Seven Generations Natural Builders / Tear down part of an old home’s wall and you may find antique Coca-Cola bottles, decades-old newspapers, names scrawled on wall frames and other mysterious relics. Old English tradition led people to stash shoes, wine bottles, clothes and other belongings in walls as a way to ward off evil. These artifacts fill in gaps in our stories of the past, but they also point to the intimacy that builders once had with the structures they created—a relationship that many of us miss in modern, prefabricated dwellings. At least one local group says it’s time we change our attitude toward building, and return to a time when the process was characterized by hard work, community and conscientiousness every step of the way.
“It’s an entire industry that’s really wasteful,” said Jennifer Milholen, a local sustainability advocate who’s involved with Seven Generations Natural Builders. “Where green building approaches that wastefulness from a technological standpoint, natural building really looks at using only materials that are in your region and appropriate for your climate, taking advantage of sun patterns, tuning your house to local conditions and being conscious in general to where your house is and how you’re living and utilizing what you have.”
Here in Hawaii, natural building involves using materials like timber, stone and bamboo, which grows quickly and is incredibly strong.
“People compare it to having the strength of steel,” said Milholen. “It lasts a long time and it’s a beautiful building material.”
Milholen’s interest in natural building grew from participating in workshops with Seven Generations Natural Builders, which developed its core building mission around using local natural materials and “methods that are ecologically sensitive, environmentally sound, socially appropriate and economically affordable.”
The group is maybe best known for its work at MAO Organic Farms, where Waianae youth and other community members have been involved with a building project that involves learning timber-framing, using natural plasters and sustainable construction in tropical environments. The effort is led by renowned natural building advocate Tim Rieth. “We hope it’s something that many more people will begin to use,” said Malia Morales, director of curriculum, assessment and new programs at MAO. “Our big push is to inform and engage as many community members as we can.”
The farm is hosting a natural building weekend April 25–26, and many other workshops over the coming months.
It’s this kind of collaboration and learning experience that Milholen said represents the beauty and value in natural building.
“I don’t mean to sound corny, but beyond being practical it’s really magical in a way,” said Milholen. “You’ve made something that’s not only going to stand up for a long time and will give you shelter but you’ve put your heart into it and you’ve put your sweat into it.”
And that process becomes valuable both in what it means to those who participate, and in what it represents in local building tradition.
“They’re still staying up, walls that were built 1,000 years ago by the Hawaiians,” said Milholen. “They built those together. It’s a technique and approach that Hawaiians have used for a long time. They had to do it for their survival.”
Milholen says the survival of Hawaiian culture also relies on state cultural leaders acknowledging the importance of preserving natural building as an element of local history.
“I actually think it would be worth funding a natural building project for a community building in communal space,” she said. “The cultural emphasis is that we’re revisiting Hawaii’s past in terms of building. It’s not dance or food but it is something else we need to bring back. I don’t know how practical it is on a large industry scale, but it is a great opportunity to invest in local parks and community structures. And then, individually, the idea is that you build up these skills and you can go build your own home. It doesn’t even have to be a home. It can be a brick oven for your patio. Whatever it is, it becomes this thing you built and that becomes part of something bigger.”