It’s too early to call it a trend, but in this environmentally aware age, Israelis are increasingly building their homes from natural products such as mud and straw. Green construction is on the rise as architects and contractors adopt environmentally friendly materials and techniques.
“I was completely unaware that this traditional construction method is feasible until I attended a week-long course at Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava desert last month,” says Felix Levy, 62, an antique restorer from Pardess Hana.
Founded in 1983 by graduates of Reform youth movements from North America and Israel, Lotan describes itself as “an Eco-Jewish collective community with a deep commitment to environmental protection.” For over two decades, its Center for Creative Ecology has focused on organic farming, permaculture, alternative architecture and energy, earning a worldwide reputation for innovation. The center’s training courses are unique in the world, covering a holistic gamut of subjects, according to Mike Kaplin, the center’s cofounder and manager.
“Thousands of people from all corners of the world have graduated from our courses,” says Kaplin, originally from Harlow, Essex. “They come to this tiny place in the middle of nowhere to learn and live, attracted by the combination of romantic images of an egalitarian kibbutz, the desert, Reform Judaism, environmentalism, and spirituality. They learn how to do these things in such an extreme location, and beyond the educational element is the freedom.”
An economic branch of the kibbutz, the center is emerging from two tough years.
“The corona epidemic hit us hard,” says Kaplin. “We used to be about international outreach, but for now our focus is on Israelis. One thing corona has done is that it’s gotten people more connected to self-sufficiency, so it’s higher on everyone’s agenda.”
Levy says he “was interested in the ecological aspects. I heard about the place through a Facebook post and found lots of fascinating ideas there. The staff has extensive knowledge, proven techniques, vision and heart. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to market themselves. A week wasn’t enough – there are so many issues to learn about. When I find the time, I’ll participate in the month-long course.”
Awareness of straw-bale construction soared in the US during the natural building revival of the 1990s. The first such house in Israel was built by Sarah Kopp after she made aliyah from Seattle in 1993 with her husband and three children. Six more children later, their rambling Safed home is living proof of its feasibility.
The advantages are many: the basic building material is a waste product of farming that cannot be burned by law or used for animal feed since it’s mostly cellulose; straw is a superb insulator that does not attract bugs and mice because it has no food value; the plaster makes the walls almost fireproof; carbon-sequestering straw has an extremely low environmental footprint, unlike the reinforced concrete used in most buildings in Israel; and the buildings can survive nature’s most severe whims.
It may seem counterintuitive, but a house from bales of straw, plastered with a mixture of mud, sand and chopped straw, can be extremely sturdy. In Nebraska, century-old pioneers’ straw-bale homes still stand, having even withstood a serious earthquake without damage.
The Arava sits atop the seismically active Great Syria-African Rift, and Lotan’s eco-Zionists have developed an earthquake-proof housing system by combining straw-bale construction with the geodesic domes popularized by 20th-century American architect Buckminster Fuller.
The cost is slightly more than building a conventional house due to the price of materials and labor-intensive processes, but this is offset long-term by energy efficiency.
“At least 50% of the cost is people power,” says Kaplin. “If you can organize a community to help each other, it’s a win-win situation, with kids playing on the building site.”
Zafrir Ortas built his single-story, 170-square-meter straw-and-mud house in the Arava community settlement Tzukim 15 years ago. “For the foundations and [mandatory] safe room we had a contractor, the rest we did ourselves,” he explains. “My wife and I built the house, together with a friend. The whole process took about eight months. I had no experience beforehand, so I volunteered for three months in Australia to learn how to do it.”
Theirs is one of about 10 such dwellings in the village. “It’s our family home, and our two children love it,” says Ortas. “The thermal insulation makes it pleasant both in summer and winter, but there’s far more to it than that – every visitor, it seems, comments on the ambience created by the home.” ■