Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Living in Houses Made of Vegetables

By Matt Cantor
Thursday September 18, 2008 - 09:57:00 AM

I built my house from barley rice 

Green pepper walls and water ice 

Tables of paper wood, windows of light 

And everything emptying into white. 

—Cat Stevens 


Forgive my g-g-generation but that’s a favorite song of mine. In fact, we were struggling through it at music night last week with special efforts made by our local tax expert, Peetnik and rockstar, Woody Bolton (our latest addition to Saturday night “Warble and Plunk”). Cat’s music isn’t simple and Woody made a mighty effort. 

I begin with these lyrics because in thinking about my subject, they seem strangly apt, though I’m sure they were never intended as a treatise on real construction and were, instead, a fantasy of how one might, in some Beatrix Potter sort of world, build a home. 

In fact, these words are not far from the truth. We do live in houses of barley rice, or at least some similar vegetable. Trees, are after all, vegetables if you’ll forgive some unfortunate botany. They can be eaten by someone large enough (or small enough) and if steamed or boiled long enough, they can be eaten by us. Lots of tree parts (including fruit) get eaten by us. So, while not all parts of a house (or all houses) are made from trees, many are and these are ultimately food. One might as well carve out a potato and move inside. 

I find this funny because it is such a sweet counterpoint to the illusion of our power over nature and the pretense of our noble place in the universe. We are mutable, transient creatures flying through space inhabiting vegetable houses covered with sand and clay. That last part is fun too. Our vegetable houses get served on china footings and clad with armor of mud and rock.  

We tend to look down our noses at the natives who inhabit mud huts or once lives in homes of wattle and daub (I’ll come back to this) but there are far fewer differences between today’s residential construction the construction of these 10,000 years old forms than one might think. 

Wattle and daub is the practice of weaving sticks into the shape of a wall and smearing said lattice with whatever one has about; in most cases, clay or mud with straw. Though this is one of the earliest methods we know of to build a wall, it’s only slightly different from lath (wattle) and plaster (hydraulic daub) and a short skip and a jump to drywall, wherein the wattle has been replaced by a layer of paper on either side of the daub. Whether that’s an improvement or not is, in my mind, very much in question.  

That last part, plaster (or gypsum plaster), might actually be something modern. Lime plaster is an amazing thing and I’m not quite sure how we arrived at it but it seems likely to have been an accident involving a fire-ring of limestone, and a large fire, followed by the application of water (dousing the fire?). Plaster is at least 5,000 years old having been found at sites like the Tarxian Temples of Malta (2800 BC) but is likely much older. 

Concrete is not much different from plaster and relies upon a very similar composition to lime plaster for it’s core ingredient, portland cement. Again, these are clearly the results of limestone having been inadvertently heated and mixed with water to create a rock-hard material some thousands of years ago. Today, concrete is the worlds primarily building material (and the manufacture thereof, one of its primary energy consumers). In the end it’s just more rocks that we’re making so our built world is rocks and veggies. Now isn’t that a bit funny. In this world of LCD screens and Roombas on Mars, we’re living in rocks and vegetables. 

A prehistoric roof might have been made up of local leafed branches arrayed across a framework of sticks and with sufficient layers might have lasted several years. With maintenance, perhaps a decade. Thatching, still practiced in some parts of the world is simply a finer version of this and was apparently quite popular with many of gods creatures, being a good home for both bird and beast. 

Modern asphalt shingles are not as far from this as we might like to think being made mostly of paper (pulped wood), dipped in tar and rolled in crushed rock (would you care for pepper with that sir?). If it weren’t for the two latter ingredients, I’m sure it would be on someone’s menu but, alas, it is the sun that takes these to the grave. Nevertheless, the point stands that these are very simple natural materials and not any sort of technological marvel. Economics being at the bottom of almost any process, we tend to use what we have. Trees, rocks, grass, sand, clay and water. 

Bugs know that our houses are mostly vegetable matter because they’re eating them as we speak and I’m not just talking about termites. Fungi, including molds and mildew are also having lunch as are bacteria (they finish what others left on the table as well as the diners themselves). It’s a veritable feast, so check the duration of your mortgage because what you’re buying is fast becoming food for powder post beetles, carpenter ants, carpenter bees and other xylophagous organisms (wood eaters).  

The grindings and pulps of trees are a major part of what we’re living in, from the skin of drywall to the backing on pergo, much of what goes into houses is paper or chipped up bits of wood or bamboo. This includes the cabinets in your kitchen. The Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) trim on your modern house (pulp), the fiber-cement siding on your house (pulp and portland cement) or the microlam beam that hold up the floor (small chips of wood and lots of glue). For some of these materials, especially the pulped or chipped ones, fungi are elbowing one another aside to get to dinner because these are essentially predigested and quicker to consume. Plank wood, on the other hand is compartmentalized with various membranes that make digestion harder and more dependent upon first tier xylophages such as termites. 

Good construction and maintenance practices may inhibit these ecologists from their duly appointed browsing but it’s all short term from a geotemporal perspective so make “hay” while the sun shines and enjoy the “fruits” of your construction because they will not last (and given what they’re building these days, I say “bon appetite”).