In our recent efforts to incorporate a host of new and exciting old systems in our building projects, both at our site here in Maine, and with clients of perusal taste, we have been motivated by two essential forces: 1) to make the building process fun, and 2) to develop systems and processes that will make age-old traditional methods practical to more people on a broader-based level.
When we began the construction of our new school site in 1996 we saw it as an opportunity to design and construct a campus setting that would not only provide the necessary sstructures, but at the same time, examples of a variety of traditional building styles and systems that we, along with our future students, could learn from. Our first priority was to build with the natural materials available in our locality as much as possible. For the most part we've managed to do this. The materials that we chose as primary elements would be timbers, wood, straw, clay, stone and reeds. Secondly, we felt that we should attempt to combine the traditional systems with some of the more recent innovations that have come to the forefront in the last few years--utilizing modern manufacturing advancements with the tried and true traditional approaches. The goal was to find ways to use these most ancient and available materials in ways that seemed practical today, and above all, maintain a high level of quality in craftsmanship and performance.
Timber frames would provide the core structural element, but for the enclosure systems, we sought out a number of people whose experience could bring insight and enthusiasm to the project, and help in designing systems that could be adapted to our northeastern environment. With the recent innovations that are taking place in the natural building movement in this country, we had a number of options to explore.
Strawbale building, one of the most visible natural building methods developed in this country, was our first choice for integrating locally borne systems, so we sought the help of Athena and Bill Steen to oversee the enclosure of our Minka style library. With their insight and experience, we enclosed the walls in a week long workshop. For the more traditional European clay building systems, we enlisted the help of Frank Andresen, a German clay builder (rumor has it that he has been engaged in his trade for 800 years). Frank's experience as a professional clay builder in Germany, along with his interest in developing workable systems in the U.S., has provided a wealth of insight into how we could best utilize clay, woodchips and straw into viable and efficient systems. For the roofing of the library, we sought the help of English thatcher, Jason Morley. In a two week workshop session, Jason was able to convey an in-depth working knowledge of the system, and allow all of us to realize that thatch is indeed a viable option. Working with the Steens, Andresen and Morley has indeed created enthusiasm, but after weeks of sifting through piles of clay, slashing through reed beds on the coast of Maine, and chopping and peeling saplings from our woods, we have come to realize that making these options practical to the average family will take some serious effort.
One of the difficulties we face in attempting to integrate building systems which utilize materials and resources in a more natural pattern is in determining how it can be done in an efficient and economical manner. To convince the average American that a straw/clay wall, or thatched roof, is as viable as stress skin panels or asphalt shingles, we need to provide more than pure technical data. Lacking a solid cultural foundation in the tradional building trades, we need to provide tangible examples.
A first step is to create a vehicle which at once provides the technical and mechanical skills necessary to build, with a fertile and educated group of people requiring the need of a building, home or workplace. This harkens back to apprenticeship in the truest sense. In a small way, this is what we are attempting to do here through workshops and demonstration projects.
Secondly, a refinement of processing and manufacturing facilities needs to be developed so that products and engineered systems can be delivered to the building site, or produced right on-site, in a practical and cost effective manner.
Thirdly, the necessary background and technical information on a variety of alternative systems needs to be formalized so that it can be delivered to the local building authorities in a clear-cut, scientific manner.
Finally, much ground may be gained if we can find a way to develop local and regional building cooperatives, in which the talents of the builders, the resources of the clients and the complicity of the local authorities might be fused together to create concrete and harmonious working examples.
While these suggestions address the issues in only a general way, the following examples touch on three specific traditional systems that cover the three major aspects of a building: the framework, wall enclosure and roofing.
Working with Scottish thatcher Colin McGhee over the last 2 years has given us great insight into just how viable thatch can be. As for training, the basic technique of thatching can be picked up in a week or two of working with the material, and one trained worker can guide two to three novices successfully. Mastery takes much more time, but gaining insight and experience is the first step.
Lacking a traditional base or infrastructure in this country,
thatching, as with many traditional building systems, remains out of reach
and impractical to most people in this country. Having an opportunity to
work with professionals European masters who have completed true apprenticeships
in a traditional building trade, one begins to realize that with the proper
knowledge and experience, the old ways remain as viable today as ever.
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