A Philosophy of Natural Building: Reflections Developed
at the Founding Meeting of Builders Without Borders

The Gift of Natural Building

It is easy enough to imagine that our job as natural builders is to share our hard-won knowledgeof designs and skills with people in need of more adequate housing. And it is. But that is not our whole job, nor its most difficult part. We can go to a place and bring with us designs, materials, money and volunteer builders and put up a wonderful building out of natural materials and still fail. The gift of natural building involves both what we are giving and how this gift is given.

What else is needed? It is the active involvement of the very people who will live in these buildings. It is this involvement that turns houses into homes, and insures both the success of our project and its future when we are no longer there. We are not going to a community to build buildings, but to act as catalysts and work with the future home owners, as well as local builders and craftspeople, to create new homes. But to do this we need to put aside our preconceived ideas and open our eyes to the traditional skills and local materials that exist within the community we want to serve, and most of all to the hopes and desires of those people.

In short, we have to enter into a deep dialogue with this local community and let that dialogue inform all the decisions we make about what to build and how to build it. This requires a certain humility, respect and discipline, for we are going not to teach, but to learn together with the community.

A Shared Vision of a Sustainable Future

One of the greatest obstacles to natural building, whether in developed or less developed countries, is the prevailing idea of what a home should be like. Too often we as a society desire not only a functional and attractive dwelling, but one that expresses our material success by its size and furnishings. Thus, in the United States while the number of people in a home has shrunk, the size of the home has greatly expanded.

In the developed countries we have become masters of unsustainable lifestyles, and unfortunately, much of the rest of the world would like to imitate them. How can we expect people to listen to us about living in smaller homes constructed out of native materials when the predominant picture they get of life in the developed countries is quite the opposite? We need to make it clear that we, ourselves, are trying as much as possible to live in the kinds of buildings that we are working with them to create.

People in less developed parts of the world often live closer to nature and make ingenious use of local resources, and consume a fraction of the materials and energy that we do. Given these facts, we can hardly imagine that when it comes to creating a sustainable future we know more about it than they do. We bring certain gifts to the table of sustainability like ways to combat infectious diseases or generate solar electricity, or build a better communications network or even more adequate housing, but these very blessings can become a curse we wish to share with if it makes them turn their backs on their age-old sense of the environment and the traditional skills by which they lived lightly upon the earth, and somehow urges them to imitate the unsustainable society which we have created.

What can be done? First, we need to admit that our own society is not sustainable, nor often even a physically, psychologically or spiritually healthy place in which to live. We don’t have the answers for a sustainable future that we can dispense to the rest of the world. Second of all, while we can’t romanticize the native peoples of the world who by now have often lost a good part of their original culture, they still symbolize a life closer to the earth and one which is more sustainable, and they still have the skills and attitudes that are vital for building a sustainable future for all of us.

In conclusion, whether it is a question of natural building itself, or the wider issue of sustainable living, our first step in any project is to create a deep sense of community with whom we are going to work.

Creating a Sustainable Future

The gift of natural building is just part of a wider vision of creating a sustainable future. This future embraces not only embraces things like organic farming and solar power, but is based on the same kind of partnership with communities in different parts of the world.

There can be no presumption that we know better than those in less developed countries how to create such a sustainable future, for we are often the masters of unsustainable lifestyles. We can, however, bring to the table of this common future access to technology and material resources, and a keen sense that our way of doing things has often contributed to the problems we face. The latter contribution is particularly important, for our partner communities often desire to imitate our unsustainable ways that the media and tourism have put forcefully in front of them.

People in less developed parts of the world can help awaken us to a living contact with the earth and ways of living lightly upon it. Together we can begin the long process of creating a sustainable future.