Developing Natural Patterns of Building

Chopping joints, Medway, MA Workshop 1999In our recent efforts to incorporate a host of new and exciting old systems in our building projects, both at our site here in Maine, and with clients of perusal taste, we have been motivated by two essential forces: 1) to make the building process fun, and 2) to develop systems and processes that will make age-old traditional methods practical to more people on a broader-based level.

When we began the construction of our new school site in 1996 we saw it as an opportunity to design and construct a campus setting that would not only provide the necessary sstructures, but at the same time, examples of a variety of traditional building styles and systems that we, along with our future students, could learn from. Our first priority was to build with the natural materials available in our locality as much as possible. For the most part we've managed to do this. The materials that we chose as primary elements would be timbers, wood, straw, clay, stone and reeds. Secondly, we felt that we should attempt to combine the traditional systems with some of the more recent innovations that have come to the forefront in the last few years--utilizing modern manufacturing advancements with the tried and true traditional approaches. The goal was to find ways to use these most ancient and available materials in ways that seemed practical today, and above all, maintain a high level of quality in craftsmanship and performance.

Timber frames would provide the core structural element, but for the enclosure systems, we sought out a number of people whose experience could bring insight and enthusiasm to the project, and help in designing systems that could be adapted to our northeastern environment. With the recent innovations that are taking place in the natural building movement in this country, we had a number of options to explore.

Strawbale building, one of the most visible natural building methods developed in this country, was our first choice for integrating locally borne systems, so we sought the help of Athena and Bill Steen to oversee the enclosure of our Minka style library. With their insight and experience, we enclosed the walls in a week long workshop. For the more traditional European clay building systems, we enlisted the help of Frank Andresen, a German clay builder (rumor has it that he has been engaged in his trade for 800 years). Frank's experience as a professional clay builder in Germany, along with his interest in developing workable systems in the U.S., has provided a wealth of insight into how we could best utilize clay, woodchips and straw into viable and efficient systems. For the roofing of the library, we sought the help of English thatcher, Jason Morley. In a two week workshop session, Jason was able to convey an in-depth working knowledge of the system, and allow all of us to realize that thatch is indeed a viable option. Working with the Steens, Andresen and Morley has indeed created enthusiasm, but after weeks of sifting through piles of clay, slashing through reed beds on the coast of Maine, and chopping and peeling saplings from our woods, we have come to realize that making these options practical to the average family will take some serious effort.

Making light straw clay One of the difficulties we face in attempting to integrate building systems which utilize materials and resources in a more natural pattern is in determining how it can be done in an efficient and economical manner. To convince the average American that a straw/clay wall, or thatched roof, is as viable as stress skin panels or asphalt shingles, we need to provide more than pure technical data. Lacking a solid cultural foundation in the tradional building trades, we need to provide tangible examples.


In order to integrate natural and traditional systems into the building-industry-at-large, efficient methods for procuring and producing the readily available materials need to be developed. This may take the creation of a new infrastructure; one that can develop both systems and talents with materials and resources that can become economically viable on a local and regional level.

A first step is to create a vehicle which at once provides the technical and mechanical skills necessary to build, with a fertile and educated group of people requiring the need of a building, home or workplace. This harkens back to apprenticeship in the truest sense. In a small way, this is what we are attempting to do here through workshops and demonstration projects.

Secondly, a refinement of processing and manufacturing facilities needs to be developed so that products and engineered systems can be delivered to the building site, or produced right on-site, in a practical and cost effective manner.

Thirdly, the necessary background and technical information on a variety of alternative systems needs to be formalized so that it can be delivered to the local building authorities in a clear-cut, scientific manner.

Harvesting reed Finally, much ground may be gained if we can find a way to develop local and regional building cooperatives, in which the talents of the builders, the resources of the clients and the complicity of the local authorities might be fused together to create concrete and harmonious working examples.

While these suggestions address the issues in only a general way, the following examples touch on three specific traditional systems that cover the three major aspects of a building: the framework, wall enclosure and roofing.

Timber Framing

Timber framing has made its revival in this country, but unfortunately, its foothold in the marketplace is based primarily on aesthetics. The average client's decision-making process for choosing a timber frame over a stick frame is likened to that of choosing cherry over oak for the cabinets. The fact is, timber frames make sense on so many levels beyond taste, especially as we begin to define a new building vernacular for the coming age, because they fulfill one of the primary elements of building in such a direct and forthright way, i.e. structure. In function lies beauty. The beauty of timber framing is that it makes so much sense as a practical structural form. The revival may have taken place, but it will remain as a lasting and practical form only when its structural attributes begin to be equivocated by those who are promoting and building in this fashion.

Straw & Clay

How can we refute the viability of building materials that have been in continuous use for a millennia or more? Can clay building become mainstream? Perhaps not, but it can become a viable option. In our experiments with a number of clay enclosure systems on our site and off-site projects we've found that while the materials are extremely low cost, the labor costs are high here in the U.S. because we are lacking: 1) a viable mechanism to process and deliver the ready made material to local building suppliers; and 2) readily available information on its physical and mechanical properties and systems that will allow the average builder to incorporate traditional clay construction methods into their everyday working vocabulary. The raw materials are readily available in all regions of this country, and the processing requires no harmful additives. The use of clay mixed with straw or woodchips (or virtually any cellulose fiber) have direct benefits also in terms of creating viable local employment possibilities. Other long-term benefits may be a reduction in health costs from respiratory and other ailments attributed to indoor air pollution.


Thatching is one of the earliest known roof coverings in the history of man. It has survived to this day not only because our modern artistic eye appreciates the texture that it provides, but because it happens to work extremely well. Depending on the type of reed or straw used, it can last anywhere from 40 to 100 years. Its benefits, beyond life-span, are its insulation qualities (R30 for 12 inches) and the fact that it can be harvested, made ready and applied with a cache of tools that fit into a knapsack. The downside to the whole process, however, is time. With these crude tools, and a couple of willing thatchers, it could take three months or more to harvest and install enough reed for the average middle income house in this country. While thatch may never prove to be a widespread roofing option in this country, it does have all of the qualities and attributes to make it a viable natural alternative. The first step is to develop harvesting systems so that local reed and straw can be harvested economically. Water reed grows extensively along the eastern sea shore of the U.S. and can be harvested quite easily with a walk behind sicle mower. The second step is to provide training opportunities, and the third is to provide concrete information so as to dispell some of unfounded fears that it is a fire hazard.

Thatching Fox Maple Library Working with Scottish thatcher Colin McGhee over the last 2 years has given us great insight into just how viable thatch can be. As for training, the basic technique of thatching can be picked up in a week or two of working with the material, and one trained worker can guide two to three novices successfully. Mastery takes much more time, but gaining insight and experience is the first step.

Lacking a traditional base or infrastructure in this country, thatching, as with many traditional building systems, remains out of reach and impractical to most people in this country. Having an opportunity to work with professionals European masters who have completed true apprenticeships in a traditional building trade, one begins to realize that with the proper knowledge and experience, the old ways remain as viable today as ever. --S.C.

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