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I am an architect, so I tend to think about the places in which we live and work. I am also a student of building biology (or Bau-biologie, the study of the effects of the built environment on human health, originating in Germany), so I  think about what our buildings do to our health. As a baubiologist, I look at buildings as our “third skin”, with the first skin being the one we are born with, the second being our clothing. Each of our skins are places of interaction with our environments – they both protect us from things that tend to harm us and  provide ways for our bodies to “share” with those environments in order to maintain our health. Biologists and physicians can better point out the many functions of our first skin, so I won’t even try. And, we all know what clothes do for us – they keep us warm (or cool) and dry; they protect us from the sun, rain, snow and wind; they often keep us from getting scratched, burned, or stung; and they can also make us look good. Our buildings do so many of the same things. But, we are presently living in a time where our buildings are no longer being designed like another layer of “clothing”. In an effort to be energy-efficient, and therefore supposedly more environmentally responsible, architects and designers are tending to create structures that are more like spacesuits rather than a comfortable suit of clothes.

Let me explain how I came to this last statement. Let’s take a look at what kind of clothes you feel comfortable wearing. People tend to like natural fabrics – cotton, silk, linen and wool. Even though we have developed many synthetic fabrics, it is the natural ones that we usually prefer to wear because of their ability to move well and “breathe” while giving us the protection we need. Why do you think that plastic clothing never really caught on? Well – I think that the obvious answer is that such clothing will soon make you look like a prune and feel like you are in a sauna. Now, think about how we are  designing energy-efficient homes today. The first thing most designers recommend is a very tight envelope, with high insulation values and vapor barriers that prevent the movement of moisture (in the form of vapor) through the walls. When buildings are built like this, we have found that they are so tight that they require mechanical air exchange devices to keep the indoor air quality reasonably healthy. Now, doesn’t this sound a little like how a spacesuit works? The big difference is that  spacesuits were built to be worn in the hostile environment of space where humans do not naturally  live. Our homes are usually designed to occupy the Earth – the same place that humans have naturally occupied for hundreds of thousands of years. Why must we create structures to live and work in that separate us so completely from our natural environment when we do not seem to need to do so with our clothing, even where we face the most extreme weather conditions? The logic of this is hard for me to understand. Why, when in the not-so-distant past we lived with minimal heat or cooling requirements, do we suddenly need super-insulated houses with industrially- manufactured insulations that require significant energy and resources to make, transport and install. Do we have to create buildings that are designed to consider our natural living environments as hostile?

I really don’t think that it is in our best interest as a species, and members of ecosystems, to relate to our world in this way. Maybe we don’t need to live like the indigenous peoples of the U.S. did four hundred years ago, but perhaps we can learn from them ways to be more intimate with (and, perhaps, appreciative of) our natural surroundings , and still be comfortable. Have we not, perhaps, made our species less physically adapted to our natural environments by creating artificial indoor environments? I have found that my body can adjust to being quite comfortable in cooler or warmer temperatures than what are usually considered to be the “comfort zone”, if necessary, with a corresponding feeling of better health. (That doesn’t mean that I think we should have to freeze or roast ourselves to be healthy, though.) Can it be that what we may need is something “less”, rather than “more”, when it comes to building technology? Or, maybe we architects just have to think differently – more simply and directly as to how much our creations are impacting our species, and in what ways.  The natural building movement (including straw bale, cob, rammed earth, adobe, etc.) has much to offer us in this way, yet it is still being considered a “fringe” thing – not a part of the building “industry” that is the norm in most developed countries. Hopefully, the current economic situation may have a positive influence on the virtues of natural building and its hands-on approach to construction since it can be a low-cost alternative when you can do the work yourself (with a little instruction), or with the help of friends. Architects would do well to become more familiar with natural building techniques and materials, and help them become part of the “green” mainstream where they belong, especially since they are the “greenest” of what is out there. And, humanity may just find that the hope for its future may not lie just in advanced technology, but in the wisdom of its past.

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One Comment

  1. Nice posting! I hope that our country begins to embrace the natural building movement soon!


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