Having grown up in the Union Heights neighborhood of North Charleston, Carlie Towne remembers a time when meals were a community affair. Neighbors gathered around a fire pit, sharing laughs while their feast simmered under hot coals.
“When I was a girl, that was the way we got our Burger King,” Towne jokes. “Somebody had a pig in the ground, and you gave them your $2 and they handed you dinner, with potato salad and whatever else.”
Towne identifies as Gullah/Geechee, and she has spent much of her adult life in the pursuit of preserving her culture. In the ’90s, she owned a store, Swan’s L.A. Expressions, devoted to African clothing and crafts, and helped produce documentaries about her heritage. Currently the minister of information for the Gullah/Geechee Nation, Towne’s primary project today is the Angel Network, a multipurpose cultural group spearheading the creation of a Gullah/Geechee International Camp Meeting Center to be built on a two-acre tract of land Towne purchased in 2005 in Cross, S.C.
About two years ago, Towne approached the Charleston chapter of the nonprofit group Architecture for Humanity with her idea. The newly formed group of volunteer architects enthusiastically took on the project pro bono, creating a detailed schematic design for the complex, including an auditorium, recording studio, bunk houses, and lookout tower.
“We latch onto things that seem like they have real meaning,” says AFH architect Stephen Ramos, also of local firm LS3P. “We put a lot of effort into creating really attractive drawings that could help them sell the project to potential fundraising sources.”
Around the same time the plans were being drawn for the center, AFH architect April Magill began to further explore her passion for natural building. Unlike green or LEED-certified building, natural building actually uses earthen materials. Falling under the “permaculture” banner, it’s an ancient concept built around working with nature through design. Architecturally speaking, this might include using sand, straw, or clay as raw materials (think adobe).
Most readers have seen a naturally built house. Whether it’s an earth-bermed “hobbit house” tucked into a hillside or a Swiss Family Robinson-style tree mansion perched high in the canopy, we’re quick to admire these innovative builders, although few people pursue these fanciful housing options for their own families.
But the majority of permaculture structures aren’t nearly as whimsical as a tree house. California first adopted standards for straw bale houses nearly two decades ago, and the DIY method of foundation, frame, straw bale insulation, and plaster has become commonplace. But it’s a concept that’s been slow to reach the Southeast, and architects like Magill hope to accelerate its assimilation.
“I’m looking to be the first alternative building architect of Charleston, more or less,” says Magill, who began her natural-building training at a workshop in Asheville, where permaculture is already dinner-table talk. “It’s labor-intensive work that’s more about community involvement than getting a contractor. You don’t have to have a lot of money to build. You just have to have some man power.”
In January, Magill spent two weeks in Nicaragua building a classroom with bamboo and earthen plasters. Her first project was a clay oven in her James Island backyard that she completed in August. After attending a wedding in the Upstate, she and her boyfriend loaded up their truck with rich, red clay they found on a friend’s property. With her own oven perfected and turning out perfectly cooked meals (including a whole roast turkey at Thanksgiving), Magill decided to host a public workshop with the remaining clay.
Towne knew of Magill’s home project and was reminded of her childhood experiences sharing food cooked directly from the earth. To help get the ball rolling on the Gullah/Geechee Meeting Center, the pair decided an oven would be the perfect groundbreaking for the site.
Over the first weekend in September, about 20 eager participants headed an hour up the road to Cross, on the west shore of Lake Moultrie. After searching for a good spot in the wooded area of Towne’s plot, the group decided to build the oven right in the corner of the lot, directly at the intersection of Highway 6 and Shortcut Road. Across the street from a gas station, doubling as a grocery store and local hangout in this unassuming small town, they hoped the decorative yet functional oven would eventually welcome visitors into the center.
The location offered the added benefit of ground cover over an old asphalt driveway, meaning there were no tree roots underneath, and an easier process of establishing a foundation for the oven within the workshop’s limited time frame. A giant pile of sand was sculpted atop the recycled cinder block base to shape the clay roof. Once the clay hardened, the sand was shoveled out, leaving the hollow body of the oven.
Over a second weekend in November, the workshop group added a second plaster coat, decorated the oven with a glass bead mosaic, and put the finishing touches on a shelter supported by two felled pine trees from the property, keeping direct rainfall off of the oven’s exposed clay.
With their project completed, the group excitedly built their first fire in the oven. Pizza dough was rolled out and topped with local produce. A first wave of Charleston citizens were now educated and enlightened on natural building techniques, and the Gullah/Geechie Meeting Center had a physical focal point to rally the community behind their cause.
But not everyone in the community was thrilled about their progress. And with good reason: The oven might not be on Towne’s land.
Run of the Land
The natural-building movement is simply a slightly more sophisticated return to the days before cookie-cutter and pre-fab homes. Unfortunately for the clay oven builders, those times existed without the complicating hassles of property lines and high-power electric right-of-ways.
Connie Shuler has lived in Cross her entire life, apart from attending college in Columbia. Her family owns a few plots of land around the community, including a tiny appendage of several hundred square feet at the corner of Carlie Towne’s land, fronting the intersection where the clay oven now stands.
Shuler claims that the oven lies fully within her property line; in fact she hired a surveyor in December to double-check, and the surveyor confirmed it. Towne, on the other hand, says she is unsure of her exact property line, acknowledging that the oven may sit directly atop it. She is currently seeking a pro bono surveyor to tell her one way or the other.
Towne and her supporters have petitioned Shuler to allow the oven to remain, but Shuler worries that the location, directly next to the road, isn’t safe for children to congregate and that she’d be liable if the roof fell on someone. She’s also outspoken about her feelings that other community projects should take priority over a Gullah/Geechee community center, including a health clinic she’s been working to secure funding for through the Franklin C. Fetter Family Health Center in downtown Charleston.
“I contribute to the community, but this is not what we need right now,” Shuler says. “If we’ve got any extra money, we need to work on the clinic up there. That’s No. 1 — the children that don’t have health care. That’s our main concern, and people with children that are not educated. We need tutoring for these children.”
Project leader Magill voices frustration that Shuler didn’t approach them until the project was complete, despite a sign posted for Towne’s Angel Network, including her e-mail and phone number. Shuler says she was simply “trying to act nice” and didn’t realize the group was building a permanent structure.
Magill and ACH’s Ramos admit that throughout the design process for the meeting center, they never noticed the property line that cuts off a tiny sliver of the lot at the intersection. It’s a small property, Shuler says, but one with commercial potential. She’d hoped to put a drive-in ice machine there, until someone else installed one just down the road. Once the oven is gone, she says, she’s got other ideas for how to use the property commercially.
Whoever owns the lot, any plans for its permanent usage could run into trouble with power utility Santee Cooper, whose high-power transmission lines run less than 20 feet from the oven. Generally speaking, no permanent structures area allowed within 150 feet of the transmission lines.
On Jan. 20, Shuler’s attorney, John Williams of Williams and Hulst LLC in Moncks Corner, sent a letter to Towne demanding that the oven be moved within 10 days. That action followed Towne’s rejection of an offer by Shuler for a $50-a-month lease on the property, provided they purchase insurance for its use.
“I never gave consent for this,” Shuler says. “I try to act nice, because I’m not a bad person.”
Towne’s attorney, Michael Gruenloh, replied to Williams on Jan. 25 with a request for proof that Shuler owns the parcel, as well as an explanation for Shuler’s decision not to voice her concerns or request rent until after the project was completed. Gruenloh pointed out that Towne derives no income from the oven, which was a result of a community volunteer effort, and noted that the isolated plot is not adjacent to other land owned by Shuler. At press time, the oven remains intact and unmoved.
Moving the oven isn’t feasible. The base would have to be deconstructed and rebuilt, and the clay would have to be reshaped with sand, starting from scratch. Even if they did relocate it deeper into Towne’s property, a scar would be left on the project’s legacy, driving a wedge between neighboring landowners over an initiative intended to bring the community together.
Whether or not the oven survives for another month, its legacy in the progression of natural building in the Lowcountry will certainly outlive its physical form.
Natural Building Looks Ahead
At her own house, Magill recently began experimenting with natural clay compounds, seeking a mix that will “breathe” most effectively in our humid climate, sucking moisture from the air in the summer without losing its structural integrity. She’s recently launched her own business, Root Down Designs, offering both natural building workshops and consulting for homebuilders and renovators wanting to incorporate alternative methods into their design. She sees real potential for clay and cob (a mixture of clay, sand, and straw) houses in Charleston, including using wine bottles to shape a cob wall or crushing oyster shells to use as a substrate.
“Pretty much any natural-building technique works, as long as you have a good roof and a good foundation. The idea is that good architecture can be functional, efficient, beautiful, and still affordable,” says Magill, who has been documenting her work at dirtqueenarchitect.blogspot.com. “I’m bringing back indigenous/vernacular concepts to the building world and empowering people to use their hands again.”
At the clay oven, after the issues with Shuler arose, Magill received a phone call from the Berkeley County Building and Code Enforcement office, concerned that the lean-to roof didn’t meet wind-resistance specifications. Magill demonstrated that the structure was secure, but says the call illustrates issues that will arise whenever someone builds without using treated wood and conventional big-box store supplies that today’s officials are accustomed to signing off on.
“How is it different than someone’s unpermitted carport in their yard?” asks Magill. “Whenever you try to do something unconventional, you’re going to have resistance.”
Charleston County Building Inspections Director Carl Simmons says it’s really not difficult to put up a natural building, provided a structural engineer signs off on its integrity.
“The codes are designed for new technology, but also designed to handle old technology,” says Simmons, explaining that a prospective natural builder should begin by sitting down with a building official to understand the minimum regulations before proceeding with a final design. “If you want to build something to the standard of construction in ancient Mesopotamia, you can do that, no question about it. You just need to have a structural engineer tell me that it’s structurally sound.”
Simmons points to a few buildings on Sullivan’s Island, including the Edgar Allen Poe Library, that are built into the earthen and concrete magazine left from the island’s days as a military stronghold. At the library, the county removed the dirt from the former bunker’s roof, only to find that the dirt greatly improved the building’s energy efficiency and subsequently put it back
“This whole concept of what we can do with the earth regarding energy efficiency is not new,” Simmons says.
Melissa Le Roy, executive director of the S.C. chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, says that the Lowcountry’s flat topography has contributed to the slower growth of the natural building phenomenon here. Unlike in Asheville, we can’t dig into a hillside to carve out a retreat.
“We are seeing more and more people getting back to Mother Nature, and I think that over the next couple of years we’re going to see a whole different social culture emerging,” Le Roy says. “I think it has the potential to skyrocket, but it’s going to take individuals leading the way.”
Magill plans to be that leader in Charleston, beginning with the cultivation of a community that understands the value of building with natural, local materials.
“In a lot of ways, natural building is looking back at the way our ancestors built things,” Magill says. “Technology has gotten us far away from a lot of basic principles — like using the sun to your advantage — that our ancestors understood.”
Through projects like the oven, Magill hopes to throw the misconception that building a green house requires big money out the window. Forget LEED certification. Look around at the materials available, factor the angles of the sun into heating and cooling designs, and get creative. If you need a house, be a doer, not a dreamer. Build it — simple as that.