Sustainability: building for the future

"...the earth belongs to each... generation during its course, fully and in its own right, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence." Thomas Jefferson, September 6, 1789

by Bob Bolles
hey arrived in three vans, driving up the dusty road through the town of El Valle de las Palmas, to the site that would be their home for the next week. This group of high school students came to Baja California all the way from Anchorage, Alaska, to build straw bale houses. This was the second time for some of them, who had been to Baja two years earlier to build the Straw Bale Community Building in Rosarito Beach.

This was the first youth group this year to participate in the Sustainable Community Demonstration Project in El Valle de las Palmas, Mexico. The Project is intended to extend over a five-year period, ending in 2002, with the goal of expanding the knowledge and understanding of the advantages of building with sustainable materials.

They arrived in time for lunch, and after setting up their tents, they were ready to go to work. They began by laying out three 14' X 10' connected dormitory buildings. They stacked the straw, using whole bales and partial bales that they modified to fit into each layer. With a little carpentry, they built the door and window frames, and roof rafters.

Very old and new technology

The dormitory project provided the opportunity to use several "new" materials and techniques, including "Carezo" and "cob," that we learned about during a recent visit with Bill and Athena Steen, co-authors of the Straw Bale House book (with David Bainbridge and David Eisenberg).

Carezo is a type of bamboo that is prevalent in Baja and many southern states. The carezo was placed vertically and fastened on opposite sides of the straw bales, tied together with a loop from side to side. Bundles of carezo were also used to make the roof surface.

Cob is a mixture of clay and long-stemmed straw. Cob has been used for hundreds of years as a building material in Europe. On this project, the cob was made on-site from a rather low-grade clay and sand, mixed in an old bathtub. It was used as a surfacing plaster on both the wall surfaces and the roof covering. (A variety of waterproofing materials will be used for final coatings.)

In 3 1/2 days, this group of young people build three buildings, one of which they completely plastered - roof and all. When they left, they had made many new Mexican friends, and had gained the firsthand knowledge of how to build in a way they had never thought possible. They were also empowered by a new understanding of themselves that they had never before experienced. This is what this project is all about.

The project mission

Our mission for the Sustainable Community Demonstration Project is: to learn and teach: education about sustainable living. Our function and purpose:

  1. Teach sustainable design and construction techniques
  2. Conduct research on sustainable design construction techniques
  3. Provide an environment conducive to the education of any and all aspects of sustainable living
  4. Create and maintain an educational facility

The Project focus is to demonstrate the use of sustainable materials and associated construction methods by holding workshops and hands on building projects, with an emphasis on research and testing. Our purpose is to educate participants from all over the world about how to build sustainably with environmentally friendly materials, such as straw bales, clay and other appropriate technologies. We are developing alternative building systems that are designed to reduce the consumption of slowly renewable or nonrenewable resources.

Weekend and week-long work projects are held throughout most of the year. Workshops are available to individuals and groups, and provide an educational period as well as actual hands-on building projects. Participants receive workbooks that describe the materials and techniques of constructing various types of buildings. Multicultural activities allow participants to better understand the Mexican culture. Interested individuals who are unable to attend workshops may still participate in volunteer activities.

Our workshops include the following topics: straw-bale, cob, light clay, thatch, waddle and daub construction; cob ovens and masonry stoves; roofs and living roofs; sustainable design and building; solar energy; plasters and finishes; sacred space; bamboo construction; rammed earth building; fund-raising and grants; organic farming; constructed wetlands; foundations; permaculture; baubiologue; waste treatment systems; site planning; earth sculpture; underground buildings; natural insulation; health care alternatives and as many others in which there is interest.

The facilities consist of a large camping area, workshop-built dormitories, cooking and eating facilities, restrooms and solar-heated showers. Meals served provide the option of Mexican or American style food, and the eating area overlooks a small lake. Evenings are spent around the campfire.

We have gotten feedback from builders, designers and architects who are very interested and excited by the idea of this gathering. Please pass this information along to your friends and colleagues. Thank you in advance for your suggestions and comments. We looking forward to meeting you at the Project.

The Project is open to all persons interested in designing, building and living sustainably. For information about Sustainability International and the Sustainable Community Demonstration Project in El Valle de las Palmas, contact Judy Brown (619) 464-0477, PO Box 1374, Spring Valley, CA 91979. E-mail Look for them at EarthFair '97 in Balboa Park on April 20.

Bob Bolles is the Director of Sustainability International, 13454 Poway Rd. #236, Poway, CA 92064. Phone (619) 486-6949, Fax (619) 748-4680, email