the preservation of craft. Life-cycle costs relative to the use of natural materials, as well as how building codes need to focus on issues of sustainability are also explored.

Part two is dedicated to the general topic of design and planning. Human health is of prime importance and should be considered in all designs. Compact designs that take advantage of passive solar heating and other energy efficient schemes are always worthwhile. Sometimes this means that a hybrid approach to using materials is called for. Incorporating Permaculture principles can enhance the regenerative capability of a home. Of course remodeling existing buildings with natural materials might be the best choice of all. And these considerations apply to urban situations as well as rural.

Part three gets into the nitty gritty of specific materials and techniques. There are thirty chapters covering virtually every way to build naturally. Earthen techniques include adobe, cob, rammed earth, compressed earth blocks and earthbags. The use of wood for cordwood masonry, timber framing and small diameter round wood is covered. Of course the traditional use of bamboo and stone masonry are evaluated, as are hybrid building techniques, such as wattle and daub, light straw-clay and hempcrete. The chapter on straw bale building emphasizes how the technique has evolved over the years. Several newer ways to incorporate recycled materials include papercrete, the use of tires and cans for Earthships, and even some ways to build with trash.

Specific elements of building houses naturally are treated separately, including appropriate foundations and roofs, such as thatching and sod or turf for green roofs. The use of rice hulls for insulation is evaluated, as are earthen floors. Finishing touches with earthen and lime plasters and natural paints each have independent chapters.

The final part of the book goes global, with chapters on sustainable development and the use of appropriate technology around the world. Specific situations include woodless construction in the Sahel, straw bales in China and Pakistan, and earthen building in Thailand and India. Both Argentina and South Africa have their share of natural building. Builders Without Borders have been strong advocates of all of this for many years. The efficacy of developing ecological social arrangements, such as ecovillages and affordable housing is advocated.

I highly recommend reading this new edition of an old classic. I have been immersed in the art of natural building and sustainable architecture for several decades, and I found new ideas and good sound advice throughout the 460 pages of this encyclopedic volume. Kudos to the publisher, editors and contributors for a job well done!


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