book nerdism: The Hand-Sculpted House
July 5, 2012 § 19 Comments
Christy and I have been at a workaway project for the past two weeks in Tumbaco, Ecuador, just east of Quito. We’re living with room and board and in exchange we spend about 5 hours per day on a construction site, where our hosts are building a home made of a super-sustainable material called cob.
There was a coffee table-type book about it sitting next to my bed so I’ve been reading through it and enlightening myself deeper on the subject when I’m not too tired at night (which is actually not often, because the work is physically draining for a suburban American younglady like myself, who isn´t well accustomoned to the woes of manual labor).
The Hand-Sculpted House turned out to be much more than a coffee table book and actually quite philosophical at that. Aside from practical how-to’s on creating a cob home from start to finish, one author in particular delves a lot into the cultural, emotional, cosmological significance of the ways we can, but don’t often choose to, shelter ourselves.
First of all, cob: it’s composed of sand, soil, straw and water, which, as I’ve learned, actually makes a super durable, thermal building material. And it’s cheap as hell. Besides cheap, the coolest part about it in my opinion is that it builds best in curved, organic shapes, so not only can you design a super cool, unique habitat, it’s actually recommended to do so.
So the authors of the book, as well as my appassionato Italian hosts, really trip out on the concept of these radically deisgned homes “growing directly out of the earth”, with materials that came from and will return to the ground without doing any damage to the environment.
The book also goes over how to build your home more sensitive to the earth, particularly, more “cosmically aware” in their terms. When you design yourself, you can use a basic knowledge of the earth’s tilt and spin for both practical functions (such as using the angle of the midday winter sun to store warmth in your home using passive solar heating) and nerdy astrological touches (such as building a skylight through which you can always see the North Star, which never moves).
Arguably the principle author and voice of the book, this builder-permaculture-architect guru Ianto Evans covers the “philosophy” and design behind building a cob-based house. He spends a lot of time commenting on how, over time, we have lost the connection between ourselves and our man-made environment, particularly the homes where we spend arguably half of our lives.
He makes the point, which I’ve never really even considered before, that when an architect/builder/construction crew is absentmindedly putting together their 9,282nd home, which is comparable to or exactly the same as the homes that came before it, they aren’t giving a single backthought as to whom will be calling this building “home”, “habitat”, “safe place”, and what particular functions or designs it could provide to suit a particular person’s needs, whims, or aesthetics. And this isn’t their fault. We’ve come to accept this sort of thing, as our homes to impersonal rectangles boxes that all look just the same. Like that annoying theme song from Weeds that has been cycling through my head since I´ve started writing about this.
Ianto says, as is the case in most books about sustainability, that industrialism and consumerism is to blame. We had it right in the olden days before excess materials were made available to us, and most 2nd or 3rd world nations still rely on the tried and true principles the rest of us have forgotten.
Case in point: in some developing nations, people continue to build homes so as to orient the front door or window facing the rising morning sun, capturing its warmth and also providing a natural, beautiful alarm clock. Ianto noted that old farmhouses in Wales (his homeland) were built the same way. However, after 1850 the houses abruptly face in haphazard directions, due to industrially manufactured bricks made available by the dawn of railroads. Progress is fine and well, but why throw away all the useful- and sustainable- principles mankind used to get by on just fine in the past?
Like this one, a lot of the great points Ianto makes aren’t starry-eyed, tree-hugging cooing about communing once again with nature (although he does do that as well); he just has a lot of common sense. He points out how, in pursuit of progress, builders have forgotten about the practicality of our ancestors. They must have been doing a few things right to get by for that long.
There was a sidebar about steel roofs in Kenya that I really liked:
In Kenya, right on the equator, we encountered an entire village newly rebuilt, completely of corrugated steel: roofs, walls, room dividers. This, in a region noted for its exquisitely built circular earthen homes. We stopped the truck, seeking an explanation, and as always a little crowd gathered under the vertical sun. Why, we asked, were they opting for a material that in the tropics lasts only a few years, is freezing cold at night and an oven in the daytime?
The answer surprised us all. They wanted to be modern and knew how people like ourselves lived in other countries. “In America where you live, is it not correct that everybody can afford a metal house?”
Somehow the word had gotten out that U.S. houses are made of corrugated tin. Maybe a villager saw a movie about about Alabama in the 1930s; who knows? Not wanting to look as if they were backward, these people had been misled into abandoning their traditions for an imported material they will spend a lifetime to pay for.
“Yes,” one woman agreed, in that flawless pedantic British School English only Africans can speak, “it is utterly true that the houses are too hot, and additionally we have considerable difficulty conducting conversations when the rain comes, but this is the price of Progress.”
Flipping through The Hand-Sculpted House, and spending time at this workaway, has been a bit of a revelation for me because I’ve never given much thought to the roof over my head in this manner or realized how easy it is to create such a unique living space. That just isn’t “the way we do things” anymore. But if you think about it, once you’re settled down and in a place for good, you’re stuck with it- you are going to pass the majority of your human experience there. I know I’ve got a long time (and a lot of shitty apartments) ahead of me before I can even consider getting picky with my living situation. However, it was an interesting read, just to shake up my idea of what “home” or “dwelling” even means, and to think of all the possibilities there are to make it not only more sustainable, but more an extension of you rather than just a box full of your crap.