Building with Nature

“Natural building” has become a catch phrase for a variety of building techniques that generally employ unprocessed natural materials, such as earth, stone, and straw. The focus is mainly on the material itself, and to some extent the methods that are used to work with the material, rather than the architectural design or other aspects of building that might be explored. If the phrase is reversed to “building naturally,” this opens up a whole new level of consideration. Just what does it mean to build naturally , or to build with nature?

If we use the natural world as a guide for how to build our homes, we could look to other animals and see how they do it. Whatever they use to build with will be found locally; they don’t waste energy carrying things great distances. Beaver cut saplings along the creek bed to dam the stream and create a fortified home. Birds collect twigs and grass to make their nests. Some wasps gather mud to form protected space for their young. Many animals don’t carry materials at all; they simply convert an existing hole or niche as a suitable home, much as our ancestors used caves or rock overhangs for shelter.

Some animals do process the materials they find to render them suitable for building. Certain termites mix the soil with saliva to make a hardened shell; some wasps make a thin paper-like material to fashion their nests. But they always start with the materials at hand, and they process them minimally. This processing is done without tremendous expenditure of energy, and employs no complex technology.

All of the housing that animals (other than man) create is biodegradable. Given time, the sticks in the dam will rot, as will the bird’s or wasp’s nests. There is no build up of waste materials that would litter or pollute the environment. Sometimes things are recycled, such as a hermit crab claiming a castoff shell for a home. Furthermore, the homes that animals create are inherently non-toxic, because they build from entirely benign natural materials. The use of toxic materials would clearly not be appropriate for a species over time.

In the natural world animals tend to find elegant solutions for dealing with the adversity of climate. Many of them go underground for protection and comfort. This is a sensible approach, since the earth can buffer the extremes of temperature amazingly well, while also providing a secure and dry nesting place. Advocates of underground architecture know this, and also appreciate that building underground can release much of the utilized land back to nature for the use of plants and animals.

There is an efficiency and economy of nature that prevails because it works over time. Those animals that operate beyond this law eventually find themselves extinct or severely compromised in their vitality. If a species overpopulates an area to the point of depleting some of the natural resources that they depend on, then obviously they will have to move on to thrive.and this strategy may only work for awhile. Eventually all ecology must come into some degree of balance and equilibrium.

We humans must take a serious look at how we acquire and utilize available resources for materials and energy. We have been fouling our nest with industrial pollution, over-harvesting available resources, and adversely affecting the climates and environments that all species depend on for survival. Building with nature means being aware of how much embodied energy exists in the materials that we use, so that we don’t unnecessarily squander fossil fuels and contribute to global warming. It means building compactly so as to not waste materials and energy. It means using materials that are biodegradable or recyclable. It means designing our homes in ways that use the sun and the earth to heat and cool them. It means utilizing forms of renewable energy wherever possible. It means incorporating greenhouses and naturally cooled pantries in our homes to help feed us.

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3 thoughts on “Building with Nature”

  1. Yes we admire creatures do as you describe, in rural parts of the UK. The finches are forever removing the dried putty which bond the glass into the windows of my cottage, presumably to line their nests with ? Also the mason bees make homes in-between the soft sandstone of our walls. We deliberately repair larger crevices with soft sandy mixtures, to allow the bees to reinhabit the spaces – we have to repair larger gaps to keep the stones in place.

    It is frightening that there are services advertised in the UK to kill off the bees and wasps nesting in the outer structures of homes, no doubt using horrific chemicals, yet if humans left the creatures alone and didn’t fill their homes with refined sugar products, everyone would get along just fine. No wonder bees and wasps are declining in the UK !

    Thank you for a thought-provoking article !

  2. Kelly

    Very interesting points and well stated. I also hope you would consider re-purposing in this catagory. For example using what was once a petrol station and converting it to a home or taking a grain silo and converting it to a home. The embodied energy has already been spent to make it originally, to reuse or re-purpose requires very little new embodied energy and resources. Commercial buildings are built to a high standard. To re-purpose an old vacant school, church, or business can be very financial viable. I like Owen’s thinking what do you have that is local and available around you. For different people in different places this is different things. You need to think outside the box. And ask yourself what do I available to me locally. Someone in a rural area will have a totally different set of options from a person in a developed area. Think of as dumpster diving on a different level.

    • I totally agree with you about this. One example from nature of re-purposing is when a hermit crab uses an existing shell as a temporary home until it grows out of it.


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