Friday 10 July 2015

10 minutes with Australia's natural building guru

Last week's post, How to build a cabin, got such a great response I thought I’d run this interview I did on the last day of the natural building course - with our inspirational teacher, Sam Vivers. 

Sam, on the job
Sam is a licensed builder, carpenter and strawbale guru; he and his team at Viva Homes have built more than 25 strawbale homes. He even lives in one himself. 

Here, Sam talks about the rise of natural building, where it’s at in Australia, the "Grand Designs effect" and why strawbale is beautiful, on so many levels...

Where is natural building at, right now?
It’s definitely on the rise, certainly in Australia and I’m sure worldwide, given the amount of literature that’s coming out. Back in the 70s, alternative building and living was a little at odds with society. Now it’s a bit more mainstream, it’s not a dirty word.

From our experience, 15 years ago when we spoke about our first strawbale house, no one knew what a strawbale house was. [He's heard all the jokes about the Three Little Pigs...] 

In the last five to 10 years, everyone seems to have heard about strawbale, and wants to know ‘How does it work? How does it go together? Why doesn’t it fall over? And how do you build them?’

Who didn't love Kevin McCloud's off-grid "shed"?
Pic: BBC Channel 4
Can you say a bit about the “Grand Designs effect”?
Grand Designs [and its sustainability-minded presenter Kevin McCloud] is by far the biggest influence I’ve seen in people’s growing awareness about natural building. The English version [here's the Grand Designs YouTube channel] has singlehandedly made people, the general public, aware of alternative structures such as strawbale houses. It went from people asking, ‘What is a strawbale house?’ to saying, ‘I’ve seen that on Grand Designs.’

Is Australia leading the world in natural building?
Maybe not in the numbers [because of our small population] but certainly in some of the technology, because Australians have always been really good innovators.

The Americans still treat it as a bit of a cottage industry and they’re holding onto how it used to be, [whereas in Australia] we’re not afraid to bring in big machinery to make building these houses more efficient and cost-effective – because it’s our belief that the only way this can possibly go mainstream is to bring down the cost of these houses so they can compete with what we call ‘conventional’ housing.

Who wants natural houses like this?
Initially we thought it would be people in their 30s with an awareness of the environment, but we’ve found that over 80 per cent of our clients are baby-boomers, usually people who are about to retire. They’ve generally had a good life, financially they’re quite well off and maybe they feel that they’ve had an impact on the environment, so apart from wanting to be comfortable themselves and seeing the beauty of these houses, they often want to give something back this way, by not polluting the world any further.

A rendered strawbale house - looks like a normal house,
only more beautiful (and way more energy-efficient)
What’s so good about strawbale?
It can be built into most houses in most areas in Australia, because of its wonderful insulative values and it’s a natural product; when the house falls down in 200 years’ time, it’s all going back to the earth. 

How easy is it to get a natural house approved by your local council?
It’s getting easier. Engineers are the key point, because they sign off on them; the councils almost have to agree to what’s been presented to them. So finding engineers who are flexible in their thinking is really important; it’s not that hard to find them, you just have to know who they are.

Are strawbale houses expensive?
The price is very similar to a double-brick house, but it’s a totally different beast because we’re building houses that are 7-9 stars, in terms of energy efficiency; a brick house would be much less efficient than that, unless you were pumping a lot of extra money in to make it energy efficient (insulation, double-glazing, these sorts of things).

Houses are often seen more as assets or investments than shelter these days. Is natural building bucking that trend?
There are a few points in there. Firstly, every house we’ve built has been sold for well above the average market price. The first strawbale house we sold in Mudgee got the highest price on the street by far. So although fewer people want to buy these houses, they recognise the inherent value in these buildings and they’re willing to pay the money to make it happen.

As far as being an asset, I believe societies go in cycles; if you think back to the ‘80s, everyone was building big houses with rumpus rooms, tv rooms, family rooms, because they knew that’s what people wanted, so it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Most of the people interested in this style of building look at it as somewhere comfortable to live, somewhere they can live in a certain degree of harmony with their surrounding environment. We don’t build many of these in the city. A lot of them are built on little lifestyle blocks, and people have the aim of running their own stock and growing their own vegetables, living closer to the earth and having less impact.

You encourage everyone to be involved in building their own home, even if it’s just putting up a wall. Why do you think that’s important?
Our homes, for me, they’re more than an asset. They’re emotional places. That’s where you raise your family, it’s where your spirit rests when you’re at home. So if you can have part of your own spirit in your house, I believe that’s a really rewarding thing.

Yours truly making a wall
Pic: Carmel Killin
That’s just a personal view, but I’ve seen the satisfaction people get when they do build even a part of their house; you can see the attachment to it and the warmth they get from it. All of sudden it’s not just a wall, you know everything that’s in there: the pain, the thought, the effort and the emotions that have gone into it.

Do you find that people get hooked on the process?
Most people get exhausted! People get hooked on the idea of it. Some people get a little addicted to doing [natural building] workshops, where they help build a house, because they develop an affinity not only with the house but with the other people and they want to keep going to workshops and meeting like-minded people.

When people work on a house, even if it’s not their own, they get something intangible out of it, that sense of community.

Any advice for people wanting to get into natural building?
Three things: 
  • Go to a workshop and see if it’s something you want to do. Then you’ll find out what sorts of people and communities are doing this.
  • Find the right people – people to support you, your contractors, tradesmen, the architect, your engineer. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Emotional support is a big one. On Grand Designs, people always look 10 years older halfway through building their own house than they did at the start!
  • Connect with a community like Milkwood [which runs natural courses of all kinds]; they teach about the connection between the garden, the food and the environment you live in. It’s good to have a balance. It’s no good eating toxic food and stressing yourself to death in your job, then living in a natural house.

Last words?
For me, it’s never been about saving the world or trying to make anything special happen, it’s just been step-by-step progress. And we’ve found that the way to teach people about this is to not have a long beard and wear tie-dyed pants, it’s actually to relate to people on their level and introduce them to information they can understand and so they can see it is as a viable form of building.


Sam's next natural building course run by Milkwood, is 19-22 November 2015 in Kangaroo Valley, NSW. Viva Homes runs strawbale workshops and courses in NSW and southern Queensland. See for more info on natural building. Or go to Sustainable House Day, where people open their naturally built homes to curious visitors, on Sunday 13 September 2015. 

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