Americans have quickly become the most housed people in the history of humanity. Between 1950 and 1998, while family size and time spent at home shrank, the average new house size more than doubled to 2100 sq. ft., theoretically granting us about 800 sq. ft. per capita.
What caused this disproportional growth? Was it our (now fading) enormous “reserves” of forests and mineral veins? Was it the vast “empty” spaces of the West? Was it our Yankee ingenuity, our Calvinist work ethic, the development of the chain saw and the bulldozer? Was it the Jeffersonian dream of a nation of small landowners, each with their own plantation? Was it a marketing scheme by the predecessors of Home Depot?
Maybe it was the persistent craving of an immigrant, often refugee people hoping to recreate in the material realm the village comforts they lost in their passage.
Whatever the cause, it’s here. Our homes are four times the size of the world average, with half as many people in them. While other industrialized nations spend dispensable income on entertainment and travel, our spending soars at the hardware store.
And as we look out across our nation, we see the dream of the Puritan pioneers has been mostly met: where once there were swelling rivers, dark forests and savage plains there are now acres of fences, bright siding and petroleum stations.
What is a natural builder to do?
The first thing to consider: Don’t build at all. If you have chosen natural building as a way to conserve our resources, the most effective thing you can do is nothing. Realize that you live in an era where your material world has been provided for you. If you are a Christian, realize that you live in a state of Grace. Or consider the Buddhist suggestion to stop doing and start being.
However you explain it, we’re lucky. Thanks to the generosity of Nature and the hard work of our predecessors, there is plenty of area under roof, for all of us. If we can learn to live as we did in 1952, with about 360 sq. ft. per person, we won’t have to build another thing until our population doubles again.
What does this mean practically? It means taking advantage of the existing housing and recreating it to fit your dream of the future. It might mean sharing a too-big house with friends, your parents, or grown children. Our culture of freedom has not taught us how to live with other people. It’s time to learn. It is usually easier to design and build a new building than to work with what is there, but every new building means less habitat for other species. Choose to walk the extra mile.
What does the natural builder do when a dream client calls — a moneyed couple who want to build a 5000 sq. ft. “showcase” of natural-building techniques? The temptation is great. Ask yourself why you’ve chosen natural building. Is it because mud and logs are prettier than steel and concrete? Then you might take the job. But if it is because you are committed to sustainable resource use, you might inform them that the single most important criteria in making a house efficient and reducing its embodied energy is its size. Perhaps you’ll succeed in reducing the floor plan a bit. Find out how many miles of new road will have to be cut to deliver all the comforts of the city to the new site. Remember that some of the roads built to bring hippies “back to the land” in the seventies served nicely two decades later to bring earthmovers that built the golf courses in gated communities.
When you’ve realized that this house will be the couple’s third, and they expect only to summer there, try to interest them in a tent. Seriously. I have heard of a case in which a young wealthy family was convinced to spend one summer in a large tent on their family property near the ocean. “It’s a good way to get to know the land before you make permanent buildings,” is how it was phrased. By the second summer they came to realize that if they built a house the children might stay inside all day. The electric lines, the septic tank, the normal aspects of building would destroy at least some small part of the land they had grown to love. They chose to continue tenting.
“But I love to build” you say, “I love to see a project begin, the digging of the foundation, the smell of fresh-cut lumber, the growth of something out of nothing.” Examine your words and feelings. Many of your desires might be met in a restorative project, or a small new project— a cob oven or a park gazebo. Some of your desires may be based in values you want to leave behind. Do you want to be able to say, “I designed and built that?” If so, why? What is your deepest need?
“But I need to make a living,” you say. Of course we all need to live. Imagine that eventually you will be able to do this in a way compatible with all your values. Your imagination is powerful. There will be a way to turn your vision into a financially feasible life. People support themselves as remodellers, weather-proofing consultants, house detoxifiers and a myriad of other imaginative ways. What you supply to the market is one of the most important songs you’ll sing to the world. Make it beautiful.
Whether it’s deciding where and how to live, or fretting over how to support yourself, when you remember the great gift of Creation, and the promise that you will be provided for, you can start to plan for your deepest desires. You can play your part in the next phase of our growth, the restoration of a balanced culture.
Shay Salomon is a builder who is trying to listen to her own advise. She can be contacted at W[email protected]. The above sermon, a plea to would-be builders to build less, will appear in the anthology, “The Art of Natural Building: Design, Construction, Resources,” edited by Joe Kennedy, Catherine Wanek and Michael Smith, due out July 2001, New Society Publishers.
A Hut of One’s Own: Life Outside the Circle of Architecture, Ann Cline, MIT Press, 1997. This intriguing book weaves together many threads: the failure of modern architects to meet the needs of their clients, historical accounts of downwardly mobile hut dwellers throughout the ages, and her own experience building and inhabiting a tiny tea house.
The Not So Big House, by Sarah Susanka, Taunton Press, Connecticut, 1998. A thought-provoking book on techniques for designing houses that use less space while increasing quality of life for their inhabitants.
The Tiny Book of Tiny Houses, Lester Walker, Overlook Press, New York, 1993. A series of case studies of tiny (less than 300 sq. ft.) houses, with excellent illustrations.