Natural Building

Green and Natural Building are terms that are typically thrown around a lot, but what do they mean? They mean different things to different people but we find it important to continue redefining them for ourselves and our customers.

Green Building means building with responsibility. Responsibility to the Natural Environment of the planet we inhabit and understanding how we impact it because of our needs to use its resources for building our homes. Responsible building means building with products and processes that are sustainable.

How do we (BOA) measure SUSTAINABILITY?
1. Embodied energy
The resources it takes to create and transport any and every product.
defined as Material Intensity Per Unit Service
Material meaning energy...Service meaning function.
MIPS takes embodied energy a bit farther. MIPS is a way of measuring the sustainability of a product by juxtaposing its embodied energy to the service and function it delivers over its entire life span from cradle to grave. How these balance each other out measures how sustainable the product is. See more about MIPS in David Bainbridge's article from “The Last Straw” issue #54.
3. Appropriate Technology
Appropriate technology is directly tied to RESPONSIBLE BUILDING. We don’t as a culture understand the effects that our choices of material have because we never see the abstractions of our choices. We live in a disassociated world where we are rarely in direct contact with where our resources come from. Responsible Building means using appropriate technology. David Eisenburg, director of the Development Center of Appropriate Technology says two things that exemplify Appropriate technology to me. 1. “There’s nearly a one to one correspondence between how much you do and the level of unintended consequences resulting from it. and 2. “Truly appropriate technology is technology that ordinary people can use for their own benefit and the benefit of their community that doesn’t make them dependent on systems over which they have no control. This contributes to our philosophy of “Sustainability” in terms of its desire to dissuade over-building and over- designing and getting back to basic human needs.

Good choices for sustainability...

MIPS calculations show that the best material choices include Sustainably Harvested wood, Straw which is a waste product and Clay. Like David Bainbridge says, “If well cared for, these simple materials can last hundreds of years”.... All reclaimed products such as wood, antiques and salvaged materials, and recycled products including recycled cotton insulation and recycled cellulose insulation made from paper also perform well in the energy to function/longevity ratio. When we add natural heating and cooling through ventilation, solar orientation, thermal mass and healthy forms of high performance insulation to smart choices about the embodied energy of finishes, good quality long lasting fixtures and energy efficient appliances in smaller houses, we start to make a dent in the amount of resource it takes to build a home.

Appropriate Technology is also important in terms of nature.

Understanding Natural Building means reconnecting the natural environment that we are having a huge impact on and the natural environment that surrounds and nurtures us as one in the same. We make this connection not so we can reside in guilt but so we can reside in thankfulness. Thankfulness is inspirational, while guilt is immobilizing. The permaculture model is to create environments and interconnected ecosystems that giveback more than they take from the natural world. Natural Building means building in balance, considering the environment we’re building in and learning to create a give and take with it that is harmonious. It means facing our need to use resource for creating homes, implementing the aforementioned ideas of sustainability and using these valuable resources to create homes that are worthy of their use; homes that can elevate us into a more balanced relationship with our world. As humans we are desperately in need of a feeling of connectedness. Building Naturally means building homes that support our connectedness to everything, the moon phases as seen through our bedroom skylight, the sun rising in our kitchen window, the breeze flowing through our living space on a hot day, the way a favorite reading nook extends directly into the garden. Homes can give allot. They can improve family relations and relationships to ourselves. Homes can heal through healthy environments. They can increase our sensitivity, creativity, productivity, and peace. They can also provide education to communities linking people together from all over the world.

Green, Sustainable, Natural buildings pay the largest dividends in Human productivity and Health, as well as being responsible users of Limited Resources.

Building Homes in this modality is best addressed in the design phase. It is the responsibility of designers and architects to not only take natural resources and sustainable principals into consideration but to be responsible to homeowner’s financial resources which directly tie into the realities of embodied energy and appropriate technology.

When Green/Natural Building is not addressed in the design phase, it puts financial pressure on homeowners and builders. It is our experience in general that designers and architects are very out of touch with building costs. We have not had one job designed out of house in 3 years that was within a clients budget. Add the expense of implementing Green/Natural design concepts to a house that was not designed to include them and usually it is completely out of a homeowner’s budget. Their own human resources or personal embodied energy is threatened, locking them into a paradigm that includes weird statements like, “I can’t afford sustainably harvested wood for my 3000 square foot house.” Is it the wood or the house that is unaffordable?

It is estimated to cost about 1.8% more to implement basic sustainable material substitution on a conventional Stick Frame job (this percentage does not apply to less conventionally designed projects).

Without an efficient design, homeowners are faced with:
1. Spending more money
2. Leaving things unfinished
3. Participating more and incurring sweat equity (people have different resources. Sweat Equity is a good option for those who have more time than money. Some clients wish to do allot of the work her/himself. It is crucial that this be clearly laid out at the beginning of a project, ideally in the design phase. Communication and agreements must be very clear in order to fully benefit the homeowners. It is a situation made infinitely easier on a project where Appropriate Technology is implemented.

Another reason to address Green/Natural principals in the design phase is that poorly designed houses need costly technologies to compensate like extravagant heating and cooling systems, again highlighting the importance for implementing "Appropriate Technology" in the design phase.

Lastly, designing an affordable Green Natural Home from the beginning orients clients to a totally different premise and helps them make different sacrifices than they would otherwise make, from the beginning.

Usually prioritizing the allocation of financial resources to build a sustainable home means simplifying the design in terms of size and shape, creative use of space, using principals of orientation to the sun, etc. and working against homeowners desires to have everything....We are a "Supersize" culture and people think they need the great great room and the "Supersize" media room.

The media is a huge culprit in this. They are perpetuating unrealistic images for housing like... “Trophy Homes”. Subconscious images are everywhere saying, “This space is familiar. This is what your house is supposed to look like.” We are fed, “This is what a comfortable space looks like. This is what a safe space looks like. This is what you deserve for working so hard. This is what a space that will make your life easier looks like.” This space means, ‘These people have arrived”. This house shows that its inhabitants have wealth and good taste. Everyone needs and this many bathrooms and the kids rooms should be on another floor, etc., etc. etc. until we don’t really even know how to access our own individual needs.

The average middle class home that most of us grew up in was 1200 square feet.

Taking responsibility means looking at these images of familiarity and safety and making a seemingly counterintuitive movement to do it differently and swim upstream for a while. It means trusting that it will bring us back around to a different more real feeling of safety and familiarity. As Americans one of the “great” privileges we are given that is different from other developing countries is that we can borrow on future resources. We can incur debt to fulfill our images of what we want now. We build unaffordable homes with huge mortgages, homes that we have to insure at great expense because we don’t really own them.

Building as a Political Act

David Bainbridge, professor at the Sustainable Management Alliant International University says, “Construction is a major user of material, perhaps one-third of all material flux per year in the US. Buildings are material intensive, they require massive amounts of energy, consume water, and are a source of toxic and ecotoxic materials from cleaners to paints, plastics to garbage streams, and copper, zinc and lead from roofing and pipes.” He further illustrates this by comparing MIPS calculations of wood, straw and clay to a mobile home. A perfect example of the term MIPS or ”Material Intensity per Unit Service”. is seen in the ecological footprint of a modular home. With Vinyl siding and windows, plastics, glues, formaldehyde, VOC’s, fiberglass, etc., it is a costly building from cradle to grave and has a short life cycle. So... its environmentally and technologically intensive, “Material Intensity” or “Embodied Energy” in comparison to its longevity of “service”, slow decomposition and inability to recycle makes this building have a large ecological Footprint. We are borrowing on the future of our generations to come, to dispose of the products we are using now. We need to be aware and responsible. We are also borrowing from each other.

In terms of poverty, or utter lack of resource, when the middle class is feeling poor, they are less likely to consider the truly poor and work for social change. We are all strapped down by mortgages, debt, and insurance, living beyond our means. We call it the "Habitrail". Who has time to be an activist?

What is the United States’ responsibility to the world as the largest waste contributor and user of natural resource?

If one third of the United States’, the largest polluter in the world’s, material use is for building.....

For us as designers and builders it means...

Getting Back to Basics (redefining our ideas)

Green/Natural Building is quoted as more expensive. What is expense? It represents far more than an amount of money or credit. Products that are COSTLY IN TERMS OF Embodied Energy, MIPS from cradle to grave, and Appropriate Technology are expensive. But what is really expensive is our values. As we change our ideas of what is a desirable home and restore balance to our vision, this misconception that Natural Building is more expensive is changing as cost is being redefined.


What is real in this complicated and sometimes discouraging reality. Humility...we have to give people a step. The whole picture is overwhelming. The amount of change that needs to be actualized is vast. But... to create modes for education...stepping stones... homes that look safe and familiar, but are veering away from the expected model...houses that feel good to be inside of, but are trying to implement change in their foundations..., We are going full circle, back to the beginning, taking our cues from nature, recreating tangible building blocks for others, ourselves and future generations to build on top of... towards the future of true sustainability, where we really are giving more back to nature than we are taking. We feel the loss and the gain and make movement. We have a long way to go. Let’s get started.


Building Naturally gives people the opportunity to be part of a community that is interested in educating and paving the way towards making this process easier for those to come including our children and theirs...