Today I am pleased to share some pictures with you. We have finished our building in Mnenia and it is ready to be occupied. I found it difficult to take adequate pictures: the house is small but feels spacious. Photographs can’t give you the feeling of the light breeze, the sound of the birds, or the cool inside on a hot day. We very much enjoyed staying in the house and hope to return.
In the beginning of the project we set out to build with mostly local materials. I can now say that the stones, sand, clay, bricks and sticks all came from within 1 km of the building site. We hired people to make door and windows in Kondoa, the closest town. Cement and Lime were produced in Tanzania, near Moshi. The many hands that helped were also mostly from the village, except our dome ‘fundi’ Petro Omala, Goodluck Omala, and a few short term volunteers.
Have a look and let me know your thoughts!
view from camp centre
view from North West
bricks frame plastered elements
looking up to the vault/dome kitchen ceiling
Lightweight custom closet
three sections of kitchen counter: earth, wood and cement sink
The central visual theme for our building at Amarula Campsite are Arches and Domes.
In my deliberations about a suitable roof structure that doesn’t involve wood (there are no large trees in the area that can produce lumber or long, straight structural pieces) I explored the idea of domes and vaults. It made sense: Handmade, fired bricks are available in the village, clay for mortar is on site – all we were missing was the expertise to build.
After some searching I realized that dome-building is part of biogas digester construction which is quite common here. So contacting one of the biogas companies in Arusha lead to the contact with our “fundi” Petro Omala and his son Goodluck Omala- both experienced and open to the challenge of our project.
First we needed a support structure that was able to span the 2+m opening between the kitchen and sitting room: the Arch. This arch had to be strong enough to carry one side of the sitting room dome and the south edge of the kitchen Vault. Petro recommended using cement mortar for its higher compressive strength, and suggested pointing with clay later.
Completed central Arch
Our layout includes several part circles, so my question was all along how to go from that to a circular shape for the dome: turns out the shape does not need to be a perfect circle. It is important that there are no straight edges though so that the forces can always press toward the center.
The sleeping room dome was built first- a radius of about 1.4 m.
The bricks were laid on edge- this reduces the overall weight of the dome. Layer after layer gets built with ever increasing tilt to the center. The clay mortar forms a strong bond with the bricks after a few seconds.
And this is the secret to the building of a dome: Hold the bricks in place with special hooks until the mortar dries a little or until the layer is complete.
hanging the 'hook'
Let me mention here that cement mortar would not work well because it is not sticky.
Attention must be paid to the edges of the bricks, and it is important to have mortar in all joints
building the dome
We chose to finish each dome with a bottle at the center, allowing light to come through and light up the ceiling a little.
bottle at the center
The larger dome of the sitting room was also built “free”- meaning without the guide of a radial stick. This was necessary because of the irregular shape of the plan, and made it difficult for our learning builders to build more than the first rows of the dome.
The following pictures show some of the scenes at work:
Master and student on the dome
working together on the dome
domes complete, preparing for the vault
With the domes closed our final task was to build the Nubian Vault over the kitchen. The technique of this type of vault relies on a strong end wall on which the first courses of the vault lean. This allows the builders to construct the entire vault without formwork.
Laying out the Nubian Vault's curve on the supporting wall
Start of the Nubian Vault
For the vault the bricks are laid “standing”. Two people work on either side and build the following bottom courses while the complete course is left to dry. Then both work together to complete each arch, supporting bricks for each other.
the opening of the Nubian Vault
The West end of the Vault is met by a half dome: note the changing direction of the bricks in the following picture:
closing from Vault to Half Dome at the West end
Nubian Vault and small dome
To complete the roof we now have to plaster all surfaces and then build gutters and good drainage. Watch for follow up posts in the near future.
Everyday actions are learned as we grow up, by observation, copying, failure, trying again and getting better little by little. Depending on our home place and culture of origin we learn very different skills: it may be using certain tools in the garden or on the farm, techniques for handwashing clothes, cleaning house even how to do shopping for food.
When, as an adult, you switch home place for a while and immerse yourself in a different culture its time to adapt and re-learn some things. This can be both challenging and very much fun.
A example is haggling over prices. In North America and Europe we are used to walking into a store or market and buying things at a fixed price. Here in Tanzania (and many other places of course)there are situations with fixed prices , such as supermarkets and larger stores, but in many places you have to negotiate for a good price. As visitors we first are given what we call “mzungu” prices: very much inflated and nothing a local would ever consider paying. So we haggle back and forth and sometimes leave without the item, otherwise having arrived at an agreeable price for both parties.
More recently I’ve been practicing carrying things on my head. Here we see young girls transporting buckets or sizeable bundles on their heads gracefully and without touching them with their hands.
I asked Saum to help me learn and she showed me to roll up a kanga and place it on my head which cushions and supports the bucket. The weight immediately settles the head and spine into a straight (strong) line. A little steadying by one arm holding the edge of the bucket helps me keep it there and prevents sudden movements. I have to learn to walk slowly and evenly, both strong and flexing all the time keeping a balance between the movement of my feet and legs and the slight movements of the water in the bucket.
years of practice
During a work party with my friends of the Twiga group we were carrying buckets of clay, and great excitement stirred, when I picked up a bucket too. It works much better than our way of carrying off centre and one-sided. Do try it sometime! I was most impressed by the older women in the group working tirelessly and powerfully.
Zaruna laying stone
While some of the group were digging and moving the clay, others were building the stone foundation for the small cob cabin that we are building here at Amarula Camp.
And like every good work party we had food together at the end. Happy about what we achieved and feeling good to be working together again.
Soon we will start cobbing- if you’re in Tanzania and looking to learn cob building, please contact me. There’s always room for help.
When I first came to O.U.R. I was just establishing myself as a natural builder. I was living in Courtenay and worked a lot with Cobworks on Mayne Island during the summer. OUR was in its first years of establishing vision and zoning and every time I was there I saw a group of people in meetings all morning and then in work parties all afternoon.
Little did I know that I would be one of the people in the meetings a few years later.
My interest was to promote and teach cob and Natural building. I had not spent much time thinking about community and didn’t see myself as a community member.
As my relationship with O.U.R. became more familiar , Brandy and I talked about hosting a longer building program every year. We started with a program we called Plan B : Practical Leadership and Natural Building.
Preparation for this was the design of the Healing Sanctuary: a process of community inquiry into needs and wants and a design that would make sense of all the ideas.
This building was much larger than others I had built and none of us really knew what we were getting into when we started into the season. We knew we wanted to build a stone foundation, cob and straw bale walls and a living roof. We also knew that for permit things would be better with a post and beam structure.
As for the program I learned a lot about group dynamics, leadership and communication. We had a few wonderful support staff who kept breaking up tense energy when needed and brought in fun and lots of heart.
Everybody camped on the land (this was and still is typical for most natural building projects) and shared meals. We shared our knowledge in “each one teach one’s”, started our days with yoga, and struggled together as we built the massive foundation walls, log post and beam and cobbed and built bales through the summer.
When the program finished we wrapped up the building site and made plans for the next season.
So it came to be that O.U.R. Ecovillage now has several natural buildings, built in summer programs by a temporary learning community.
When the second season came along I decided to participate more in the “community” piece realizing that I quite enjoyed the processes and times spent together. The core group was small then and the idea was that more committed folks would join to hold this dream together. This is where I began to learn the art of “holding space”. I have since come to appreciate that this is key to the success of the programs and it is something that doesn’t fit a job description. It’s energy, synergy, and it comes from intention and attention to each other as we relate to the whole.
Most importantly it takes time.
As we developed more facilities OUR garden also became the focus of a learning program that was somewhat parallel to the building. We called our programs “skillbuilders” from then on: either Natural building or Sustainable Food production Skillbuilder. The number of people on site in the summer kept rising and each year we added a few more events that became regular occurrences in our annual cycle.
All along Brandy tirelessly built relationships with funders and successfully landed grant money for most programs. We sometimes held our breath when signing large contracts: can we really pull it off?
We laughed and cried, problem solved, went through endless cycles of norming, forming and storming always thinking that we would finally end up just performing. Ha! That’s not how it works though and what we did learn is to expect the ups and downs and ride them with more grace.
As I write this I am acutely aware that I learn most when in contact with others. The deeper the connection, the more vulnerable we become, the bigger the learning and the more I feel a sense of belonging.
O.U.R. Ecovillage, especially the people at the heart, have seen me through my cycles of growth, challenged my sense of what’s possible over and over again, and in the end I now operate from “WE” more than from “I”. As I step away I wish to express deep gratitude for all the subtle shifts in my being that living in community caused. I am more open and more whole as a person.
My work here has been fulfilling and rich, challenging and rewarding on so many levels. I am honored by the trust invested in me over the years and I am proud of the accomplishments we share. My heart is imprinted in the earthen walls all around here and I hope that this body of work will continue to inspire the future buildings for the village.
May the voices around the commons be joyful, may your steps be light and bouncy and may your circles be deep and warm.