On The Issue of Maintenance, Building Or Otherwise

by ziggy on September 3, 2012 -- 5 comments -- Follow

Cob House Lime PlasterI gotta say, it is somewhat bothersome when people have skewed perceptions & expectations of maintenance. Some people love the idea of “maintenance-free” homes, or gardens.  However, I think that life is nothing but maintenance — literally everything, from your own body, your mind, to the environment in which you live (your house, your property, your vegetable gardens, etc.). Everything demands upkeep, demands sustenance and nourishment, demands a level of working functionality (ideally). Some lifestyles, of course, have a much higher percentage of “maintenance work” than others — farming, for one.

But since this is a blog about building (and building naturally), let me say a few things about the issue of building maintenance.

To Build is to Maintain

If you want to build a natural home, or any home, really, expect that you will have to perform building maintenance. I think that generally speaking, it’s nice to consider how to limit the maintenance necessary over the lifespan of the home. As with anything in this world, however, consider the issue of balance. Can you afford time to devote to maintaining earthen plaster potentially every other year, or would you rather use a more durable lime plaster, which can take the weather, but has more embodied energy, and is more expensive? It probably depends.

The level of building maintenance varies according to the style of home and culture, and in our culture, you probably won’t find many people willing to rub fresh clay/manure into their floor each day, as they do in some places. When I think about this topic, I also can’t help but consider how we think of homes as something that we’d like to have around for years and years. We put a lot of value into buildings that last for generations (myself included). If we’re going to take the time, energy, and expense to build, that house should last for a long time.

On the other hand, I do think that there is something to be said for just the exact opposite scenario — very simple dwellings, small, simple, with zero industrial products that take regular repair, and are not meant to last for decades. I think vernacular architecture falls into this category — think mud hut with thatch roof. Maintenance is a given in that sort of situation.

I guess, ultimately, it is interesting to think of the situation in which you live, and consider how much maintenance you can afford to devote to your home. More likely than not, you will have to expect regular repair and upkeep in any equation, especially with a natural home.

For our new home, we decided to go with a lime plaster exterior, even though it is not as local as our own clay, because of the daunting idea of having to break out scaffolding to fix a less durable earthen plaster every other year. (It is a two story building, after all, and very high off the ground.)

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  • In Sweden we have a saying: “If the manufacturer says it´s maintenance free then that means it is not possible to maintain”

  • Another thought to point out in living in natural, yet higher maintenence, homes is that there may be a tradeoff – you maintain your home with more physical energy and more time than the owner of a traditional stick frame home in the subburbs, but you get the benifits of not living in a toxic environment. And in the end, would you rather spend time maintaining the walls of your home, or a body that is sick from toxins?

    Keep up the good work!

  • Scott

    Maintenance-free means replace when it fails. If you can maintain something, it lasts much longer-like an electric motor whose bearings you can oil. Four drops a year and the motor lasts for decades-a sealed bearing motor requires no maintenance, but has a much shorter life. One thing I wondered is how would a earthen plaster home stand up to a slow, steady rain that lasts for several days? Does it “soften up”? Is mold a problem? I’ve seen plenty of places that used recycled materials(for economic, not environmental reason-creative use of available materials/advanced MacGyverism), but I’ve never seen a natural-materials house.
    The closest thing I’ve seen to a totally maintenance free building is a garage made of concrete and recycled stainless steel(rafters and roof, workbench, and door were all stainless steel salvaged from a hospital remodeling job).
    It’s interesting to follow how you built the place, and I hope to see it someday.

  • Well said. Maintenance is an often overlooked but essential task in building as well as many things in life. Building is the fun part, but maintaining, uhhh, not so much. But it’s something we have to do. So it takes proper planning. Why not build smaller, but something that you know you can maintain rather than go big and let it look like crap in a few years. And when I say crap I mean bad… I’m all for using manure to build with!

  • Joe

    How much maintenance does a stamped earth floor require. I love the idea and think they are beautiful. I also believe they make a good thermal mass and are rather cheap to ” build”.

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