Dan Chiras has been involved in natural and alternative building since 1994 and lives in an off-grid passive solar/solar electric home in the foothills of the Rockies. His house is built from straw bales, rammed earth tires, and numerous green building materials and is powered entirely by wind and solar energy. Dan is author of The Natural House: A Complete Guide to Healthy, Energy-Efficient, Environmental Homes, published by Chelsea Green; The Natural Plaster Book: Earthen, Lime, and Gypsum Plasters for Natural Homes (with Cedar Rose Guelberth), published by New Society Publishers; and numerous articles on natural building and sustainable design, which have appeared in Mother Earth News, Natural Home, and The Last Straw. Dan embraces a comprehensive systems approach to building that offers a wide range of benefits to people, the planet, and our economy. He will field general questions on natural building and offers consultation on project design and construction, as well as lectures and workshops on various aspects of natural and sustainable design and construction.
Q: I currently live in Mexico, but plan to return to the U.S. sometime in the next few years. I want to build a small ecologically sound home. Since I can build it anywhere, I am interested in places where there are no building codes or where the codes are not unduly restrictive. Is there a list of counties in the U.S.?
A: I'm not aware of any lists of green home friendly counties. But some cities and towns do have active green building programs -- for example, Austin, Texas and Boulder, Colorado. You might want to look up green building programs on the Internet to acquire a list of green building programs. In such instances, however, you'll have to follow building codes. To be relatively free of building codes, the folks I've talked to seem to indicate that some rural counties, especially those with small building departments that often consist of only one staff member, seem to be pretty lax in how they oversee new construction. I've heard examples of this in rural Washington and New Mexico. One friend of mine built a home in Republic, Washington (on the east slope of the Cascades) and was able to build totally free of code official oversight. Of course, it goes without saying that you want to build a solid and safe home whether or not you're under the scrutiny of a building department.
Q: In your opinion, is it better to stick with traditional methods of natural construction, or to experiment with new ways to use natural materials? Or do you think this matters?
A: (Kelly) This depends on the materials at hand, the design of the project, the constraints of any controlling agencies, and the builder's comfort level with experimenting. I have done plenty of experimenting with new approaches to building, and there is value in this...but then I am comfortable with doing this...for others, tried and true methods would be better.