What's a Colloquium? An Oral History of the Natural Building Movement (2020)


A small band of natural building enthusiasts and outlaws met in a field over 20 years ago at something they called a ‘colloquium’. The movement they created has grown uncontrollably ever since; reviving and innovating ancient building techniques and training thousands in the essential, empowering art of building.

Now, as the world faces resource scarcity, increasing climate refugees and 3 billion more people on the way, this tiny backwoods movement prepares for the mainstream. Join these merry pioneers as they celebrate their successes; sharing stories, techniques and wisdom as they brace to meet the needs of a world in crisis.


In 2013 I released a documentary called ‘Fall and Winter’ which was about the rise and fall of industrial civilization. When we began filming in 2008 the realities of climate change and the end of our resource-intensive way of life seemed pretty distant. But after filming multiple crises first-hand and listening to the many experts I interviewed it became obvious; our industrial systems have exhausted the natural world and collapse is inevitable.

After touring ‘Fall and Winter’ to festivals all over the world, I got more deeply involved with several networks of people busy preparing for this looming crisis. In particular, I became close with the biointensive agriculture and natural building movements that I discovered while making ‘Fall and Winter’. I decided to continue documenting these communities with the intention of illustrating the importance of learning to feed and shelter ourselves as these challenges unfurled.

In October of 2015, I filmed the 20th Natural Building Colloquium in Kingston, New Mexico. The idea was to make a documentary about the history of the natural building movement in the US. For a week I ran around filming the action, interviewing many of the pioneers who had rediscovered and refined the ancient art of hand-building homes with natural materials.

Inspired after the colloquium, my partner Renata Abbade and I became entranced with the idea that we too could build our own home. So we teamed up with Michael G. Smith and Amanda Fischer and organized a series of workshops to do just that. By the spring of 2016 Renata and I began building a home in northern California with a rag-tag group of students, volunteers and experienced builders.

This experiment was a total success. We became skilled and empowered while opting out of an exploitative system that drowns people in debt and detaches them from their innate abilities as it profits from demolishing the natural world. We removed many of the constraints which prevent most people from doing this - mostly, money - by transforming the construction process from an economic to an educational and artistic endeavor. We estimate between 50 to 100 people helped build our home; from expert builders to novices, from children to curious onlookers. Nobody was paid for their labor and we spent less than $15,000 building our cozy little home which we’ve lived in for over 3 years now. Dozens of people learned to build in this process, including a few who have gone on to become professional builders.

Only 8 months after beginning construction, Renata gave birth to our daughter Penelope at home. There was still some wet mud and a plywood floor, but with the help of our community we created a new life and accomplished something extraordinary. Penelope has grown up in a home that has been slowly finished around her by her parents who are now competent builders, free from debt and able to pursue their dreams.

During this time I have been editing the documentary that inspired this whole endeavor, called What’s a Colloquium?’. Driven by the DIY ethic that pervades the natural building community, the decision to make the film myself with no funding kept the process rather slow and behind schedule. Additionally, the film has sat on the shelf nearly completed for a couple of years while finishing the house and juggling other projects. In this time I made the realization that ‘What’s a Colloquium?’ is inextricably linked to my personal experience, and decided it was important to weave some of that into the film. It wasn’t until I did this that it felt ‘finished’.

We want to thank the many, many amazing and selfless people who taught us and traded their sweat to help us achieve our dream. This film is dedicated to you, and to honor that spirit I’ve decided it too should be free. I hope that this movie inspires you and that you discover (as we did) that the design and materials are only the beginning of a process of profound transformation. I can now say from experience that it is absolutely possible to build your own home with the proper community support.

The rapid succession of catastrophic events in 2020 have shaken us all. It is no longer a stretch to imagine that our global civilization will have trouble recovering as ecological, social and economic consequences intensify. This has reminded me that the path I chose after ‘Fall and Winter’ was informed by a conviction that our industrially maintained dreamworld is drawing to a close. We must wake up and once again return to the natural world as we nurture her in return. I hope that together we can continue to discover and share new possibilities which help humanity to transcend and evolve through this crisis.

With love and gratitude,

- Matt Anderson
  July 2, 2020
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