Bernhard’s house is made of mud, and he is very proud of that fact. As a natural builder, in Portland, Oregon, Bernhard is working to inspire more people to realize the possibilities of the natural world around them, or in this case, under their feet. Bernhard says the empowerment he felt, from building his own home, is what has led him to educate others in the ways of natural building. He has learned entirely from experience, and books read on the subject. Bernhard does not tout natural building as a way to make a fortune, but as he says, “That’s not the way I want to be.”
Speaking from a public bench, the construction of which he oversaw, Bernhard speaks of the wonderful relationships that can be formed while working with a natural medium. Mud, he says, is a very natural thing. There is very little training that makes one person more of a mud expert than another person. This particular Oregon bench was built as a school project, and Bernhard says it was rewarding to see the kids come together, across social strata, and build a space for the community. And that is truly Bernhard’s passion: community building. The construction creates places that inspire public congregation, bringing people together around places they can proud of.
We are interviewing him on a bench built by him and some students in the 7-12th grade.
In American society, there’s no places just to hang out.
I see my work as a behind the scenes effort to help people realize what they dream and envision. Building with earth is really accessible. You don’t have to have carpentry skills. It makes it available to a lot of people.
After building my own house, it was such an empowering experience. I thought, ‘Geez. Other people should be able to do to this.
I’ve built things my whole. It’s not like I decided after doing a desk job that I’m going to go build cob houses without any experience! No, I’d renovated houses. Did wiring plumbing, built bunk beds, furniture. Had worked with large scale ceramics before. It seemed completely doable…so I was like, ‘Let’s do this!’
My wife supported me on that. She worked 4 days a week while I built 6-7 days a week. She came out on weekends and helped out.
I did a bunch of different things before this. I did some internet website design. After that I taught art in the public schools. Following that, I did building.
This project is something where the students did a bunch of designs and then I work with them as to what materials we could use. We came up with different solutions and then came out to work with them during the convergence. It’s a 10 day long kind of event. Getting kids out here with their feet in the mud and sticking it on the bench.
It’s really wonderful because there’s something about mud that is intuitive. When people get their shoes off and into it, all sorts of social barriers break down. You get these great conversations between people who normally wouldn’t have a conversation together. It’s particulary true in public school settings, where kids are involved in a class. So I’ve seen kids from completely different socioeconomic strata come together and have a friendship as a result of working on a mud project. That’s a special place to be in as I facilitate the project and the space so those things can happen. I think that’s…it makes me happy. What can you say? It’s just one of those things that has so much meaning. It has more meaning to me than anything else that’s on the horizon. Bringing people together to make things to change the way you view the world.
It’s a combination of both environmental and social that motivates me. The environmental issues that our nation and our world faces are the greatest challenge that is on the horizon for anybody. Building something that gives people a small assertion that I’m not going to follow the mainstream. I’m not going to keep sticking my head in the sand and thinking everything is going to be fine. We definitely need to be making some changes. One of the ways we need to change things is how we shelter ourselves with size and materials and those sorts of things. Building with earth is really environmentally sustainable because you don’t have to go very far for the materials. There’s plenty of it.
There’s this concept called embody energy. If you look at a given piece of material that has to do with the amount of energy that was used to harvest it, to transport it, to process it, to get it to wherever it is. And then also, to get rid of it once it’s done it’s useful lifetime. Something like earth where this soil came from the local cemetery. The sand came from a pit on the Columbia River. And the straw came from some local farmers. All the materials from these poles came from someone local. Almost all the materials came from within a 50 mile radius. No one of the materials are processed either.
The embodied energy is very low. That makes it a really sustainable practice.
You can contract, or you can teach. People want to do their own work. If you have the time, you can put yourself into an economically structured situation.
People do think I’m a little bit crazy. ‘What!? You live in a mud house? You spent two seasons building it? That’s crazy.’ But anyone who walks into the house, they walk into the space and it’s completely different from anything they’ve experienced before. So, they don’t think I’m crazy anymore.
The other way to make money is to teach workshops. I do most of that.
I don’t have a desire to be in the $100,000 a year income bracket. That’s not the way I want to be. Part of the whole reason why I made a transition from teaching in the public schools to teaching natural building is the balance between work and life. It was pretty out of wack. When you’re sixty or more hours a week, it’s really hard to do things that are important to you outside of work. So I needed to find a different venue for that.
Basically, if you’re going to work less, you have to figure out a way to spend less. How do you do that? You find the cheapest housing you can find, and in my case, you make it. My wife and I grow produce, so we’re looking in part to do something that was socially responsible, but also to separate ourselves from the need of the cash driven economy.
There’s this whole idea that you have to work work work so you can have something to eat. You have to work work work so you can have a roof over your head. You have to work work work and put in all these hours. And you don’t. I’m not making that much money, but I’m having a fantastic time. I’m working with people who share the same values as I do. I’m working in a social and environmental setting that has a lot of meaning to me. The fact that I don’t have $100,000 in savings or a big retirement plan is totally unimportant to me. Someday I might need to address that, but at this point, I’m perfectly happy with where I’m at.
My wife has a steady job. We’ve got 1 ¾ incomes. We don’t have kids. We keep our expenses really low. My vehicle is not an elaborate vehicle. I’ve had it for ten years, and I hope to have it for another ten years. That’s how the financial piece works.
Figure out how to get by with the least amount of money possible. And do that for a year or two. And follow what you really believe or dream about. Whatever you dedicate your time to, you eventually make money at it.
When I was doing the internet graphic design stuff, we started out with no capital. We just worked our tails off with really minimal equipment. After a year, we had clients and cash flow. We got better equipment and started to be able to pay ourselves something. After five years, we had the state of Oregon on our client list. There was money there to make ends meat without any problem.
It’s the same thing that happened with natural building. If you can separate yourself from what the media says is your target- how you should act, look, drive, eat, do- then you have all sorts of freedom to pursue the things that are interesting to you. Don’t buy into that. That would be the number one thing. Don’t buy in. Do your thing.
When you build with mud, you’re restricted to building in the dry season. The first season was the exacavation and foundation. The second season was the walls and the roof.
It’s a material good for this climate.
The more involvement you can have with your own life as far as decisions and the things you do, the richer your life is. There’s a book called ‘Chop Wood, Carry Water,’ and it’s basically about the little things that you do, your daily chore, that’s important. Sitting in front of a TV doesn’t give you the same satisfaction as doing work. Do the work, and unplug the TV.