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In my fantasy novel, I have elves. Unlike most elves, these do not use magic. The architecture of elves is usually depicted as trees that have been flowingly shaped into houses and graceful structures. Without magic, this is not the case. Also, my elves are significantly weaker than humans, and as such, are not the greatest at stone quarries.

At the same time, these are elves, and as such, they appreciate nature and would rather not chop it down to make houses. Because of that, 'tree-forming' and lumber production are not options, and stone is limited. What can my elves use to build their villages and cities?

EDIT: I've marked the answer by Will Martin as I think it supplied the most options, but all of the answers here gave me great ideas, and I think the answer to my specific issue is a combonation. I think sod houses would be a good place to start. (Where they get them from can later be turned into farm land. Yes, my elves farm.) Clay/Mud bricks can be used on the interior and exterior to add waterproofing (nothing saying the elves can't burn dead wood in a furnace to speed the process up).

Pleaching of tree branches into the walls could help with support, though in the long term it could create some problems as the trees naturally expand into the house. Alternatively, bamboo could be used, or some other plant that expands exclusively upwards. Eventually, the sod would wash away, leaving bricks with flora growing on them for a very Elven feel. All that would be seen would be a mound of grass. Animal hides could be used as doors, to separate rooms, and as blankets. Additionally, large animal bones could be used to support the walls.

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    $\begingroup$ So, Dwarf Fortress elves that can't do tree-forming? $\endgroup$ – March Ho Jul 19 '16 at 22:26
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    $\begingroup$ Can they use branches? Bark? Grass? Dirt/mud? And do not underestimate how much tree-forming you can do without magic - it's something that's been used the world over. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Jul 20 '16 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ why tree forming would be impossible without magic? There are approaches to alter how trees are growing to form rooms and buildings. There might be houses made of specially planted multiple trees as well. A lot of plants have leaves that protect from rain. $\endgroup$ – akostadinov Jul 20 '16 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ In addition to bones, there's also chitin, if you have some large arthropods around. $\endgroup$ – DCShannon Jul 20 '16 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ @DCShannon Ohhh, thank you! That gave me some more ideas. $\endgroup$ – Thomas Myron Jul 20 '16 at 21:43

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If they are in a stereotypical elven forest but do not want to kill/shape trees, have them work exclusively with naturally fallen wood. Collect natural deadfalls and bind them together, then cover them with some kind of sealant. Think wattle and daub. This would also suggest some neat cultural stuff -- any time there's a windstorm, everyone goes out the next day looking for freshly fallen branches and trees so they can repair their houses. A good marriage gift would be enough loose branches to get a start on a house for the new couple. And so on.

If they are in a dry climate, adobe houses are dead simple to make out of mud bricks baked in the sun.

If they are in the plains, they could build houses out of straw. Specifically, tightly bound straw bales stacked and/or shaped in the wall shape, then covered with a good, thick layer of some kind of shell material: plaster, stucco, concrete if they have it. A properly built straw-bale structure can last quite a while, and provides surprisingly good insulation.

If they are in a cold, barren climate, look for peat bogs. The peat can be cut into essentially bricks and used to make walls.

Pretty much anywhere with large amounts of small, loose stones you can make a clochán, or similar, by simply collecting a bunch of loose stone and carefully wedging them together.

For other non-quarry type stone buildings, look to the Inca -- most of their stonework was done without mortar, and a lot of it used quite small stones such as might be had without quarrying.

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    $\begingroup$ I've marked this as the answer because I think it provides the most options based on climate, but all of the answers were great, and I got a lot of good ideas from them. See my OP edit for details. Thanks guys! $\endgroup$ – Thomas Myron Jul 20 '16 at 18:54
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Settlers of the North American Great Plains had a similar quandary. Open grassland isn't exactly known for a plethora of quarries or forests. To deal with this, they constructed houses out of sod by cutting and stacking sections of the local turf. However, such constructions were hard to maintain, especially during rain.

Further back, countless cultures relied on sun-baked mud. This material is commonly referred to as adobe and has been used the world over.


In response to the OP's comment regarding a rainier environment, I did some digging and came across a fantastic resource for construction materials. For a tropical region with bogs, gley can be used to seal walls, or create the walls. Hollowed logs or tree stumps can be turned into houses. Materials such as lime, reeds, wood, or concrete could be used to stabilize a sod house. See the linked site for a more complete list.

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  • $\begingroup$ We've made some pretty impressive structures out of mud $\endgroup$ – Kys Jul 19 '16 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ I'd say this one is even better! I'd%20say%20this%20one%20is%20even%20better%20https://… $\endgroup$ – Dent7777 Jul 19 '16 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ So I'm assuming that sod houses would 'wash away' in a rainier (forested) area? Is there anything I can do to prevent that? $\endgroup$ – Thomas Myron Jul 20 '16 at 0:01
  • $\begingroup$ @ThomasMyron See my edit. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jul 20 '16 at 0:27
  • $\begingroup$ So combining this answer and the one posted by @Graham and others, do you think it would be feasible to have a sod house, reinforced with clay/mud bricks to make it more waterproof, and then woven through with pleached trees (saplings) for stability and shape? Over time the sod would wash away and the trees would grow, winding up with the result of bricks with grass growing on the outside, retaining the shape along with the trees. $\endgroup$ – Thomas Myron Jul 20 '16 at 15:30
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Actually some pretty impressive things can be done in the tree shaping field without any magic. It wouldn't be beyond a group with enough patience, and forethought, to make the basis of a village from planting and shaping and maintaining trees.

There are always dead-falls and branches to be had, the leaves, or needles, and other detritus from the ground could be used to form bricks, or stiffen other mud/clay projects.

If something like reed or bamboo is available you have a very versatile grass to make lots of stuff from. Keeping the debris on the forest floor all tidy will also reduce wildfires.

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  • $\begingroup$ Quick example clip of living bridges in India: youtube.com/watch?v=yE82Pxo5dJg - interesting detail, it takes ~10 years planning and work to get one working (often next one is started whilst existing one in use). $\endgroup$ – Neil Slater Jul 20 '16 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ This is something I use with elves in the world I'm playing with at the moment- they are very long lived, so they grow themselves homes by simply directing trees like exceedingly long-term bonsai. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Jul 20 '16 at 16:09
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I think this is a question I would have to answer with another: what options are there? You want these elves to not ravage the land, so where can they get renewable building materials from?

Strength isn't an option, and therefore no stone quarries. Stone isn't exactly a building material I would associate with elves, so it's no major loss. So let's look at other options.

Digging a hole in the earth, then using that earth as a base material for blocks (mud blocks, or clay if it's rich in that). This offers an 'at one with our environment' look and feel, but is susceptible to heavy rainfall (because their homes would be below groundlevel and therefore flood easily).

Hunting for food, and using the animal pelts to make teepees, like Native Americans. This also has drawbacks, given they are heavy and therefore difficult to continuously travel with. Also, it doesn't mean the homes are going to be livable year round, depending on the climate. Add to that that teepees are notorious for still being wet inside from rainfall (you can't completely waterproof it, either because you lack the knowhow to properly treat the material, or because you cannot make the entire teepee construction waterproof, i.e. hole in the top, sides, or where the pelts meet). And the negates the need for another structure to attach the pelts to (most commonly sicks/branches were used).

Caves are also an option, but this has its own drawbacks. First off is the implications of it. 'Cave-dweller' isn't a compliment in most societies, last I checked. Though that might well be the look and/or feel you want. Another option is 'living caves' like in China (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaodong), but this also has it's aesthetic implications for the elves.

Another option, which is pretty common in some circles (old construction stories here in the Caribbean) is using small rocks, sand, and a 'glue' to keep it together. Think limestone, or something of that nature. This doesn't give you the most 'stable' building, but it's one that will keep you dry and warm (almost too warm in the summer months).

The thing is, you need to know what is around. What climate do these dwellings need to protect the elves from? And most importantly, what does that say about your elves?

Hope this helps.

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  • $\begingroup$ Small rocks + "glue"...why would concrete not be included under that heading? (Either Portland cement/pozzolanic concrete or asphaltic concrete, although the former is vastly superior from a structural standpoint) $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Jul 20 '16 at 23:19
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A couple ideas come to mind:

  • Earthen houses similar to the Native American Wigwam
  • Cave dwellings
  • Tents made from animal fibers or skins like a Yurt or Teepee
  • Hollow tree trunks
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    $\begingroup$ Weren't yurts mostly felt? $\endgroup$ – Seeds Jul 19 '16 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Seeds Yes you're correct, 'skins' is too specific a term. Updated to include fibers as well. $\endgroup$ – navigator_ Jul 19 '16 at 21:22
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Trees don't need magic to grow -- you can just weave living trees together and make a house from that. Takes a while to wait until the house is grown enough to actually inhabit, but elves are supposed to live longer than humans anyway. And if the parents start growing their kid's house at their birth, they'll surely be ready to move in when they're twenty :)

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    $\begingroup$ So here's an idea: If the elves start out with basically a sod house and plant a tree on top of it, how long will it be until the roots (assuming they shape them around the house) will grow long and thick enough to provide realistic wall supports and reach the ground, about 7-8 feet down from the base of the tree? $\endgroup$ – Thomas Myron Jul 19 '16 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ @ThomasMyron that depends on the tree. Fast growing trees are more likely to have less suitable roots for what I think you're going for (kind of an Ocarina of Time feel). So you'd likely go for the taller, slower growing trees. So, off the top of my head? 50+ years? $\endgroup$ – Fayth85 Jul 19 '16 at 21:45
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Hmmmmm.....

Don't compromise. There are any number of ways to make homes that fit into nature and are kind of scummy: adobe, clay, tree shaping, sod, etc. You are looking for a way to make homes that are grand, comfortable, and awe inspiring.

I could see doing a lot with weaving, as did some poorly documented South American civilizations. Think of creating mats of woven vines, possibly grown that way. The macrame look is popular in Kindergarten, but real elves have farms growing slabs looking more like spun fiber (cubicle walls), upholstery, and spray on structural fiberglass. A house might be created as a set of tendrils that grow and dry until the walls can repel cannon fire and look as fine as painted walls.

This leads to fun ideas of houses 'grown' from models of houses, with plants that solidify and fix in place when expiring: sweeping ceilings, sprial starcases with no center poles. Easy shipping via Amazon; you just hook the model into the life line of the house until it grows to the right size.

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Baked earth. If they don't burn anything organic (like say, wood) then, you know, it would have to be sun baked. That would take a long time and a lot of space and would depend very much on the climate. Can work in deserts, or dry plains but wouldn't work in a place with more moisture in the air. And trees can be shaped little by little without magic, it just takes a very long time to do (if elves have a longer lifespan, then they could do it). It's not something that could happen fast, they'd have to have very large trees (like California Redwoods), a low birthrate and live in very small spaces. Likely a max of two people per tree, with maybe a toddler.

There's a certain impracticality to living without having any impact on the life around you. Things die so that you may live. That's the way of things. That's the cycle. If they eat meat (which they may or may not) then they would use every part of the animal, curing the hide to make housing and buildings. They wouldn't be like regular buildings, but you could make fantastic, huge buildings out of hide and tallow--basically giant tent buildings. If, in a large society, every time something was killed, it was used completely, this would be possible. You said no to killing trees, but building out of bones isn't off limits either.

Edit Clarification: Bones could be the bones of what they eat, or of their own dead. Also, I think that you may have to make each city/area unique because it's all about what's at hand locally and what each environ provides. Keep in mind that fire is important in most building processes--and that--sorry, mainly involves burning wood (you can burn poop too but that's not going to smell very good) unless you have some abundant non-organic stuff they can harvest to burn.

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I'm suggesting water, taking the classic depiction of elves as close to nature. Non-magical elves could instead be fantastic engineers of nature, using streams to carve mines, canals (or other advanced waterways), irrigation, large scale mud casting (Pueblo style), etc for them over many generations.

Throwing cold climates (ice elves!!) into the mix, you can go beyond igloos to self-repairing and even active structures. Skyscrapers from artificial waterfalls, inventive scaffolds, bridges, defense, you name it.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for originality, but I'd imagine erosion would take a while. What are the elves doing for the years it takes to carve out their homes? $\endgroup$ – Thomas Myron Jul 19 '16 at 23:55
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    $\begingroup$ @ThomasMyron: living in a less ambitious home. Maybe their culture started in small huts of mud and naturally fallen branches, and worked its way up the property ladder. After all, what do humans do while they're building cities and skyscrapers? $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jul 20 '16 at 1:11
  • $\begingroup$ @ThomasMyron yeah pretty much what steve is mentioning but thanks for the feedback ;p Since elf culture tends to live long and have large communal projects, it might be cool to see monolithic structures with some formed by previous generations and some underway. $\endgroup$ – Garet Claborn Jul 21 '16 at 7:27
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I really liked Frostfyre's answer - If we do not have wood or (much) stone to use, what do we have?

Dirt

People have been building dirt structures for ages. Frostfyre mentions sod and adobe, which are archaic building materials which remind me of something we still use all the time today:

Brick

It is relatively easy to make bricks; you more-or-less just need mud and straw (or mud and a furnace), and they last basically forever. The linked wikipedia page shows many pictures of very impressive buildings that were constructed from brick; the elves' buildings don't have to be tiny.


As an afterthought, cement could also work, but requires more specialized materials than simple bricks. It could also be used as a mortar (although well-made bricks wouldn't have to require mortar).

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One consideration I don't think I've seen in many of the answers is what dangers are there to this elven population? If they're physically weaker than humans and have no access to magic, that means they're more vulnerable than a human population?

If this is fantasy it usually means that the big bad nasty things are bigger, badder and nastier. In a situation like that I would see a weak elven population as a migrant culture that is almost constantly on the move. If they're living in some kind of primordial boreal forest (I'm thinking of like the US Pacific Northwest with giant redwoods) or perhaps a jungle (more arboreal predators in jungles though) then they may carry ropes woven from plants (you could probably make a rope out of braided ivy, or hair. In a jungle you might be able to directly use some dried vines) and set up a tree city for days, weeks or months before moving on, either staying ahead of or following behind the predators (you can check the migration patterns in Serengeti if you want more info on how that works on Earth).

Their main accommodation could be some water proof/resistant tarp-like object with hammocks for sleeping. Families would take over a tree to live in and their ropes would allow them passage between trees in the community. Stone or metal tools could be used to carve or expand hollows in large trees to allow for cooking in the trees, if they cook their food.

If your elves are being given some control or influence over natural animals, that reduces the dangers to them and perhaps they would live on the forest floor. Should they do that even with dangers, maybe they have a symbiotic relationship with one or two nasties or utilize dead pieces of nasties to make it appear as though their land is inhabited by one (take bear claws and mark trees every now and then, for example)

A final consideration is the elven lifespan. As others have noted, you can do a lot to shape plants when you have a long enough time frame. While you may not be able to turn a single tree into a mansion, you may be able to cluster and weave trees to achieve the effect of a modestly sized cottage. That would mean each community would need one or more full-time "tree-shapers" whose only job is to maintain the current houses and be growing new houses for future expansion, all the time. They wouldn't use magic, but the ability to live for so long allow for the appearance of magic. Some humans have done some cool stuff with growing trees together, imagine what they would've done with a 500-5,000 year lifespan. Along with this idea, there may be special cultivation methods they know of to get plants to bear fruits they would not otherwise (perhaps two flowers that look totally different are actually the male + female of the same plant and the organism that previously assisted in their pollination died so the only way they ever produce fruit is by accident or intention)

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmm... Nomadic elves. You make a good point, and my elves are in fact at war with a physically superior race. That being said, they have certain... advantages. Nomadic elves probably wouldn't work with my story (though it might be able to solve some problems I'm having). I do however have nomadic tribes in other parts of the world, and I could utilize your answer for them (they live on the plains, but the principle is the same). Thanks for the answer! $\endgroup$ – Thomas Myron Jul 20 '16 at 22:52
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    $\begingroup$ I hadn't really thought about this previously, and feel a little derpy for it now but even if they can't be awesome at shaping trees, they should be able to grow their environment to their use. Perhaps all their towns are surrounded by huge briars, or they could just be large briar patches with holes throughout. You could have them set up animal hides to reposition portions of the passages so that their entire community is basically in a bramble maze. You'd need to figure out a reason burning the bramble doesn't work though. (Basically, they're rabbits) $\endgroup$ – Pork Jul 20 '16 at 23:09
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As materials IRL also was used:

  • Dried and pressed vegetation, even hay.
  • Bones, ropes, hide.
  • Wickerwork.
  • Clay.
  • Dirt.
  • Turf.
  • Ice.

Indeed, it was anything from the near landscape, even sand.

Considering it's a fantasy elves:

  • Mushrooms, other plants, not even chopped or cutted, just grown to be a house.
  • Various metals (produced without wood-fire).
  • Growing crystals.
  • Glass.

Magically modified natural resources can behave as modern ones.

Add here natural dwellings and caves systems (in rock or as in Vietnam).

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! Could you add some references to the examples you provide? $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Jul 20 '16 at 7:20
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Maybe they just don't sleep? Elves aren't just pointy eared tree-loving humans, they're a completely different species, i.e. maybe they can eat plants that would kill a human but are physically incapable of eating meat?

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  • $\begingroup$ not sure about not sleeping, but not requiring permanent dwellings is a good idea - perhaps they carry lean-to's around which they construct from fallen wood. $\endgroup$ – gburton Jul 20 '16 at 22:49
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"Appreciating nature" is all very well, but trees don't last forever. If you truly appreciate nature, you manage your woodlands. That means pruning/coppicing/pollarding, keeping the underbrush cleared to minimise fire risk, and so on. And that means a plentiful supply of timber for firewood and for building.

As far as your tree-shaping goes, there's absolutely no reason you need magic for this. Pleaching is a very standard technique, is fairly easy to do with a bit of practise, and has been known for a very long time.

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