From the very beginning, some 200,000 years ago, humans have been using biobased materials for building. These varied depending on the climate zones: snow, ice and furs have been found at the North Pole, branches, leaves and grass in the subtropics and tropics, and flax, hemp, clay, sand and reeds in moderate climate zones.
Nomadic Inuit at the North Pole still build igloos that are replaced by constructions made from branches and furs in the summer months. Other examples of biobased nomadic building can be found with the Bedouins in the Sahara, the Mongols in Asia and the Native Americans on the North American continent.
Examples of 100 percent sedentary building can be found on a global scale, but they are becoming rare.
The Native North Americans originally lived in caves, sometimes hacked out from rock, which is not biobased, and later in pueblos, built from rammed earth. Until recently the Berbers in North Africa lived in buildings three or four floors high constructed from mud, and in remote villages this is still the case. People in the south of the Arabian peninsula still live in buildings up to nine floors high built from earth and wooden trunks.
High point in Mali
The pinnacle of building with earth can be found in Mali. It is an example of biologically sound building that also shows how a building, or rather the building’s maintenance, fosters a strong sense of community. The mosque of Djenné is built entirely of clay and wood. Every year festivities are organised around the repair of damage caused by rain and temperature fluctuations. Everyone joins in. Some people take care of food and music. Women and girls carry water to pits where the plaster is prepared. Boys are in charge of mixing the plaster, while men transport the plaster from the pits to the mosque.
The Shrine in Ise (Japan) is the last Shinto complex that is still demolished completely every twenty years and rebuilt with new materials. This has been happening since the 7th century. 20 years is the approximate time needed to let the materials required for the rebuilding grow to the necessary size in nature. The ridge of the roof is finished with wood, the roof covering is thatch, while the outside walls, floors, beams and posts are made from wood. But the Japanese are also very practical. Not every part is biobased: the foundations are made from rocks. 100 percent biological building is abandoned here in the context of a building requiring less maintenance. The rocks do not absorb any water from the surrounding earth, and thus protect the wooden posts on these rocks from rising moisture and early rotting.
European timber construction
Over the years, wood has developed into a popular biobased raw material, perfect in areas where this raw material is readily available. Numerous old buildings in Europe illustrate how wood can withstand the ravages of time. The Norwegian stave churches date from the 12th century and can still be visited. The original foundation on wooden piles in the ground was abandoned quite early for a stone foundation on which the wooden frame was placed. Everything above this stone foundation is made from wood: posts, beams, walls and roof. Dovetail, mortise and tenon joints and ‘locking’ hold the skeleton together and provide for flexibility that can absorb the working of the wood. The wooden shingles on the roof, for example on the stave church of Borgund, have covered it for nine centuries now. A clear indication that wood, when used properly and combined with the right roof shape, can last a very long time, even as roof covering.
The machine and Frank Lloyd Wright
The first industrial revolution took a relatively short time to change the way we build and how we live and increasingly distanced us from biologically sound building. In the 1920s, as an answer to the problems of West European cities that were clogging up, concrete and steel were initially used for the fast and efficient production of houses with minimum comfort for everyone. This made the traditional building methods lose more and more ground in favour of an industrialised construction world.
Frank Lloyd Wright presented some response with his Usonian houses. The Jacobs house from 1936-37 is a wonderful example that illustrates how this famous architect drew on the ties with nature again and again. He designed a house that did not have to last any longer than the lives of its residents. The modest budget of $5,000 (equivalent to €75,000 now) put the value of the life of the house into perspective. The Jacobs house was built primarily from natural materials such as sand, gravel and especially a lot of wood, machine-treated, for window frames, roof truss and outside wall covering.
Golden years and OPEC
The post-war years of the 1950s and especially the 1960s were the golden years of our culture. Building, construction and rebuilding went on at a cheerful pace. Cavity wall constructions – without insulation – were erected. Roofs became flat, petroleum-based roof coverings overran the market. The coal-fired heater replaced central heating with boilers that needed gas or fuel oil to burn. The middle class used their heating enthusiastically. This stopped abruptly with the organisation of the OPEC countries and the subsequent oil crisis of 1973. The higher oil prices resulted in increased insulation with, cynically enough, insulation materials manufactured chiefly by the petrochemical industry.
There were also pioneers in the 1970s who argued in favour of ecological building. The Orejona house of architect/artist Luc Schuiten from 1976 is one of the first self-supporting houses on Belgian territory. Planned for a wooded hill, with respect for the surroundings, the house was equipped with the first solar panels that were available on the market in Europe. A wind turbine provided power and rainwater was collected. A diamond-shaped sun room facing south caught the heat in the scarce sunny hours of winter. A vegetable garden and an orchard turned the residence into a self-sufficient whole. But the Orejona house cannot be copied directly as a building model just like that. The expected population growth and urbanisation require different solutions.
The current building world is demonstrating initiative in any case. There are more than enough platforms. You can find eco builders everywhere. There is a growing realisation that it can be different and has to change. But the building industry has been left with painful investments from the past. Copper ore still comes from mines; cement, one of the most important raw materials for concrete, originates from lime that in turn comes from limestone quarries, open pits. The steel industry releases tonnes of CO2 into the air every year. Cement and steel factories cost money that has to be recovered.
Fashion and taste also play a part. Designers and residents are still to a large extent in love with the syntax of Modernism. Flat roofs, large sliding doors, stainless steel kitchens. A house is still a dream, a ‘beautiful’ picture that is chosen mainly for reasons of aesthetic preference, linked with the desired comfort. Preferences that can be achieved thanks to the non-biobased materials of steel and concrete.
Heading towards a biobased building industry
A huge amount of work still has to be done with a view to a planet-friendly or, better, human-friendly building industry. Biobased building seems to indicate the way: in the building process use as many materials as possible that nature can produce again within a reasonable time so that the raw materials on earth do not become limited and the greenhouse gases do not increase.
Who should take care of this? A building is the sum of many elements. You have materials, and you have the production processes that make them. You have the schedule of requirements of a building, the comfort level and the implementation of the building.
Producers of building materials could focus on materials whose production does not send CO2 into the atmosphere, that do not use finite raw materials and do not leave large open excavation pits in the earth’s landscape.
Clients could ask themselves what the balance between initial building costs and running costs and maintenance costs could look like. How comfort can be created with biobased materials and how this can challenge the preconceived syntax.
Designers could settle down to the study of the characteristics of the ‘new’ biobased materials and see how this can change and improve the syntax of spaces.
Implementers of building works could specialise in working with biobased materials and maybe even with biobased equipment.
There is a long way to go. Not everyone will have changed their minds by today or tomorrow. But the signs are hopeful that building in the near future will be fully biobased.