So you want to be a Natural Builder!

So you want to be a Natural Builder!
Looking forward to glorious days of stacking golden bales with throngs of happy workshop participants, up to your elbows in delicious sun warmed beautiful mud plaster, standing back and admiring another artful edifice made of all local materials?
There is an ever growing group of individuals who want to start a career in ‘Natural Building’ and I get a lot of inquiries as to the best place for someone to start out.
Here’s the advice that i might think in my head, but wouldn’t say: ‘I hope you are prepared to work excruciating hours, have folks expect you to work for free, and witness your tools get destroyed by dirt and volunteers and somehow you want to do it all again the next day’. That’s the half joking, half jaded response two natural builders would say to each other because it’s part of the truth of being a natural builder.
Really, getting in to natural building involves a great deal of commitment, study and sacrifice. True of any career. It’s not like conventional construction where you are likely to show up on a job with no skills and are put to work for pay. The best advice I can give is to gain some conventional construction skills. Learn carpentry. Acquire tools and the skills to really use them. This can begin in a workshop, but takes years of application. Taking a workshop, even a multiweek apprenticeship does not make you a ‘builder’. Years of experience and surviving the responsibilities of building for other people make you a builder. Understanding the interfaces and relationships between all the various trades involved in making a building work makes you a builder. Even after nearly 16 years of experience I am still actively learning.
Work with as many different people as possible, conventional and natural. Do you best to see as many projects through from beginning to end, not just of the wall systems, but from foundation to finish details. OR- pick the facet of natural building that fascinates you, be it plasters, floors, thatch roofing etc. and make it your focus. It will limit you in some ways as to how much work will be available to you in the beginning, but it may be very worth it in the long run.
To become a successful builder you have to understand the enormous amount of coordination and planning that goes into making a good building. There are all the systems that need to be integrated into a building, and integrated well, for a building to function well. It’s our responsibility as builders to create spaces that function and last. It is our mission as natural builders to make them ‘appropriate’ for people, place and planet.
Learn to be a good worker. Learn to be efficient in your work and pleasant to work with. Treat tools with respect. Someone who comes to work for me and they treat their tools poorly is not someone I want handling my tools!
I did a lot of volunteering when I first got started. Although it didn’t pay the bills I gained amazing amounts of experience, and the hours put in payed off when I would get asked to stay on for pay, or who I volunteered for gave glowing recommendations for other paying jobs.
Read, read and read, but don’t expect to learn everything from books.
Make plenty of mistakes. Make nice big juicy ones! Those you will learn the most from. We all mess up. Being a good builder translates to being able to gracefully repair your mistakes. I have some serious dear-god-i-am-not-crying-on-the-job sized mistakes, but they have made me a better, if not more humble builder and person.
Don’t expect it all to happen at once. It takes a long time before you skills are at a comfortable point where you no longer notice that you are concentrating or trying. It’s a lovely day when you look back and realize how far you have come and you are no longer doubtful, or stressed about doing the right thing on the job.
Oh, and last but not least, take some small business classes. Being a good builder is one thing, not bankrupting your self to be one is another.
Best of luck and Happy Building!