2009 Natural Building Intensive

In 2009 Earth Island Institute received a grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding for The Altai Project’s Natural Building Intensive to be conducted in the San Francisco Bay Area. Thanks to this grant we were able to bring Russian architects to the United States in order to deepen their understanding and expertise in natural building and strawbale architecture as well as gather information about nonprofit building education programs.

Goals and Accomplishments

This training program is the culmination of an ongoing partnership between The Altai Project and several Altai nonprofits and educational institutions. The sixth in a series of green building-related exchanges, this one was intended to give a final push in transferring hands-on skills in the design and construction of green buildings and their accompanying systems. The group also planned to study nonprofit building education programs in general, with the long-term goal of establishing their own nonprofit in Altai that would offer similar programs.

Both of these goals were achieved, and the participants were eminently satisfied with the diversity of the programs they visited and studied as well as with the greater depth with which they were able to experience and study natural building techniques.

To our delight and to their deep credit, in December 2009 our workshop participants succeeded in reaching their dearest goal: they formed a nonprofit called “Straw Capital,” which will educate and train people in a variety of natural approaches to building. This brings the green building movement to a new level in Altai, with a dedicated nonprofit working alongside those in the building trades and in academia.

Participants

Elena Nazarenko is an architect/drafter and was an associate professor in the Department of Architecture and Design and assistant director for student work at the Institute for Architecture and Design at Altai State Polzunov Technical University in Barnaul, Altai Krai, Russia. In 2006, she traveled to Colorado to study strawbale architecture and the general principles of sustainable design. A talented designer, she has won Russian and international awards for her designs in landscaping and strawbale architecture. In 2006, she and a colleague designed a multi-room single-story recreation center using strawbale technology, and in 2008, with support from The Altai Project and the Trust for Mutual Understanding, she led a team of international and local volunteers to successfully implement that design, resulting in a building completed in 2008 and now in use at the Technical University’s Bobrovka recreation campus near Barnaul. She is currently director of Straw Capital, a green building education NGO in Barnaul.

Tatyana Akimova is an architecture student in her sixth year of education. This final year is dedicated to individual research and practical internships. Tatyana is focusing on “green design in the architectural environment” in the Architecture Department at the Institute for Architecture and Design at Altai State Polzunov Technical University. Her interests include ecology and the preservation of local cultural heritage. Tatyana was an enthusiastic participant in the construction and plastering of the strawbale building in Bobrovka in 2008 and attended numerous sustainable design and construction seminars throughout the Bobrovka project’s implementation.

Ekaterina Reyzbikh is also in her sixth and final year of architecture studies, focusing on “design using ice in the architectural environment” in the Architecture Department at the Institute for Architecture and Design at Altai State Polzunov Technical University. Ekaterina spent the 2007-08 academic year at Cavendish College in London, studying architecture and interior design. Upon returning to Russia in 2008, she completed the practicum on sustainable design and construction in Bobrovka, led by visiting experts from the United States and attended by students and volunteers from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia.

Project Implementation Details

The three architects arrived on September 1 for their four-week stay. Using the coastal hamlet of Moss Beach (25 minutes south of downtown San Francisco) as a home base, the group explored local and San Francisco sights while getting accustomed to the time change and discussing plans.

On September 3, the group had several meetings in the East Bay. Their first stop was to meet the staff of the Building Education Center in West Berkeley. The BEC is an urban non-profit whose mission is to provide hands-on education and lectures for beginners, homeowners, and professionals in building and remodeling. They offer a special focus on green construction and solar panels. The goal of the meeting was for participants to learn more about the Center’s operation, funding model, and programming, as well as to explore the challenges and opportunities of operating a very focused, small, urban nonprofit.

Later that same day, the group went on a tour of the new Brower Center in Berkeley. This brand-new facility was built using the latest green technologies and aims to be “an inspiring home to social and environmental activism.” John Knox, Executive Director of Earth Island Institute, gave us an insider’s tour filled with many interesting details and descriptions of green building choices. The participants were particularly intrigued by the compromises and choices required for incorporating green architecture and design into large institutional building complexes (“green” concrete, etc.).

The next day, the group traveled into San Francisco to meet with staff at Pacific Environment. We discussed the alternative energy and green architecture movement as a whole in Altai and western Siberia, and developed initial plans for future collaboration around an alternative energy exchange that Pacific Environment is planning in mid-2010.

Following the Labor Day weekend, we traveled to Boonville, approximately three hours north of San Francisco and in the heart of California’s famous wine country. The three architects would spend the next thirteen days at Emerald Earth Sanctuary. During the first phase of their visit, the women spent time learning about how the off-grid community functions, participated in day-to-day life, and assisted in preparations for the upcoming eight-day Natural Building Intensive seminar in which they would be participants.

During the seminar, the women were joined by an international cadre of participants including a Czech, a German, and many others. It was an interesting group of people and a number of conversations around gender roles, work distribution, and even the seminar’s planned projects ensued, were enthusiastically debated, and successfully resolved. The seminar was designed to include theory and design lectures, tours of existing green buildings and technologies at Emerald Earth, and the all-important hands-on practical work.

The participants worked on a two-story strawbale and rammed earth community center already under construction at Emerald Earth. They practiced and implemented a wide variety of techniques, including cob, strawbale, slipstraw or light straw-clay, slip-and-chip, clay wattle, earthen plasters, hand-made paints, and more. Tatyana brought her artistic touch to one wall, adding a plaster salamander. They also studied off-grid electrical generation, greywater reclamation, composting toilets, and more.

In their free time in the evenings, the women spent hours reading books in Emerald Earth’s excellent and extremely comprehensive building and design library. One evening, the three women gave a presentation to their fellow students and Emerald Earth residents on the 2008 design and construction of the strawbale building in Bobrovka, Altai. The presentation generated a great deal of interest and enthusiasm as well as many questions that evening and the following days. In addition, the Russians were able to study Emerald Earth’s unique approach to building education, especially with respect to organizing and implementing trainings in remote, off-grid locations.

On September 20th the group parted ways with their newfound friends at Emerald Earth and headed down the valley to Hopland, California. Hopland is home to the Solar Living Institute and the Real Goods store. The Solar Living Institute (SLI) hosts a complex combination of long-term residential internships, an excellent and diverse training and education program, many demonstration projects illustrating green technology, alternative energy, recycling and reuse programs, green architecture, and organic gardening and permaculture.

The women were especially impressed with SLI’s hospitable atmosphere, high-energy volunteers, and the breadth and depth of SLI’s training and education programs. On the last day of their regretfully short 4-day visit, the group was able to shadow SLI staff while the Institute hosted Cupertino High School’s green architecture and technology students for the day. In addition, the group was able to closely investigate SLI’s functioning at a meta-level, understanding the Institute’s structure, management, and operation with an eye on how to create a similar non-profit organization in Altai, Siberia.

During the final weekend of their stay, the group traveled to Monterey Bay. Born and raised in Siberia, two of the three had never before seen an ocean, and none of them had ever visited an aquarium, let alone the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium. That same evening the group dined at Passionfish, a local restaurant committed to using produce grown by local organic farmers and sustainably and locally harvested seafood.

Results

Upon their return home from California, laden with stacks of useful reference books, thousands of pictures, and many, many new skills and ideas, the three women have been of great interest in the Barnaul community. They have given a number of presentations and spoken to the media about their experiences, most recently in early November. At a presentation hosted by their own Institute of Architecture and Design, they gave a presentation to a large packed room including university staff and administrators, local community members, students, and the local media. Elena commented that her boss and the other university administrators in attendance were quite impressed by the turnout and the high degree of interest. In October, Elena was interviewed by a local television station about the strawbale building in Bobrovka for a local news program.

More and more, The Altai Project hears from other US nonprofits, as well as from TAP’s Russian colleagues, that the remote Altai region is really leading the pack when it comes to developing and implementing alternative energy technology and green architecture in Russia. There is still much work to be done, of course, especially in terms of getting the local building codes to support these technologies, but the level of interest and enthusiasm alone is really important. Elena, Tatyana, and Ekaterina really feel strongly that these technologies will become institutionalized in southern Siberia. The three women are part of a growing network of designers and builders with current and extensive experience in strawbale and other natural building technologies. Elena has recently signed a contract to conduct a training in the distant Smolensk region in Western Russia in April 2010.