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Toward a More Natural Method of Construction

Kevin Rowell wants you to replace your chemical paints, fiberglass insulation, and pressure-treated lumber with non-toxic materials.



On a bright autumn Saturday in 2008, Kevin Rowell delivered a captivating glimpse beyond the frontiers of green building. For this feat, staged in West Oakland's deFremery Park as part of the Living Word Festival, he brought along a truckload of bamboo slats, some rope, and a few dozen students of varying ages. They staked out a grassy corner and got busy; within a couple hours, they had produced a series of massive frames, each a wild tangle of dramatic curves and stark beauty.

To assemble one such piece, Rowell rounded up several youth into a circle. He had them clasp hands, close their eyes, and shuffle around blindly for a while. Then they all stopped in their tracks and marked the ground where they stood, establishing an outline along which they laid bamboo slats as a rudimentary foundation. Stepping inside the foundation, the students held their hands up where they thought a ceiling should go and Rowell took their picture. Based on this photographic blueprint, more slats were bent into soaring arches, completing a kind of shell. A large tarp or canvas could have been draped on top to make a cozy hut, but the fledgling architects left their creation bare, its bamboo bones free to soak up the sunlight.

While any Realtor can tell you that exposing inhabitants to the elements will kill home value, this particular exercise had little to do with such pragmatic concerns. In fact, not everything the group put together even resembled a dwelling. One configuration conjured up a giant wooden Slinky, sprawled out horizontally. Clearly, the lesson of the day favored imagination over formula.

"Our idea is to help people understand space," Rowell explained afterward. "How space is made and how we can create it. ... It's a multi-tiered effect. People actually get the experience of building a structure, something you can walk inside of and experience. You get to think about the design process, understand shapes, understand a little bit about architecture. And at the same time it's just playful, it's very playful and very user-friendly."

Notwithstanding the vaguely New Age vibe, Rowell has a serious message, and training kids to manipulate bamboo is merely the tip of the iceberg. Most of his efforts revolve around home and business remodeling, because by trade he's a contractor — but one who defies the conventional image of his profession. Through simultaneously radical and traditional practices, he's promoting a specific brand of environmentalism that seeks to elevate construction to an ecological art form.

In an age when developers routinely rely upon hazardous or hard-to-replenish materials for residential and commercial fabrication, Rowell advocated for safer and more sustainable alternatives. Instead of using pressure-treated, clear-cut lumber for that fence, how about trying locally grown bamboo? Instead of applying paint containing volatile organic compounds, how about a mix of clay and minerals? Instead of filling that wall with fiberglass insulation, how about spent rice hulls? Instead of making that house out of concrete cinderblocks, how about bricks made of actual dirt?

This is the way Kevin Rowell thinks, someone trying to take green building one step further. This is the way a natural builder thinks.

Natural building, a nebulous term, generally refers to a set of diverse construction methods that draw upon raw, renewable, and recycled materials, ideally gathered from the site vicinity. Priorities of the discipline include maximizing a structure's energy efficiency and minimizing its toxicity. And while these sound like decidedly modern preoccupations, natural builders are quick to point out that aspects of their craft date back hundreds if not thousands of years. Adobe, commonly associated in this country with the Pueblo villages of New Mexico, presents a familiar example, but most others remain obscure, such as cob (used to erect the world's first skyscrapers in Yemen), slip-straw (featured in some of the earliest Tudor mansions), or lime plaster (applied to the chambers of Egypt's pyramids).

That's not to say natural building derives solely from longstanding traditions. Practitioners also incorporate ongoing scientific research and pioneering design concepts to keep their work fresh and relevant. The field continues to evolve and expand, and over the past twenty years has steadily gained momentum.

In the authoritative Alternative Construction: Contemporary Natural Building Methods, editor Lynne Elizabeth describes natural building as a movement that "encompasses a broad set of ethics, underpinned by a worldview that treats the earth as not only sacred, but alive." It's a worldview Rowell embraced early on when, at age seventeen, he ditched his native Michigan and came west to immerse himself in agriculture and Buddhism at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center of Marin County. After several years growing food and practicing meditation, he left to work for a contractor, but took with him the values he cultivated in the fields and in the temple.

In the decade since his transition to construction, Rowell has racked up untold hours of labor and accumulated vast technical skill. His career path has wound through places like rural Laos, where he coordinated the construction of a school made from earth. Sculptures by Bamboo DNA, one of his edgier professional partnerships, have popped up at events like the Coachella Music Festival. The New York Times paid a visit to his El Cerrito home to observe him pouring a mud floor. And just this spring, he's been down in Haiti, attempting to shape that country's redevelopment strategies in the wake of its devastating January 12 earthquake.