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What used to be called the "bricks and mortar," or the material building blocks, of our homes are the ingredients we use to assemble a structure which we intend (or should) to be sound, healthy and durable. But what, precisely, do we mean by those descriptors?

[Editor's note: Robert Riversong, a Vermont builder, continues his 10-part series of articles taking design and construction to what he sees as radical or "root" concerns. Enjoy--and please share your thoughts. – Tristan Roberts]

3. Materials – the Macrobiotics of building: natural, healthy and durable

What used to be called the "bricks and mortar," or the material building blocks, of our homes are the ingredients we use to assemble a structure which we intend (or should) to be sound, healthy and durable. But what, precisely, do we mean by those descriptors?

Safe & Sound

Structurally sound implies that it is designed, engineered and built to withstand the expected forces that will or might impinge on the home. As building codes increase in scope and complexity, we are required to plan for not only the usual gravity loads, but also wind loads and seismic motions. It's nearly impossible (or illegal) in many jurisdictions to design a house without an engineer's stamp, and it nearly takes an engineer to interpret today's exceedingly detailed prescriptive codes. This makes it all-but-impossible to perform one of the most fundamental subsistence tasks: to build one's own home. It also requires that our houses be built more rigidly and with less flexibility and resilience, which--in nature--is often the hallmark of weakness.

A Healthy Recipe?

If the materials are the ingredients of the "recipe," should we not choose our building blocks with the same care and attention to healthiness that we commonly devote to selecting the food we eat? After all, food goes rather quickly through our bodies while our home stays with us for perhaps a lifetime. Yes, it's true that our food becomes the cells of our bodies. But we also know, from the new field of Epigenetics, that the expression of our DNA--which determines how those cells are built as well as the direction of human evolution--is entirely controlled by our external environment. The DNA is merely the blueprint, while the environment (Gaia) is the architect. Given that we Americans spend 80%–90% of our lives indoors, our "external environment" has become the artificial one that contains us and, perhaps, controls us.

For almost all of human evolution on earth, we have relied on building materials sourced from the local environment. It is only since WWII that we have shifted our dependence onto artificial, petroleum-based and "engineered lumber" materials. In that tiny speck of time, we have introduced 80,000 petrochemicals into our world which never existed in nature and with which neither our bodies not any living thing have co-evolved. The blowback (unintended consequence) has been pollution of air and water, overflowing landfills (including the great Atlantic and Pacific garbage patches), and toxic wastes (including nuclear) that the earth cannot reabsorb. And all this on top of the generations of pollution and top-soil erosion and deforestation that has been the legacy of the industrial revolution.

Though a number of visionaries sounded the alarm as early as the 1970s, it is only today that we have begun to fully comprehend that our local effects have become unprecedented global challenges, including dramatic and potentially irreversible climate change and the sixth great species extinction--the first initiated by a single dominator species.

In spite of this growing understanding, most professionals in the "green" building movement continue to rationalize the use of petrochemical materials in order to save petrochemical energy, further rationalized by the belief (which I will challenge in essay #9) that it makes a house durable.

In general, however, what makes a house healthy for human habitation is the use of building blocks that come from the same environment in which we evolved and to which are bodies are attuned and acclimated. The Greeks had a useful term for this: "autochthonous," meaning indigenous, natural, arising from place. Another term that the health-minded among us might know is "macrobiotic." This is a principle of healthy eating (and living) which was brought to America from Japan by George Ohsawa and popularized by Michio Kushi. But the term was first used by Hippocrates, the father of Western Medicine in his essay "Airs, Waters, and Places" to describe people who were healthy and long-lived.

The term was used in relation to diet by influential German physician and professor of medicine (the first dean of medicine at the University of Berlin) Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland in his book The Art of Prolonging Life (1797). Hufeland understood macrobiotics as a higher level of medical philosophy based on a life force which he thought to be present in everything and most easily detected in "organic beings," where it manifests in its response to external stimuli.

But the primary principle of macrobiotics (literally, the large view of life) is that the building blocks of our bodies (our food) must come from the local environment and be used in season as the earth provides it. This principle--similarly to autochthonous living, the greater Gaian epigenetic intelligence that guides biological evolution and the "life force" of Hufeland's medicine--suggests that the building blocks of our homes should likewise arise organically from place.


The cultural monuments that I discussed in the last essay, were intended to outlast their builders and stand as memorials to future generations (some are visible from outer space). Perhaps that's appropriate for monumental structures. If we Americans move on average every seven years and routinely raze older buildings (both commercial and residential) to make way for new, and may be forced to relocate entire urban populations as the oceans rise – what is an appropriate understanding of durability? 

In terms of sustainability, a good definition is: any structure that outlives the time it takes the earth to recover from the impact of its construction. Ironically, that means that the indigenous shelters we used for most of our evolutionary history--teepees and yurts and hogans and pueblos--are the most durable, since they had negligible ecological impact and could easily be repaired or replaced. The larger and more complex we make our homes, the more long-lasting they need to be to be considered durable. Given that we are trying to reduce our impact while housing an exponentially-growing population, it's reasonable to consider that shorter-lived naturally renewable materials--such as wood and straw and clay--may be the most appropriately durable once again.

Changing Paradigm

Though the recognition is growing that we need an entirely different paradigm for living responsibly on earth--one which marries ancient wisdom with appropriate technologies of the modern age--the "green" building movement is doing little more than putting lipstick on the pig of the current dysfunctional paradigm. We are over-engineering our shelters, using building materials that are fundamentally alien to both biology and ecology, and still creating monuments to our myopia, hubris and foolishness.

"We all live by robbing nature, but our standard of living demands that the robbery shall continue...We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do.  We must waste less.  We must do more for ourselves and each other...The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent on what is wrong.  But that is the addict's excuse and we know that it will not do."
– Wendell Berry, farmer, philosopher, poet


The full 10-part series of Robert's reflections will be as follows. Tune in next week for more:

1.    Context – land, community & ecology
2.    Design – elegant simplicity, the Golden Mean
3.    Materials – the Macrobiotics of building: natural, healthy and durable
4.    Methods – criteria for appropriate technology
5.    Foundations – it all starts here: how do we begin?
6.    Envelope – shelter from the storm, our third skin
7.    HVAC – maintaining comfort, health and homeostasis
8.    Energy & Exergy – sources and sinks
9.    Hygro-Thermal – the alchemy of mass & energy flow
10.    Capping it All Off – hat &  boots and a good sturdy coat

copyleft by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes

Robert Riversong has been a pioneer in super-insulated and passive solar construction, an instructor in building science and hygro-thermal engineering, a philosopher, wilderness guide and rites-of-passage facilitator. He can be reached at HouseWright (at) Ponds-Edge (dot) net. Some of his work can be seen at (an article on his modified Larsen Truss system), (more on the Larsen Truss), (a case study of a Vermont home), and Transition Vermont (photos).

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1 Your unflagging commitment to posted by Rhaud Macdonald on 05/18/2011 at 09:52 pm

Your unflagging commitment to the realization of 'appropriate building techniques/systems' should be lauded by all that build and design. It is unfortunate that the majority of movers and shakers in the building discipline tend toward the "scientifically" oriented mode of approach, justifying enormous outputs of energy for the manufacturing and maintenance of so-called modern and yet sadly destructive modes of construction, and internal environmental controls. The renaissance of the sixties and seventies pioneers, although with many assumptions and errors, was an enormous leap in the vision for a more holistic approach to residential and commercial structures continuing to the present day. However it is unfortunate that much like the priests of ancient Egypt who did all they could to ensure their position by controlling most aspects of learning - including engineering; our present day 'priests' have realized that the inquiry and innovations of the grassroots innovators has threatened their position in the proffesional hierarchy resulting in the many 'professionally' sanctioned programs that now threaten to damage our environment in much more subtle ways that sadly will result in more toxic and destructive consequences both for our planet and all of its life forms, including we humans. These programs they have so clearly 'BRANDED' that include such as the words as; 'sustainable' and 'green', are just simply that - BRANDINGS of self-interest groups which have sadly influenced many unwitting and un-inquiring, yet well-intentioned professionals and concerned lay people. Please keep up your good work. Thanx from an experimenter in design and construction since the late 60's, retired Building Technologies Instructor. Rhaud - LTDI, RDD, ADConsultant, Designer/Builder .

2 1. Requiring an engineer’s st posted by dave green on 05/19/2011 at 12:49 pm

1. Requiring an engineer’s stamp has nothing do with making it “all-but-impossible” to build one’s own home.

2. Since we aren’t eating our buildings (lead-loving kids and the Pica-diagnosed aside) what does it matter if the building blocks we choose to use are not as healthy as the fruits and vegetables at the local farmer’s market? What determines the “healthiness” of those foods? Who determines the “healthiness” of building products? Certified Organic is far from a measurement of how “healthy” something is. Locally grown food can be significantly less nutrient-dense and less healthy than food from other regions. This is an illogical position.

3. Deforestation occurred long before the industrial revolution – it was one of the principle warfare tactics of the Roman Empire in Northern Europe. Speaking of the Romans – many of the ancient buildings we know today were originally made of wood, and then torn down shortly thereafter for a larger, more durable version.

4. Autochthonous is not a Greek word.

5. By your definition, concrete is one of the greenest materials around. Concrete is so durable, there are concrete constructs dotting the Italian and French countryside that are over a thousand years old.

6. Exponentially growing populations can’t be sheltered in massive straw complexes – it’s just not feasible. The reality of the world is the majority of folks live in urban settings. Straw is a horrible building component for any kind of meaningful density. Engineered wood allows for the construction of 6+ story wood buildings that can solve those issues- are you a proponent of these intelligent and less-wasteful approaches to construction? If not, do you think your antiquated beliefs can actually help the majority of people that need housing now? Those beliefs no longer hold the relevant answers. Even the ancient Greeks built homes that were “less flexible and reslient.”

7. We definitely need to shift the paradigm, but calling the movers and shakers mere makeup artists does little to affect change. We’ve a long way to go, and not a lot of time to get there. Dropping everything for the myopic distopia you desire isn’t going to work. Working with folks, instead of offending those you disagree with, will be a much faster route towards affecting change.

8. Man has been creating monuments to myopia for millennia, why should he stop now?

3 Paula, First, and most import posted by Robert Riversong on 05/20/2011 at 07:30 pm


First, and most importantly, I don't believe that Dave Green and I have the same goals. Dave has shared nothing about who he is or what he does or what his goals are. But I get the strong impression that he believes it is sufficient to lightly green up the current paradigm (which is fundamentally the position of the entire "green" building sector), while I am attempting to shift us into another, more authentically sustainable and truly green paradigm.

Secondly, whether straw bales or engineered lumber are "scalable for an exponentially growing population" is asking the wrong question, which is why it doesn't deserve an answer.

The best population ecologists have estimated that we surpassed a sustainable global human population of about 1 billion in the early 1800s and ecological footprint measurements indicate that the human footprint alone (ignoring the land base needs of the millions of other species) surpassed the earth's carrying capacity in the mid 1980s.

The ecological footprint today of national populations is double the human "fair share" of about 0.425 hectares/person (if we are to share this earth with other creatures) even in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia-Pacific. The per capita footprint of the "developed" nations is beyond redemption.

There is a law of nature just as inviolable as the Second Law of Thermodynamics: no problem created by technology can be solved by technology. And yet the alternative energy and "green" building movements are based on that fallacy. I invite you to read my latest essay "The Thermodynamics of an Intelligent Living Universe" and "What Does Green Really Mean?" at:

Ultimately, Gaia will take care of the human overpopulation problem, but not before we set back the evolutionary process of life by 50 million years. The most responsible thing we can do at this present moment is to live as simply as we possibly can, use the most natural materials and methods to meet our authentic needs, and live with as much integrity as we can find within our deeply injured souls.

4 Since Robert and Dave seem to posted by Paula Melton on 05/20/2011 at 07:19 am

Since Robert and Dave seem to have the same overall goal, maybe we can get past the basic philosophical differences and disagreements about which words about the mystery of Easter Island and which words are Greek here and just answer some people's questions.

Robert, I'm curious whether you'll address Dave's comments about the scalability of straw bale. I didn't get the sense he thought there was anything inherently wrong with it, only that it was "not feasible" for "exponentially growing populations." You also didn't yet answer his related question about engineered wood as a more scalable alternative.

Dave, I would like to hear whether you consider concrete a sustainable material--by your own definition, not Robert's. And what would that definition be? I think perhaps even by Robert's definition (it outlives the time required for the earth to recover from its impacts), some concrete for some uses could be considered sustainable. On the other hand, how we measure that is a very tricky business.

5 Rhaud, I'm glad that another posted by Robert Riversong on 05/19/2011 at 01:54 pm


I'm glad that another old inquirer and innovator is able to see the forest for the trees. Your comment about the "present day priests" of "green" building feeling threatened by anything which challenges the current dogma is quite evident in the comment by Dave Green, which could hardly be more defensive of the status quo and old paradigm thinking.

Rather than consider the content of my essay, Green's responses indicate that he did not comprehend any of my points, or he could hardly think that I consider concrete sustainable (though in some limited uses it can be) or that I would propose straw for urban high-rises. And, if he doesn't understand that for many people a requirement to employ an architect, a structural engineer and a soils engineer, as well as a licensed plumber, electrician and HVAC contractor makes housing unaffordable, then he doesn't appreciate the economic predicament of the majority of Americans (such as Devon Dougall, who responded to my first essay).

The etymology of autochthonous is more assuredly Greek: Autochthonous: literally, "native to the soil"; from autochthon +? -ous. Autochthon: from ancient Greek for ‘indigenous’ + ‘earth'.

But Green's concluding statement - "Man has been creating monuments to myopia for millennia, why should he stop now?" - says it all. The Easter Islanders drove themselves to extinction by focusing their energy on monuments at the expense of their ecology. We are on track to do the same unless we radically shift the human cultural paradigm to an earth-friendly subsistence.

6 Mr. Riversong, The content of posted by dave green on 05/19/2011 at 02:46 pm

Mr. Riversong,

The content of your essay was impossible to comprehend due to your incorrect understanding of history. It was your very definition of durable that pointed to concrete as one of the most sustainable building materials. If you don’t believe it to be, then your definition is incorrect. I wasn’t even discussing straw for high-rises, it’s a horrible material for low-rise or even multi-family housing of any meaningful density.

So now it’s plumbers, electricians, architects, civil engineers, etc. in cahoots to make housing unaffordable? You stated that the housing was unaffordable due to requiring a structural engineer to stamp drawings - a minimal, intelligent and worthwhile expense. Was it only when I pointed out the ridiculousness of your statement that it was expanded to the rest of the building trade?

Autochthon is of Greek origin, though I never contended that. You incorrectly stated autochthonous was a Greek word - it isn’t.

Several thousand inhabitants currently reside on Easter Island, so they (Easter Islanders) didn’t “drive themselves to distinction”. The erection of the Moai may or may not have led to the eventual decline of the original inhabitants of Easter Island, the remotest inhabited island in the world. The ecology of the island was so frail, a tsunami or severe hurricane could have had a similar effect. It’s not really an accurate representation of the resiliency of Mother Earth. And if they hadn’t built the Moai, we may never even know they had existed, which would be an even greater tragedy.

7 I was answering you only indi posted by Robert Riversong on 05/19/2011 at 04:04 pm

I was answering you only indirectly, since it was clear that you were not interested in a constructive dialogue – merely in the wholesale dismissal of ideas which you found challenging and hence "offensive".

But since you persist in your non-constructive retorts, it is necessary to respond for the sake of other readers who come with at least partially open minds.

Clearly, my essay was not so incomprehensible that a retired Building Technologies Instructor (first comment above) could not appreciate its message.

My definition of durable was quite plain: any material or structure which outlives the time required for the earth to recover from its impacts. Since concrete is the second most used substance on earth (after water) and, with its extraordinarily high embodied energy, is a major contributor to global warming (and mercury and particulate and noise pollution), and since a growing consensus of the world's climate scientists suggests that it will take the earth a million years to recover to an almost certainly higher temperature equilibrium than we now enjoy and 20 to 50 million years to recover from the anthropogenic great extinction that global warming (and our other depredations) is causing – by that definition concrete, at least used at current rates, cannot in any way be considered durable let alone sustainable or healthy.

If you believe that straw bales are a "horrible material" for residential construction, then not only are you apparently unfamiliar with its long history in the US for that purpose, but also with the current acceptance of straw bale building in a number of municipal and state codes (Arizona, Nevada, California, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Colorado, and Florida) as well as the new International Green Construction Code. And you can't possible be aware of the thriving straw bale building sector in both the southwest and the northeast, with examples in at least 32 states.

It's not only engineers, but all the over-valued building professionals as well as the increasingly complex prescriptive codes that those professionals create, on top of the escalating and artificial value of land, the inflating value of building materials, and the unnecessary sophistication of what passes for shelter today – all these together conspire to make housing unaffordable to the average working American. Materials and methods that allow more owner-build involvement, on the other hand, are among the few possibilities for increasing housing accessibility. I've been working with that disenfranchised sector for more than 30 years.

If you, indeed, had a deeper (or even superficial) understanding of the ecological history of the human race (not the textbook history which began with the great civilizations after 99% of the human story had passed), then you wouldn't be so misled about the Easter Island tragedy and its profound lesson for modern humanity. But you're quite right in your misquoting of me that the Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island did, in fact, “drive themselves to distinction (sic)”.

"Against great odds the islanders had painstakingly constructed, over many centuries, one of the most advanced societies of its type in the world. For a thousand years they sustained a way of life in accordance with an elaborate set of social and religious customs that enabled them not only to survive but to flourish. It was in many ways a triumph of human ingenuity and an apparent victory over a difficult environment. But in the end the increasing numbers and cultural ambitions of the islanders proved too great for the limited resources available to them. When the environment was ruined by the pressure, the society very quickly collapsed with it, leading to a state of near barbarism." – A New Green History of the World, by Clive Ponting.

That researcher earlier notes "The population continued to decline and conditions on the island worsened; in 1877 the Peruvians removed and enslaved all but 110 old people and children. Eventually the island was taken over by Chile and turned into a giant ranch for 40,000 sheep run by a British company, with the few remaining inhabitants confined to one village."

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