Nat­u­ral home

The se­cret at the heart of ev­ery

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Feature - Source: Nelson Mail

Nat­u­ral homes have a se­cret qual­ity that peo­ple love, but even af­ter 40 years of de­sign­ing, build­ing and liv­ing in them, ar­chi­tect Graeme North hasn’t cracked quite what it is.

“It’s in­tan­gi­ble stuff some of it, I find it very hard to quan­tify or even talk about, it seems to be a sense of well­be­ing by liv­ing within nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als. Peo­ple re­act very pos­i­tively to the in­door en­vi­ron­ment in a nat­u­ral build­ing. You get a mod­er­a­tion of tem­per­a­ture, a mod­er­a­tion of hu­mid­ity.”

But for many peo­ple, it might seem like you have to be a hip­pie to like the style of a nat­u­ral home. Graeme says there are dozens of de­signs which show how mod­ern aes­thet­ics can be cre­ated us­ing old tech­nol­ogy.

“I think the hip­pies had it right!” he laughs. “But nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als can be used in very slick, very chic de­signs and are.”

He’s found nat­u­ral build­ings at­tract peo­ple who tend to want to in­vest in crafts­man­ship by trained ar­ti­sans, and if that’s the case, the end price of those homes will be com­pa­ra­ble to a ‘con­ven­tional’ one. But it’s also at­trac­tive to the owner-builder be­cause you can save on your build­ing costs, al­though you’ll still pay a price says Graeme.

“Peo­ple think that be­cause earth and straw bales are cheap, the houses should be cheaper, and they can be if peo­ple are pre­pared to do a lot of work – some­how or other you have to pay for that labour, whether it’s feed­ing your­self or feed­ing your fam­ily or feed­ing your mates or what­ever, time off work, all th­ese sorts of things.”

In Graeme’s ex­pe­ri­ence, peo­ple come to a holis­tic de­ci­sion when they choose a

nat­u­ral home: it’s en­vi­ron­men­tal, in terms of the non-toxic ma­te­ri­als they will live in; they can get the op­por­tu­nity for hand­son par­tic­i­pa­tion in the build­ing process if they wish; and they are us­ing ma­te­ri­als that are close by, some­times even on-site.

“It’s us­ing what’s avail­able lo­cally in as un­pro­cessed a form as pos­si­ble to do good stuff with, do good work with, build sound houses with, whether it’s un­treated tim­ber or clay or stone or straw.”

It’s thanks to Graeme and fel­low pi­o­neers of the Earth Build­ing As­so­ci­a­tion of NZ (EBANZ) that any­one can build a nat­u­ral home us­ing tech­niques like rammed earth or adobe (see page 47) us­ing the of­fi­cial Earth Build­ing Stan­dards which cover de­sign, ma­te­ri­als and work­man­ship.

“Earth build­ing in New Zealand has the same sta­tus in the Build­ing Code as tim­ber, con­crete, steel,” says Graeme. “The dif­fi­culty you find is not many peo­ple are fa­mil­iar with de­sign­ing for the ma­te­rial, so find­ing ex­per­tise can take a lit­tle bit more dig­ging.

“The build­ings I’ve done, the dif­fi­cul­ties have never been the nat­u­ral ma­te­rial, it’s the things you en­counter in any build­ing, like the build­ing process of­fi­cer has just gone on a course on hot wa­ter cylin­ders and de­mands in­for­ma­tion you’ve never had to pro­vide in 40 years about what your hot wa­ter cylin­der is made out of.”

Earth build­ings do have a cer­tain style and that’s be­cause there are some aspects you can’t get away from when you’re de­sign­ing one. For ex­am­ple, many de­signs have much wider eaves than you’d see on a tim­ber home.

“There’s an old English say­ing that talks about earth build­ings, and it ap­plies to straw build­ings as well, that ba­si­cally you’ve got to give them a good pair of boots and a good hat,” says Graeme. “The good boots are to stop mois­ture com­ing up from the ground and get­ting up into your walls from below, or splash­ing up from the sur­round­ing area onto your walls; the more in­tense the rain, the big­ger the hat (eaves) you need, it pro­tects the walls from the worst of the weather, and then the other de­tail­ing you do, and the plas­ter fin­ishes, keep the mois­ture out, and by tak­ing that ap­proach we’re able to build very suc­cess­ful earth and straw bale build­ings in New Zealand.”

What earth build­ings can do very well is cre­ate a com­fort­able cli­mate for the peo­ple who live in them, al­though con­trary to what some peo­ple as­sume, it’s only straw bale that makes for good in­su­la­tion.

“We’ve got th­ese very dense, heavy, fairly low strength ma­te­ri­als. Dense ma­te­ri­als don’t make ter­ri­bly good in­su­la­tion – they’re very good for stor­ing heat and stor­ing cool so they have an enor­mously good rep­u­ta­tion for mod­er­at­ing tem­per­a­ture fluc­tu­a­tions in build­ings.

“There’s an old say­ing that th­ese build­ings are warm in win­ter and cool in sum­mer – which is true of a well-de­signed earth build­ing – but if we do get a few days with­out much sun, as we can in win­ter, an earth build­ing will cool down be­cause dense ma­te­ri­als don’t make good in­su­la­tors and once you’ve lost your heat it takes a bit to gain it back.”

That’s led nat­u­ral home ex­perts in NZ and around the world to ex­per­i­ment with adding straw, wood shav­ings, pa­per pulp and other lighter ag­gre­gates to earth bricks and mud mixes for in­su­la­tory ef­fect.

“By low­er­ing the den­sity of the bricks we are mak­ing them stronger, giv­ing bet­ter in­su­la­tion and they’re also eas­ier to use be­cause they are lighter, and they are eas­ier to de­sign for struc­turally be­cause there’s less mass in­volved.”

How­ever, if you think Graeme is go­ing to try and per­suade you to build a nat­u­ral or earth home, you’d be wrong.

“I will tell peo­ple that there are th­ese op­tions but I don’t try and talk them into it – they have to want to do it be­cause they like it or they think it’s fea­si­ble or it’s for them. I don’t try to talk peo­ple into it be­cause then if they’re dis­ap­pointed they’ll blame me!

“You can talk about tox­i­c­ity and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits un­til the cows come home, but peo­ple aren’t gen­er­ally per­suaded by that, it’s a much more vis­ceral, an emo­tional re­sponse. “It’s a tac­tile thing, it’s a vis­ual thing, def­i­nitely. I’ve got a patch by my front door that’s been touched by just about ev­ery­body who comes into my house – the first thing ev­ery­one does is they touch it, they like it, they start to smile, and then they look around at ev­ery­thing else.” Nat­u­ral homes also tend to age well, as Graeme knows from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I’ve got two build­ings – one’s new and one’s old – and the old one, we put earth plas­ters in­side it, well over 10 years ago, I can’t re­mem­ber, but usu­ally in a house of this age we’d be look­ing at re­dec­o­rat­ing it. But I looked around and thought there’s ac­tu­ally noth­ing to do, the walls are as good as the day they were fin­ished, ab­so­lutely noth­ing needs to be touched on them.”

Graeme re­cently stopped by to look at the first nat­u­ral house he de­signed back in 1971 made out of earth, se­cond-hand bricks and tim­ber, and was de­lighted to find it still in good or­der.

“I hadn’t seen it for 30 years. I bowled up and the woman who lives in it now popped up out of the gar­den, I in­tro­duced my­self to her and she said, ‘oh, Graeme I’ve al­ways wanted to meet you, not a day goes by that I don’t thank you for my beau­ti­ful house.’”

The straw bale house ar­chi­tect Philip Kennedy de­signed doesn’t ap­pear to have a front door. It has nine doors so vis­i­tors can take their pick. The main liv­ing area is built out of straw bale, sur­rounded by tim­ber fram­ing, sprayed with a clay slurry, then plas­tered with a mix­ture of clay, straw and sand which was ap­plied by hand and smoothed over. The bed­rooms are in a sep­a­rate wing, a two-storey, cedar-clad build­ing de­signed to look like a to­bacco kiln.

The high ceil­ing is made of ba­tons which have an acous­tic ef­fect in soft­en­ing the sound in the room. Much of the tim­ber fram­ing for win­dows, doors, cup­boards and shelves is rimu that was sal­vaged from the cou­ple’s old red-zoned house in Christchurch.

The house took close to a year to build, with sev­eral dif­fer­ent con­trac­tors in­clud­ing a car­pen­ter and earth builder work­ing on its con­struc­tion.

See more on – search for “Ar­chi­tect Philip Kennedy’s straw bale house”.

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