The Natural Building
Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to Integrative Design and Construction
Jacob Deva Racusin and Ace McArleton, published in 2012 by Chelsea Green
Publishing is a book with a rare degree of detail on the topics covered. It is
an extremely valuable resource for those interested in actually building with
the materials that it covers, which are primarily wood, straw, earth and stone.
The experience and focus of the authors is on appropriate techniques for the
climate of the Northeastern United States. This
book would make an excellent text book, and indeed the authors are associated
with Yestermorrow, the design/build school in Vermont.
It begins with a thorough investigation of the context for
natural building, especially in the Northeast; ecological factors, proper
siting for buildings, the geology of mineral building materials, as well as
local plant and animal products, are all covered with great detail.
The next section dives into the science and performance of
building technologies, dealing first with structural issues related to straw
bale and mass walls. Thermal performance strategies for natural building are
investigated with a lot of corroborating data from actual testing the authors
A whole chapter is devoted to issues related to moisture and
how it affects buildings. How to keep excess moisture out of buildings, the
importance of breathable walls, how to provide good drainage around buildings,
and the effectiveness of rain screen design is explored. Mitigating the risk of
fire and insect damage is also discussed.
How do you approach making proper design choices in the
first place, taking into account the need for balancing cost, time and quality?
Where are your priorities in this regard? They point out that non-standard
construction often takes more time, and thus costs more, but the end product
may be of higher quality.
One of the best chapters in my opinion is devoted to
foundations for buildings, with some of the clearest illustrations I’ve seen
for exactly how various types of foundations are actually made. These cover
frost wall foundations using AAC blocks, insulated concrete forms, rubble
trench, frost-protected shallow foundations, pole and pier, and rammed tires. A
chapter on various framing methods for natural buildings focuses on post and
beam, timber framing, pole framing, stud wall framing, and even steel framing.
Exploring natural insulative wall systems, such as straw
bale, is really at the heart of this book. It goes into great detail on this
subject, almost to the point of being a separate book within a book. Along with
straw bale, both straw-clay and woodchip-clay are covered.
The use of earth and stone to construct natural mass wall
structures comprises another chapter. This includes the use of adobe, wattle
and daub, stone, rammed earth, rammed tire, and earthbag. There is a side bar
in this chapter that describes cordwood, and I feel that their treatment of
this well established natural building technique is unfortunately unduly
There is an excellent section on natural plasters and paints
and how to mix and apply them. This is one of the best presentations of a
subject that is frequently skirted in books that I’ve seen. A range of appropriate
roofs for natural buildings is covered, and so are flooring options. To finish
the book, available choices for mechanical systems and utilities are explained.
Altogether, I feel that this book is well worth its hefty
price ($60), given that it not only provides such a wealth of detail and analysis,
but it is also packaged with a comprehensive DVD of instructional material that
dovetails with the content. I give the book high marks indeed.