Ecoheal: Building from the ground up, nature’s way, in Orange County – Mark Schultz

New earthen building technique using dirt, rice husks and other natural materials.

Eco Healing Institute a new earthen building technique using dirt, rice husks and other natural materials
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Eco Healing Institute a new earthen building technique using dirt, rice husks and other natural materials

We are standing on top of a 10-foot mulch pile when Dani Mouawad pulls a steel rod from the shredded wood.

Feel it, he says

I grip the metal just lightly enough to feel the heat and let go.

The decaying wood will help heat the Ecoheal Center, a 12-sided building beside Mouawad’s home outside Chapel Hill. (Disclosure: I live in the same neighborhood, Heartwood, but had not met Mouawad before last week.)

Beginning Friday, Mouawad will bring together builders, inspectors, architects and a former county commissioner for a workshop on earthen, or cob, construction, the method he and others used to build the structures.

It’s a method he says is far more durable than conventional stick-built housing. And better for the environment.

“Is there any inner healing without outer healing?” Mouawad, in jeans and socks, asks as I step into the 1,500-square-foot center, with its foot-thick walls built with a patented mix of earth, sand, straw, lime and linseed oil.

He was running a clinic in southern Louisiana, he says, where he saw what harmful chemicals and poverty were doing to his patients.

“I kept seeing kids with asthma, and I’d give them the medications I was trained to give them – and things weren’t getting any better,” he said

Mouawad, 51, studied with Dr. Andrew Weil, a holistic health leader. When he and his family moved to Orange County in 2010, he envisioned creating a “micro-village,” a dozen buildings housing maybe 30 people that could become a model for how people could live, and once did.

It wasn’t long ago in the blip that is humanity’s space on the planet’s timeline that people lived in harmony with nature. They built their homes from the materials around them, be it clay, wood or the grass of the Great Plains.

Mouawad contacted me because housing is in the news. He thinks projects like his might be one possible answer for the Chapel Hill mobile home tenants who face losing their homes to a proposed new apartment complex.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Pipes will carry water heated from a compost pile to help warm the Ecoheal Center outside Chapel Hill during cold weather.The walls were built in a patented formation system using natural materials. courtes of Ecoheal

Conventional construction, with its fire-, wind- and water-resistant materials manufactured at a distance takes a toll on the environment, Mouawad says. Couple that with harmful chemicals, hormone disrupters and the like we are exposed to in and outside our homes every day, and he says, it’s no wonder people are sick.

“We are swimming in waves that are not natural,” he says. “It doesn’t serve our health. It doesn’t serve our economics. It doesn’t serve nature.”

His methods use locally sourced materials and construction practices that tap nature for heating and cooling. The energy from deep inside that mulch pile, for example, will be transferred to coiled pipes carrying water to heat and provide hot water for the Ecoheal Center.

It’s labor intensive to build this way, he concedes. It took a year for Mouawad and two or three helpers working every day to finish Ecoheal.

“The bigger question for me is what if we don’t do that? Where will we be going?” he says. “The Earth cannot stand the way we are treating it. What is the solution? For me it is going back to the basics.”

To further demonstrate, he opens a closet door and reaches into the inside wall, exposed for teaching purposes. He opens his hand to show me rice husks he’s used for insulation: safe, energy-efficient and insect-proof.

Mouawad’s buildings meet the conditions of a site plan and special-use permit that Orange County approved in the mid-1980s.

“Still, this was new technology for me,” says Michael Harvey, the county’s current planning supervisor. “The project is intriguing,” he adds. “It would be nice to see if there are other types of applications.”

Mouawad isn’t saying one application has to be the small housing community that Chapel Hill and Orange County are now talking about creating on Milhouse Road for the displaced mobile home dwellers (a half-mile from Ecoheal). But he doesn’t dismiss it either. He just wants to get people talking.

“We are proud to carry a torch,” he says, “but it is a torch that should be shared.”

Mark Schultz is the managing editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-829-8950 or mschultz@heraldsun.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter @HeraldSunEditor.