Building Naturally and Living in Community: An Out-of-Office Experience

This article from my undergraduate days reflects on a hands-on co-op term at Heathcote, an intentional community near Baltimore, where I helped to build a multi-family straw bale house. The project was designed by Sigi Koko of Down to Earth Design.

A couple of summers ago, I decided to spend my co-op term outdoors, learning practical construction skills and trying to figure out just how a building gets put together. As an architecture undergraduate, I’d already had some co-op work terms in the private sector. Those experiences motivated me to seek out work in a non-profit setting, ideally a hands-on green building internship.

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When I started my search, I scoured sites like idealist.org, and prepared a few applications before finally arranging to spend my summer at Heathcote Community as a natural building intern. Heathcote is an intentional community (members share responsibilities and resources) near Baltimore, Maryland, whose members were in the process of building a new strawbale residence.

Soon after my arrival, it became obvious that I’d learn more than just practical building skills. Being an intern at Heathcote meant fully participating in community life, including weekly meetings, nightly dinners, recreational activities and gardening work that provided much of the fresh food we ate. I worked at the building site three days a week, performing more manual labour than I’d ever done in my life.

This opportunity was fantastic; it allowed me to learn practical skills, get in shape and meet many interesting people. My jobs included everything from plastering, cleaning and painting, to making a cob stove. I learned about lime and earthen plasters, strawbale construction and natural paints. I studied the architectural plans to connect the ideas on paper to the physical, built reality.

In addition to the work on the house, there were other aspects of the Heathcote internship that meshed well with the UW co-op program. Once a week, the interns, our supervisor (who was also working on the house) and the other workers met to discuss progress, goals and inspiration. These meetings were a good chance to check in and make sure the experience was going well for everyone. The scheduled Intern Night each Monday was a well-attended event, during which interns and other community members would gather to go on hikes, have a bonfire or play games. I also chose to attend a weekly meditation group.

Every Thursday, I had the opportunity to listen in on the details of community life at Heathcote’s community meeting. Not only did I get to know the residents of Heathcote, I also learned how the community is structured socially, financially and politically. It was here that I learned about the practical details of organizing a community building project, as well as other aspects of community life, such as consensus-based decision making.

At the end of the summer, I had learned much more than just how to find my way around a construction site. Living at Heathcote taught me to see the world in a different way, one in which I could become a direct participant in the change I wanted to see. The house I worked on was the result of much hard work, by many committed individuals, and it was wonderful to be able to participate in such a community-oriented project.