While visiting the Asheville area for a long weekend, Dan and I found ourselves gravitating — naturally — towards the more earthy of the city’s attractions, such as the incredibly vibrant local food scene and the mountain hiking. On our last day, we skipped the Biltmore Estate in favor of touring homes that are more our style: naturally built small-scale homes. In other words, instead of the “B(u)ilt-more” house, we opted for the “Built-less” house.
Western North Carolina is one of the great hubs of natural building in the country. In downtown Asheville, the urban sustainability demonstration and education center, Ashevillage Institute, offers not only courses in permaculture and urban farming, but also an annual 21-week Natural Building School. And less than an hour’s drive east, tucked away in the mountains, is the Earthaven Ecovillage, with a village’s worth of examples of natural and sustainable building. Visiting both in a single day made for a hefty dose of building inspiration!!
Earthaven Ecovillage, spanning over 300 acres of wooded mountain land and home to several dozen villagers, is unique among the natural building sites I’ve visited in that here you’ll see, yes, tiny 12×12 feet cottages, but also experiments with larger-scale sustainable building, such as duplexes, apartment buildings, and communal buildings. Most of the buildings are designed to be passive-solar, and are built with lumber milled from the land. The communal Council Hall below, for example, is a round timber-framed structure built out of pine and poplar from the land and straw bales, and finished with earthen plasters. These multi-family homes built into the hillside, with walls made using the clay-straw technique, are an example of natural building on a larger scale.One of the more stunning examples of a single-family home is the house below: it’s built out of cob, which allows for the rounded rooms and curves, but the north wall is made with straw bales for added insulation. The passive solar design of this house is so effective that even in the winter, firing up the wood stove is optional. And, did I mention it is BEAUTIFUL?Five minutes from the heart of Asheville, the Ashevillage Institute is a demonstration site for sustainable urban living. Its two main buildings are neighboring, conventionally built single-family homes retrofitted using natural building techniques. The “new” cob walls feature lovely organic designs and an outdoor fireplace, and the garden courtyard has an earthen barrel oven big enough for feeding even a big gathering. Below is one of Ashevillage’s early cob houses, the “Garatage” — a cottage built on the site of a former garage. What you see is the south-facing wall, again with windows placed strategically for maximum solar gain. And a living roof of the sort I learned to make in June.Thanks to Ashevillage’s annual Natural Building School, we got to see a number of buildings in progress and a variety of building techniques in action: timber-framing, cob, straw bale, slip-straw, wattle-and-daub, straw chorizos, adobe bricks, compressed earth bricks… Below, you see the process for making adobe bricks (bricks made of cob, i.e. clay, sand and straw) using a mold. Being inside the firm, breathing, cosy, organically shaped walls of mud again, after a few months’ break, once again affirmed for me that this is how I would like my Home to be. It may be a long time off. But that’s the dream I’m working towards.