I was pleased and honored to be chosen to present a paper I wrote at Earth USA 2019, an international conference for earthen construction and architecture in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Although the paper will be published in the Earth USA 2019 Proceedings, I wanted to make it available on this website as well.

The ideas expressed in this essay were formulated over the course of our building project. This paper is directed at future owner-builders and at people within the natural building movement. It is an argument for the importance of the owner-builder experience, both for the individual and for the movement as a whole.

DEFINING THE OWNER BUILDER EXPERIENCE

Abstract

For the earthen builder, the owner builder experience is both a personal journey and an important part of the movement to build better, more sustainable houses on a broader scale. While an owner-built construction project may at first seem like a singular undertaking, it can in fact contribute significantly to the proliferation of vernacular construction methods that are well-suited to today’s green building movement.

This paper seeks to define the owner-builder experience specific to earthen homes and outline the challenges and rewards inherent to the undertaking. This paper will address the various ways that owner-builder projects can directly support and contribute to the natural building movement, and will argue that owner-builders should be recognized as a vital part of the global effort to increase the prevalence of more sustainable housing.

Introduction

A place of shelter is one of mankind’s most fundamental physiological needs. As Abraham Maslow proposed in his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, higher level human needs remain unattainable to an individual until the basic physical requirements for human survival are met.[1] While aspects of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the methodology of the research used to support his theory have been criticized over time, the importance of an individual’s having a place of shelter is still widely recognized. Modern research continues to illuminate how the various features of a building significantly impact an inhabitant’s health and well-being.[2][3][4]    

Given that the places we call home have such a great effect on our lives, it is important that we seek to create homes that maximize our health and our potential to lead meaningful, productive lives. When we consider whole populations, it is clear that housing trends and policy choices can have broad public health impact. Unfortunately, the health and productivity of the future inhabitants of a building are not always given enough careful consideration during the planning and design phases of modern projects, especially when cost minimization and speed of construction are the primary motivating factors.

As population growth continues globally, it is equally important that we seek to create houses that are designed to have a minimal ecological footprint, both with regard to the materials used in construction and the performance of the finished building. Materials that are minimally processed, recycled or re-purposed, or made of plentiful or renewable resources all lessen the environmental impact of constructing a building. Optimizing the energy efficiency and resource efficiency of a building during the design and planning phases helps ensure that the finished building functions with a reduced impact on the environment.

Earthen Building

Building with earthen materials is a modern solution for creating houses that promote inhabitant health and have a reduced ecological footprint. Earthen materials have distinct advantages over many other building materials [5][6]:

  1. Earthen materials are a plentiful resource and are abundantly available
  2. Earthen materials can often be sourced onsite or in the vicinity of the project location
  3. Earthen materials have unique thermal properties that promote comfortable indoor environments while minimizing the need for more artificial insulation materials
  4. Walls built from earthen materials can be load-bearing and extremely durable

The earthen building movement in the United States, as part of the larger green building movement, progresses forward on multiple fronts. Earthen construction has been enshrined in a limited number of state building codes, such as the New Mexico Earthen Building Materials Code and the California Historic Building Code, and provisions for adobe construction are now included in the International Building Code. Advocacy groups, such as The Earthbuilder’s Guild and the Cob Research Institute, work to further the adoption of earthen construction standards in building codes. Contractors and owner-builders, particularly in regions with code provisions and a tradition of earthen construction, continue to design and create new buildings using earthen materials. Scientific research into the applications, properties, and performance of earthen materials is helping to develop earthen materials specification data and is building credibility for earthen materials that will increase the prevalence of earthen construction.

The Owner-Builder Experience

Owner-builders of earthen homes are an important piece of the green building movement. An owner-builder is an individual who, rather than hire a licensed general contractor, personally manages and often participates in the construction of his or her house. Owner-builders may simply act as a general contractor, hiring sub-contractors to complete the various construction stages of their project, or they may undertake to construct all or part of the house themselves.

For the purposes of this paper, we will focus specifically on owner-builders that are managing the construction of their earthen homes and are also predominantly involved in the construction work as well. For this type of owner-builder, the owner-builder experience is not only a profound personal journey made up of physical, emotional and financial expenditures, but it is also an undertaking that can directly and indirectly contribute to increasing the prevalence of earthen building on a larger scale.

The Personal Journey of the Owner-Builder

The owner-builder experience is inherently made up of successes and failures, challenges and solutions, and an overwhelming sense of autonomy and pride. These elements not only help to define the owner-builder experience, but also enhance and deepen the connection between the builder and the building. For many owner-builders, the motivation for undertaking the project is not simply predicated on the end result – the finished house. Many owner-builders are seeking the richness of the experience itself, with all it’s trials and tribulations, and they find that the process of constructing a house is as rewarding as the finished product.

When an owner-builder makes the decision to undertake the construction of his or her house, it is important that the decision be made with a full understanding of the breadth and scope of the project in mind.[6]  In addition to logistical considerations, such as project cost, expected timeline, and the availability of materials, the owner-builder should also be anticipating a challenge that will at times test his or her physical and emotional endurance and perseverance.[6][7] Logistical planning, as well as emotional preparation for the task ahead, are important early stages of the owner-builder experience, and the owner-builder who prepares well is likely to be more successful during the construction phase of the project.[6]

Although owner-builders will begin their projects with varying degrees of construction knowledge and experience, most owner-builders will be troubleshooting and learning as the house goes up. The owner-builder will learn that on the job problem solving and creative thinking are a big part of the process. Construction tasks that look straight-forward on paper sometimes end up being more complicated on the jobsite. Worksite conditions, tool and material availability, and manpower constraints are all factors that must be taken into consideration when resolving issues at the jobsite. There are often multiple ways to approach and complete construction tasks, and deciding on the best way to complete a task requires focused consideration of the ease, speed, and the resulting quality of work of the various approaches. Throughout the entire construction process the owner-builder learns substantially about how to make the most appropriate decisions based on consideration of these factors.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the owner-builder’s personal journey is the knowledge gained about one’s own capacity to persevere, overcome, and drive oneself to create something truly great. If the owner-builder is open to the lessons that the project presents along the way, personal growth can be an essential part of the experience. Learning how to respond to failures, to worry less and trust one’s own work more, and to better realize one’s abilities and limitations can provide insights that broadly enrich the owner-builder’s life. The owner-builder journey can certainly be a profound life experience that is fulfilling, meaningful, and worthy of the substantial effort it requires of the builder.

The house and the work involved in its creation are a reflection of the builder. The finished building encapsulates the owner-builder’s creativity, attention to detail, stylistic and aesthetic tastes, and serves as testament to the builder’s considerable physical input. The house is also uniquely suited to the needs and lifestyle preferences of the person who was intimately involved in its creation This produces a special relationship between the owner-builder and the house. The house provides a deep sense of place for the person who built it, as the builder and house are part of the same story. The owner-builder remembers every minor construction detail as he or she looks around the completed house, and to be surrounded by a structure built with one’s own hands imparts a strong feeling of gratification and accomplishment.

Beyond the Personal Experience of the Owner-Builder

A compelling argument for the importance of owner-builders on a societal scale is made by Christopher Alexander in The Timeless Way of Building.[8] Alexander writes, “So long as the people of society are separated from the language which is being used to shape their buildings, the buildings cannot be alive”. His point is not that all people must necessarily build their own houses, but rather, that as more people within a society collectively shape and influence the places they live, the better aligned these places become with nature and the better it feels to inhabit these places. The owner-builder obviously works in a very direct way to individually shape and create their building, but it is also through the example they set, the opportunities they provide for others to participate in the building’s creation, and through the sharing of their story to a wider audience that the owner-builder can contribute to connecting people to the places they live. In these ways, the owner-builder can help move society to create buildings that are better suited to the needs of the inhabitants and are better in tune with their surroundings.

Owner-builders play a unique and vital role within the natural building movement. An owner-built project sets a clear and distinctive example of how earthen buildings can adequately meet housing needs in modern times. The owner-builder can be an inspiration to others who are looking for ways to live more sustainably and minimize their environmental impact. Owner-builders help make the designing and building of a house a more relatable and obtainable experience to others, and they help generate interest and greater understanding of do-it-yourself house construction. In these ways, owner-builders help to grow and provide for the continuation of the natural building movement, as they help create a public that is more knowledgeable about earthen construction and more likely to pursue natural building projects of their own.

The owner-builder of an earthen home also continues the vernacular architecture tradition in numerous ways. Vernacular buildings, as defined by Paul Oliver in Dwellings, are, “Related to their environmental contexts and available resources, [and] they are owner- or community-built, utilizing traditional technologies”.[9] While the owner-builder is usually not a trained builder or architect, he or she designs the house to meet specific needs and to fit into a particular environment. Owner-builders unsurprisingly tend to create houses with a primary design emphasis on how it will function and how it will feel when it is inhabited. Many owner-builders allow the design and construction of the house to be guided by the availability of local and/or recycled materials. Owner-builders often attract and involve helpers from within the local community throughout the various stages of construction. As earthen construction techniques have such a long vernacular history, the owner-builder learns from these traditions and applies time-tested practices within a modern architectural context.

Owner-builders often solicit help throughout the course of their project from volunteers. Volunteers may be people interested in learning about home construction for their own future projects, or they may be family or friends interested in supporting the owner-builder’s project. Whatever a volunteer’s motivation for contributing their time and energy to the owner-builder’s project may be, the experience of participating in the construction of an earthen home helps build a stronger sense of community and helps to create a general public that is more knowledgeable and informed about how houses are built. For a person interested in building their own house, the opportunity to gain first-hand experience on an actual jobsite can be an invaluable step along their journey, allowing them to learn construction skills and more fully understand what is involved in building one’s own house.

The owner-builder’s sphere of influence can be greatly expanded with the use of social media and other online platforms. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, along with website development platforms, like WordPress, Wix, and Weebly, can be useful tools for the owner-builder wishing to share their construction story with a wide audience. Social media and other online platforms can also be great tools for linking potential volunteers with owner-builders. Through the sharing of project photos and posting about specific construction stages, the owner-builder can educate and inform people all around the world about how an earthen house is built. It is important that people are able to see actual examples of modern earthen homes being built by owner-builders, and there is certainly a need for more online resources describing earthen construction techniques. When the owner-builder shares his or her construction story online, he or she demonstrates to a global audience that building an earthen home is a realistic endeavor and can be achieved by any individual with the drive to take on the project.

Owner-builders can also support the natural building movement by helping to set precedence with regard to the permitting and inspection processes for earthen homes. In many areas, even in regions with earthen building traditions, plan reviewers and building inspectors may be less familiar and less comfortable with earthen construction techniques than more conventional construction styles. Owner-builders who carefully design, permit, and build earthen homes can help plan reviewers and inspectors become more acquainted with earthen construction. Their projects can serve as good examples for these professionals of how earthen buildings can outperform conventionally built homes. The more well-designed and well-built earthen houses that these plan reviewers and inspectors see, the easier it becomes for future builders to go through the permitting and inspection processes for their projects.

Conclusion

As a population, we are facing numerous complex global issues that impact our health, environment, and the future of civilization. Climate change, population growth, food scarcity, and ecosystem destruction are all trends that can be reversed with existing technologies and innovative ideas.[10] The natural building movement offers a variety of sustainable, resource-efficient, low-cost, and low-impact material alternatives to conventional building methods.[11] Owner-builders play a vital role in this movement by increasing the prevalence of natural buildings in two primary ways: Firstly, and most directly, the owner-builder is creating a home that has a reduced environmental impact. Secondly, the owner-builder’s work can serve as inspiration for others to seek greater sustainability in their lives. Through the promotion of their projects online, providing volunteer opportunities, and by setting precedence for plan reviewers and building inspectors, owner-builders can demonstrate natural building as a realistic and viable option. The owner-builder experience is both a profound life experience for the builder and an important and significant undertaking in response to some of the substantial health and environmental crises facing our civilization today.

List of Citations

  1. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396
  2. Finnegan, M. J., Pickering, C. A., & Burge, P. S. (1984). The sick building syndrome: prevalence studies. British medical journal (Clinical research ed.)289(6458), 1573–1575. doi:10.1136/bmj.289.6458.1573
  3. Burge P. S. (2004). Sick building syndrome. Occupational and environmental medicine61(2), 185–190. doi:10.1136/oem.2003.008813
  4. A guide to healthier homes and a healthier planet (2018). https://www.worldgbc.org/sites/default/files/20181204_WGBC_Homes-Research-Note_FINAL_spreads.pdf. World Green Building Council. Retrieved 2019-07-13.
  5. Schroder, Lisa and Ogletree, Vince (2010). Adobe Homes for All Climates: Simple, Affordable, and Earthquake-Resistant Natural Building Techniques. Chelsea Green Publishing.
  6. O’Connor, John F. (1973). The Adobe Book. Ancient City Press.
  7. McHenry, Paul Graham Jr. (2002). Adobe: Build It Yourself (Revised Edition). The University of Arizona Press.
  8. Alexander, Christopher (1979). The Timeless Way of Building. Oxford University Press.
  9. Oliver, Paul (2003). Dwellings. Phaidon.
  10. Brown, Lester (2009). Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Earth Policy Institute.
  11. May, John (2010). Handmade Houses & Other Buildings: The World of Vernacular Architecture. Thames & Hudson Ltd.

 

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