Tales from the Sustainable Underground

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Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers
A Wild Journey with People Who Care More About the Planet Than the Law

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 timewas divvied up into boxes. Bells rang and I moved from one classroombox to another, listening disinterestedly to prepackaged lessons untilthe lunch bell rang. Then I went to an enormous box and ate foodmade out of cardboard. A few more boxes of time and then I got ona giant yellow box and rode back to our box, where I would kill timewatching a flashing box — Three’s Company, What’s Happening, Alf.

I would ride my bike around our neighborhood, where the mostprominent feature of most homes was the garage for the automobiles,a style of building I would come to call “carchitecture.” Out front, afew small bushes would be the only green thing around, usuallyopenly hostile holly bushes with spiny leaves that would attack you ifyou scraped against them. Even these bushes were shaped into boxes.

Growing up in a family where my father and three brothers wereall variously employed in engineering, the built environment wasof incredible importance to me. I am a builder by nature. From myteenage 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 toescape what seemed to be the empty and destructive existence beinglived by our elders. At that time, there was little philosophy behind this motivation, more just a visceral instinct that what we witnessedaround us was built on a rotten foundation. Building our own homewould turn out to be an almost decade-long process, one that wouldbe a long education in society’s rigorous reinforcement of the statusquo and its ignorance and often outright hostility towards sustainablealternatives.

By our early twenties, we had used a small inheritance from mygrandparents to purchase 10 acres of land about 45 minutes north ofDurham. Our education in alternative architecture had begun. Atfirst, our primary motivation was thrift. Once the land was purchasedwe had very little money to build much of anything, especially afterputting in a well, septic and driveway. What could we build to live inby using materials readily at hand? How much reused stuff was available?What would be inexpensive to operate in the long term? Comingfrom a land of bigger is always better, McMansions and SUVs juststarting their hostile takeover of society, these were radical thoughts.

At that time in the mid-90s, there was very little evidence of alternativearchitecture, although a powerful new movement was juststarting to bubble under the surface. Much of what we came acrosswas either the traditional pioneer building styles such as log cabins,or relics from the 60s and 70s, some of which we soon discovered wewanted nothing to do with. We had a good friend who lived in a geodesicdome, built in the mid-70s a few miles outside of Chapel Hill. Itwas a fascinating place, and the roundness of it was appealing, at leastup to a point. There was a little mini-dome built beside the originalone, its function never entirely clear to me, but cute as the dickens.Both domes leaked like sieves, of course, and although a dome doesenclose the largest volume of space with a minimum of materials, justas Bucky claimed, much of that space is utterly unusable. The wallsslope inward at about waist high, and are curved to boot. So pushingfurniture against the walls was impossible, leaving mice superhighwaysbehind. No one who’d ever lived in the dome had ever figuredout how to insulate the thing, the triangles that made up the ceilingnot being amenable to any of the rectangular board insulation sold atthe lumberyard.

The easiest way to become an outlaw is to go out in your yardand build something. Pretty much whatever you build will be illegal.When we first got our piece of property and I talked with the healthinspector who was okaying our septic system, I mentioned we mightjust cut down some trees and build a log cabin. After a penetratingstare deep into my eyes to see if I might be a crazed psychopath, shementioned that was impossible, unless I hauled the trees to a registeredsawmill and had them kiln-dried and stamped. Wouldn’t theybe just as dry and stable if we dried them out for a summer out of therain? Yes, but they wouldn’t have the stamp from the mill, and withoutthat, no legal abode. It seems that nothing is more threateningto the powers that be than trying to live in something other than aballoon-framed, Sheetrock-encrusted box. Surely doing so will resultin your early death and the withering away of all that is holy, or so youwould think to listen to the average inspector tell it.

As we studied alternative building styles and I learned moreabout its history from the ’60s onward, I became fascinated with radicalbuilding the way a young boy does with Billy the Kid and JohnDillinger. I got my hands on a copy of Mike Oehler’s The $50 and UpUnderground House Book. Very little heating or cooling costs and integratingthe home so well into the surrounding environment thatyou couldn’t even tell it was there? Underground homes were whereit was at! During this time I went back to my folks’ house to visit andthe surrounding woods were being slaughtered to make way for morehouses. Their subdivision had been one of the first in the area, and agreat part of its charm was being surrounded by untold acres of beautifulwoods where a young boy could roam and escape the confinesof boxland. Now the woods and the topsoil were gone and red clayran like blood down gullies into the creek I had loved as a child, thebeavers 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, sobadly damaged by the murder of my boyhood forest by giant fossil fuel-powered dinosaurs building unsightly boxes using wood fromclear-cut Canadian forests. A copy of Woodstock Handmade Housesgiven to us by a friend left me itching to get blisters on my fingers, butnow there were so many ideas I was paralyzed. Hilariously, the coverof that book features an orange behemoth made out of spray-foaminsulation and looking like a giant turd shat by an angry god (it didblend into the surrounding environment with a sort of Rabelaisianflair), but other inspiring homes inside the covers mixed reuse withnatural materials in a thought provoking and creative way.

In September of that year, 1996, we restarted school at the Universityof North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently married and stuck inmy 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 ofbeing legal. Then a fierce hurricane whipped up from the coast andplunked a big pine tree on Dan’s mini-dome, which seemed propitious. At the time we were investigating and preparing to have contractorsbuild a concrete monolithic dome. This was some sort ofcompromise, I suppose, between the fascination domes still had onus mixed with our suspicions about their longevity and practicality,combined with any inspector’s lust for all things concrete. Maybe thehurricane should have reinforced our desire for the monolithic dome,since our contractors claimed it could withstand a direct hit from atornado, but its permanence made building one seem irrevocable,and to our unsure minds, still bummed we hadn’t figured out a legalhome we could build ourselves, we dithered until the opportunity(and enough money) passed. The rigors of school beckoned. But notbefore we’d laid a giant round concrete foundation 32 feet in diameter,looking like some kind of helicopter pad or roller rink out there inthe woods.

It was starting to get cold. We needed a home. Specifically, onethat was round, cost less than five grand and could be built in a coupleof weeks. Turns out there is, in fact, such a thing: a yurt! Throwing ourhopes for legality to the dogs, we made the purchase from Blue EveningStar, who hand-sewed the yurts out near Sedona. She claimed itwas the biggest yurt she’d ever made, the biggest one she’d ever heardof. Usually they were no bigger than 30 feet in diameter. When ouryurt collapsed under a record snowfall a few years later, we’d understandwhy.

In a few weeks we had our yurt cover, and in the interim we hadbeen working on making the lattice-work that would form the cylinderof the structure. If you’re not familiar, a yurt consists of twoseparate parts. The base is a series of lattice-work, in our case pine1 × 2s purchased from the big box lumberyard. The lattice-work isstretched out to form a short, squat vertical cylinder, meeting at adoor. 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 coneis then plunked atop the cylinder by notching rafters into the cableand attaching them to a hub at the top of the cone. A cover is thenstretched out over the cylinder and then another atop the cone. Inplace of much more traditional and romantic yak-skins, we had somevariety of vinyl with a few tear-dropped shaped windows around thehub. Even for a yurt this large, that leaves only one means of egress,something that perpetually nagged at me once we lived in it. Wewould build raging fires in the wood stove to try and keep the leakything a few degrees above the outside temperature, and I was foreverwondering what the flash point of the mysterious vinyl covering wasas I nodded off to sleep.

The idea of a yurt is that it’s semi-nomadic, but this point getslost when you’re building one 32 feet in diameter on a giant slab ofconcrete. Precariously balanced on a flimsy aluminum ladder on topof some hastily put together scaffolding, trying to balance the heavyplywood hub on my head and attach at least three of the rafters so thatthe hub (and myself) wouldn’t plummet to the ground, it occurredto me that if the inspector showed up at that particular moment andtried to reconcile what I was doing with the building plans for a smallconventional cabin we had submitted earlier that year, I would be indeep shit. Our flirtations with legitimacy, pursued in earnest up untilthat point with a half-dozen or so strained conversations with thebuilding inspector, had come to an abrupt end. In our minds, we continuedto tell ourselves that the structure was only “semi-permanent,”to rationalize, I think, our ultimate discomfort with building an illegalhome.

In the end, it didn’t make it to “semi-permanent,” staying firmly inthe “just temporary” timeframe. People don’t build yurts that big forgood reason, especially the flimsy way we’d built ours. As per instructionsfrom Blue Evening Star, which didn’t, I don’t think, take intoaccount the absurd size of our yurt, we had ripped 2 × 6s lengthwiseto form the rafters. Of course, actual 2 × 6s are really 1.5 inches by 5.5inches, meaning the end product was less than 3 inches deep. The2 × 6s were 16 feet long, and when you rip a long board like that inhalf lengthwise, all of its funkiness and squirreliness comes out. Therewasn’t a straight rafter in the whole thing, but fortunately there werelots of them. Everything about our yurt was over the top. The hubheld up by all those twisted rafters was 14 feet in the air. We lived ina giant circus tent that flopped around in the wind, something thatwould become a major problem when we tried to insulate it by shovingsheets of 4-feet by 8-feet blue board styrofoam insulation betweenthe rafters. With the sheets of insulation in place, every slight movementin the wind would create hideous squeaking noises, and whenit really blew, the apocalypse was nigh.

If the inspector had shown up while I was up on that ladder, hemight very well have saved us from the attempt on our lives that theyurt later made. But he would also likely have snuffed out my longand amazing adventure in underground sustainability that was juststarting to (literally) pick up wind. It’s fun, in your youth, to see howlittle you can live with, what extreme conditions you can endure, tobrag to your friends about how tough you are. I’ll never forget beinghuddled up under thousands of layers of blankets and reaching overin the middle of the night to get a sip of water, only to be denied becausethe water in the glass was frozen solid, despite the raging fire I’dhad going just before bedtime. May I never experience such horrorsagain!

Once spring arrived, there was only one thing to do: throw aparty! We were twenty-three and owned ten acres of woods and ayurt; it was the only sensible thing to do. At that age, we still had allthe 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 functioningtoilet, 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 reallya wild party unless firearms are involved. Some friends of ours hadhacksawed off a giant giraffe head from a bankrupt putt putt place inRaleigh. On Easter morning, as we all shook off the second morning’shangover, they set up the giraffe head in front of a pile of clay, pulledout 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 thebrilliant 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 toomuch and drank too much, but we did manage to save up a goodchunk of money, always with the idea in the back of our heads that wemight 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 thepresent. A good friend of ours ran a website called Y2Ktime bomb.com, preaching the gospel of industrial society’s imminent ruin. Butthe calendar turned, and life went on.

Soon after the new year, we traveled to Mali in West Africa withour friend Andy, who’d been finishing up his PhD at Carolina andliving in our yurt. We had a mutual friend, Nathan, stationed therefor two years of Peace Corp. This was an amazing place to be as werecovered from our stint in the city and started to turn our focus backtowards building a home in the woods. We stayed for two weeks withNathan in the remote village of Djallakoraba. Could there be a greatercontrast to New York City, where everything is steel boxes stackedupon concrete boxes all the way up to the sky? I doubt it. The serenelittle village, without phone, without money really, consisted ofgroups of homesteads plopped haphazardly around one another, eachcomposed of a series of modest round, earthen huts with thatchedroofs and decorative plasters.

Upon our return to North Carolina, we started building our cobhome, inspired by what we saw abroad. Unbeknownst to us at thetime, we were following in the footsteps of lots of other experimentersfrom around the country who were taking their building inspirationfrom indigenous earthen architecture from around the world,and who, like us, desired the buildings they constructed and occupiedto represent a transition between themselves and their environment.Modern conventional building seeks to be standardized, square, interchangeableand maintenance-free. It is architecture for a nationof deracinated refugees who expect to receive nothing of substancefrom their homes, and who likewise wish to offer nothing in return tothem. If Megacorp, your employer, tells you your job has moved fromCharlotte to Tacoma and it’s time to pack your bags and go, this isn’ta problem. There’s a home waiting for you there that is just as banaland sterile. You’ll hardly notice the difference, or care, and the home’smodern 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 thissense of place, this rootedness, that is the radical departure from theway we live now. It also requires attention, care and interaction. Justlike relationships with living things, the more time you spend takingcare of something, and it you, the deeper the bonds that develop.Maintenance is the basis for caring, so it’s not surprising that ourmaintenance-free architecture is also “care-free,” i.e., no one gives ashit about it. One of the amazing things that has developed in the alternativeand natural architecture movement is that we creative NorthAmericans have taken traditional styles of building from all aroundthe world and infused them with playfulness. If maintaining one anotheris the basis for caring, playfulness goes one better. It is the foodof love.

Not only does natural building require maintenance, much to ourbenefit, but it’s also possible to maintain it, and to do so with materialsreadily at hand. While building, and while maintaining, the land becomesthe home. We don’t buy things from a big store and then putthem together. We cull them from the surrounding land and createthem. Our buildings are the land, just rearranged to our desires. Themore we are able to play with our buildings, and with our land, themore we are able to create buildings we fall in love with. A positivereinforcing cycle develops. The more we love our buildings, the morewe enjoy caring for them. Playfulness generates beauty, beauty inspiresus to care, and caring means longevity. Perhaps more than anyother 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.

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