By Diana Leafe Christian
First Earth: Uncompromising Ecological Architecture, by filmmaker David Sheen, knocked my socks off. A “why-to,” not a “how-to,” this evocative and beautiful documentary shows why building with earth — cob, straw clay, adobe bricks, rammed earth — works well structurally, lasts a long time, compels the eye and heart, is healthier for builders and dwellers than most other construction methods, and feels good to live in. And can even spiritually uplift and inspire the builders.
Filmed on location over four years on four continents, First Earth features curving art-poem dwellings in the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the US; thousand-year-old apartment-and-ladder architecture of Taos Pueblo; centuries-old and contemporary cob homes in England; classic round thatched huts in West Africa; bamboo-and-cob structures now on the rise in Thailand; and soaring Moorish-style earthen skyscrapers in Yemen. It engages the left brain as well, with brief appearances by renowned cultural observers and activists (Derrick Jensen, Daniel Quinn, James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg, Starhawk, Chellis Glendinning, and Mark Lakeman, among others) speaking on what’s not right with our society and how building with earth addresses some of these ills, and major natural building teachers (Michael G. Smith, Becky Bee, Joseph Kennedy, Sunray Kelly, Janell Kapoor, Elke Cole, Ianto Evans, Bob Theis, and Stuart Cowan, among others).
”Earthen Buildings Are Best”
film proposes that earthen homes are the healthiest housing in the
world, while stick-framed housing and conventional buildings are
soulless rectilinear sources of resource depletion and pollution. That
curvilinear buildings elevate the spirit and cultivate the heart. And
further, that since it takes a village to raise a child, one of the best
things we can do for humankind and the natural world is to transform
suburban sprawl into cozy, curvy earthen ecovillages. “In the age of
environmental and economic collapse, peak oil and other converging
emergencies,” writes David Sheen on his First Earth website, “the
solution to many of our ills might just be getting back to basics,
focusing on food, clothes, and shelter. We need to think differently
about house and home, for material and for spiritual reasons, both the
personal and the political.”
David Sheen, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and visiting with for a day recently, is a lively and stimulating young Renaissance man (check out his Anarchitecture website), who started out as a designer and graphic designer. (As I watched First Earth I thought, “Oooh, this is how a film looks when it’s put together by a graphic designer. All filmmakers first should be graphic designers!” )
David began studying, designing, building, and filming natural buildings in 2001. He apprenticed with natural building masters Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley at the North American School of Natural Building in Oregon, and Michael G. Smith at Emerald Earth Community in Northern California. He studied biomimicry, the study of nature’s design principles and its application to human habitats, with renowned architect/designer Eugene Tsui. Born and raised in Toronto, David lived for several months in urban and rural intentional communities in the US, and for the last three years in kibbutzim in the south of Israel.
But Is This Always True?
I loved the film and recommend it highly. Yet I disagree with its premise.
Another traditional earthen building in Africa.
For example, one of my friends at Earthaven Ecovillage, where I live, is building a 12’ x 12’ x 12’ stick-built, shed-roofed dwelling with wood, and concrete, rebar, R-Foil building wrap, recycled cellulose insulation, and earth-plastered walls inside and out. As a rectilinear hybrid structure built mostly of wood, you could argue, based on the film’s premises, that it’s a soulless box whose materials and construction method harm the Earth. But is it really? The 2x6s were felled by the builder himself from onsite trees to clear fields for an organic farm, and milled less than five miles away in a sustainable sawmill. As a hybrid building, with both conventional and natural building materials, it’s contributing less pollution than a conventionally built building of the same size. As a passive-solar building, it has a slab-on-grade poured concrete floor (insulated against any winter cold from the Earth) and poured concrete countertops — both for thermal mass — and radiant floor heating for back-up.
It’s tiny, because my friend wants a simple unpretentious home that doesn’t cost a bundle or take long to build — given that construction time equals money. It’s mostly rectilinear because this shape is much cheaper to build in terms of labor and time than curving shapes, whether of wood or earth. Natural building is not necessarily cheaper than conventional building, contrary to popular belief. If you take into account the amount of labor time, which means either the owner-builder is taking off work (which costs the builder) or hiring labor or housing and feeding work-exchangers, it all adds up. The same friend built a similar 12’ x 12’ x 12’ home a few years ago in another part of the community, mostly by himself, and only on weekends and evenings after work. It cost him $8,000 in materials and about $8,000 in labor at his then-current rate if he had charged for it. (Another friend in another community is building a beautiful two-story, one-bedroom cob, strawbale, and adobe-brick home. Mostly because of labor, his construction costs are estimated to be almost $300,000 by the time it’s finished.)
My friend is also building tiny, square, and cheap so he can minimize the energy he puts into his own home so he can get on with what ’’else’’ he does at Earthaven — operating a business which provides a needed onsite service and employs other members who need jobs; operating a small farm, which produces food and other products for the community (and in the future will employ others); and focalizing the new alcohol co-op. (See Will Earthaven Become a “Magical Appalachian Machu Picchu”?) He’s not putting much energy, time, and money into building the kind of beautiful home the film advocates because he’s putting it into building the community itself.
So this is why the idea that building with earth, and curvilinearly, is the ecologically sustainable way to build (“uncompromising!”) does not convince me. David and I talked about this briefly, and he gets it, of course. He knows the film paints a complex subject with overly broad brush strokes to make a point. And it does, beautifully.