The Loss of Traditional Sheltermaking

Peter Cowman
Monday, 30th July 2018

Peter Cowman explores how traditional sheltermaking was lost with the Industrial Revolution.

Human shelters offer testament to the strength of the human will to survive. As such, they are a vital component of settled life and a stimulus for cultural expression. These functions are sustained by establishing connections with the physical and metaphysical realities of life on planet Earth, traditionally an integral part of the building design and construction processes.

Accessing shelter, water and food are essential to our physical survival while accessing the metaphysical or the ‘intangible’ world of emotions, beliefs, values, meaning and so forth are vital to our psychological survival. Because houses have the potential to satisfy both of these survival needs traditional sheltermaking activity has been central to the nurturance of human life as well as to cultural development across the planet.

Shelter design and construction have always been community based activities and an essential component in the development of living cultures. In the move away from an agriculture-based survival strategy, spurred by the Industrial Revolution, the creation of simple, natural, handmade shelter was superceded by the introduction of new dwelling types designed to conform with an industry and technology-based survival strategy.

Because the work ethic of the industrial era demanded the surrender of a person's time in exchange for a wage, shelter design and construction activity came to be dominated by profit-motivated economic forces which could exploit the need for workers and their families to have secure dwelling places. The new dwelling types that emerged, essentially physical in nature, made no reference in their design or construction to the intangibles of life. Emotional nourishment had to be sought elsewhere, done without, or, ersatz satisfaction sought through physical consumption.

As people became captivated by the promises of the industrial age, traditional sheltermaking activity died out. Because these were oral traditions, perpetuated by hands-on community building activity, once people stopped building and inhabiting traditional type dwellings connections to life’s intangible aspects were not generated and therefore could not be fed into the cycle of cultural development in the same way as before.

As a consequence of the decline of traditional sheltermaking activity, precipitated by the way-of-life fostered by the Industrial Revolution, the knowledge of how to design and construct simple, natural, handmade dwellings was lost. This loss was compounded by the fact that sheltermaking was never part of the architectural profession which only ever catered for the housing needs of wealthy and influental persons. This has eventuated in a situation whereby no responsible body has emerged to oversee and direct the development of house design solutions that can satisfactorily and affordably cater for the needs of people enmeshed in the industry based way-of-life.

This situation has resulted in a lack of useful knowledge, information, initiatives, actions, choices or debate in respect of creating affordable, adaptable, meaningful and healthy buildings in which to live. This situation severely compromises people's ability to disengage from the current self-destructive economic system on which they rely to maintain their aliveness. This system is hugely reliant on the creation of debt to perpetuate its agenda, with much of this debt being generated by offering people little option but to borrow money in order to obtain a secure place in which to live. 

Mortgage debt is the primary instrument of modern indenture, shackling people to a life-threatening cycle of consumption and waste from which it can be difficult to escape. Such debt is ‘secured’ by paperwork generated by the building industry that attests to the compliance of buildings to planning and building regulations. This paperwork concerns itself with the physical aspects of a building but pays no heed whatsoever to the intangible aspects of the building which will affect the wellbeing of its occupants. With its emphasis entirely focussed on the physical, no comfort is offered by this ‘system’ to sooth the anguish inherent in the struggle to transcend this destructive cycle in the search for a more satisfying and meaningful life.

When the coupling of sovereign currencies to the value of gold was terminated in the latter part of the 20th century property became the ‘repository of value’ of ‘borrowed’ pounds, euros, dollars and so on. The expansion of the money supply which resulted from this, assisted by the deregulation of the financial system, allowed developed economies to expand exponentially by facilitating personal indebtedness, largely based on the ‘security’ offered by the paperwork attesting to the ‘value’ of buildings people bought for their personal use - their homes. As a consequence of this, property values rose dramatically, encouraging further borrowings by homeowners based on the notional rise in value of their homes.

While robust economic growth might be touted as a ‘miracle’ the reality of the situation is that mortgage debts generated by people are based on their promise to generate money by working and to repay, over time, with added interest, a large percentage of these earnings to pay off the amount they have borrowed. Such promises presuppose a future where the fulfillment of such promises remains viable. Given the realities of climate change, environmental degradation, fossil fuel depletion, recessionary economies and so on, such promises become harder and harder to keep. The consequence of failing to honour such promises is the threat of losing one’s home.

On close examination, the true ‘repository of value’ of property is not ‘bricks ‘n mortar’ at all, despite what the supporting documentation might attest to. Most people are aware that a vacant property is prone to decay and can, in fact, be a liability, not an asset. So what is it really that the supposed monetary ‘value’ of property is secured against? It is people’s will to survive. The monetization of this remarkable human quality as the driving force of economic growth is not only cynical but inhumane and, ultimately, unsustainable.

This is an extract from Sheltermaker Design Programme, available as a free download from:

Useful links

Building a tiny portable home

How to build a simple, all purpose shelter

Video: Natural building, part 2 in the 'Living with the Land' series


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