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First Earth: Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

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By Diana Leafe Christian

One of the featured homes in the Pacific Northwest.

First Earth: Uncompromising Ecological Architecture, by filmmaker David Sheen, knocked my socks off. A “why-to,” not a “how-to,” this evocative and beautiful documentary shows why building with earth — cob, straw clay, adobe bricks, rammed earth — works well structurally, lasts a long time, compels the eye and heart, is healthier for builders and dwellers than most other construction methods, and feels good to live in. And can even spiritually uplift and inspire the builders.

Filmed on location over four years on four continents, First Earth features curving art-poem dwellings in the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the US; thousand-year-old apartment-and-ladder architecture of Taos Pueblo; centuries-old and contemporary cob homes in England; classic round thatched huts in West Africa; bamboo-and-cob structures now on the rise in Thailand; and soaring Moorish-style earthen skyscrapers in Yemen. It engages the left brain as well, with brief appearances by renowned cultural observers and activists (Derrick Jensen, Daniel Quinn, James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg, Starhawk, Chellis Glendinning, and Mark Lakeman, among others) speaking on what’s not right with our society and how building with earth addresses some of these ills, and major natural building teachers (Michael G. Smith, Becky Bee, Joseph Kennedy, Sunray Kelly, Janell Kapoor, Elke Cole, Ianto Evans, Bob Theis, and Stuart Cowan, among others).

”Earthen Buildings Are Best”

Cob “tree” exterior of a commercial building in Portland, Oregon.

The film proposes that earthen homes are the healthiest housing in the world, while stick-framed housing and conventional buildings are soulless rectilinear sources of resource depletion and pollution. That curvilinear buildings elevate the spirit and cultivate the heart. And further, that since it takes a village to raise a child, one of the best things we can do for humankind and the natural world is to transform suburban sprawl into cozy, curvy earthen ecovillages. “In the age of environmental and economic collapse, peak oil and other converging emergencies,” writes David Sheen on his First Earth website, “the solution to many of our ills might just be getting back to basics, focusing on food, clothes, and shelter. We need to think differently about house and home, for material and for spiritual reasons, both the personal and the political.”

David Sheen, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and visiting with for a day recently, is a lively and stimulating young Renaissance man (check out his Anarchitecture website), who started out as a designer and graphic designer. (As I watched First Earth I thought, “Oooh, this is how a film looks when it’s put together by a graphic designer. All filmmakers first should be graphic designers!” )

A traditional round hut in Africa.

David began studying, designing, building, and filming natural buildings in 2001. He apprenticed with natural building masters Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley at the North American School of Natural Building in Oregon, and Michael G. Smith at Emerald Earth Community in Northern California. He studied biomimicry, the study of nature's design principles and its application to human habitats, with renowned architect/designer Eugene Tsui. Born and raised in Toronto, David lived for several months in urban and rural intentional communities in the US, and for the last three years in kibbutzim in the south of Israel.

But Is This Always True?

I loved the film and recommend it highly. Yet I disagree with its premise.

Another traditional earthen building in Africa.

For example, one of my friends at Earthaven Ecovillage, where I live, is building a 12’ x 12’ x 12’ stick-built, shed-roofed dwelling with wood, and concrete, rebar, R-Foil building wrap, recycled cellulose insulation, and earth-plastered walls inside and out. As a rectilinear hybrid structure built mostly of wood, you could argue, based on the film’s premises, that it’s a soulless box whose materials and construction method harm the Earth. But is it really? The 2x6s were felled by the builder himself from onsite trees to clear fields for an organic farm, and milled less than five miles away in a sustainable sawmill. As a hybrid building, with both conventional and natural building materials, it’s contributing less pollution than a conventionally built building of the same size. As a passive-solar building, it has a slab-on-grade poured concrete floor (insulated against any winter cold from the Earth) and poured concrete countertops — both for thermal mass — and radiant floor heating for back-up.

A mud-brick and plastered skyscraper in Yemen.

It’s tiny, because my friend wants a simple unpretentious home that doesn’t cost a bundle or take long to build — given that construction time equals money. It’s mostly rectilinear because this shape is much cheaper to build in terms of labor and time than curving shapes, whether of wood or earth. Natural building is not necessarily cheaper than conventional building, contrary to popular belief. If you take into account the amount of labor time, which means either the owner-builder is taking off work (which costs the builder) or hiring labor or housing and feeding work-exchangers, it all adds up. The same friend built a similar 12’ x 12’ x 12’ home a few years ago in another part of the community, mostly by himself, and only on weekends and evenings after work. It cost him $8,000 in materials and about $8,000 in labor at his then-current rate if he had charged for it. (Another friend in another community is building a beautiful two-story, one-bedroom cob, strawbale, and adobe-brick home. Mostly because of labor, his construction costs are estimated to be almost $300,000 by the time it’s finished.)

A 12’ x 12’ x 12’ “micro-hut” non-earthen building at Earthaven.

My friend is also building tiny, square, and cheap so he can minimize the energy he puts into his own home so he can get on with what ’’else’’ he does at Earthaven — operating a business which provides a needed onsite service and employs other members who need jobs; operating a small farm, which produces food and other products for the community (and in the future will employ others); and focalizing the new alcohol co-op. (See Will Earthaven Become a “Magical Appalachian Machu Picchu”?) He’s not putting much energy, time, and money into building the kind of beautiful home the film advocates because he’s putting it into building the community itself.

So this is why the idea that building with earth, and curvilinearly, is the ecologically sustainable way to build (“uncompromising!”) does not convince me. David and I talked about this briefly, and he gets it, of course. He knows the film paints a complex subject with overly broad brush strokes to make a point. And it does, beautifully.

Filmmaker David Sheen.

You can see where it’s screening next, or, for a short period of time view it online in a beta version online for free. Or order it (the DVD version has high-quality video and audio and includes extras) online.

First Earth: Uncompromising Ecological Architecture will be showcased at the Ninth Annual Village Building Convergence in Portland, Oregan, June 5-14, 2009.

Diana Leafe Christian, editor of this newsletter, lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, US.

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Mission & Purpose

To encourage and inspire new and existing ecovillage projects with news about ecovillages and related projects worldwide.

Advisory Board

  • Lois Arkin,
    CRSP; ENA; Urban Ecovillage Network; Los Angeles Eco-Village, US
  • Peter Bane,
    Permaculture designer; publisher, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Albert Bates,
    Co-founder, GEN; Post-Petroleum Survival Guide; Director, Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm, US
  • Tree Bressen,
    Consensus & Facilitation Trainer; Cofounder, Walnut St. Co-op, US
  • Ernest Callenbach,
    Ecotopia, Ecotopia Emerging; US
  • Giovanni Ciarlo,
    GEN; ENA; Huehyecoyotl Ecovillage, Mexico
  • Raines Cohen,
    Cohousing Association of the US; Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC); Berkeley Cohousing, US
  • Leila Dregger,
    Peace journalist & writer, Peace Research Center & Ecovillage, Tamera, Portugal
  • Chuck Durrett,
    Cohousing; Senior Cohousing; Architect, The Cohousing Company; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Jonathan Dawson,
    Ecovillages; Findhorn Foundation, Scotland
  • Robert Gilman,
    Co-founder, GEN; Ecovillages & Sustainable Communities; City Council Member, Langley, Washington, US
  • Michael Hale,
    Yarrow Ecovillage, Canada
  • Jeff Grossberg,
    Guidestone Consulting Group, US
  • Martha Harris,
    Earthaven Ecovillage, US
  • Scott Horton,
    Editor, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Hildur Jackson,
    Co-founder, Gaia Trust; cofounder, GEN; Ecovillage Living, Denmark
  • Kosha Joubert,
    Editor, Beyond You and Me, GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage Sieben Linden, Germany
  • Elana Kann & Bill Flemming,
    Co-developers, Westwood Cohousing, US
  • Joseph F. Kennedy,
    Designer/educator; The Art of Natural Building, US
  • Fred & Nancy Lanphear,
    Northwest Intentional Communities Association (NICA); Songaia Cohousing, US
  • Mark Lakeman,
    Founder, Portland City Repair & Village Building Convergence, US
  • Max Lindegger,
    Cofounder, GEN; Director, GEN-Oceania/Asia; Crystal Waters Ecovillage, Australia
  • Chris Mare,
    GEN's EDE Program; Village Design Institute, US
  • Ronaye Matthew,
    Canadian Cohousing Network; Cranberry Commons Cohousing, Canada
  • Kathryn McCamant,
    Architect/Developer, Cohousing Partners, Inc.; Co-author, Cohousing; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Dr. Bill Metcalf,
    Findhorn Book of Community Living; Professor, Environmental Sociology, Griffith University, Australia
  • Ina Meyer-Stoll,
    Co-director, GEN-Europe; ZEGG, Germany
  • Tim Miller,
    The 60s Communes; Professor of Religion, University of Kansas, US
  • Hank Obermayer,
    Mariposa Grove Cohousing, US
  • Toshio Ogata,
    Professor of Economics, Chuo University; GEPA (Global Environment Project in Asia), Japan
  • Craig Ragland,
    Executive Director, Cohousing Association of the US; Songaia Cohousing; New Earth Song Cohousing, US
  • Penelope Reyes,
    President, GEN-Oceania/Asia; Tuwâ - The Laughing Fish, Cabiao, Philippines
  • Michael Rios,
    Network for a New Culture Summer Camp East; Chrysalis, Washington DC, US
  • Jim Shenck,
    Enright Ridge Ecovillage, US
  • Nicola Shirley,
    The Source Farm Ecovillage, Jamaica
  • Tony Sirna,
    Communities Directory; Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, US
  • Jan Steinman,
    EcoReality Co-op, Canada
  • Liz Walker,
    GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage at Ithaca; EcoVillage at Ithaca, US