Why use natural materials?

“For the human shelter, we can only use the materials that we can find on the surface or first layers of the earth - where the human lives: earth, stone, wood, natural fibres, clay… the relationship between material and humanity is of great importance. The energy and love invested in the material, the dialogue between artisan and material, is engraved in the material and remains visible for all of those who lives in its surroundings”

This quote from the Egyptian Architect Hassan Fathy (1900-1989), translated from the Spanish, perfectly expresses the way I understand and experience architecture.

The numerous benefits of using these materials for the environment, human health, and heritage conservation, cannot be emphasised enough. Interior atmospheres and indoor climates are influenced by construction materials and furniture, which mark the essence of a place. The plaster is the very final layer, the ‘skin’ of the building that we have direct contact with. Not only do many materials and modern construction methods fail in their protective function as a kind of third skin, but they can even have a toxic effect on the building’s inhabitants.

As well as being widely available as natural raw materials, lime and clay contain properties which make them ideal for building. One of these is the way they interact with moisture: both highly porous, they are able to absorb excess moisture, holding it in like a sponge and releasing it back into the atmosphere when required. This helps create a healthy indoor environment and avoid pathogens inside the building.

Moreover, these finishes have a positive effect on our psyche and wellbeing, activating our senses and allowing us to connect organically with the natural world.

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Transcending any class divide, lime and earth have been favoured as mortar material within global construction for thousands of years. Around the world, earth remains the most vital and abundant natural construction material, often excavated from the same site used for foundations. Even today, a third of our global population lives in earth buildings, and in developing countries this figure rises to more than half.

During the industrial revolution, new materials labelled as quick and cheap to use appeared. In industrialised countries, the unrestricted exploitation of natural resources and centralised production systems based on big expenditure and energy use, not only create waste, but also pollute the environment and increase unemployment. The production of cement contributes to around 8% of total Co2 emissions. Thus, the use of lime and earth as an alternative to cement has a vital role to play.

Increasingly, homebuilders are placing more importance on creating a healthy indoor environment, with buildings that are both economical and energy-efficient. Due to the growing awareness of “sick building syndrome” and its impact on our environment, natural materials are currently making a comeback.

In the last few years a huge effort to remaster earth and lime building techniques has ensured that an almost extinct craft is now enjoying the limelight once again, with new research into methods and materials being carried out.