Experimental Homestead

The Over Sculpted House: designing for the unforseen

“….there are fundamental architectural truths and functions which can be incorporated into almost any building and the fewer permanent manifestations we employ beyond those basic design elements, the more we might leave the structure open to variations in it’s potential use, and this point is worth considering in a building design.”



Civil planning has always been one of the most challenging undertakings here at turkeysong.  As an example I designed the same 120 square foot building repeatedly after moving here.  I kept moving it to different sites and using different materials and shapes.  So really it wasn’t the same building at all, it was just intended to have similar functions.  But what were those functions?  I couldn’t always figure that out either!  What would happen in and around that building in the future?  Who knew?  That building has now morphed into a larger structure known as the cottage which is essentially an almost square box with a loft, which still remains without a known long term use.  It’s not that we were just building something merely for no reason, but its intended early use is no longer relevant and the potential long term use seems somewhat dubious at this point, all within the space of a few years.

“Does the building serve us or do we serve the building?”

At one point I was inclined to use cob for that building (a material of clay, straw and aggregate much like adobe but used to sculpt buildings rather than to make bricks).  I planned and drew a lot and even started excavating a totally inappropriate spot for it which I eventually had re-assembled by a bulldozer that was handy.  At the time I was reading Michael Smith and Ianto Evan’s excellent book The Hand Sculpted House and ran across the recommendation in Ianto’s design section to sculpt your house into specific use niches to take the greatest advantage of a small space (I really do like this book and highly recommend it to anyone considering building with cob, but I couldn’t resist the title re: this annecdote.  I am also friends with Michael Smith but, alas, no one escapes critical analysis, and I hope I won’t either :).  The idea is that you can, with cob anyway, build in very specific shapes as areas for very specific uses like a desk or a sitting area, kitchen, phone etc…  With this approach you eliminate “wasted” space or space that is, as the author put it, “use neutral” or having no specific use.

Keeping a building small by making the most out of the interior space one has by assigning every area have a specific use is rather enticing.  So, I tried designing a building along these lines on paper as well as in my mind and was able to tweak it to fit my list of essential functions into a measly 120 square foot floor space, which was no easy task.  While designing this buildng in my mind, I found myself psychologically uncomfortable with the legacy of permanence and lack of flexibility that this approach necessarily creates.  Once you sculpt a shelf into the wall or sculpt around your wood stove or create an office niche, it’s more or less there for good.  We’d sure better get it right the first time!  Where does that leave us?  Does the building serve us or do we serve the building?  Furniture might also have to be built to fit a curvilinear sculpted building after which it is less useful anywhere else one might want to put it.  Being stuck with this lack of options forever was psychologically unappealing for one thing, but it also felt like a trap in terms of practical building usage in that it is very inflexible.  Given my experience here and in the past, I’m inclined to view use neutral space as a freedom of opportunity rather than a problem of lonely, empty, inefficient space.  This of course depends on the extent and nature of that neutral space and the people who interact with it and may be largely a matter of style and taste.  This experience provides a context in which to examine building design and the inevitability of its unknown future use.

I have lived in a wide variety of inadequate shelters as many of my friends also often do.  In California, rent can be expensive and populations high leading to the renting or scrounging of all kinds of substandard housing like poorly built hippie shacks left over from the earlier back to the land movement and converted barns and chicken coops.  There is an adaptation of buildings to people and people to buildings in an attempt to make wherever we land work.  But this doesn’t apply only to ramshackle or re-purposed structures, it also applies to very intentionally designed houses which just do not fit the way that people actually live.  I suppose that no building can be guaranteed to work for all occupants and the problem of designing for flexibility to accommodate change and future occupants and the compromises that entails has been on my mind for a while.

The last place I lived had a separate crooked mouse infested shack that we converted into a kitchen, an attached lean to that I used as a tube electronics workshop with tool storage/workbench and, lastly, there was a separate but almost attached building that provided a “living” area and sleeping loft.  A wooden deck communicated between the two.  I was very sick with lyme disease for most of that period and often had to nap in the day time or sleep in.  This made “living” in the living area difficult sometimes and got me thinking about the potential need for a quiet sleeping area and also the need to have kitchens and “living” areas together.  There is a natural gradient of activity between cooking and other waking time living activities and we spend a lot of time on food around here, so to separate most of our waking indoor activities from the cooking part would create an intolerable disconnect.  Sleeping however is another matter.

“…our expectations around having regular sleeping and activity hours are clearly often not supported by reality.”

I’ve been drawn to the idea of separate sleeping structures for quite some time now.  I go through phases where I need daily naps and that alone is reason enough to make the possibility of separating sleeping from waking hour activities appealing.  I also suffer from insomnia, depression, mood swings and general emotional chaos and just sometimes need a place to be alone or zone out for a while.  Yet none of these factors is constant except perhaps that there is no constant except change.  Separating sleeping areas from day time activity areas not only allows one to sleep or escape social interactions at odd hours, it also allows a person to get up and do waking hour activities at odd hours!  I mean really, if you actually step aside and look at it, our expectations around having regular sleeping and activity hours are clearly often not supported by reality.  Whether our insomnias and lack of “normal” schedules around sleep and activity are indeed “wrong” and due to some character fault or modern unhealthy lifestyle factors or if they are indeed just “normal” is almost a moot point.  I’ve tried telling my brain to shut up and sleep and at this point would prefer to just get up and do something at 3:00 am if I wake up.  That is just my ever shifting life.  It seems to me that people do often design their lives and their infrastructures on assumptions that may not be accurate.  Our interests, needs, relationships and habits all can change unexpectedly on both short and long time scales and that is reality whatever specific grandiose or nostalgic plans and dreams we might have for our futures.

“…any static hard plan you make on paper assumes that we have all the information that we need, which of course we never do!”

When I was first moving here I re-read the permaculture manuals by Bill Mollison and found them to present a well thought out and beautiful philosophy of design.  Like I said though, civil planning has been very difficult here and the idea of sitting down and planning out your world on a map and then executing it with bulldozers and sheet mulch as he recommends just didn’t work well for me.  I think I felt a little inadequate at first for not being able to sit down and master plan my world, but I now think the red flags and roadblocks I encountered were probably telling me something else important.  It has taken a lot of time, observation and just living here to start figuring out where to put stuff and I’ve made some mistakes.  At this point I am more inclined toward something like organic growth in development.  However whacked out his attempt at a practical response to the phenomenon might be, organic growth of buildings and environments to fit human needs and behaviors is one of the primary observations and principals laid out by Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language (which is a book I would recommend to anyone who finds themselves designing buildings).

I got some second hand feedback from a recent visitor who is a permaculture designer that it doesn’t seem like we have much of a long term plan here for what we’re doing.  There is probably more of a plan than that person perceived, but still, it’s true.  It has, as I said, been a difficult and frustrating process to plan this place.  Still, I feel fairly confident that any fuller plan I would have made would have been wholly inadequate and left me with structures and landscapes that I would serve more than they would serve me.  We have had a land partnership change and relationship changes since then and added a third resident all of which would not have been taken into account in building structures in an initial master plan.  Further, I have had to observe the character of my environment with it’s air temperature layers and movements, soil profile and drainage, sun and shade and topography as well as the ways we interact with those factors in order to decide what we want to do here.  Further, ingesting, digesting, internalizing and then manifesting something from that input is I feel a long term proposition.  Besides, I rather enjoy the emerging excitement of the organic growth part.  In talking to my friend Tim Bray about this issue he articulated that he’s a fan of organic growth in these things because any static hard plan you make on paper assumes that we have all the information that we need, which of course we never do!  This is not at all to say that I don’t plan or don’t have plans, but those plans have changed a lot since I got here as I’ve interacted with the place and gathered information leading me to feel that a gradual approach to planning, and planning in some flexibility, is a better approach for us and this place.  That all being said, I also do recommend reading the permaculture design books because the design philosophy they present will make you a better planner.

“We are still stuck with that quick and dirty mentality and as a product of our environment and culture these values, or lack of, are expressed in what we are leaving behind.”

Another reason to design for flexibility in structure use is that we are not designing only for the period that we live here or are even alive.  Once I was talking to a natural builder about some structure I wanted to build and mentioned that I didn’t think so and so building technique was very durable.  He said “well how long do you expect to live!”.  I was a little taken aback and it took me a second to plumb my motivations for building a durable structure since I guess I was assuming that would be a commonly assumed value (although I’m not sure why since that assumption has not been supported by my observations in the natural building community).   I managed to muster what I thought was an adequate if succinct response to the effect that I would prefer to live in a world in which people looked toward the future and left works that were durable and could serve others in the future in order not to waste resources and human time and energy, and that I planned to try to do my part to manifest that reality.  If you look at old world buildings and even some earlier post contact North American architecture those people were part of a continuum and the expectation was different than todays mentality in that they were building and maintaining a country and a culture.  As the plague of invaders swept across North America with its abundant resources faster and less future oriented building materials and techniques came into play.  We are still stuck with that quick and dirty mentality and as a product of our environment and culture these values, or lack of, are expressed in what we are leaving behind.  A lot of temporary work is done here simply in order to get by involving trailers, crappy sheds and tarps but when we do a real project it is generally with the intention of doing it properly and leaving a legacy that we can feel good about and that might serve someone else well in the future.  Not to take this idea too far out of bounds, but I feel that there is possibly a place for temporary natural structures, or those employing re-usable materials within a culture that is sustainable.  That paradigm however does not seem to exist and when people say natural building, they rarely mean it in a literal sense.  Most natural buildings use a lot of hardware and sometimes have embodied energy in the form of sand and transportation of even natural materials, like the rampant use of bamboo imported from asia.  Once the materials are labeled “natural” or “green” people seem to use them with some indiscretion in regards to the future of said materials.  I hope to write down some more thoughts along these lines in the future.

The “cottage” in progress.  Is the roof framing overbuilt, or built to last? 

Recently, I’ve come to critically examine expectations around structure use and have been inclined toward designing for flexibility in that regard.  The first building was intended to house solar system components such as batteries and inverters.  It was for two separate power systems.  Then it was for one.  Then it was storage and cider making and guinea pig housing.  Now its a bedroom that has switched users temporarily.  Currently it is planned to be a temporary (but probably longer than we’d like!) kitchen so we can get out of the trailer kitchen.  I’ve tried to plan other uses for this building, but I can’t know what it will be used for.  It could make a workshop space of some kind, storage, sleeping, cider and wine making, who knows.  I can tell you I’m glad I didn’t sculpt in battery storage or something silly like that!  At this point, the less permanent installations there are inside that building the better.  I put in an adobe floor (not impressed BTW), but if we turn it into a brewing/cider house, it will have to come out and make way for a floor that can be washed down with a drain in the middle.  Oops.

The Lizard in progress. bedroom, powerhouse, guinea pig housing, cidery or ???

Another example is the aforementioned cottage.  It keeps changing potential uses and again I’ve realized that the fewer items we install permanently the better.  We were all set to install a slate floor and even had started, but now we’re putting it off for a while because we will be using the space as a shop for probably quite some time and are inclined to think it will be damaged by rough usage; either that, or we will just have to cover it up to protect it.  We also had plans for a kitchenette, but now I’m inclined to think that any kitchen-like infrastructure should be easily and 100% removable.  It has also occurred to me that maybe even the loft should be removable.

One idea that I find particularly appealing is that of building small structures on trailer chassis.  Trailers generally suck.  They nearly all leak due to silly flat topped, flush roof designs.  New ones may not leak for a while, but as soon as you move them they start leaking.  This failure is not due to limitations within the laws of physics, but rather our failure to work with those laws and the problem can easily be designed around if the roof would overhang the sides to any degree at all, even an inch.  It never is designed around though, presumably due to the apparently important criteria of milking every possible square inch out of the interior which by law is limited in width if you plan to move the trailer yourself along a public roadway.  Millions of moldy rotting trailers show this trade off to be a poor one.  Anyway, I’m digressing, but because trailers suck, leak and become rotten mold and mouse infested pieces of crap, there are endless free trailer chassis (the metal platform with the wheels that trailers are built on) out there that are perfectly serviceable.  Even a fourteen foot trailer has plenty of room for sleeping and clothing storage.  It can be moved almost anywhere if it is suddenly found to be in the way of some new plans and it can be built with a great deal of creative freedom and attention to craftsmanship.  Add to this that the trailer is un-taxable and not subject to building codes and the trailer bedroom/workshop/office/storage is starting to look awesome!

“There is a certain feeling of excitement when even just moving some furniture around.”

One of the great appeals to me in thinking of portable structures like a flexible use trailer chassis building is simply the ability to move them as desired whether it be by necessity or just on a whim.  I’ve been thinking for some years about how people like to move.  There is a certain satisfaction in moving from place to place.  It’s like a new beginning.  Give people the choice to move and they tend to do it.  For Americans though, I feel that all our moving sometimes fractures our communities and prevents us from forming a sense of place and the responsibility to that place or community that staying in one place has at least a chance of fostering.  People moving all the time can become users of communities and places rather than builders and care takers.  That phenomenon is always a bane to longer term locals when some kind of rush happens or a lot of new people move in as with the black market marijuana production economy here in Northern California.  I have always liked the idea of sinking roots into a place like this and knowing it enough to really care about it deeply and not just philosophically.  I hope to do my works here and die here, but I still feel that itch to move or find renewal.  It may be that there is a conflict between sinking roots and knowing a place v.s. an urge to move around which is more or less irreconcilable, but maybe if we look closely there are some solutions.

This is just from personal observation and speculation, but I think we probably have a natural tendency to want to move; to leave one place and to find another.  Leave memories, surroundings and habits behind to start over.  After all, we evolved moving from place to place following seasons and resources and maybe we still feel those stirrings.  I think people have various coping mechanisms for this need when they can’t move.  Remodeling over and over again is probably one of those.  People also travel, especially as they become older, and seek out various methods for personal renewal or “re-creation”.  And of course just moving.  I could see having a variety of structures built for flexible use as potentially useful to partially fill this need which I know I feel in myself.  There is a certain feeling of excitement when even just moving some furniture around.  You know what I’m talking about right?  One could move into a new trailer house bedroom, move the trailer to a new spot or set up a new small workshop or office space in one.

The one static building I see here is a sort of communal kitchen/waking use area.  I like the idea of having a space for cooking, eating and doing waking hour stuff where people can maintain a sense of connection and community.  The only serious concern I have with this plan is that more buildings require more separate heating, but at this point I’m fairly sure that is a problem which can be overcome by habit and technology and that its inconvenience or added labor will not outweigh the benefits of such an arrangement.  Currently here, sleeping arrangements are separate from living and cooking and overall it has been much more beneficial than not- this after having a bed in the kitchen/office trailer for 4 years!  That sucked.

“… I may be full of shit.”

It hasn’t been so much my intention here to present much in the way of solutions, but rather to point out a problem that I perceive as relevant and in need of some thought and action.  Human endeavor is plagued by both our limited perception of the present and of history as well as our inability to see into the future, so I may be full of shit.  Still, we have to act on something and too often that is by default the dominant paradigm or someone else’s dogma rather than our own common sense and intuition.  Whatever anyone does about it, fitting ourselves to our buildings and our buildings to ourselves and future users will necessitate much compromise.  I hope my approach will be more along the lines of keeping those compromises to an acceptable and functional level or even so slight as to be barely noticeable day to day, rather than one of looking for perfect solutions.  Indeed, that there are not perfect solutions due to the inevitability of change and variations in human habits and character is more or less my main point.  When we over design and over tweak anything we run the risk of implementing inelegant solutions or worse, creating significant burdens.  On the other hand, buildings designed for specific uses can make those uses more pleasant and efficient and, although I like to keep the future and its inhabitants in mind when designing, we have to make buildings that are functional for ourselves as well.  So, where to draw those lines between flexibility and specific functionality in architectural design must then indeed be a complex and very personal matter.  Under-designing may just as easily create its own set of problems if it is adopted as a rigid polarized extreme of over-designing and creating polarized extremes is another counter-productive plague on human endeavors.  I guess one of my thoughts at this point is that there are fundamental architectural truths and functions which can be incorporated into almost any building and the fewer permanent manifestations we employ beyond those basic design elements, the more we might leave the structure open to variations in it’s potential use, and this point is worth considering in a building design.  I’m excited about the idea of designing from here on out for flexibility in space use and plan to continue designing and plotting away in this mindset.

November 15, 2011 - Posted by | Infrastructure, Philosophy, Rants etc...


  1. Plan for the unplannable! Very good thoughts, as we grope towards a Mendocino vernacular. The approach I have taken at our place is to build permanent stuff as well as time and energy and money will possibly allow. In building the new house we half-joked about doing things on the 300-year plan. It’s not the “greenest” house, but it isn’t going anywhere for a very long time. Structures that have a good possibility of change are built at a whole different level… a knocked together 2×4 generator shed has gone through several transformations and is now my metal boneyard… an aboveground, unplastered straw bale built as a temporary (2-year?) cooler/root cellar has been overshadowed by a much larger true root cellar inside the new house, but one must keep the fruits and the roots separate, neh? The bales aren’t falling apart yet (3 foot eaves), so it will probably continue to be a “froot cellar”.I’ve learned about “master plans” is… keep it loose. Let it evolve just like nature would evolve something… building on the knowledge and structure and patterns that worked. These are such incredibly dynamic systems, with water, buildings, plants, people, every damn thing from power struggles to power systems, there’s no way to plan all that out. It HAS to evolve organically. Nature has the patterns that work, evolution itself being the sort of meta-pattern that’s REALLY worked! I’ve always seen that if you’re emulating a working pattern from nature you’re likely on the road to… something that works. Nature has no plan, but somehow it’s working, moving, changing. Fun stuff to ponder.
    ps. We’ve been raking in the mushrooms up here. Coccoras, boletes (queen and butter), chanterelles. A great year for the fungus!

    Comment by joel k | November 15, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks for your thoughts Joel. Root cellar, I’m jealous. I don’t need one for roots, but I need one for lots of other stuff. I’ve thought about bales for a cooler/cellar, maybe I should slap something together since I’ve been waiting for things to evolve to the point where I can even decide where to put a permanent cellar… or two… I actually had thought of using bales on a trailer chassis (don’t have to decide where to put it) with an air conditioner or other type of cooler/compressor which I could run just whenever its sunny enough that we have extra power, which is a lot of the time.

      Comment by turkeysong | November 16, 2011 | Reply

  2. Nice Piece Steven.I’ve shared a lot of the same thoughts. my perennial question is: How do we design for what we don’t yet know? so many of our “failures” come from unintended consequences. in addition to those you already mention Christopher Days approach to design and especially master planning has been a great help for me. It has helped move my morphology from form follows function, through form follows flow, to form is movement come to rest. I now see design as an unending dialogue between place, space, activity, and resources. It seems we are on the verge of a new vernacular, like a California cuisine of design. I think it’s gonna take a lot of iterations to shake out what’s most valuable. I for one am grateful that you and those around you are participating in such a well researched, thoughtful, and weldocumented way.

    Comment by Tim Owen-Kennedy | November 18, 2011 | Reply

  3. Also I forgot to mention ” How Buildings Learn” by Stewert Brand, which probably should have a new addition but is a great starting point for this concept. Maybe you should write the book “How Homesteads Learn”. Or “How we learn with our Homesteads”

    Comment by Tim Owen-Kennedy | November 18, 2011 | Reply

  4. There’s a saying in permaculture that a permaculture design is never finished, because of the principles of observing and responding to feedback. I think the same could be said of a cob house. Centuries-old cob houses in England can be, and often are, upgraded for new uses. (Of course you don’t see as many cute little niches and built in benches.) I really like the niches aesthetically and I also like the creative challenge of repurposing spaces like that: “This was a bench, but I don’t find myself wanting to sit on it much. But if I sit on a cushion it’s the perfect height for a desk or a table…”

    I appreciate the perspective you’ve raised. I’ve seen a lot of examples of “design by default” that just don’t work for anyone, but I’ve also seen examples of overdesign that don’t take into account changing circumstances and new information. And I think this quote may be as key for permaculture design as it is for natural building:

    “I guess one of my thoughts at this point is that there are fundamental architectural truths and functions which can be incorporated into almost any building and the fewer permanent manifestations we employ beyond those basic design elements, the more we might leave the structure open to variations in it’s potential use, and this point is worth considering in a building design.”

    Comment by Kerrick | November 22, 2011 | Reply

  5. Wow! I really appreciate your reflections. We’ve been working around and around how to move to our garden site since, though it is only a 1/2 mile from where we live, we miss out on a lot of what happens on the land, both naturally and trespass-ishly. Many have said “just tow a trailer out there” for the ease of it, but I have a resistance for the worst of the issues you named above. Having been in the trailers at EA, I just don’t want any part of them anymore. But building a good structure on the chassis? I’d never considered… So thanks for that one.
    And having the opportunity when we were out that way a few weeks ago to see Polcum Springs and hear how much thought continues to be put into the human interactions with the land, and how the Pattern Language is so expansive, I’ve been inspired to take this winter trying again to figure a few things out. So thanks, too, for some perspective on the value of permanence, both in design and structure…
    Hope the season of darkness can be restful for you both!

    Comment by Dan R-M | November 26, 2011 | Reply

    • Well, yes, half a mile is long way off for a garden. Whats the saying about the best fertilizer is the farmers footsteps? My garden is probably 75 yards away and its too far! Sorry we missed you this time. Hope you can stop by next time you come out. I’ve yet to make it to polcum springs, but its on the list.

      Comment by turkeysong | December 6, 2011 | Reply

  6. The Illusion of Permanence

    In “How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built,” Stewart Brand explores the reasons and ways that people change buildings over time. He boils those down into a set of recommendations about how to design buildings that are easily adaptable to future unforeseen uses. There’s a lot of depth to his conclusions (read the last chapter if you don’t have time for the whole book), but part of it is very similar to your thoughts. Essentially he’s recommending building big rectangular boxes with all of the structure on the outside, so that the interior layout can be easily modified. Here’s a representative quote: “The only configuration of space that grows well and subdivides well and is really efficient to use is the rectangle.”

    I don’t doubt the thoughtfulness of his arguments, or of yours, but I’d like to add an alternate perspective. I’ve worked on the design and/or construction of dozens of buildings (many of them small houses or cabins) and I’ve lived in many buildings, both built by myself and by others. My experience is that the houses that have been sculpted specifically for the needs of their inhabitants have been more pleasant, more functional, and more inspirational to live in than those that haven’t. I am currently living in a house that grew in an unplanned fashion over the last 100 years, starting at about 200 square feet and now reaching nearly 800. It is much harder to inhabit efficiently, and there is a lot more wasted space, than in the last two “hand-sculpted” houses I lived in, one at 300 s.f. and the other at about 550.

    I believe that if you want to build a very small house (say, less than 200 s.f. per inhabitant) and have it work well for you, it is necessary to work out and build in a very detailed map of how the space will be used. Built-in furniture and storage are an essential part of making this work, since they take up much less space than most freestanding furniture. Think about the designs of travel trailers, ships cabins, or train sleeper cars. Many of these are not examples of exquisite craftsmanship, but they usually pack a great deal of function into a small space. You can’t achieve the same level of efficiency later on by just moving things around in the space, because the dimensions are unlikely to be right for the best possible geometry of uses.

    Why build such a small house in the first place? Several reasons. A major one is to get the job done faster, so that you can move in and stop paying rent, or stop breathing the mold in the walls of the leaky travel trailer. Smaller houses are faster and cheaper to build, require fewer resources in construction, heating, cooling and maintenance. And they leave more room for your garden and orchard.

    However, you can almost be assured that if you do a good job building your small house, then at some point either you or a future inhabitant will want to add on to it. So plan for that from the beginning, or some future generation may be cursing your bones. The two biggest mistakes I’ve made personally in this regard have to do with the roof and the foundation. Certain roof shapes make adding on in particular directions a breeze (shed roofs allow expansion in at least 3 directions while gable roofs allow expansion in at least 2) while other shapes make adding on nearly impossible, especially if the building is not tall. A one-story building with a hip roof (or worse yet, conical!) is nearly impossible to add on to without major re-roofing.

    If you’re making your walls out of a material that doesn’t do well when it gets wet, such as straw or earth, you will probably set them on a high stem wall made of stone, concrete, or other masonry material that extends above the interior floor level. This can be another big challenge to future additions, unless you are prescient enough to frame a door in the direction of expansion. If you don’t need a door there now, put in a window but frame it like a door with a threshold at floor level, and fill in the bottom part with a removable wall. Depending on your foundation material, you might also want to leave some “tails” sticking out to tie into later. These could support outdoor benches, privacy screens or wind-blocks in the short term, but allow for a strong connection between the new and old parts of the building later on.

    You refer to “the legacy of permanence and lack of flexibility” that accompanies sculpting a house out of cob, but I have to doubt that you’re speaking from experience. Although cob looks very solid and permanent, it is actually no more difficult to reshape, remodel, or remove later on than most other kinds of construction. I know people who live in cob houses who are continually reworking them – adding a window here, removing a bench there – as their needs and ideas about how they want to use the space change. It may look intimidating to someone who has never built with cob, but by the time you’ve built your house you will know exactly how to remodel it.

    The thing that surprises me is how many people DON’T remodel their living spaces, even when they inherit really dysfunctional situations. It might take only a few hours to replace an old single-pane window, or to add an awning to keep the summer afternoon sun out, or to remove an interior wall that is chopping your kitchen in two. Yet so many of us suffer the discomfort and pay the higher energy bills for years rather than taking those few hours to fix the problem. Why? There could be many reasons in our minds: we’re too busy, or too lazy, or don’t think we have the skills. Yet another part of the explanation may reside in what I’ve come to call “the illusion of permanence.” We look around us and subconsciously assume that what we see is what we get. The world we know is as it has always been and always will be. If there’s an extra wall in my kitchen, it must be there for some good reason, and who am I to question that?

    Yet we all know that’s not really true. Everything (or almost everything) changes. Some things change quickly, some slowly. That change, and the difficulty of predicting it, is exactly what makes planning at a place like Turkeysong so difficult. I’ve experienced the exact same phenomenon at Emerald Earth. If we had come up with a detailed Master Plan 20 years ago, or even 10, many of the activities that residents are wanting to focus on today would not have been included, and might not now be possible. A useful and successful plan has to somehow include a great deal of information about past successes and failures, many options for future projects and directions, and few restrictions. That’s a tall order, especially when we don’t know exactly who we are designing and planning for, how they will make their living, or many other details about the future even a decade or two from now.

    I believe that collectively we are probably in a more difficult place for planning than any other generation before us. Most people throughout history have been able to safely assume that their children would live more or less the way they did. If they built a house or planted a tree, it was easy to imagine how they would be used. The rate of change in lifestyle, technology, and economy has been accelerating for generations, and that speeding car may be headed over a cliff. A friend just told me about a current climate change model that predicts “Joshua Tree-like conditions” as far north as the Oregon border. How do you plan for that? Okay, you can plant drought-tolerant trees and put in the biggest pond you can afford. But think about the social and economic changes that will be necessary if agriculture becomes impossible in California. Will there be anyone here to live in our houses and harvest our fruit trees a couple of generations from now? And if so, what will they need? When I consider this scale of change, I have no idea what “sustainable” even means when applied to any of our current practices.

    Stewart Brand quotes Christopher Alexander (primary author of “A Pattern Language”) as saying “A building’s foundation and frame should be capable of living 300 years.” Statements like this are often made be people who want their buildings to have the least possible negative environmental impact. But I have to really question that logic.

    When I look at how different cultures have chosen to house themselves around the world and throughout history, the practice of making durable houses appears to be an anomaly. The only place where it seems common (at least until European colonization) is in some temperate-climate agricultural economies, most notably in Europe and Asia. Peoples who made their living by hunting, gathering, and herding tended to build light, portable houses, or else very temporary ones. Even many settled agricultural peoples have not chosen to build “permanent” homes.

    Many years ago, I had the enormous fortune of living for a month with a Mayan family in a village in highland Guatemala. While there, I helped a neighbor tear down a house where he had decided to plant a cornfield instead. The house was built entirely out of materials harvested from the forest within walking distance. The frame was made of thin round poles lashed together with vines; the siding was made of split palm trunks and the roof was thatched with palm leaves. The thatching was only good for about 5 years before it would need to be replaced anyway. The rest of the structure would last longer; maybe a couple decades. But it was no big deal to turn the whole house into a compost pile when the land use plan changed. My understanding is that most Mayan people have lived in houses like this for thousands of years (not in elaborate stone temples!). Presumably it has been “sustainable” for them, at least at historical population levels. By the time a house decays and needs to be rebuilt, the surrounding ecosystem has replaced the necessary materials.

    Building a house that is intended to last 300 years, or even a century, almost certainly requires a much greater investment of time and physical resources than one that is destined for a compost heap within a generation. This is especially true in a place like California, where the frequency of earthquakes, and the likelihood of large ones, produces an expectation that houses must be made very strong. In practice this tends to mean that we use a lot of concrete, steel, and sheet materials like plywood, all of which have high environmental costs. And of course, if we want to get a building permit, we are basically required to use these materials.

    I just want to throw out the question: does this approach really make sense any more? The only way the very large environmental cost of our buildings can be justified is if that cost can be amortized over many generations. This assumes that not only are we very good builders, and good enough planners to design buildings that will still be useful generations from now, but also that a really huge earthquake won’t hit in the next century or two, that there will still be people wanting to live where we are living now, and that the climate will not be so different as to make our designs, our choice of materials, and our choice of building sites obsolete. To me this seems like a long list of rather shaky assumptions. From an ecological perspective, I suspect that it would be better to make buildings that use fewer resources and are not intended to last very long. They might not even be intended to outlive their builders. In which case, sculpting your home to your own personal needs makes immanent sense.

    Comment by Michael G. Smith | December 10, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks for your awesomely thoughtful reply Michael. We are indeed limited by our own perspectives and experiences and its always refreshing, if somewhat rare, to encounter the potential for constructive discourse. I’ll try to mount an adequately considered response sooner than later.

      Comment by turkeysong | December 10, 2011 | Reply

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