Permaculture Design Companion

The Permaculture Design Companion is a practical 190 page workbook that uses permaculture tools to bring your project to reality.


Design :: Organic Architecture

This was an interview which I was sent in 2007, after a year or so in the hobbit house. It was one of my first attempts to articulate the principles behind what we were doing following instinct and fun, rather than ideals. I certainly knew nothing about what organic architecture meant in the architectural tradition !

Since when do you live in an organic house?

5 years ago

Was it a conscientious decision to move to an organic house, which were your influences in the first place?

Yes, but to be natural (nontoxic/low energy/eco), close to nature and self built were our first priorities. Being built mostly from imagination, optimism and rubbish,the process is naturally organic. Being organic in terms of forms seems to come naturally given the above. Also my aesthetic is generally soft and curved, coming mostly from the natural world. Between making my first and second houses I read Christopher Day who explains well the benefits of organic forms in architecture for our minds and soul. This seemed to vindicate my instincts.

What are, for you, the big differences between living in an traditional straight lines house, or living in an organic one?

Suits my aesthetic. Feels gentle. Feels to me more like being part of the(natural) world,less like a commodity in a box. Rectangular rooms do feel box-like and slightly claustrophobic in comparison.

Do you think that living in an organic house affected your way of being, your personality, and if so, in which way?

I think we overuse the cause and effect model. More usually it is two (or an infinite number actually) things co-evolving or mutually related. This is certainly true here, there is a change, but lifestyle, values, and material situation change together rather than one leading another. In my case at least this is true.
If you moved a random person (from a town flat say) to an organic natural house in the middle of nature it would affect them. They would probably fight it or love it.

How do people react to the fact that you live in an organic house?

Nearly everyone is interested. In the whole lifestyle mostly although the house does seem to have some kind of innate appeal. I think it touches something common, a romantic idea of some fantasy past/alternative. Everyone says it is a hobbit house, they all love the lord of the rings at the moment.I think Tolkien draws the hobbits as the naïve or innocent representation of humans in a wholesome natural state. People instictively relate to this, especially in the context of modernity.

Is it a subject that raises discussion? … living in an organic house?

It's handy for a bit of suprising small talk, although explaining our lives can be difficult. Suggesting positive alternatives to the standard route often raising some uncomfortable feelings. Mostly these feelings are of an implied criticism of the way others lead their lives, in terms of ecological responsibility and the following of ones own dreams. These are both hard things to approach for all of us with lots of barriers from our societal conditioning and our own accumulated pains. I find Joanna Macy is very good at showing us ways to take our frustration at these barriers and turn it into positive action for ourselves and the world. I would make no claim that what we are doing is any better than anything else. I'd only say that this is where we are currently up to and this is what is working for us. If any of it can provide an inspiration for others to follow the path of what feels right for them then hooray!

Do you have many friends living or wanting to live in an organic house?

Everyone wants to take personal control of their own lives. To live in an environment that is close to nature and kind on the soul is a common aspiration. Also self building is a real current trend, in Britain at least. Inevitably, most of the promotion and help in doing it comes from those with commercial stakes in the industry and promotes self building in ways which are convenient and profitable for them. This means that people are introduced to a set of options that are actually quite limited in terms of the ways to create a home, particularly in terms of high costs, formulaic construction and mass produced modular components. Hence the dominance of linear forms. Actually comfortable and natural homes can be created in ways that are simple, cheap and allow massive scope for creativity and building quite literally outside the box!

There are increasing numbers of people making their own homes similar to ours. They are making some beautiful, accessable and highly functional houses. The more people who do, the more inspiration and support there will be for the next ones, as we owe ours to those who came before us.

would it be realistic to think that one day the majority of people will live or want to live in an organic house? What do you believe would be the consequences?

It is right and natural that different people have different aesthetics and I'm sure there will always be those who prefer straight lines to organic curves. However the dominance of linear forms comes largely from the aesthetic of the modernist movement and the world of mass production. I think we are moving beyond this now, both in our philosophy and the practicalities of our world. The age of cheap energy may well becoming to an end, as we respond to both environmental imperatives and dwindling supplies of oil. I think and hope that this will lead to more small scale, low energy solutions to meeting our real needs. This should mean an increase in individually produced homes of natural and local materials. This in turn means more opportunities for creative, non-linear and organic designs.

Does living in an organic house have any inconvenient?

It does make it tricky to integrate cast off furniture. We don't have any flat walls and not much level floor! Luckily we're not that much into IKEA stuff anyway.

By the way, Hundertwasser was keen to avoid flat floors because he thought it was unnatural for us. I was pleased to follow his recommendations and simultaneously avoid the trouble of leveling the floor.

Do your furniture and objects enter in the organic design?

Ideally, in terms of aesthetics, they would all be integrated, from the surrounding environment,through the shell of the building and on to the furniture, fittings, objects and people that inhabit the space. Also I would love to know the hands that made every object in my life.

why do you think that there are two separate movements going on: the eco/biological architecture and the organic architecture?

Maybe it is again about the industry. I am glad that we are seeing a increase in ecological constuction even in mainstream building. Still though I see this as being very much tied up with the convenience of mass production and hence linear forms. As for organic architecture, we don't see much of it around and I think that most people just think that Gaudi has a trademark on anything with a curve. It's probably just not cost-effective on the scale of industrialised construction unless there is lots of cash and passion involved which is a rare mix.

wouldn’t it make sense to integrate them?

When building is done in the way that I am talking about, what I'd call low-impact building, it's done on the ground by the person whose building it is, who is the architect and builder, who is working with respect for nature around and inside themselves. Then I think the process and result will be organic in every way and ecological. There would be no separation.

What is your relation with nature?

We are all a part of nature unquestionably, we are animals of the earth. What remains is how see ourselves in relation to the rest of that living system. We can honour and celebrate it for its own innate value. Alternatively we can value it as a resource for our use. This is the distinction Arne Naess and others make by talking about deep as opposed to shallow ecology. When we adopt a deep ecological or ecocentric view of the world, it then makes sense to live in away which is as close as possible to a true synergy with nature.

how do you explain the relation between organic architecture and a more natural way of living?

The attempt to find a synergy with nature is then the approach that we are using to design systems for living. These systems include buildings, food production, waste and water systems and much more. When we are working with rather than against nature, the rest of nature works with us and things become easy. This is Permaculture.

Do you have any advice for people who would like to go and live in an organic house?

Having your own home which is a part of you can be simple. Start from "what do I need?" and "what do I have?" not "what can I buy?" or "what do other people do?". Do a permaculture course or read a book. Be inventive, try things out, do things the easy way. Look in skips. BE BOLD.