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Essential Elements: Earth, Air, Water, Fire

Human beings are particularly unsuited for survival in the elements. We are relatively hairless, we can’t fly, and we don’t tolerate large temperature swings. Luckily we are inventive and we do have opposable thumbs... assets that have enabled us to create shelter. In fact, mankind had successfully built enduring homes for millennia before the advent of petrochemical toxins, industrialized building systems and patterns of habitation that have resulted in homes that harm our health and the environment.

It is not that I harbor a misplaced longing for “the good old days” of tuberculosis and excessive smoke inhalation, nor am I advocating a return to the days before indoor plumbing was invented. We have made noteworthy advances in the comfort, convenience and cleanliness of our homes. However, at some point during that transition from there to here, we missed the opportunity to fine-tune our inventiveness to the task of creating buildings that are supremely healthy for humans and regenerative to the surrounding natural environment. This would seem to be a small feat for a species that has already safely transported beings to the moon and back.

Whether one views the home, as modern architecture has, as a “machine for living in” or, as Building-Biology does, as an “organism interacting with the natural environment”, the purpose of our homes is threefold (Clark Snell

First, a home must be designed to protect us from excessive exposure to the elements-air, water, earth and fire. Second, it must reintroduce these same elements, all essential for our well-being, into our homes in a useable, safe and convenient form.  Finally, the home must reintegrate these elements as waste stream back into nature.  The ideal home would do no harm, and even better would enhance the natural environment, at each stage of its production, occupation and final dissolution.

If we are to solve climate change, then we need to change the way we build our buildings. This truth has been eloquently driven home by Santa Fe architect Ed Mazria. ( and has spawned a significant green building movement. We have all heard that a problem cannot be fixed from within the paradigm in which it was created. The answer may not lie fully within the confines of a building industry that has turned its attention… or at least its marketing… to all things “green”. Perhaps we cannot consume our way out of an impending environmental catastrophe brought about by our over-consumption in the first place. In our transition to industrialized housing and to bigger and “better”, did we somewhere along the way happen down the wrong fork in the road of human survival? Perhaps we need to retrace our steps back to a point in time where we did build in harmony with our natural surroundings. Some valuable solutions can be found in the way we once created our shelters.

While technology is rapidly evolving, the laws of nature remain immutable and will, whether we heed them respectfully or not, be the final determinant of the success or failure of our inventions. Some of our product “advancements” have endured and enhanced our lives. So many others that have passed all the laboratory tests that only big industry can afford and looked so promising on paper then ultimately caused harm. With nature and its test of time as the gold standard for the most vital human environment and true sustainability, a thoughtful synthesis of our historical wisdom and our technological inventiveness may be a more prudent path than a rush to embrace all things newly labeled green.

Paula Baker-Laporte, FAIA, is an architect and a certified building biology practitioner. She is the principle of Baker-Laporte and Associates and EcoNest Design. She is primary author of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of “Econest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber”. She can be reached through the website