I read a good number of architecture books on low-impact housing but always come away disappointed. The photos are always great, but the writing lacks depth. So I was pleasantly surprised to find “Natural Timber Frame Homes” by Wayne Bingham and Jerod Pheffer not only had great pictures, but something to say, too.
Bingham and Pheffer’s premise is that our values are way off. Economic vitality is based on the number of houses that are built, not on the number that are renovated. People spend way too much of their lives working to pay for a poorly constructed, unsustainable home that probably will be deteriorated by the time the mortgage is paid off. Instead, they should look to the past for examples of cheap, sustainable building techniques, i.e. timber frame construction.
Bingham and Pheffer say anyone with a wooded lot, dedication, time, a good set of tools, and a few able-bodied helpers can build a sturdy house out of natural materials. Local stone, not unnatural concrete, should be used for a foundation. Trees felled from the site can be used for the timber frame, as opposed to those clear cut half a world away and then trucked in. Straw bales should be used for the insultation, not fiberglass insulation. The straw can be coated with clay made from on-site sand and dirt as opposed to paint, which gives off toxic chemicals. And stone, straw, or wood can be used for the roof.
No matter where you stand on global warming, the fact is this: there is a finite amount of resources on earth, and we need to conserve for future generations. For example, Bingham and Pheffer wonder if oil there’s a yet-to-be-discovered medical breakthrough that can only come from oil, but what happens if we use it up to power our Hummers?
Preservationists should bring more attention to the merits of the intangible traditional building arts espoused by the authors. You can put a few solar panels and energy saving windows on a concrete block, plywood, and stucco house, but it’s not going to do a whole lot of good a few decades from now when that house is falling apart and a new one has to built in its place. A well-built house constructed out of natural materials can last many lifetimes. And when it finally does fall apart, its materials won’t damage the planet. Now that’s green.