Natural Building vs. Sustainable Architecture

What’s in a name?

A rose by any other name might swell as sweet but Natural Building and Sustainable Architecture are amazingly distinct.

Not only do they look quite different but they are created by and for almost entirely separate groups of people.  Although the end goal (a better caliber of building which takes the long term health of the earth into consideration) is the same the means and methodologies are very different.

  • Natural Building focuses on achieving sustainability by using natural materials.  It emphasizes low cost, low energy solutions and usually prioritizes manpower over  technology in its construction processes.
  • Sustainable Architecture has the broader target of reducing environmental impact of buildings – mostly through lowering their energy demands both during construction and the lifespan of the building.

Some personal background on the issue

I find this distinction interesting because my interests in design always seem to fall somewhere between the two.  My interest in architecture (or, more specifically, in the design of spaces) began while I was traveling around the world in 2002, staying with local host families in a slate cottage on a farm in Cornwall, a mountain side apartment in India and bamboo bungalow in the Philippines.  I was drawn to the proportions of spaces to the variety of materials and to the local specificity of the basic designs.  Somewhat naively I thought that these interests meant I should study architecture.

So I wrote a fiery essay about using design to make the world a better place, submitted a portfolio of furniture and quilt designs and got accepted to a handful of architecture schools.  I chose the College of Design at UMN because of their stated focus on sustainable design, which I thought meant the things I was already interested in.  As I got into my studies, however, I found that they weren’t talking about that at all.   Sustainable Design, in the context of architecture school meant tech courses on building energy audits, high tech insulated building materials and integrating solar panels into the HVAC system.  The green design projects that were pointed out by other students were LEED certified office buildings and high rise projects.

When I graduated, I decided that I wanted to course correct back in the direction of  low tech green so I took a job as intern architect with Whole Trees Architecture and Construction.  Whole Trees specializes in building timber frame structures with un-milled branching tree forms taken straight from the forest (as locally as possible).  When it was begun in the late 80’s the firm was clearly in the camp of the Natural Builders: the projects were small and locally based, the drawings were cursory and the really exciting design decisions were all made on the fly in the field (where the architect was one of the construction crew).  Over the years the ballance has shifted until we are now a four person design office producing heavily Photoshopped renderings, detailed AutoCAD drawings and medium-scale commercial buildings.  Still there is an emphasis on low tech material choices where possible.  We attempt to walk the line between the two concepts although our designs are still a lot more Natural Home than Dwell.

Look: the internet proves it too.

The two images above were specifically selected to illustrate my point (the first is a group shot of a construction team taken from Bare Foot Builder and the second is the proposed Antilia tower in Mumbai, recently featured on Inhabitat).  But here’s a more unbiased demonstration.  A google image search of  “natural building” and “sustainable design” yesterday, generated these hits:

You can see the difference at a glance right in the color palates of the two searches.  But its not just the individual images – I’ve noticed that most websites pertaining to natural building are earth toned (and often a little under designed)  while most that focus on sustainable design are bright green (with lots of white space).   This is a commentary on both the people who design the sites and their intended audience.  The audience for natural building tends toward the local and the grass roots.  Sustainable architecture (like most architecture) is financed by corporate clients and retains the polished shiny quality of most non-sustainable architecture.

And in conclusion …

I’m ultimately drawn to both.  I love both the earthy human-scale comfort of Natural Building methods and embrace the optimistic green futurism of Sustainable Architecture.

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9 responses to “Natural Building vs. Sustainable Architecture

  1. Another distinction between natural building and sustainable architecture has to do with the economics behind them. The former implies a local economy, akin to what Jane Jacobs advocated decades ago in The Economy of Cities and that Bill McKibben calls for in more recent books like Eaarth. The latter, epitomized by the Mumbai tower, remains largely linked to a global economy and the vast inequality that it has spawned, in which 2% of the population controls 50% of the wealth. Both are admirable architecturally, but the latter is very problematic economically, politically, and ethically.

    • I couldn’t agree more. Sustainable Architecture driven by new green technologies is certainly useful, inasmuch as it is preferable to conventional design which pays no attention to issues of energy use and material sourcing, but because it is funded by largely the same inequitable sources as conventional architecture it is subject to many of the same inequities.

      Ultimately I think functional solutions to the problems we currently face will have to draw from both schools of thought. The community oriented planning and basic principles of Natural Building will be necessary to imbue the future built environment with more social justice and the technological innovation experience with larger scale design will be required to effect the change we need.

    • Very well said, Tom. I wish more people understood this.

      Della, I’m sure you know of his work, but Terunobu Fujimori comes to mind when I think of natural building lately. I really like his process and methods.

      • Doug, Thanks for chipping in. I’ll have to check out Fujimori’s work; I’m not familiar with the name. A quick google search showed that it is well worth looking into further. Thanks!

  2. I agree that though the two approaches are quite different, in many cases a hybrid of the two is the best solution. We are planning a house with whole tree members and vacuum tube hot water collectors.
    In a world of ever more limited resources, we must try to make reasonable choices.

  3. Thanks for the interesting discussion of natural vs sustainable. A designer and I were having this conversation last week, so for further edification I sent her a link to your blog. Keep it up.

    • Michael, thanks for your comment (and the link). I think the distinction is surprise to a lot of laypeople and even to many designers who are only familiar with one or the other aspect of green design. A better understanding of the whole field can only lead to better communication and interaction between different points of view.

  4. Pingback: Buildings: Farnsworth House « Dwelling Places·

  5. I just reread this post on the one year anniversary of its publication, and am reinvigorated about my own 2012 house building plans that are being documented on Denise’s Digging in the Driftless blog. With a foot in both worlds, we intend to be as hands-on and as locally-sourced as possible with our un-milled timber framing, straw bale walls, natural plasters and a sod roof. But we also intend to install well-insulated commercial windows (some re-purposed), concrete floors and solar panels.

    In search of the happy medium …

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