Building Our Own Zero Carbon Homes

What is a Colloquium?

Matt Anderson (2020)

Film Review

This documentary is about a 20 year old group, “The Natural Building Colloquium,” dedicated to improving and teaching natural building technology, as well as sharing their skills with various Third World countries in crisis.

Members believe industrialized society needs to consume less to help conserve scarce resources, to reduce environmental destruction, and to prevent catastrophic climate change. They point out that humankind lived sustainably without damaging the planet for 250,000 years. It’s only with the rise of civilization they have begun destroying it. They also emphasize the importance of learning and teaching natural building techniques in strengthening community building, as well as providing emergency housing when mainstream culture is in crisis.

There seems to be consensus that “natural” buildings need to be constructed of locally available materials, be they straw bales, cob,* cordwood,** or bags of compact gravel.

Some of the important milestones members describe include 1) the ability to teach anyone to build their own zero carbon home (and avoid a 30-year mortgage) with two weeks of training, 2) the group’s international presence and 3) the participation of younger generations in the movement.

I was most impressed by the development of an organization growing out of the Colloquium called Builders without Borders. The organization has helped Third World communities build natural homes following disasters (such as earthquakes) in Mexico, South Africa, Pakistan, Haiti, and Nepal and on Navajo reservations.

*Cob is a natural building material made from subsoil, water, fibrous organic material (typically straw), and sometimes lime.

**Cordwood is wood that has been cut into lengths of four feet so that it can be stacked (in cords). A cord is a stack of wood that is four feet tall and wide and eight feet long.

The film can be view free at

The Revolutionary Mud House Movement

First Earth: Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Directed by David Sheen (2010)

Film Review

First Earth is about the growing movement to build homes from wood rather than word or concrete. The film is divided into 12 segments, providing an intriguing glimpse into the 50% of the world who already live or work in mud structures. A growing number of third world leaders are highly critical of industrial society’s efforts to colonize them by destroying their cultures and dragging them into a cash economy.

Part 1 Intro Any civilization that continually consumes its non-renewable resources will eventually destroy the land base that supports it. According to the US Department of Energy, wood and concrete buildings consume 40% of total global energy and 40% of the raw materials the world consumers. In North America, 75% of the trees felled are used in construction.

Ravaging our forests in this way is responsible for approximately 200 species extinctions every day. Replanting trees is ineffective in preventing extinctions because it doesn’t replace the delicate forest ecosystems which have been destroyed.

Part 2 African Earth visits a Ghanaian village where every member knows how to build their own house from free locally sourced materials.

Part 3 American Earth explores the history of Pueblo architecture, based on adobe bricks and plaster, and the US permaculture movement, which is studying and teaching how to build homes out of cob.*

Part 4 Why Earth argues that cheap energy has allowed westerners to move building materials long distances. Building with locally sourced mud is far more sustainable, as it requires no fossil fuel energy and produces no end of life waste. Mud is also an ideal (free) insulator for homes relying on passive solar heating.

Part 5 Empowering Earth describes the history of the cob building movement, which started in Oregon and now offers courses across North America.

Part 6 Another Earth is Possible discusses the ins and outs of obtaining building permits and mortgages for a cob home.

Part 7 European Earth describes the spread of the cob movement to the UK.

Part 8 Arabian Earth describes the long history of earth building in Yemen, which uses mud bricks to construct high rise buildings and has mud brick structures standing that pre-date Islam (600 AD).

Part 9 Urban Earth explores how the earth building movement and similar experiments in sustainability are helping Portland residents improve civic engagement and regain their sense of community.

Part 10 Inner City Earth explores how African American activists in Oakland are fighting gentrification by engaging community members in earth building projects.

Part 11 International Earth is about bringing the cob movement to Thailand, where it’s reducing local villagers’ reliance on cement. The move 30 years ago to cement (from traditional bamboo and thatch) has caused a massive debt crisis in many areas of the country. Thailand now has 18 earth building centers teaching around 600 people a month how to build homes out of free, locally sourced mud.

Part 12: The Future of Earth – epilogue.

*Cob is a natural building material made of subsoil, water and some kind of fibrous material (usually straw)