I’ve been thinking a lot about sustainable homes lately.
Sustainable homes are a very interesting trend – this trend has largely been tied to an interconnected network of associated home and lifestyle micro-cultures including the permaculture farming movement, the rewilding movement (in both the conservation biology and anarchist senses of the word) and to tiny homes.
Sustainable home builders are unified by a shared set of general precepts:
- That modern housing construction is ecologically harmful and unsustainable.
- That traditional house construction techniques have advantages over modern house construction.
- That there is an aesthetic or moral advantage to a “simplified” lifestyle.
- An interest in specific technologies including: passive climate control, sustainable water use practice and efficient home construction.
- An aesthetic interest in curved living spaces over right-angle construction, the integration of built structures into the landscape, the incorporation of recycled material as explicit aesthetic flourishes and a desire for a DIY aesthetic that carries certain proletarianized (or peasantized) signifiers.
These homes have a few principal overall construction and aesthetic methodologies:
- Bale and cob construction
- Yurts and other semi-permanent structures
- Off-grid and minimal-grid structures
It should be noted that any of the first four categories may or may not also be a part of the fifth, as there are many off-grid sustainable homes but being off-grid is not an intrinsically fundamental aspect of any of the above. I want to focus on a feature specific to two types of buildings in the earthship and the bale and cob style homes in the form of the “truth window” because I think this aesthetic feature of these homes is particularly interesting.
Now part of the reason that truth windows occur in the former types of structure but not in yurts or cave homes is because yurts and cave houses show their truth-in-construction intrinsically. The frame of a yurt is the interior finish of the building and likewise a cave house is, well, a cave.
However bale and cob homes and earthships share a commonality in that their construction consists of three layers: an outer shell, generally made out of some form of clay masonry, an inner lining of plaster and a central layer made out of a novel material: straw bales in the case of bale and cob, tires full of rammed earth in the case of earthships.
There are certainly commendable advantages to these design decisions. Straw bales are a highly renewable building material, cheap and readily available in any rural setting. They provide excellent insulation and they are an easy substrate to work with. When fully sealed, straw bales will also last a long time. Tires full of rammed earth provide some of the insulative benefit of straw bales and make use of recycled material, diverting tires that are past use as vehicle parts from garbage dumps to be re-used as an incredibly durable building material.
Now I do want to lay out a few points before we dig too deeply into the question of the truth window: first I think sustainable buildings are a good idea. Certainly the violent uniformity of the modern suburb is neither ecologically sustainable, aesthetically pleasing nor culturally positive. Quite a bit has been written about how the suburb breeds alienation. The suburban aesthetic of the grass lawn has lead to turf grass becoming the largest irrigated crop in the United States. And this is despite grass being an invasive species that isn’t particularly efficient at carbon capture (a consequence of monoculture and the externalities of mowing, fertilizer and pesticide), provides no nutrition to people or domestic animals in the suburban milieu and is boring and ugly to boot. The ecological problems of the suburb continue with the manner in which they are built for cars, the space-use structures of the cul-de-sac, and the significance of paved spaces. These are, of course, related issues. Part of what makes sustainable buildings sustainable isn’t in the construction of the building envelope itself so much as the relationship between the building and the surrounding terrain.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the construction of the earthship. These structures have a very specific relationship to their landscape wherein even microclimactic factors are carefully considered in the engineering of the building envelope. An earthship requires both unobstructed access to sunlight, with carefully angled windows for the front wall, and also a large bank of earth into which the back wall is built. The land bank at the rear of the earthship is often where rainwater cisterns are positioned, depending on gravity to pull water through the filtration system, to in-house use before exiting via gray water disposal systems into the front-of-house greenhouse. This imposes specific and particular landscape limitations on the positioning of earthships that limits their usefulness to a rural milieu. You literally cannot build them as suburbs. However this relationship between a built structure and a specific landscape extends beyond the practical limitations of dependence on sunlight and earth for passive climate control and on gravity and cisterns for off-grid water collection. There are, in fact, a preponderance of aesthetic and ideological complexes that interface sustainable homes with their environments. An example is visible in the image of the yurt above.
In traditional construction the wood burning stove is the principal heating source. There is a practical dimension to this decision because this allows for even radiation of heat around the entirety of the structure and because putting the stove (and the chimney) in the middle of the yurt allows for a heavy object from which to tie the central anchor line of the yurt – a structural feature that keeps yurts stable in high wind. However the centrality of the hearth and chimney also creates a hub between the platform and the central dome: an axle to the round home and its radically open concept. Living in a yurt, as it was traditionally designed, imposes certain ways of living that are more collective than the privatization of separate rooms. Tents don’t have internal walls. Cooking happens in the center with furniture and storage in a circle around it. The plan of the home imposes a lifestyle upon those who live within it. The same can be said of the greenhouses of the earthship – which are intrinsic and necessary parts of the water filtration system and which also provide food year-round to the occupants. This, too, imposes certain task-requirements on the occupants in the form of garden maintenance. You will not enjoy living in an earthship if you don’t want to also be a gardener.
In the case of both earthships and bale and cob houses, local earth is used in the creation of the facade. This is first a matter of cost: one of the attractions of sustainable house construction is its low price compared to traditional building. There is a whole ecosystem (if you can pardon the pun) built around seminars and workshops training people how to design and build sustainable homes that doubles to provide a volunteer workforce to undertake the labour of doing so. Recycled tires are frequently donated or can be sourced cheaply. Likewise straw bales are cheap and locally available in nearly any rural setting. It would defeat the purpose of this cost-cutting to drop a bunch of money bringing in earth for making the cladding, especially when these buildings so often require excavation of the terrain upon which they are built anyway. So you’ve got all this clay right there already. You might as well mix it with sand and straw to make some adobe. But this means that the building is literally constructed out of the local environment. In the case of earthships and cave homes, green roofs are not uncommon with local grass species providing protection against water damage and additional insulation in much the same way as a reed or thatch roof – just one that is still alive. At the very least, an earthship will have grasses planted on the rear earth mound.
But with these buildings taking the form of earthworks specifically it is also common to have those earthworks extend out into carefully structured gardens that often provide additional food for the residents and that extend the visual motifs of the built structure into the local environment. These homes are somewhat strongly bound to homesteading. As such the psychology of the sort of people who devote time and energy to learning how to build these structures and who would be happy to accept the trade-offs in creature comforts they sometimes entail (wood chip composting toilets and the like) is also conducive to a deliberate use of small-scale agriculture to supplement or even replace grocery purchases. For various reasons, the users of sustainable homes are often people who are dissatisfied with consumerism as a phenomenon and who wish to minimize their engagement in the formal economy.
But this brings us, finally to truth windows.
Now as I mentioned before, a truth window is a feature common to earthships and to cob and bale homes. It’s a cut-out in the inner plaster, generaly but not always framed and glazed like a window, behind which the central material of the house composition is displayed. In the case of an earthship you will see the tires full of rammed earth. In the case of a cob and bale house you will see the straw bale. The window isn’t a window out to the landscape the house is situated in but rather is a window into the truth of its construction. But why would anybody want such a thing?
And the answer is that, for all that these home life arrangements are organized around a wish for greater simplicity and as much as these homes are often constructed by people who feel both that consumerism is a problem to be avoided and one they are up to the challenge of avoiding most of the people who build and own these homes cannot entirely decouple from capitalism. They may have mortgages to pay unless they’re the recipients of inheritances. Their homestead farms may not produce all of their daily caloric intake and may principally operate as a supplement to groceries. They may need to buy clothes, books, games and tools. Many of the principal advocates for this lifestyle have made use of volunteer labour to build their homes but to access that labour pool they have, themselves, had to be volunteers at builds. Only attending these builds often requires you to fly half-way across the world at your own expense and take a week or even a month working hard labour on somebody else’s property for no pay. All this costs. And once a person has this expertise there’s likely a desire to monetize it further either by consulting, offering seminars in traditional building design or in permaculture, charging enthusiasts who can pay to gain access to hard-won expertise in unorthodox skills or even by renting out properties as cottages which serves the dual purpose of evangelizing for the home style by demonstrating its comforts and of subsidizing the monetary needs of the homesteaders.
The reality is that, despite the global networks of volunteers involved in the production of these homes, there aren’t many established sustainable communities. There are sustainable homes and they are disparate. Spread out. They’re show pieces, secret retreats or outposts in the wilds. Most of these homes contain one family and most of the homesteads feed one family. There is this oedipal triangle built in the social formation of the homestead – the pioneer myth of lone families against the world in terra nullius. This is, of course, all ahistorical nonsense but it’s easy nonsense to sell.
The motivation to live in a bale and cob house is likely, at its root, “I want to live in a house of straw.” But that’s very easy for capitalism to co-opt to “wouldn’t you like to live in a house of straw too?” And this, then, becomes a principal selling point. You might have the honesty to show that the toilet is a bucket full of wood chips, but that’s not how you sell the house either a day at a time as a rental or more abstractly as a lifestyle. Instead you narrow it down to, “wouldn’t you like to live in a house of straw?”
In Soledad Brother, George Jackson says, “I may run, but all the time that I am, I’ll be looking for a stick! A defensible position!” This moved Gilles Deleuze so much that he used it, or paraphrases of it, repeatedly throughout his career including in his work with Felix Guattari as part of his key definition of the term “line of flight.” Sustainable housing is a line of flight from capital. The people who desire these things want outside. So they take their little family and they go out into the wilds, become nomadic. In some cases these buildings are an end-position after literal nomadism as it isn’t uncommon for people building a home like this to have lived in a van while they get their new home in order. The sustainable home is an escape but it also contains within it the possible search for weapons through the resistance they provide to consumerism, the focus on local sustainability and the way in which they show how the structure can become one with the field in which it arises.
But as with any Deleuzo-Guattarian line of flight, the one involving sustainable homes is a walk along the razor’s edge. and, “the sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” On one side of this chasm is a return fully into the territorialities of capitalism.
You can build a yurt that looks like it would be pitched in the lobby of an Ikea doing a special promotion. You can sell sustainable living as a lifestyle and you can make bank doing it; wouldn’t you like to own this life?
I’ve written before about how easy it is to build a self-identity around commodities and there isn’t anything intrinsically decommodifying about a sustainable home, certainly nothing that can’t be immediately reterritorialized by capitalism. And there’s another danger present. In building upon the pioneer myth as part of its basis, a lot of the homesteading movement can be fertile ground for the sort of reactionaries who would happily trade capitalism in for feudalism or something worse. It’s worth noting that homesteading is a predominantly white activity. And I don’t say this to smear homesteaders or say they’re a pack of fascists – I’m aware of many good and kind green-anarchists who are permaculturalists and who are deeply fond of homesteading: people who either are homesteaders themselves or who would be if they could follow the line of flight even that far. However cautionary tales abound. In Do you Make Yourself a Body Without Organs, Deleuze and Guatari warn that it’s very easy to fall into fascism while looking for your escape. And it’s not like this is without precedent. Look what happened to Nick Land. The truth window can be a window into an imagined past in which people “lived simply” and were more “in tune with nature,” and these naturalistic myths elide much of the messy material reality of the past. Yurts are the traditional homes of Central Asian steppe peoples, nomads whose way of life evolved together with their lived condition. Bale and Cobb houses are constructed still in Northern China, and while they are fading from popularity cave homes still exist too.
These white homesteaders building “traditional” dwellings from adobe and straw may act as if they’re reviving some lost past when all they’re really doing is building using the normal and lived expertise from other people in other places. The world has never been “simple” and the truth is that de-cluttering, choosing to raise your own food, and trying to minimize your interaction with capitalism will not make it simpler.
We can’t go back to the past and even if we could we wouldn’t enjoy what we found. There’s a reason we moved on and we don’t want to go back there. We can escape into the wilds but an escape from prison isn’t sufficient. As I’m fond of saying, echoing Tiqqun, what is needed is a total desertion.
Being an evangelist of that desertion may mean setting one foot outside the prison door and revealing that there was never any guard. The tower at the center of Bentham’s panopticon is empty and while Capitalism may always try to move its own boundaries such that it seems as if there is no outside, there is one and the sun shines there on a world just as complicated but in different, better, ways. But we cannot succeed until everyone escapes all together. That is why we must do as Jackson advises and look for a defensible position as we escape – a spot from which to help our fellows find the exit.
But this, eventually, is the rub. One homestead alone in the wild is never enough. We must start to imagine not sustainable homes but sustainable communities. It will involve a reordering of our space and our production not on a familial level but on the broad level of the group. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing the expertise of people who know how to build in these (better) ways, and the motivation of forming communities who volunteer to raise each other’s homes is precisely the right instinct. But we can’t have it be a game for rich kids to play – it’s something we have to do in our communities. My fear coming out of these plague years is that people will cry, “the city is dead, long live the suburbs!” But sustainability cannot happen there. If we must flee the city it must be to rural climes but it must not be as a homestead alone. It must be communities together. We don’t need truth windows to tell us the house is built of straw. We need instead groups of people who understand why using straw is a good choice in this place and at this time.