by Janell Kapoor
The biggest deterrent for folks who want to build naturally in the United States seems to be the permit process. Many of the laws around building have been generated by the cement industry and other lobbyists, making natural building harder and harder to get approved. However, with that said, there are a number of possible ways to approach getting natural buildings on the ground in the United States:
1. Make an anonymous or identified call to the code officials in your area to find out the specifics of your county, or address them directly and ask how you can work together to get permitted. How you go about this is a personal choice. Some people have luck with their officials; some wish they never brought them into the picture. Note: the more that building officials know there is interest, see examples, get educated about natural building, the more likely they will be to start working with folks more seriously.
2. Work with an engineer or architect who can stamp your plans. Typically they need to be state licensed, unless they have a special inter-state license. Once you have your plans stamped it will be much easier to get a permit, the main issue being liability.
3. If you do a timber-frame structure to support your roof you can often get away with using earth & straw building techniques as infill without much hassle. Note: the definition of ‘concrete’ in the building manual is something like ‘aggregate with a binder,’ which can apply to cob, adobe, and tamped earth depending on the interpreter.
4. Build a permitted pole structure, build your walls (to be load-bearing), get the inspector’s final approval, then remove the poles. There are plenty of load-bearing wall options that do not need any extra support.
5. Build within the ‘shed size’ of your area, probably between 144-200 sq ft., so that you don’t need a permit. Besides not needing a permit, this has the added benefit of creating a building that has less impact/ecological footprint. Minimize how much space you really need. This is more than enough room for most people on the planet. You also have the option of building several of these, creating an cluster of small usable spaces. Officially you’re not supposed to have electricity or plumbing in a shed, nor sleep in it, but there are plenty of folks who have done this without hassle.
6. Get advice from friends or strangers in your area who have already built with natural materials. Find out their experiences, or lack thereof, with the building inspectors. Use this information to inform your own decisions.
7. Reach out to the larger natural building community. There are listservs that bring together natural builders of all gender, shape, and size, from engineers to the most bushed. Permits and inspections are a hot topic in the United States, and will continue to be as natural building grows in popularity and demand. Draw on the vast bodies of knowledge that are available as a global resource. Currently, there are a number of natural builders who are working on writing relevant codes, as well as revising codes from other countries, which may help you along in your process.
8. If you decide to go the permit route, find out what resources are available to share with/educate your local building inspectors. For example, the California Strawbale Association (CASBA) publishes the Building Official’s Guide to Strawbale Construction. This contains up-to-date information on fire and moisture studies and the like — lots of numbers that officials really like.