Building Materials as Food (for Thought)

This week has been all about the details: gable siding, fascia, soffit, flashing. In some ways it has been quite satisfying, like putting sprinkles on a cupcake. Except these sprinkles need to be beveled at exactly 45 degrees, and weigh significantly more than objects that I normally like to hold above my head with one hand, while reaching blindly for a staple gun with the other. Yes, this week has given us a whole new appreciation for the term “awkward”. I used to think that awkwardness was a social thing, as in an “awkward silence”, or an “awkward encounter”. Now I understand that true awkwardness involves lying on a roof, with your head jammed into what can only be described as the armpit of a gable end, as you try to remember basic geometry.

Sean and Kristen think deeply.

Sean and Kristen think deeply.

To those with more experience in conventional building, these struggles might not be immediately familiar. However, the bulk of what we have been doing on the site so far certainly would be. Concrete foundations, steel rebar, power tools – these are all easily recognizable as elements of most modern construction. While Community Rebuilds is committed to building within the limited resources of our planet, we are bound, by time, money, building regulations, and the limits of our own sanity. As much as possible, we use materials and techniques that are natural and sustainable. Where ever we don’t, there are good reasons behind the decision.

Eric likes to use the “Edibility Quotient” to describe how environmentally friendly a building material is; if you can ingest it without adverse effects, then it’s probably a good thing to use. This is true of a lot of the components that we will be using in our building, including straw, clay, wood and sand. You wouldn’t want to sit down to a whole meal of any of these things, but they are, at least, non-toxic. We have used plenty of things that are far from edible, however. Concrete, foam, metal roof sheeting, dry wall, and nails are just a few examples.

Kate and Austin secure a truss.

Kate and Austin secure a truss.

Using these materials isn’t a cop out. It is a trade-off. We lay a concrete foundation insulated with foam because it is part of the building code, and if we didn’t follow regulations, we wouldn’t be able to build a house at all.  We secure the frame together with nails from a nail gun, because a house held together solely with mortise and tenon joints would take us (approximately) forever. We will install a metal roof because it will last more than 50 years, while much of the dry wall we will use has been salvaged on it’s way to the landfill.

When I think of what we, as interns, will gain from this experience, learning how to brace a wooden frame, apply tadelakt, or stack a straw bale wall are all great practical skills to walk away with. The overall approach that Community Rebuilds has towards building is just as valuable, however. Our house has people, and the planet, at the centre of it’s design. We are both open-minded about the materials we use, and mindful of how we use them. It’s a good way to build, and a not a bad way to be.

One Response to “Building Materials as Food (for Thought)”
  1. Rebecca says:

    Reblogged this on Positively Permaculture and commented:

    Here is my latest post for Community Rebuilds, an affordable housing non-profit in Moab, Utah. I am participating in their internship program this Spring to learn about straw-bale building and other aspects of sustainable construction.

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