TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Monday, June 2, 2008

Eco Housing: Baskets So Big You Can Live In Them!

Have you ever seen a basket so beautiful that you wish you could blow it up to a much bigger size, magnify it, step into it and live in it? Well, there are traditional dwellings around the world that have lived out this concept, using the natural fiber materials found in their environment to build simple to elaborate living structures. Bamboo, wood, straw, banana leaf, grasses and many other renewable materials take the basic concept in assembling a basket to that larger dimension.

In 1973, a book called Shelter was one of the first to document dwellings from around the world in one place. It is still available through Shelter Publications, which has since published a couple of other publications on the same theme. The book has over 1,000 images of yurts, huts, tents, domes, tree houses and other dwellings in their traditional environment or inspired by native cultures. The book inspired me to get others like it and to think of living spaces in a new way.

Urban and suburban sprawl in the United States have been swirling out of control for the last fifteen years. McMansions behind bars in gated communities promise isolation from crime, other undesirable outside influences, manicured lawns, uniformity, and above all, distance from nature.

Where would you rather live? Here?

A gated community in Ontario, Canada.

Or, here?

A Toraja House in Indonesia

Now there is a huge housing crisis with millions facing foreclosure, displacement, and financial ruin. The increasing cost of oil has also put a stopper into the car culture, the desire for the biggest monster on wheels possible. How many of us really need a hummer? Without downplaying the real pain many families are facing in the loss of their homes, jobs, and access to transportation, this crisis is helping give green construction and transportation businesses the boost they needed to enter mainstream markets.

Several years ago I knew I was fed up with life in Chicago. I longed to be closer to nature, my business was not doing well (retail store selling handicrafts), the cost of living was enormous, and I just wanted out. I started thinking about maybe having a bed and breakfast somewhere with a cultural theme. I knew I wanted to be somewhere in the SouthEast and started researching bed and breakfasts in that area. Everything was Victorian or cute country. Then I found some green businesses, mostly in Florida. New Mexico, California and other Western states had a ton of wonderful spas and green hospitality places with interesting architecture and commitments towards sustainability and low impact living. Sigh... All these wonderful experiments going on all over the country... but, they all need capital and acceptability from the public.

One day, I sat back and had this wonderful vision of a place I would love to be a part of. I saw this villa unfold in front of me, full of the craftsmanship I so love, people from all over the world, a place of teaching and of recovery from the city. I wrote it down, researched it, and called it the Peace Villa. I didn't pursue it, but kept it up on my website, just in case someday it would come off the shelf.

Since that time, similar ideas have been pursued by others, both in terms of personal housing and for recreational purposes. Simon Dale built a house in Wales for his family, what I consider the ultimate dream of living in a big basket.

Simon gave me permission to use his photos and text from his website, so I have a bit below.

"It was built by myself and my father in law with help from passers by and visiting friends. 4 months after starting we were moved in and cosy. I estimate 1000-1500 man hours and £3000 put in to this point. Not really so much in house buying terms (roughly £60/sq m excluding labour).

The house was built with maximum regard for the environment and by reciprocation gives us a unique opportunity to live close to nature. Being your own (have a go) architect is a lot of fun and allows you to create and enjoy something which is part of yourself and the land rather than, at worst, a mass produced box designed for maximum profit and convenience of the construction industry. Building from natural materials does away with producers profits and the cocktail of carcinogenic poisons that fill most modern buildings."

The house is much lighter and bigger on the inside than I expected:

Simon has many more photos and instructions for how to build a similar structure on his site. But, see! Isn't it just a big basket?

This is not a new idea. Variations on this can be found all over the world from time immemorial. Here is a photo, now on public domain, of a wooden yurt from Russia:

Mongul Travel sells gorgeous fabric yurts for under $4,000:

Isn't this just gorgeous? So, here you can live in a basket, covered with your favorite textile! And, look at how bright and sunny the inside is:

Many may think that living in a traditional dwelling like the ones I'm showing here, means living in discomfort, without bathrooms or other amenities, but there are many green construction businesses out there that are adapting these traditional building methods to modern needs or expectations. Bamboo is a wonderful renewable material that has lately been used in many new ways. We now have bamboo fibers that knitters, weavers and quilters can use in their work, and the construction business generates gorgeous flooring and pre-fabbed panels that offer both a durable and healthy option to the often poisonous mainstream materials. Here's a nice little video showing the construction of a bamboo house using pre-fabbed panels:

Your basket house does not have to be rustic and ethnic looking. You know the slick lacquerware found in Thailand and VietNam? Here's an example from Green Tulip Ethical Gifts:

Those who like a sleek, modern look can have it, too! Building Green has a bamboo model house designed by Danish architect, Soren Korsgaard:

If you can't or don't want to build your own basket house, consider staying in one for your next vacation. Many of the sites mentioned in this article have good links that can give you more information on other projects or resources. Again in Wales, Cae Mabon, offers such a retreat with wonderful structures like this one throughout the resort:

Heifer International
, a wonderful food aid program based here in the United States, works worldwide to alleviate hunger. They have several learning programs for adults and teen-agers and are soon opening the Hidden Villa in California:

"The ten acre campus will be located at Hidden Villa, a nonprofit environmental education center in Los Altos Hills, California (18 miles west of San Jose). Since 1945, Hidden Villa has provided learning opportunities to inspire a sustainable future."

Not only are these basket houses interesting architecturally, but they also step lightly on the earth and save resources. If built correctly, they can help us save energy, reduce our dependency on oil, and decrease the use of toxic materials. My friend, Tom Spaulding, of Angelic Organics Learning Center, recently built a new building which houses their offices and training workshops. They used straw bale building methods with naturally harvested woods for supports, creating a gorgeous structure. This is in Beloit, Wisconsin where winters are miserable and long. The building was so warm, they often wore shorts during the winter! Imagine! No heating bills in the bitter MidWest!

The challenge and delight for all of us is to use these ancient ideas that have worked for our ancestors and apply them in big or small ways to our immediate environment. It's not always easy as city ordinances and neighbors may balk at what looks different from what they are used to. It takes education and successful examples to make inroads into entrenched ideas of what is acceptable for our neighborhoods and communities. But, we are not talking about the sod houses of yesteryear. Instead, we have beautiful, solid structural options today that can use these fibers to the full capacity of our imagination and technology. Take it to the next level!

Sod House in Nebraska



  1. I admire all the thought you put into your posts.

    When we decided to move to Central Oregon (to get away from the McMansion sprawl), we researched a number of different (eco) housing options.

    There's a town named Alfalfa about 15 miles east of Bend. We were seriously considering a yurt at the time we looked at property there.
    www.yurtworks.com I wanted to be able to tell people I lived in a yurt in Alfalfa!

    Didn't pan out...but I'm fascinated with all the alternative housing options...Simon Dale's being a particular favorite.

  2. Thanks! I just love it how finally these alternatives are becoming viable for people. Living in a yurt, tree house, or straw bale house isn't for everyone, but at least those options should be legitimized by local governments. Chicago is going green and doing amazing things, but it's an uphill battle...


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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