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Network for Peace through Dialogue

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September 10, 2008

Natural Building for Natural Communities

Melanie Nañez, Network for Peace through Dialogue's web master, recently returned from a 10-day visit to an ecovillage in western Canada. She was so impressed by the experience that she and a friend are going on a trip to explore the possibilities of creating a retreat center of their own in Mexico. Staff members were so curious about what she learned and the impact of this trip that they invited her to speak at a Living Room Dialogue.

Melanie visited O.U.R. Ecovillage on Shawnigan Lake in British Columbia. O.U.R. stands for One United Resource. She chose to go there because she has been interested for a long time in how people can live sustainably on the earth without a lot of the things we think we need. One focus at O.U.R. Ecovillage is how to build houses using natural materials, preferably local, that will return to the earth when people are finished them, that is without materials like plastics or fiberglass that will stick around forever.

The particular process she helped with is called cob building, in which you mix clay, sand, straw and water and stomp on it to create a wall. This mixture becomes as strong as stone because the straw forms a kind of netting matrix. It is usually a group process in which a dozen or more people knead the clay mixture with their fingers or stomp on it with their feet. Melanie found it to be a method that, she said, ties everything together caring about the world around you, using things that don't hurt the earth and paying attention to what you are leaving behind. And as a way of promoting togetherness, it can't be matched. It almost has to be done as a community.

The finished houses start at about two feet thick and taper toward the top. They are usually smallish, one-story buildings. The shapes are often curved because they are more stable that way and most aesthetically pleasing as well. Melanie showed pictures of the very beautiful results.

The story of the founding of O.U.R. Ecovillage was inspiring in that its creators had to persuade Canadian government officials to allow them go ahead with the project despite the fact that cob houses are not "up to code" using conventional building standards. To do this, they offered to finance and build the houses as a demonstration project and education center. The government could monitor the project and thus a record of stability could be established. The government agreed, and now many visitors come there to learn about natural building while at the same time changes in the building codes can be tested. Most of the materials at O.U.R. Ecovillage have been donated. Lots of clay is available because of construction going on in the area.

Participants in the dialogue had many questions about living in the houses. Melanie explained that the houses are heated by wood stoves, retaining heat better than wood houses. They have windows with glass panes. They can also be ventilated with netted holes under windows for air circulation. Some have running water and electricity. For uses other than drinking water, the village has rain water tank and a filtration system for waste water. The buildings have strong foundations built into the ground. Roofs are wood or slate.

Cob building has a long history but the techniques have been largely forgotten. One of the teachers at O.U.R. Ecovillage gave a workshop in South Africa where she found it ironic that she was teaching people skills that their ancestors once knew well.

There are many websites with information about cob building. One she mentioned particularly is www.cobworks.com. There are also many books about it.

For Melanie it was the notion of living in a community that was most compelling and what has moved her and her friend from dreaming about creating a community to action. They have already done some research and have several Mexican places in mind already inhabited by expatriates and tourists who might be interested in a project demonstrating that you CAN live in a different way.

In the discussion, one person said she thought people were looking for a more simplified way of life, though not to be deprived. Another mentioned a house at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy at Kings Point in Queens made entirely of re-cycled materials that was solar powered and quite liveable. One person mentioned enjoying living out-of-doors while camping. In the final go-round, people said that they were cheered that ecovillages were springing up in many parts of the world; that given the state of the planet and the global economy, the time seems right for such a movement; and that it was inspiring to learn that Melanie was following a dream that seemed to be giving her life. It's not an easy thing to go out and start something new.


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