One of the Best Natural Building Books of the Past Few Years

by ziggy on April 5, 2015 -- 0 comments -- Follow

Natural Building Companion Book“Natural building is about relationships. We choose to work with natural materials not just because they are ‘natural,’ but also because their use is the logical conclusion of a process in which we seek to develop and sustain as many relationships and connections as possible within the context of the development of a building. The process of natural building acts as a web, connecting us back to ‘place’ and all those who help make that place.”

These are some of the closing remarks from Jacob Deva Racusin and Ace McArleton in their excellent natural building guide, The Natural Building Companion. This is one of the best natural building books of the past few years, not just for insights like the one above, but for the wealth of practical information, diagrams, and design ideas contained within, particularly useful for folks living in wet and cold winter climates. This is a significant niche that is often ill-covered in other similar building books, and Racusin and McArleton fill in with some much needed ideas.

The Natural Building Companion Review

The Natural Building Companion has quickly risen to the top of my heap of natural building reference books. Why? It’s one of the few that provides more than a cursory nod to building in wet, cold climates. That alone makes this book vital. McArleton and Racusin hail from Vermont, where they run New Frameworks, their natural building design and construction company. So many other published builders have written from places like Oregon, the southwest, and northern California, generally milder places when compared to other big swathes of the US that have colder winters demanding better insulation practices and tighter detailing.

New Frameworks Timber Frame & Straw Bale Wrap

Timber frame with straw bale wrap by New Frameworks

I love the organization and presentation of the book itself. It’s very easy to open up and find what you’re looking for — chapters are clearly divided into phases of building (and design), and each chapter itself presents different approaches for that phase. The coverage is broad yet detailed and specific. It tows an appropriate line between focusing too heavily on one specific technique, and trying to describe every possible option in every situation. Certainly the book is geared more towards straw bale walls than massive walls systems like cob and adobe, but the full gamut is nevertheless put out there for your contemplation.

The writing is technical when necessary, yet also down to earth, for lack of a better description. It’s descriptive and detailed when introducing new concepts (and bringing in some of the “science” when appropriate), but it’s easy to follow. The natural plastering chapter is an excellent example of this — plaster work can be fairly difficult to understand in writing alone, but the duo breaks down the process of using clay and lime efficiently and with excellent technical details so you can appreciate how these different materials actually function in the real world.

Natural Building Companion Book 02

One of the many excellent and descriptive illustrations in the book

One of the best aspects of this book are the extremely thoughtful building cutaways and diagrams of various parts of the construction process. The drawings illustrating various foundation designs and wall systems (stick frame with straw bale infill, rain screen siding over straw bale wall) are some of the best and clearest I’ve seen to date. In fact, there are diagrams in here that I’ve never seen presented elsewhere. The drawings themselves are excellent, and the design ideas themselves are very good. McArleton and Racusin have a strong knack for tight detailing, and that definitely helps set this book apart from the rest.

The techniques in this book are appropriate for many places beyond the northeast. McArleton and Racusin present many thoughtful design ideas to maximize the efficiency of a natural building project. Their aim is to equip you with knowledge to be able to build a high quality, long-lasting structure. This is less about “you can build a cabin for $1000!” than it is about building thermally efficient, beautiful, and high-performing structures. Their book is invaluable for the current or prospective builder living in a place that demands more than a little insulation, and more than a little protection from the elements, which honestly is a big portion of us living here in the US.

The book is a bit spendy, but it’s an invaluable investment. (Sorry, I keep saying “invaluable”… but that’s what it is.) The included DVD is actually not that big of a draw for me — I thought some of the included videos were not entirely descriptive or all that useful. The book itself is excellent, however. Highly recommended.

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