Bio-construction: the revival of ancestral materials


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“I will huff and I’ll puff and I’ll tear down your house” said the ferocious wolf threatening the poor little pigs hiding in their hay house. And although this story might make us think of the unsafe and uncomfortable living in a house made of hay, the fact is that this material, as well as stones and others, were the precursors of the modern concrete which is common in
today’s structures. However, these supposedly flimsy materials, on which the concepts of urban development of pre-Roman housing construction are based, have decided to return and set a trend in today’s architectural models. And so it appears that “every so often everything returns” is actually a fact and technology ends up surrendering to the logic of our ancestors.


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The wise architecture of the past

It was the Patagonian Mapuches (and not the piglets) who lived in houses made of hay and wood. These circular constructions called Rucas, with an inverted cone-shaped ceiling, are still a case study in almost all the architecture schools around the world due to their audacity and use of materials.

There are other examples of ancestral construction with “alternative” techniques that still impact modern builders. Among many examples we can mention the Arctic Inuits who manufacture their igloos with blocks of ice; different tribes in Europe and America built in the past (and still do today) their floating houses or “palafitos” with wood and reed, and we cannot forget to name the Pallozas (straw and stone) originating from the Celtic tribes that can still be admired in Galicia.


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The return of ancient building materials

The revival of old construction methods comes from the need to use materials that are more economical, ecological and aesthetic than concrete. Because of this architects have decided to look back and in the process they found in history the answer they were looking for.

Therefore, modern home-builders have found in hay good thermal and sonic insulation; seismic resistance, flexibility and low cost in bamboo; durability and strength in stone; and -although it seems rather unbelievable – a good thermal insulator in ice. Consequently, the properties of these materials combined with current technologies result in buildings that the “beloved” ferocious wolf would have never been able to knock down with a puff.


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New trends, new directions

The new versions of ancestral houses already exist and in general, they are tourist options that with good luck – and decent savings – can be visited. The Ice Hotel in Switzerland is a structure built entirely of ice that would make any Inuit proud. The bungalows of the Riviera Maya are spectacular versions of the indigenous palafitos.

As for the use of hay, it is undoubtedly a trend that returned to stay in housing construction. In fact, there is a professional certification granted by the Straw Construction Network (RCP) of Spain.

Apparently, Bio-construction, as these techniques are known, could change the way we build our homes and reshape urbanisms. In some years we will be discovering ourselves living in houses similar to those of our great-great grandparents.


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