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Straw, hemp, wood, clay. Homes made of natural materials are the future of construction?

10 of March '23

Article from A&B issue 11|2022

We are living in the time of the fourth industrial revolution. The barrier between man and machine is disappearing, and at the same time the most important challenge is becoming the reduction of the negative impact of our civilization on the environment. Is the answer to the question of the house of the future the smart buildings imbued with technology, or should we return to the roots and materials and technologies used by our great-grandparents?

under the sky, custom and permaculture

In the 17th century, Lukasz Opalinski wrote „Short building science of manors, palaces, castles according to heaven and Polish custom.” If we turn a blind eye to the „palaces” of the title, it turns out that the pronunciation of the treatise is timeless in its own way. After all, what is „heaven and custom” if not attention to broadly understood localism and respect for the natural and cultural landscape? After the era of modernist unification, when glass, steel and reinforced concrete became the markers of modernity in architecture in every latitude, there is a gradual return to the roots. As awareness of the dangers brought by climate change has grown, so has interest in natural building. Permaculture—an ecological design trend that began back in the 1970s—is growing. It assumes living in harmony with nature, drawing inspiration and patterns from the principles that govern it, and minimizing our interference with the environment.

These challenges of modern times (and many others) must also be answered by architects and architects. After all, human construction activities have a significant impact on the ecosystem and its overall condition.

At the core of our work is care and concern for coexistence in harmony with nature. Being aware of the footprint we leave when we do our work, we put a very strong emphasis on having as little negative impact as possible on the surrounding world—the one closest to us and understood on a global scale," write the architects of the studio, who can confidently be called specialists in permaculture design .

Most of the projects based on the use of natural materials carried out in Poland are single-family houses, i.e. the area of architecture that is closest to each of us. For while the individual's influence on large public investments is relatively small, when deciding to build our own four walls, we can choose and decide on everything. Flat or pitched roof? Concrete or clay? Steel or wood? Styrofoam or straw?

Bespoke houses or ready-made house?

Michal Koziej (Koziej Architects) declares that in his work as a designer he is inspired by the idea of bespoke, and treats each project like a „tailor-made” garment. Subsequent commissions mean new challenges to face and questions that architects must find answers to by reaching for natural materials, but also not shying away from popular, typical solutions.

Dom zamykany - prosta forma jest efektem inspiracji bryłami drewnianych stodół, proj.: Koziej Architekci

Closed house—the simple form is the result of inspiration from wooden barn blocks, proj.: Koziej Architekci

photo: Anita Osuch, Krystian Berlak

The Closed House, realized near Lodz, resembles an old barn of the kind we can admire a lot in Polish villages. The compact body was covered with a gabled roof, and the walls were clad in darkened wood. The architects used a wooden frame structure, but insulated it with ordinary mineral wool. The function of a thermal buffer shielding the interior is also performed by additional unheated rooms located next to the exterior walls, such as a woodshed, a storage room and a vestibule with a pantry. In the next house (Straw House), the designers have already used thermal insulation made of straw, which they filled with a wooden frame structure. On the outside, the walls were finished with wooden shuttering and lime plaster, and inside—with clay plaster. It's a completely different microclimate, the architects emphasize, and point out that natural materials are beneficial not only for the environment, but also for the health of the residents.

A „tailor-made” house is, of course, not the only solution available on the market. Ready-made houses are worthy of attention, and it is by no means about the popular „catalogers”, but about prefabricated modular houses, such as BioDomek designed by Magdalena Górska's eKodama studio. The mobile modules of wooden construction, each of which easily fits on a truck trailer, can be assembled into larger structures as needed. Everything is made of environmentally and user-friendly materials—clay paints and natural oils, wood wool as a seal, cellulose insulation. The negative environmental footprint of the investment? Virtually zero, as point foundations reduce the degree of interference with the landscape and make it easier to dismantle the house.

mobilny, modułowy, prefabrykowany BioDomek Junior, proj.: Pracownia eKodama Magdalena Górska

Mobile, modular, prefabricated BioDomek Junior, proj.: Pracownia eKodama Magdalena Górska

photo: eKodama

After time, there will be no trace left of it in its original place, and the ground will be beautifully overgrown with grass. Meanwhile, the BioDome will grow elsewhere. Healthy and natural, the architects declare.

Straw, clay, or maybe yakisugi wood?

Natural materials and traditional design solutions open up a wide spectrum of possibilities for architects. It's not only the use of clay slab instead of modern floors, thatch in place of tin roofing, or the construction of a large clay oven capable of storing heat and being the true heart of the house. It is also a skillful combination of tradition and modernity. Instead of solid wood, cross-laminated timber structures are gaining popularity. CLT(cross laminated timber) allows for high precision manufacturing, optimal use of wood or elimination of natural defects occurring in lumber. It also opens up new possibilities in terms of shaping the aesthetics of the building due to the possibility of leaving part of the wood in the raw state, without additional finishing.

The main advantage of CLT timber is the ability to adapt to individual projects, much greater possibilities for shaping openings than with frame construction," stresses Michal Koziej, author of the glulam-based Mazur House.

Another interesting solution is strawbaleprefabricated blocks of compressed straw in wooden frames. Not only are they a renewable material, but their production has a negative carbon footprint! Similar advantages havehempcrete or panels made of wood fiber or clay that can replace the popular cardboard-plaster. So will technologies based on the use of natural materials soon dominate domestic single-family construction?

dom ze słomy został wzniesiony przy zastosowaniu strawbali

A house made of straw was erected using strawbales—is straw the building material of the future? design: Koziej Architects

photo: Michal Koziej

I am convinced that such or other methods of using plant raw materials such as straw, hemp fiber and the like will dynamically enter the construction market and displace production-intensive materials from it, especially with regard to insulation materials such as Styrofoam," believes Jakub Włódarczak of the Słomiany Dom Social Cooperative.

Nature itself suggests many solutions, we only need to carefully watch the processes taking place in it, says one of the main principles of permaculture. It can be to protect the wooden facades of buildings by burning them. Subjected to the activity of flames, the boards have greater durability, become resistant to moisture or fungi. This was known as early as the 18th century by Japanese builders, who were eager to use yakisugi wood (shou sugi ban). Today, this solution is used by Terunobu Fujimori, among others, and in Poland—eKodama or

The actions of designers should be as close as possible to the dynamics characteristic of processes occurring in nature.

Life does not write scripts permanently. So why shouldn't architecture face the challenge of responding to these dynamics?—Magdalena Górska asks rhetorically.

dom w Górach Bystrzyckich

A house in the Bystrzyckie Mountains—it was built using prefabricated straw and wood, added wood, clay plaster and we have an environmentally and user-friendly object; proj.: Pracownia eKodama Magdalena Górska

photo: eKodama

An ecological curiosity or the hope of construction?

Is the optimism of eco-designers justified? How does Polish construction look compared to Western Europe in terms of the use of natural materials? In Norway, skyscrapers with structures made entirely of CLT are being built (e.g. Mjøstårnet in Brumunddal). In Austria—whole estates of wooden multi-family buildings (Hummelkaserne in Graz). Meanwhile, in Poland, glued wood is still an addition or a curiosity. And yet we are talking about a relatively common material.

Dom w Tarkowie

The house in Tarkov—proves that architecture created using natural materials is beautiful—the wooden frame structure and strawbale were hidden behind yakisugi wood shuttering, proj.: Spółdzielnia Socjalna Słomiany

photo: Sp. Soc. Słomiany Dom

When it comes to natural building in Poland, we are unfortunately still in the crawl, says Jakub Wlodarczak.—In Western Europe, I have had the opportunity to personally see straw-insulated multi-story buildings of considerable size, such as the University of Nottingham building or the Lilac estate in Leeds, UK. In France, on the other hand, there are more and more schools and kindergartens built in this way.

In practically every issue of Western European trade magazines you will find texts about the use of rammed earth, strawbale or glulam in modern construction. With us, they are still treated as a curiosity—noteworthy, deserving of recognition, but located on the margins of architecture. Although the first swallows of change are visible (e.g. furniture made of mushrooms), but the evolution is still going on, according to many, too slowly. Poles are proving to be quite distrustful when it comes to new-old technologies. „We are ready to build high!"—exclaims members of the Straw House and Conscious collective on their website. Unfortunately, traditional solutions, among them concrete—"the most destructive material in the world” (as Jonathan Watts wrote about it in The Guardian)—are still more popular than what nature itself gives us.

Dom Baltazara zaprojektowany przez pracownię

Balthazar's house designed by studio—tanned boards are an old Japanese building tradition that provides wooden facades with durability; today Polish designers are also increasingly willing to use yakisugi wood

photo: Jan Dowgiałło

Fortunately, also in our country there is a noticeable trend of increasing interest in natural building construction techniques," Jakub Wlodarczak tones down the minor mood.—The prospects are very promising!

Michal Koziej is also optimistic:

Investors are paying more and more attention to the impact of materials on the environment and health. With the popularization of natural materials, the share of such solutions will increase.

Błażej Ciarkowski

The vote has already been cast