Chronicling the lives of select alternative building pioneers and the laws they broke in the name of sustainability.
Activists striving for any type of social change often find themselves operating on the fringes of legal and social norms. Many experience difficulties when their innovative ideas run afoul of antiquated laws and regulations that favor a big business, energy- and material-intensive approach.Stephen Hren brings Tales from the Sustainable Underground (New Society Publishers, 2011), packed with the stories of just some of these pioneers – who care more for the planet than the rules – whether they’re engaged in natural building, permaculture, community development, or ecologically based art.
I grew up in the burbs, a no man’s land of boxes and highways. We lived in a box, we rode around in shiny metal boxes, even time was divvied up into boxes. Bells rang and I moved from one classroom box to another, listening disinterestedly to prepackaged lessons until the lunch bell rang. Then I went to an enormous box and ate food made out of cardboard. A few more boxes of time and then I got on a giant yellow box and rode back to our box, where I would kill time watching a flashing box — Three’s Company, What’s Happening, Alf.
I would ride my bike around our neighborhood, where the most prominent feature of most homes was the garage for the automobiles, a style of building I would come to call “carchitecture.” Out front, a few small bushes would be the only green thing around, usually openly hostile holly bushes with spiny leaves that would attack you if you scraped against them. Even these bushes were shaped into boxes.
Growing up in a family where my father and three brothers were all variously employed in engineering, the built environment was of incredible importance to me. I am a builder by nature. From my teenage years, I had an overwhelming desire to build my own home. When I got together with my first wife, we also had a strong desire to escape what seemed to be the empty and destructive existence being lived by our elders. At that time, there was little philosophy behind this motivation, more just a visceral instinct that what we witnessed around us was built on a rotten foundation. Building our own home would turn out to be an almost decade-long process, one that would be a long education in society’s rigorous reinforcement of the status quo and its ignorance and often outright hostility towards sustainable alternatives.
By our early twenties, we had used a small inheritance from my grandparents to purchase 10 acres of land about 45 minutes north of Durham. Our education in alternative architecture had begun. At first, our primary motivation was thrift. Once the land was purchased we had very little money to build much of anything, especially after putting in a well, septic and driveway. What could we build to live in by using materials readily at hand? How much reused stuff was available? What would be inexpensive to operate in the long term? Coming from a land of bigger is always better, McMansions and SUVs just starting their hostile takeover of society, these were radical thoughts.
At that time in the mid-90s, there was very little evidence of alternative architecture, although a powerful new movement was just starting to bubble under the surface. Much of what we came across was either the traditional pioneer building styles such as log cabins, or relics from the 60s and 70s, some of which we soon discovered we wanted nothing to do with. We had a good friend who lived in a geodesic dome, built in the mid-70s a few miles outside of Chapel Hill. It was a fascinating place, and the roundness of it was appealing, at least up to a point. There was a little mini-dome built beside the original one, its function never entirely clear to me, but cute as the dickens. Both domes leaked like sieves, of course, and although a dome does enclose the largest volume of space with a minimum of materials, just as Bucky claimed, much of that space is utterly unusable. The walls slope inward at about waist high, and are curved to boot. So pushing furniture against the walls was impossible, leaving mice superhighways behind. No one who’d ever lived in the dome had ever figured out how to insulate the thing, the triangles that made up the ceiling not being amenable to any of the rectangular board insulation sold at the lumberyard.
The easiest way to become an outlaw is to go out in your yard and build something. Pretty much whatever you build will be illegal. When we first got our piece of property and I talked with the health inspector who was okaying our septic system, I mentioned we might just cut down some trees and build a log cabin. After a penetrating stare deep into my eyes to see if I might be a crazed psychopath, she mentioned that was impossible, unless I hauled the trees to a registered sawmill and had them kiln-dried and stamped. Wouldn’t they be just as dry and stable if we dried them out for a summer out of the rain? Yes, but they wouldn’t have the stamp from the mill, and without that, no legal abode. It seems that nothing is more threatening to the powers that be than trying to live in something other than a balloon-framed, Sheetrock-encrusted box. Surely doing so will result in your early death and the withering away of all that is holy, or so you would think to listen to the average inspector tell it.
As we studied alternative building styles and I learned more about its history from the ’60s onward, I became fascinated with radical building the way a young boy does with Billy the Kid and John Dillinger. I got my hands on a copy of Mike Oehler’s The $50 and Up Underground House Book. Very little heating or cooling costs and integrating the home so well into the surrounding environment that you couldn’t even tell it was there? Underground homes were where it was at! During this time I went back to my folks’ house to visit and the surrounding woods were being slaughtered to make way for more houses. Their subdivision had been one of the first in the area, and a great part of its charm was being surrounded by untold acres of beautiful woods where a young boy could roam and escape the confines of boxland. Now the woods and the topsoil were gone and red clay ran like blood down gullies into the creek I had loved as a child, the beavers and turtles long gone.
A copy of Lloyd Khan’s Shelter cracked my mind open much further. The idea of indigenous architecture salved my builder’s soul, so badly damaged by the murder of my boyhood forest by giant fossil fuel- powered dinosaurs building unsightly boxes using wood from clear-cut Canadian forests. A copy of Woodstock Handmade Houses given to us by a friend left me itching to get blisters on my fingers, but now there were so many ideas I was paralyzed. Hilariously, the cover of that book features an orange behemoth made out of spray-foam insulation and looking like a giant turd shat by an angry god (it did blend into the surrounding environment with a sort of Rabelaisian flair), but other inspiring homes inside the covers mixed reuse with natural materials in a thought provoking and creative way.
In September of that year, 1996, we restarted school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently married and stuck in my parents’ basement since we hadn’t yet figured out what to build. A dome still seemed like the one default option that had any hope of being legal. Then a fierce hurricane whipped up from the coast and plunked a big pine tree on Dan’s mini-dome, which seemed propitious. At the time we were investigating and preparing to have contractors build a concrete monolithic dome. This was some sort of compromise, I suppose, between the fascination domes still had on us mixed with our suspicions about their longevity and practicality, combined with any inspector’s lust for all things concrete. Maybe the hurricane should have reinforced our desire for the monolithic dome, since our contractors claimed it could withstand a direct hit from a tornado, but its permanence made building one seem irrevocable, and to our unsure minds, still bummed we hadn’t figured out a legal home we could build ourselves, we dithered until the opportunity (and enough money) passed. The rigors of school beckoned. But not before we’d laid a giant round concrete foundation 32 feet in diameter, looking like some kind of helicopter pad or roller rink out there in the woods.
It was starting to get cold. We needed a home. Specifically, one that was round, cost less than five grand and could be built in a couple of weeks. Turns out there is, in fact, such a thing: a yurt! Throwing our hopes for legality to the dogs, we made the purchase from Blue Evening Star, who hand-sewed the yurts out near Sedona. She claimed it was the biggest yurt she’d ever made, the biggest one she’d ever heard of. Usually they were no bigger than 30 feet in diameter. When our yurt collapsed under a record snowfall a few years later, we’d understand why.
In a few weeks we had our yurt cover, and in the interim we had been working on making the lattice-work that would form the cylinder of the structure. If you’re not familiar, a yurt consists of two separate parts. The base is a series of lattice-work, in our case pine 1 × 2s purchased from the big box lumberyard. The lattice-work is stretched out to form a short, squat vertical cylinder, meeting at a door. At the top of this lattice-work, a cable of some variety is woven. Our cable was braided steel wound through the pine 1 × 2s. A cone is then plunked atop the cylinder by notching rafters into the cable and attaching them to a hub at the top of the cone. A cover is then stretched out over the cylinder and then another atop the cone. In place of much more traditional and romantic yak-skins, we had some variety of vinyl with a few tear-dropped shaped windows around the hub. Even for a yurt this large, that leaves only one means of egress, something that perpetually nagged at me once we lived in it. We would build raging fires in the wood stove to try and keep the leaky thing a few degrees above the outside temperature, and I was forever wondering what the flash point of the mysterious vinyl covering was as I nodded off to sleep.
The idea of a yurt is that it’s semi-nomadic, but this point gets lost when you’re building one 32 feet in diameter on a giant slab of concrete. Precariously balanced on a flimsy aluminum ladder on top of some hastily put together scaffolding, trying to balance the heavy plywood hub on my head and attach at least three of the rafters so that the hub (and myself) wouldn’t plummet to the ground, it occurred to me that if the inspector showed up at that particular moment and tried to reconcile what I was doing with the building plans for a small conventional cabin we had submitted earlier that year, I would be in deep shit. Our flirtations with legitimacy, pursued in earnest up until that point with a half-dozen or so strained conversations with the building inspector, had come to an abrupt end. In our minds, we continued to tell ourselves that the structure was only “semi-permanent,” to rationalize, I think, our ultimate discomfort with building an illegal home.
In the end, it didn’t make it to “semi-permanent,” staying firmly in the “just temporary” timeframe. People don’t build yurts that big for good reason, especially the flimsy way we’d built ours. As per instructions from Blue Evening Star, which didn’t, I don’t think, take into account the absurd size of our yurt, we had ripped 2 × 6s lengthwise to form the rafters. Of course, actual 2 × 6s are really 1.5 inches by 5.5 inches, meaning the end product was less than 3 inches deep. The 2 × 6s were 16 feet long, and when you rip a long board like that in half lengthwise, all of its funkiness and squirreliness comes out. There wasn’t a straight rafter in the whole thing, but fortunately there were lots of them. Everything about our yurt was over the top. The hub held up by all those twisted rafters was 14 feet in the air. We lived in a giant circus tent that flopped around in the wind, something that would become a major problem when we tried to insulate it by shoving sheets of 4-feet by 8-feet blue board styrofoam insulation between the rafters. With the sheets of insulation in place, every slight movement in the wind would create hideous squeaking noises, and when it really blew, the apocalypse was nigh.
If the inspector had shown up while I was up on that ladder, he might very well have saved us from the attempt on our lives that the yurt later made. But he would also likely have snuffed out my long and amazing adventure in underground sustainability that was just starting to (literally) pick up wind. It’s fun, in your youth, to see how little you can live with, what extreme conditions you can endure, to brag to your friends about how tough you are. I’ll never forget being huddled up under thousands of layers of blankets and reaching over in the middle of the night to get a sip of water, only to be denied because the water in the glass was frozen solid, despite the raging fire I’d had going just before bedtime. May I never experience such horrors again!
Once spring arrived, there was only one thing to do: throw a party! We were twenty-three and owned ten acres of woods and a yurt; it was the only sensible thing to do. At that age, we still had all the wildness of youth with little of the responsibility of adulthood, despite our being landowners. We invited all our friends out for the weekend and had bands play, despite not really having a functioning toilet, legitimate electricity or a kitchen sink. It was a very wild time, with lots of marijuana smoking and nudity, but of course it’s not really a wild party unless firearms are involved. Some friends of ours had hacksawed off a giant giraffe head from a bankrupt putt putt place in Raleigh. On Easter morning, as we all shook off the second morning’s hangover, they set up the giraffe head in front of a pile of clay, pulled out a couple of shotguns, and blew the poor thing to smithereens. There was nothing redeeming, constructive or sustainable about this, but it was damn fun.
We managed to finish college living in the yurt. Then we had the brilliant idea of moving to New York City so we could “use our degrees.” It was a mostly rough year and a half where we worked too much and drank too much, but we did manage to save up a good chunk of money, always with the idea in the back of our heads that we might move back to the land and build a real house.
We escaped from the city just before Y2K. Remember those times? Not that we thought the city was going to go up in flames around us, but just the same, it was good to be out of the rat race, at least for the present. A good friend of ours ran a website called Y2Ktime bomb.com, preaching the gospel of industrial society’s imminent ruin. But the calendar turned, and life went on.
Soon after the new year, we traveled to Mali in West Africa with our friend Andy, who’d been finishing up his PhD at Carolina and living in our yurt. We had a mutual friend, Nathan, stationed there for two years of Peace Corp. This was an amazing place to be as we recovered from our stint in the city and started to turn our focus back towards building a home in the woods. We stayed for two weeks with Nathan in the remote village of Djallakoraba. Could there be a greater contrast to New York City, where everything is steel boxes stacked upon concrete boxes all the way up to the sky? I doubt it. The serene little village, without phone, without money really, consisted of groups of homesteads plopped haphazardly around one another, each composed of a series of modest round, earthen huts with thatched roofs and decorative plasters.
Upon our return to North Carolina, we started building our cob home, inspired by what we saw abroad. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were following in the footsteps of lots of other experimenters from around the country who were taking their building inspiration from indigenous earthen architecture from around the world, and who, like us, desired the buildings they constructed and occupied to represent a transition between themselves and their environment. Modern conventional building seeks to be standardized, square, interchangeable and maintenance-free. It is architecture for a nation of deracinated refugees who expect to receive nothing of substance from their homes, and who likewise wish to offer nothing in return to them. If Megacorp, your employer, tells you your job has moved from Charlotte to Tacoma and it’s time to pack your bags and go, this isn’t a problem. There’s a home waiting for you there that is just as banal and sterile. You’ll hardly notice the difference, or care, and the home’s modern systems and materials likely won’t require any of your attention — until their 20-year warranty is up and they need to be replaced.
Indigenous architecture contains a sense of place, and it is this sense of place, this rootedness, that is the radical departure from the way we live now. It also requires attention, care and interaction. Just like relationships with living things, the more time you spend taking care of something, and it you, the deeper the bonds that develop. Maintenance is the basis for caring, so it’s not surprising that our maintenance-free architecture is also “care-free,” i.e., no one gives a shit about it. One of the amazing things that has developed in the alternative and natural architecture movement is that we creative North Americans have taken traditional styles of building from all around the world and infused them with playfulness. If maintaining one another is the basis for caring, playfulness goes one better. It is the food of love.
Not only does natural building require maintenance, much to our benefit, but it’s also possible to maintain it, and to do so with materials readily at hand. While building, and while maintaining, the land becomes the home. We don’t buy things from a big store and then put them together. We cull them from the surrounding land and create them. Our buildings are the land, just rearranged to our desires. The more we are able to play with our buildings, and with our land, the more we are able to create buildings we fall in love with. A positive reinforcing cycle develops. The more we love our buildings, the more we enjoy caring for them. Playfulness generates beauty, beauty inspires us to care, and caring means longevity. Perhaps more than any other ingredient of sustainability, longevity is of primary importance.
Tales from the Sustainable Underground reprinted with permission from Stephen Hren and published by New Society Publishers, 2011.