Flooring at SubHub.

It’s Wonderfully Natural: Alternative Construction at Dancing Rabbit

One of the many reasons I moved to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage was because there were so many things I could choose to do there that seemed fun and purposeful, that would fulfill the strong urge I had to contribute to the “thrive-al” of the planet. Liz here, with some musings on natural building at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.

Four years ago I came to DR for a permaculture design course and stepped into my first straw bale homes. There are 22 buildings at DR that use alternative building methods, mostly straw bale; the largest concentration of natural buildings in the Midwest. I noted how comfortable I felt in these buildings, how soft and curvy the walls were and how they glowed with a vitality like dough after it’s risen, or, if you’re familiar, fondant icing. 

There is visual and emotional relief in a natural building from the perfectly straight, clinical, manufactured edges in standard construction homes. All the natural buildings here are unique in different ways. There is relief from the homogenized look that new developments often have. Living in human scale buildings, that speak of color and texture and caring and, (now I know) human sweat and tears, feels good. It just does. And, as Christopher Alexander, architect and guru for a return to developments that connect people, says, “When we choose things that have more life in them, which tends to be recognized by most people, we are nourished and healed by those things.”

Four years ago, with that urgent feeling to roll up my sleeves and dive into a new lifestyle, I had that same sense that the late Congressman John Lewis talks about, that urge to get into some “good trouble.” I have found many projects and events that fit that bill here; too many to ever run out of!

And now I’m two years into a building project of my own. I have taken all my learning about these methods and put them into practice, gaining some practical skills and some confidence in managing a building project and seeing it come to life. 

And this spring, the building we call SubHub really seemed to come to life. Once we closed up the upstairs walls in March, and the building was completely enclosed, it began to interact with the daily temperature and humidity levels of its surroundings. The walls, made of stacked straw bales, insulate, which means they hold in whatever the interior temperature is. The many, many batches of clay plaster on the inside walls regulate the humidity on the inside of the building, which adds to its comfort. 

The clay plaster also absorbs cool air during the night and releases it during the day, making it blissfully cool inside during these hot summer days. Whenever the temperature drops outside, the temperature inside SubHub gets warmer, and the straw bale walls hold that warmth inside the building. The lime plaster on the outside walls provides a durable barrier to keep out weather, but still allows some air exchange, releasing trapped moisture to the outside. This was a watershed moment for us; the building was behaving the way it should!

I experience this same feeling with the cozy straw bale cottage I now live in, which is that the laws of nature are providing me with a home that takes care of me. Instead of fighting the outside temps with air conditioning and heaters, my building is working with me, for me.

Dancing Rabbit’s overall village layout and description of the style of its houses comes directly from a book by Christopher Alexander called, A Pattern Language. Building applications at DR refer to this book directly as a source of inspiration for building homes and the context of communities that promote human connection, by their appearance, layout and proximity to each other. As Christopher wrote, “when you build a thing, you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.”

The crew has often been standing and looking at the earthen kitchen floor these last two weeks and wondering at how clay soil, sand, cow manure and straw can result in something that has such an aliveness to it. One afternoon, Prairie and I stood completely still, gazing at this beautiful floor we had all been working on, and I suddenly felt joy welling up in me, quite inexplicably. I am comforted by Alexander’s recognition of these experiences: “Many of these patterns are archetypal – so deeply rooted in the nature of things, that it seems likely that they will be part of human nature, and human action, as much in 500 years, as they are today.” In all of the 23 years that I owned a humble craftsman bungalow in Berkeley, it never inspired such a connection within me as I feel with SubHub.

That quote from Senator Lewis has more to it that applies right now. Here’s more: “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.”

I sometimes have to wait for the right sense of what part of the project to do next. Sometimes this is dictated by what time of year it is (you can’t plaster when it’s freezing temperatures outside, for example). Sometimes certain supplies aren’t available (you can’t dig clay soil for plaster from frozen ground, for example). 

Other times, some part of the project suddenly seems to take center stage and we are off and running on it. We just finished putting a finish earthen floor in the kitchen, which has to dry for a month before we can install tile on it. In preparing to start building a masonry heater in September that shares a wall with the bathroom, I am suddenly looking at all the details involved in framing the walls for the bathroom and the myriad details in getting the bathroom built while the kitchen floor dries.

We will start working on that next week, but this week I am making lists of supplies, googling or watching videos on how to do certain aspects of it, trying to get the details right so that we have what we need when we start working, including locating reclaimed, local, or eco-friendly materials to meet our building guidelines. I am talking things over with Graham and Kyle, confirming what needs to be done and how to do it so I can communicate that to the rest of the crew.

For now, this is some good trouble I can get into. To the many groups of people this season who have patiently listened to me explain the SubHub project, thank you for allowing me to “make some noise” and share the joy I feel in this project.

Liz Hackney moved to DR four years ago from Berkeley, California. You can find her and the rest of the crew staying cool inside SubHub while they work there in the summer heat. To sign up for the next natural building workshop that includes some time working on the SubHub project, go here.

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