Regenerative design workshops worth the trip to Asheville

Earthen buildings lend themselves easily to artistry and decoration. Photo courtesy of Kleiwerks International.

Last fall I had the privilege of taking a workshop on regenerative design with natural builder and activist, Janell Kapoor.  With her organization, Kleiwerks International, Kapoor has traveled the world teaching people how to transform their homes, gathering spaces, and communities, by building beautiful human-scale spaces by hand, with local materials that are easily attainable and usually free.

“Regenerative” design, she explained, is a way of thinking about construction of buildings, edible landscapes and other infrastructure, that is replacing the ideas of “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” design, by being a way of building that is even more healing to the earth.  For a design to be regenerative, it must not only cause the land no harm.  It must rebuild the soil, foster community connections, and feed the spirit in such a way that it leaves the spot where it is situated better than it was when its builders found it.  Regenerative design gives back more than it takes.

Kapoor doesn’t like the word, “sustainable,” because it calls to mind the idea of sustaining the current system – the larger culture that is destroying the earth.

Examples of regenerative practices include putting in swales to direct water through a garden, to self-water it; planting a pollinator garden to increase life and biodiversity; or building homes from mud harvested right at the building site.

Students in a Kleiwerks International earth building workshop. Photo courtesy of Kleiwerks.


Regenerative design in full effect. An aquaponics system, a cob greenhouse, edible landscaping.

Kapoor asked the attendees of her workshop to close their eyes and go to a place in their minds where they felt safe, like they belonged, and deeply at peace.  When we opened our eyes, she asked how many of us had gone to somewhere outdoors in nature?  How many had gone to somewhere inside a building?  Only one of the thirty of us had chosen somewhere inside.  This was because humans evolved enmeshed in nature, and because we no longer build structures that take our natural instincts into account.

Kapoor maintains that our greatest need is to feel like we belong.  Where do we go when we need to feel like we belong?  How would we build if we acknowledged our place in the world?

A zero-waste structure that will eventually melt back into the earth, but will probably outlast our stick built houses by a hundred years at least.

Where do we belong?

What sorts of dwellings and structures make us feel like we belong, and that we are connected to the web of life on earth?  Most of the buildings we inhabit were built in a wasteful and destructive way, compared to how humans built structures for most of our existence as a species.  Fifty percent of the world’s energy use, and fifty percent of the waste stream we produce is directly connected to the building industry.  What if our buildings gave back to the land on which they were built, rather than harming what’s left of our fragile ecosystems?

Maybe it’s time to completely rethink how we build.  But we don’t have to start from scratch, inventing new methods – we can learn from birds, insects and other wild animals, and from all the humans who still build their homes by hand, in regenerative ways.

Kapoor told us about people all over the world who are changing their communities in positive ways with how they choose to build.  She showed us pictures of an entirely earthen city in southern Yemen, where people have been continuously living for hundreds of years.  We saw photos of seabirds dying from having eaten too much plastic out of the sea, followed by pictures of a village in Mali where people hadn’t thrown away any trash for a year – they had just started imbedding it into their mud walls, as insulation and structural support.  How creative and inspiring!

Building a gorgeous earthen floor.


Janell Kapoor, second from left, with mud slinging friends, on a building project.

We saw pictures of the buildings Kapoor had built with her friends, and the homes and public spaces created by her many natural building students, in America and in faraway places like Thailand and Argentina.  These are buildings designed by standing on the spot where they will go, stretching out one’s arms, walking a few steps, and saying, yes, this is how big the kitchen needs to be. Here’s a nice view; let’s put a window here.

She told us about the former crackhouse in downtown Asheville that she and her friends bought and renovated, plastering the decrepit walls with clay, and digging swales into the backyard, to create a beautiful permaculture garden and aquaponics system.  They call this place Ashevillage Sanctuary, which they use as a co-housing space and community center for teaching workshops on topics related to community resilience and regenerative design.

Human-scaled buildings make you feel welcome and safe, like if the earth could hug you. Photo via Kleiwerks International.

This spring and summer they have several intensive workshops planned, lasting anywhere from a few days to a few months.  They are collaborating with others to host a twelve-week permaculture course over the summer, plus they offer some shorter permaculture classes and workshops on other exciting topics.

Here’s a sampling of upcoming workshops at Ashevillage:

  • [Permaculture Certified] Eco-Urban Homestead & BUILDING Apprenticeship
    [Permaculture Certified] Eco-Urban Homestead & GARDEN Apprenticeship
    March 23 – October 23, 2015
    The 2015 apprenticeship program is designed for individuals interested in managing a site like Ashevillage, a one-acre eco-urban homestead and permaculture demonstration site.  Apprentices will learn by doing, gaining experience in natural and green building, water systems, and other kinds of infrastructure development.
  • Wild Food & Fermentation Workshop with Sandor Katz
    May 24 – 30, 2015
    This comprehensive workshop is led by the world renowned fermentation expert, and New York Times best selling author, Sandor Katz. He will lead participants in daily hands-on fermentation projects and classes. Along with Sandor, five of Asheville’s top wild food experts will take you on field excursions to discover, taste, and learn how to work with nutritional edibles you can find most anywhere. Demonstrations, lectures, food tastings, and community gatherings will all be included. In this workshop, you will learn how to nourish yourself and heal your body with fermented foods, as well as identify and prepare wild and medicinal edibles that you can integrate into your kitchen and daily diet. If you are a food connoisseur, aspiring naturalist, chef, health professional, urban homesteader, or hungry student, you will gain life-long wisdom from this week-long immersion.  Sample fermented recipe here.
Wild fermentation in progress.

Check out these classes, opportunities for you to dig deeper, literally and metaphorically, and to learn how to convert the land where you live into a regenerative paradise, build a home or workspace that is scaled to your body and healing to your soul, or feed yourself with food that nourishes and heals you.

You can also make a trip west to Asheville for a weekend or longer, and visit Ashevillage, to see for yourself the edible landscape and clay-plastered house.  There are two rooms available for rent in the Sanctuary, by the night, week or even by the month.  Learn more here.

 More about Ashevillage:


Ashevillage is an organization in Asheville, NC, whose mission is to create community-based, on-the-ground programs, projects and people that foster a vibrant, just, and regenerative world. Their goal is to accelerate the design and implementation of local, nature-based, regenerative systems and thriving community-inspired culture. Their vision is of humanity living by the wisdom of nature in a way that honors and supports life in peaceful, thriving and celebratory cohabitation.

Ashevillage’s programs bring together leading teachers, practitioners, and innovators with participants who want to gain real life skills that can be put into practice in your own lives and communities. Their headquarters is the Ashevillage Sanctuary LLC, a transformed junkyard and crack house turned one-acre, eco-urban, demonstration site, living-learning laboratory and guest house.

Learn more about Ashevillage at

Food as medicine. Learn more in the fermentation class with Sandor Katz.
Food as medicine. Sample medicinal fermented food recipe here.  Learn more in the fermentation class with Sandor Katz. Photo via