Earth Architecture – Building the Future with Ancient Solutions
Have you thought of a house with a garden on the roof? A room with no sharp corners only useful for spiders? A window sill where you can lay down and bask in the Sun? All these ideas are being realised by Polish architects who build with traditional materials: rammed earth, adobe, straw bales, and clay.
While for some people, the notion of eco-architecture may equate with houses covered with solar panels and equipped with triple glazing windows, there are a growing number of individuals and building associations in Poland who reserve that term strictly for denoting natural building methods that utilise the raw materials of the earth.
It's needless to put forward arguments considering our responsibilities towards environmental sustainability and the adjustments to our lifestyles necessary to conserve natural resources. Depending on circumstances, the spectrum of changes Poles can introduce to their everyday life is varied and inspirational.
Starting from shopping in local groceries, or eating out in restaurants that have a selection of seasonal and organic dishes on the menu, to installing a Florama picture in the office, which cleverly smuggles the idea of permaculture (a branch of ecological design and engineering that develops regenerative and self–maintaining habitats and agricultural systems modelled on natural ecosystems) into an item which is both functional and decorative. However, even more radical solutions are at the disposal of Poles who want to live in harmony with nature, solutions which were known to previous generations of Polish architects and are now experiencing a comeback.
Rammed earth is a technique for building walls using natural raw materials such as earth, chalk, lime or gravel. It is an ancient building method that has seen a revival in recent years. Rammed-earth buildings are found on every continent except Antarctica, and in a range of environments that includes the temperate and wet regions of Europe. Rammed-earth walls are simple to construct, non-combustible, strong, and durable. Properly built rammed earth can withstand loads for thousands of years, as many still-standing ancient structures around the world attest.
One of the significant benefits of rammed earth is its high thermal mass; it can absorb heat during the day and release it at night. This moderates daily temperature variations and reduces the need for air conditioning and heating. Moreover, they are termite-resistant, non-toxic, inherently fireproof and ultimately biodegradable. Soil is a widely available, low-cost and sustainable resource, and utilizing it in construction has minimal environmental impact. This makes rammed-earth construction highly affordable and viable for builders on a budget.
To have a close look at a massive wall made in this technique, one can visit the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw. Pavilion 512, which takes its name from its location on the 512th kilometre of the Vistula waterway route, is a part of the outstanding complex of the CSC and was designed by Rar2 Laboratory of Architecture led by Jan Kubec. The exterior wall of the pavilion, built of rammed earth, is 85 feet long, which makes it the longest structure of this kind in Europe. It was designed to be ecological and environmentally friendly, blending with the natural surroundings of the Vistula waterfront. It does this so successfully that for unaware visitors to the main building of CSC, it may be difficult to spot. The best way to come across Pavilion 512 is to approach it from the bank of the untended and half–wild river. Covered with a grass roof, the pavilion was conceived as a space for artistic activities and workshops directed not only at regular art gallery goers, but to the public who mostly use the Vistula's waterfront as their walking, jogging or cycling path.
Although straw is not an obvious material to use for building a house, people have been building with it for millennia. Straw bale building typically consists of stacking rows of bales on a raised footing or foundation, with a moisture barrier or capillary break between the bales and their supporting platform. Bale walls can be tied together with pins of rebar or wood, and then stuccoed or plastered, either with a lime-based formulation, or with earth/clay render. Although bales may actually provide the structural support for the building, in many cases bale buildings have a structural frame of other materials, usually lumber or timber-frame, with bales simply serving as insulation and plaster substrate, ("infill" or "non-loadbearing" technique, which is most often required in northern regions and/or in wet climates).
Some of the most remarkable examples of timber-framed buildings in Poland are the Churches of Peace in Jawor and Świdnica. Built in the mid-17th century, they are the largest religious buildings of this kind in Europe and are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Timber frame constructions utilising a mix of clay, straw, or sawdust as infill can be found quite often in Sudety, Pomorze and Podole.
Modern houses built out of straw bales appeared only in the mid-19th century. Since the 2000s, straw-bale construction has been substantially revived, particularly in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. The renewed interest in this technique stems from its many advantages over conventional building systems, such as the renewable nature of straw, low cost, easy availability, and its naturally fire-retardant and highly-insulating properties.
In Poland, a significant increase in use of the straw bale building technique has been taking place in the 2010s. Over such a short period, the number of houses has risen to over 40 in total. Designers who build in this technique emphasise the many (sometimes counter-intuitive) qualities of this material such as good fire resistance. Straw is a fibrous material that is virtually indestructible under compression. And its local accessibility (straw can be sourced in most parts of the world), reduces transportation emissions and costs.
Things to do with Straw and Clay
Although straw as a building material has long tradition in Poland (from thatched roofs and hard earthen floors to apartment blocks in Skawina made of clay and straw bricks in 1950s) there are still many unresolved issues regarding building codes, depending on the location. For this reason, many practitioners and enthusiasts have established independent non–governmental associations that support and encourage initiatives of building with natural materials.
One of the leading organizations is Fundacja Cohabitat based in Łódź, which describes itself as a social movement, a network of people, organizations, businesses and institutions, working towards a new paradigm in the relationship of human civilization and the planet's ecosystems. Seeing them as one cohesive entity, the group undertakes joint ventures in order to improve the health of local communities and ecosystems. They organize lectures, workshops, and webinars, generously share experiences of building straw bale houses, and create and distribute open–source architectural plans and projects. The range of possibilities of using natural materials in building architectural components seems limitless. One can make rocket stoves, fireplaces, sauna huts, benches, and tables. One of the most popular uses of clay is clay plastering. Clay functions as a breathable finished material, as it naturally absorbs excess moisture from the air. It is inexpensive, durable, non-toxic, and its plasticity allows one to play with texture and create decorative patterns on walls.
We are Building a House
This year, two young designers, Weronika Siwiec and Staniław Kamionka, have decided to build a year-round, organic house with straw bale technology. The building will be covered with plaster made of clay and limestone. Because the house will occupy just 25 square meters, it can be constructed without a building permit. They have collected the necessary funds through crowdfunding. After the construction of the house is completed, they will publish an open source guide that precisely describes the process, so it will be available to anyone interested. For Weronika Siwiec and Staniław Kamionka, a very important component of their project is collective action and the participation of friends and strangers. The house will be located in the beautiful site of a lavender field in Kawkowo.
It is not the only instance of collective social crowdfunding enabling the realization of cultural initiatives. Another success that justifiably and without a shade of resentment can be called the “success of many fathers”, was a spectacular amount of money raised by Paweł Sroczyński (pioneer of natural building in Poland and co-founder of the Cohabitat Group to organize the second Cohabitat Gathering Festival in Łódź in 2013. He raised the money via the first fully-functioning crowdfunding platform in Poland called Polak Potrafi (Poles Can Do), accomplished through an impressive campaign mobilizing the entire natural building community.