Natural Building Extravaganza attracts green crowd

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 20, 2011

By Georgellen Agner Goss
For the Salisbury Post
Builders mixing clay, sand, water and straw with bare feet: it seems more like something you’d see Egyptian slaves doing in “The Ten Commandments” than a scene from a construction site in the modern city of Asheville.
Still, it’s a perfectly reasonable activity if you happen to be part of the Natural Building Extravaganza , a three-week series of workshops that attracted people determined to change the world by putting green principles into practice.
From April 24-May 14, Natural Building Extravaganza participants — who lived in tents — learned how to:
• lay stone foundations and walls;
• make and lay bricks;
• use permaculture ideals to store and utilize rainwater;
• build an inexpensive, highly efficient cooking system from a metal drum and clay;
• build with bamboo, wood, and wattle and daub;
• build or face buildings with cob and plaster.
Cob is a natural building material made of sand, clay, water, earth, and straw. It is similar to adobe, daub, or the material that is compressed into bricks.
They enthusiastically mixed these ingredients together with their feet, some of them dancing as they did so. This mixture was on a tarp whose sides were periodically elevated to roll the cob “dough” back into a lump or log.
In their daily lives, these participants help counteract the negative impact humans have on Earth through their individual choice of ecological or earth-friendly works and behaviors. The lifestyle and ecomovements vary from the modern Transition Initiative started in the U.K. by Rob Hopkins to a basic back-to-earth movement that, according to Extravaganza participant Patrick, “can trace its roots back to the 1960s when the hippies left Haight Ashbury and moved to the farms.
“This particular group is very diverse but they are like-minded when it comes to this, and willing to offer their talents and remarkable skill base to everyone,” Patrick continued. “Some of the people here have a wealth of knowledge, and can build amazing things with natural materials using minimum tools.”
One of these talented jack-of-all-trades is a kilt-wearing carpenter who goes by the name of Fez. When Fez isn’t building, he helps with festival productions or with logistics and operations for expeditions to Antarctica and Greenland.
“For a lot of people here, this is a start of a journey,” he said. “For others, it is a continuation. This community is formed around earthen building practices, but the greatest thing we’ve gained in coming here is connectivity … with earth and with each other.”
Spending three weeks toiling, sweating, and living together does build a sense of community as well as purpose.
The results — achieved in just three weeks — were impressive: a beautiful three-tiered stone wall, bamboo trellises, the paths and ponds, the cob-and-handmade brick casita, the outdoor Rumford fireplace, the cob cookstove and grill, the new surface on the exterior of the house and the new walkway through the greenhouse.
It takes a lot of organization to coordinate a building workshop, especially one that lasts for three weeks. Janell Kapoor, the founder of Kleiworks International, which organized the Extravaganza with Ashevillage Institute, served as the leader of the conference and daily work coordinator.
She had help from her roommate Lisa, who was in charge of shopping and collecting money. Lisa located a lamb for the Friday night party marking the end of the Extravaganza. The lamb would be cooked in the newly-built oven. She also led the group in singing a Sufi song during the morning circle.
Janell’s personal assistant was Rose, a cheerful woman from India who grew up in New York with a Polish mother. Rose generally stayed busy in the background, doing everything from cleaning dishes to making the wheat paste that is used to thicken and stiffen the cob mixture. Rose also helped build the beautiful arched trellises leading into the gardens.
Julie, who has traveled extensively and biked from Portland, Oregon, to the Atlantic, loves the accessibility of natural building techniques to anyone. Julie arrived in Asheville early and helped get things ready for the workshops by hauling materials (gravel, sand, clay) in buckets and by wheelbarrow, by clearing land and preparing sites, by making platforms for tents, and by creating paths through woods and along the hillside. In exchange, she got food and a place to stay. But most importantly, she had the opportunity to learn from teachers who arrived early, too, and then attended the conference — normally $1,800 for the full three weeks — in exchange for her work.
The Extravaganzans believe that clay-rich, heavily-wooded North Carolina offers most of its residents the opportunity to avoid a mortgage by utilizing materials found on or near most sites.
They also feel strongly that each person should do whatever is within his or her power to improve the sustainability of the earth, and that it is urgent to do so. One way to live more harmoniously with nature is to build “naturally” with earth or clay.
“Our building methods are not good for the environment,” said Kelly, a past volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.
Construction and building materials account for a significant percentage of landfill waste in this country, to say nothing of the toxins involved in the production of construction materials.
A has come to the Extravaganza for hands-on learning about building with cob. She was up to her elbows at the casita, installing old bottles within the cob structure.
In addition to the problems of waste and toxins, construction in the urban, industrialized world expends a lot of fuel producing and transporting construction materials. Although creating city infrastructure and large buildings requires some of this, much waste can be avoided with individual residential structures if people are allowed to build with what’s at hand, using ancient buildling techniques.
Building codes which accommodate people who want to build their own houses using regional materials would make the process less daunting. Bureaucratic regulations and code-enforcers are typically not oriented toward encouraging or assisting those who desire ecologically-friendly, safe, alternative homes. The rules that are designed for safe large-scale city living often create unreasonable obstacles for smaller-scale earth-friendly housing.
Regulations can stand in the way not only in building codes but in other areas of self-sufficient, sustainable living. For example, while complaining about run-off, municipal governments often have regulations which hinder the use of rainwater and recycled water on site, or have codes which encourage unecological water practices, thereby increasing the run-off problem. The permaculture movement in Asheville, heavily “infested” with PhDs, is working to spread the knowledge of how permaculture design can help all of us, including city water and sewer systems.
The Natural Building Extravaganza is held on the site of two adjoining conventionally-constructed homes in a settled, traditional neighborhood in Asheville. The homes’ interiors and part of the exteriors were re-surfaced with earthen cob and plaster. The backyards were landscaped using permaculture design, with the goal of providing food for the homeowner. The idea is to demonstrate that building methods which combine ecologically-friendly living with self-sufficiency and a sustainable lifestyle can be employed within a “normal” urban setting.
Although the Natural Building Extravaganza is an annual event, and the site is not open year-round, the Asheville area has many workshops available throughout the year. In addition, some ecologically-minded sites are open all year or during tours. For workshops, try Ashevillage Institute, an educational group that does permaculture and natural building classes, or for permanent exhibitions, check out Earthship or Earth Haven. Earth Haven combines “natural” and standard construction methods and offers ideas about lay-out and efficient use of space.
For more information, photos, videos, and personal stories about the Extravaganza participants, visit