03. Materials

The Macrobiotics of Building: Natural, Healthy and Durable

pam-cabinWhat 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 nor any living thing has 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 (which previsioned the modern field of epigenetics).

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 previous 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

Riversong Truss Framing System - Native, Rough-Sawn, Green Lumber

Riversong Truss Framing System – Native, Rough-Sawn, Green Lumber

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

2 Responses to 03. Materials

  1. Ethan Davis says:

    You have just fundamentally changed how I see green building and the catechism of LEED and passivhaus. I found your site because I wanted to switch from rockwool to strawbale with a timberframe. (We farm and would grow the straw/hay ourselves.) But I was worried I couldn’t get enough insulation to meet passivhaus standards, and started thinking of using a combo of straw with rockwool or EPS. Now I see that I may have just been over-engineering and building a monument to my own ecological living that misses the point and maintains the same folly that got us here. Thank you.

    • Riversong says:

      I’m glad you’re challenging the paradigm you find yourself immersed in – and the excesses and foibles of the “green” building movement.

      While wrapping a timber frame in straw bales plastered with earthen materials is the most resource-conservative method of finishing a timber frame (most require a secondary wooden frame to contain the thermal layer and support the interior and exterior finishes, which often doubles the amount of forest product required, or conversely rely on petrochemical panels), beware that straw and hay are two entirely distinct agricultural products and only straw is appropriate for building/insulating. Furthermore, the straw bales need to be sufficiently dense and dry.

      Also beware that the primary challenge (beyond good ground separation and roof overhangs) of designing and building a durable strawbale home is making it sufficiently air tight to avoid moisture accumulation and damage. This is particularly challenging with a timber frame “skeleton” which typically interrupts the interior plaster air barrier and requires special technique and skill to mitigate. The most problematic areas are rafter plates, diagonal braces and window boxes.

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