Permaculture Design Interview – Bryce Ehrecke

Bryce Ehrecke is a natural builder and an instructor at Pacific Rim College. He recently led our Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma students in a comprehensive, 77-hour building course at Tiny Tree Herb Farm – a project that included a hands-on farm stand installation that was documented as part of the ongoing PRC permaculture blog. We sat down with Bryce this summer to talk about his approach to building.

Hi Bryce! Tell me a bit about your background. Were there any especially strong forces – political, philosophical, practical – that led you to natural building?

​B: I found Natural Building through feeling “unsettled.” Unsettled in myself, in space, and unaware of the near- and far-reaching effects of everything. I was fairly young when these feelings started becoming more prevalent, and so I began seeking things that might reconnect myself and space, and myself to place. I began asking questions – what are the internal and external effects of the food I eat and where it comes from, of the shelter I live in and how it was made, of the water I drink and the things that may contaminate it, of the air I breathe and the pollution in it; how did I come to be in “North America” … Once I started asking those questions they have continually moved me to try to minimize the negative implications of them, to find less harmful ways of being, and to find more regenerative, positive ways of being. To me, Natural Building is one piece of that complex puzzle. 

Permaculture focuses on “appropriate technology” – to me this often feels like a slippery concept. How do you engage with this principle in your decision-making when working on a natural building project?

​​​B: I feel that we are living at a time scale that requires appropriate technology. There are an increasing number of human inhabitants on this earth, and an increasing number of complex, compounding challenges that we all face. I feel like technology has great potential reach and impact – when it comes to the broad strokes of basic information to help overcome some of those challenges, whether it be education, awareness of things beyond ourselves, connection, sharing ideas, or different tools to process food, water, shelter, waste, etc.  Technology also has the potential to spread negative impacts and information, as well as the potential to reduce diversity, and so “appropriate” is the key word.

The same idea can be applied to the appropriate use of resources. Should we use technology to create more, “better” plastics that harm the environment that we rely on, that require fossil fuels and further systems to avoid those plastics from becoming pollution and waste? Or should we utilize technology to change the system that creates plastics, and necessitates plastics that harm the environment, and at the same time use technology to reduce or eliminate the harm being done, and that already has been done by plastics in the environment? There is energy embodied in everything, and it’s a matter of utilizing regenerative technologies to ensure that energy is recycled appropriately, or to make things that last.

You’re involved with the late Paolo Soleri’s micro-city in Arizona, Arcosanti. Can you talk a bit about what it is, and what makes it special for you?

​B: Arcosanti is a self-proclaimed experimental city that began its physical manifestation in the 1970s. It is currently home to around 70 full-time residents, and a fluctuating number of part-time residents. Its intent is to embody and display the concepts of “Arcology” – Architecture and Ecology – creating a human/nature-like ethos in its physical form as well as in its socio-cultural complexity. The idea is to create a dense, 3-dimensional living environment that relates to the natural environment, where building functions reflect and utilize the natural elements in the surrounding area to create a less wasteful, more socially impactful human environment. By creating an environment that focuses on interaction, efficiency, and that fosters a connection to the natural world, Arcosanti is the beginnings of a potential model that could be expanded and adapted to create more positive human environments for generations to come. It’s a place with huge potential, and I would highly recommend checking it out. 

What have been some of your most important projects? Most challenging? Most rewarding?

B: The most important projects to me have been the ones that I’ve done in a workshop setting. This means a group of strangers coming together towards a common goal of learning and creating. It’s always inspiring to see diverse backgrounds merge, and to learn from different perspectives. Some of the most challenging and rewarding projects have been projects I’ve taken on where I hadn’t taken on a project of that scope or scale before. I’m always pushing myself out of my comfort zone to try new things. 

You’re half of Cré Natural Building, an art and natural building initiative – what do you do, and how did you come to form your own company?

B: I’ve been learning and applying natural building techniques for the past 10 years, at first with Pat Hennebery of Cob Works, and then with various other builders. I met my partner Kelly seven years ago, and for the past four years we’ve been doing our own natural building work, with myself doing most of the physical work, and Kelly consulting on design and taking care of the website and photography to help promote our work. We do design/build creation of natural structures of all different scales and contexts. From earthen ovens, to custom homes and community structures. We formed our own company in order to steer our own projects, teach workshops, and promote natural building as well as other regenerative practices such as permaculture. 

Anthropogenic climate change sometimes feels like an elephant in the room – hopefully one that permaculture helps develop an answer to. Where and how do you see the world of natural building growing in the upcoming years?

B: I see natural building being a part of the puzzle to help create more resilient, healthy community and living structures for the future. The ease and adaptability of natural building techniques to be incorporated and reworked into all different scales of structures can have a net positive effect on reducing the amount of harmful compounds and substances we are emitting and being exposed to through the man made materials of the athropocene. Natural building also often looks at, and incorporates, the use of living structures and plants to perform parts of the desired functions of a building: like cleaning the air, shading a wall to keep it seasonally cool, or to absorb excess rainwater, etc. which could be applied to help mitigate some of the coming effects of a changing climate. 

What resources would you point people towards if they want to learn more about what you do and natural building in general?

B: If people are interested in what we do, or anything related to natural building, different community structures, future cities, permaculture, or other topics included in this interview they can check out our website and community page, as well as the natural building resources section which has a list of books on natural building. Taking a workshop is another great way to get introduced to the world of natural building. 

Thanks Bryce!

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.