Building a house with a few other people is a daunting task, no matter what the circumstances. Building a house when you know next to nothing about building might be what you call folly. And building a house out of natural and reclaimed materials is asking for a mountain of trouble.
Liz here, describing my experience as owner and builder of SubHub, one of Dancing Rabbit’s latest natural building projects.
“Now what would a man call this part,” I find myself muttering frequently, as I search online for building parts so that I can order them in time for the next phase of the project. With Google at my side, this is a time consuming but not impossible task. Youtube videos fill in gaps in my knowledge and help me prepare for meetings once a quarter with Kyle, my natural building
mentor. A book like A Pattern Language, pinterest, and conversations with others help me develop design ideas for what I want in this building. A lifetime spent studying beautiful spaces and how they function also informs my design decisions.
I have always loved learning new things. When my life coach assigned me the task of identifying my core values, she asked me to think of three pivotal times in my life and what the experience was like. Each time involved a great opportunity and each time started with me not knowing anything about what I was about to embark on. Each time involved frustration, tears, anxiety, doubt, uncertainty, and working against great odds. Building SubHub fits right in there.
So why do this, you say? I remind myself frequently to remember the answer to this question. As with all pivotal moments in one’s life, there is a calling, an urge, something speaking to you from deep inside that just won’t leave you alone. I wake up day after day, I get dressed, I eat breakfast, and I feel joyful if my day will be spent working on the building. We are 18 months into the project, with at least that much more to go. I am already designing my next building, to make sure this fun never ends!
Like a giant puzzle, I tease out the project workflow, ordering needs and worker tasks. I encourage myself to jump in and learn how to use power tools to sand and cut pallet boards, and to mix clay, sand and straw. I learn about electrical systems, heating and cooling systems, plumbing, floor materials, windows and doors, structural components, clay plaster, lime plaster, color schemes, cisterns, masonry heaters, wood boilers, radiant heat systems, solar water heaters, earth tubes, cob walls, wall mosaics, sanding and staining, ventilation, and insulation.
Missouri winters and summers are no joke (and yes, I can picture everyone north of here, chuckling and saying, you think YOU got it bad…). but to this California girl, who has lived most of her life in uninsulated buildings with no air conditioning, it takes a bit of preparation to be comfortable through the seasons here. I want SubHub to be comfortable without being expensive to heat and cool.
And then there is that certain quality that people feel when they walk into a building made of natural materials. There is an immediate affinity with the environment, a relaxation, an expansion of the heart and lungs. There are straight edges and soft curves and muted earthy colors that relieve the eye.
I bought the beginnings of SubHub (three sides of a foundation, almost three sides of unfinished straw bale walls, a metal roof with trusses and eight black locust posts holding it all up) with the idea that it would be shared with people at Dancing Rabbit who wanted to build a cluster of smaller buildings around it and use it for a co-op kitchen, shower and classroom space. A subcommunity within the Dancing Rabbit community that would focus on teaching natural building, hosting work exchange interns and teaching classes on permaculture and social justice issues. My adult son, Graham, and I hatched this plan together. That hope for the building’s purpose is still alive for both of us. We work with a great crew year-round and since we began the project we have hosted two natural building workshops and countless work parties. It is a community effort. It is, as the late Representative John Lewis said, some “good trouble” to get into together.
When I moved to DR, I had no idea that I would become part of such a fun and challenging project. It just goes to show you what can happen when you follow that pull, that urge, of a good idea, and set it in motion.
For anyone who wants to know, we ended last winter with a full foundation, four straw bale walls plastered outside and inside, and windows and doors installed. This spring we hung an800-pound black locust joist beam, carried by six people and then hoisted by hand using pulleys. We hung 29 2x12x15’ floor joists, built the second floor subfloor, sealed off the tops of the straw bale walls with lime plaster and built an insulating box around the upstairs perimeter (17’x 37’).
This summer we built three different ceilings for the three sections of the building, put in drainage plumbing, built the window trim and ledges, and poured the first floor subfloor out of cob (629 square feet of cob 3” thick).
This fall we built the walls of the lofts and storage upstairs and insulated the interior walls with sheep’s waste wool. We are currently building a sleeping ledge upstairs for sleeping outside in the summer. The last major goals for this fall are to install windows in the gable ends of the lofts and insulate the upstairs perimeter and gable ends with cellulose insulation, as well as between the upstairs floor and downstairs ceiling.
I confess I have an ulterior motive in writing about my experiences as a beginning natural builder. I’m hoping that some women will read about this and be encouraged to try it for themselves. Our natural building workshops are usually half women, with a wide age range and mixed building and tool use experience. When COVID is over, I look forward to continuing to pass these skills on.
Liz Hackney has lived at DR for four years in a straw bale cottage. She is a licensedacupuncturist and natural building enthusiast who loves walking around the village with her littledog, Roxie.