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I made a comment on Facebook  recently stating how much I love to work with cob more than any other earth building method.

cob and bottles

Here’s a selection of techniques and my impressions which help me decide which method to use in a specific location:

Earthbags

earthbags as foundation

We’ve built Earthbag foundations  in Canada (OUR Ecovillage ), Tanzania and Cameroon. The earthbag foundations work well and are low cost in places where stone isn’t available.

At a Natural building colloquium I filled long tubes with earth. Friends from the natural building movement have built beautiful domes and other homes with this method. I believe if there’s clay in your soil, forget the bags and build freely with that clay-soil. It’s a matter of location and what’s available.

Rammed Earth

Another amazing technique producing beautiful and stunning buildings is Rammed Earth. Layers of different colors tell the story of the earth at the location. I’m talking about rammed earth free of cement here, as its being done by several builders in Europe. This way of building requires serious formwork and planning. My personal experience is limited to observation, because in my work I’ve been in locations where that formwork is very difficult (expensive) to build. As a result rammed earth shows up on the high end of building cost and in larger scale buildings.

Mud blocks

Adobe in Africa

Many cultures have built with Mud blocks (Adobe) and still do so. Here in Cameroon  I see homes being constructed with a mud-block infill system, using concrete for structural support:  ringbeams and to bridge large openings. Local people have experience producing these blocks and will make their own when it’s time to build a home.  Making blocks doesn’t require much: water and clay-soil. Fiber isn’t so commonly used but is useful to prevent cracks and to strengthen the blocks. You need a flat area to lay out the blocks to dry in the sun- this will take about a week. Then dry storage until construction begins. Building walls with blocks requires some skill- to build a house takes some practice at masonry work. And those blocks are very heavy to lift. However, depending on seasonal patterns and workflow, this can be a great way to build an earth home.

Compressed Earth Blocks

compressed earth block press at work

Compressed earth blocks (CEB’s) can be made with or without cement for stabilization in various shapes and sizes. Simple mechanical block presses require  at least two people to work together – mixing the clay-soil (sometimes sifted) with a little water, then filling the form and compressing with the power of a long lever. Scale it up and you’ll see machines working with hydraulics taking the hard work out, but driving up the cost . The result is a firm, even block, sometimes interlocking. We’ve just finished building our dormitory walls with CEB’s – because we had the perfect soil on site, were too late in the season for sundried blocks , and had straight walls to build. We hired a local builder to lay the blocks as they came from the press. It got the job done.

Cob

cob makes sculpted walls

Parallel to this process our volunteers were building with cob. We created some hybrid walls with the blocks to add sculptural details and bottles. And we shaped benches and a lounge area. A layer of cob fills awkward spots in the block walls (filling around posts etc) . I watched inexperienced building volunteers mix great batches of cob, build the walls and trim them. Everybody took on designing with bottles- allowing one individual  to be the overall artistic eye.

And that’s where that statement came from.

Watching people, who have never built anything, confidently building something beautiful makes my heart sing.

Earth Plasters

applying natural plaster

We’ll be moving into Earth plasters next – where sculptures get refined and block-walls disappear behind a hand-applied layer of mud. Earthen plasters can be simple sand/clay mixes applied by hand or more sophisticated ones with additions of ingredients like mica or marble dust, finished with special trowels. It’s up to the availability of materials, skills and  taste, desires and budget of the owner.

Hybrid of techniques

The beauty with all of the options above is the possibility of mixing things up. We call it hybrid homes- for example walls of cob on one side and straw-bale on the other. Or adobe with inserts of cob for bottles and other sculpted elements. All tied together with beautiful natural plaster finishes.

I’m heading to Kenya this summer to create a cabin for my host Joannah in a couple of workshops. She’s already collecting beautiful things to incorporate. Dreaming her space. Clearing the site.

the site for the cob house

When participants arrive we’ll work with a selection of techniques appropriate to the location and learn about decision-making in the process. This opens up the possibility of  being creative builders in collaboration with others. We’ll be supporting the first stage of a learning center for permaculture in a protected forest.

So if you are so inclined, come to Kenya this August!  You will get your hands muddy and experience a different sort of safari!

 

 

work and cultural exchange

Get your hands into some good African Earth!

Inviting Natural builders to come and help build our first buildings at Ndanifor Permaculture Ecovillage , Bafut, Cameroon.

Ndanifor Permculture Eco Village is located in the village of Bafut , not far from Bamenda

Ndanifor Permaculture Eco Village is located in the village of Bafut , not far from Bamenda

It’s time to build something this dry season: we have plenty of good building earth, raffia and access to wood.

Come and help create a small cabin as a first place to stay on the beautiful rural site. We have called out to women groups and local youth to participate in community training programs from January until March 2014.

Part of the activities will be the building of a wood-cook-stove and bread oven for the ecovillage learning center.

Work with me to support this community effort and give Better World Cameroon its first real natural building experience. Share what you know and get practice by immersing yourself in a different context. And escape the northern Winter.

You can also find the project on thePOOSH and follow updates there.

Lets’ talk logistics:

  1. You’ll need a Visa to enter Cameroon– this is usually not difficult, but it poses a time factor. So get on it quickly. We will provide a letter of accommodation or invitation as required for the Visa. Check with your closest Cameroon Embassy.
  2. You’ll fly into Yaounde or Douala- both are about 6 hours distance from Bamenda by bus. Buses leave mornings or evenings and cost about $10. It’s easier for us to arrange for someone to meet you in Yaounde- Better World has an office there.
  3. Living in Bamenda is fairly low cost- Better World will help find a suitable place to stay and negotiate a price for you.
  4. Good food is readily available at low cost. We will share some common meals and spend free time exploring the hills in the area. Our plan is to work on construction for 4 days a week starting January 13. You can join any time until March- we hope to be finished by April 1.
  5. Better World has a FAQ page that may be helpful.

Can we complete this building in 12 weeks?

If you have time and a travel budget consider our offer. Get your hands into African Earth!

Please email me to discuss details and if this is not for you, share it with someone!

Twiga store

woman in field

You can’t really imagine India until you go there – that’s been told many times and it’s true.

As we’re preparing another natural building program for early 2014 in Kurumbupalayam village with Buddha Smiles, I respond to inquiries and will share some past impressions and info here.

The leaders of Buddha Smiles are inspiring change-makers and peace activists from the university in Delhi and Chennai.

I have been to the Workshop site 3 times so far. Each time the program was diverse, with teachers from different cultures and participants from all over the world.

The location is outside a small village called Kurumbupalayam, not far from Kanyambadi town. Villagers produce bricks and live very simply. The village is surrounded by farmland, where rice, millet and vegetables grow. People move around by bicycle, some by motorcycle and few by car. But buses are frequent and loud!

old man walking

Not at the school site though. It’s an oasis of quiet, really, except the sounds of the children. There is an operating elementary school appropriately called Garden of peace. Part of the land is covered with fields and of course buildings supporting a holistic education.

children at play copy

Our natural building program this time is going to build guest cabins, using a mix of natural building techniques.

I will be teaching and expect that others may join. In my workshops I hope to bring out everybody’s strength while allowing for their weaknesses too. So no anxiety around performance!

The day begins with yoga at dawn around 6 if you wish. Then tea/coffee and later, after some activity, a typical local breakfast. Food is vegetarian, south Indian- that means spicy! But there are usually some fresh milk-curds to cool it down.

Facilities are simple: during my last visit people slept in tent-like structures with platforms that were raised off the ground (that keeps bugs and moisture out.). You can use your own tent as well. Most importantly: bring a mosquito net.

It will be dry season, and nice temperatures in the mid-twenties, getting warmer toward February.

concert

 

This years program contains a field trip to hill tribes – I look forward to seeing traditional ways of life in the hills of Tamil Nadu. While this is an organized trip other possibilities exist:

Tiruvannamalai is in easy reach and worth a visit. It is known for its huge temples and several ashrams . Temples are a main attraction in  Tamil Nadu, and its well worth travelling around to visit some of the big sites.

And then there’s Auroville- you may have heard about its central temple or its ecological building courses. Auroville is an ecovillage made up of several pods of housing. Population mixed Tamil, German, and French mainly.

But back to the program. I’m not sure yet exactly which techniques we will use, but there will be a variety. The beauty of building with earth is that one can combine the methods easily and I will be teaching about what makes sense in the situation. I have experience in many climates now and we will be discussing this.

I intend to involve participants in creating the final workshop schedule, so that areas of special interest can be included by request and offerings from the group may find time.

You can expect natural home design, connection to Permaculture, how to build small, what to avoid, climate conscious design, earth building techniques, and local construction.

There will be hands-on work and lecture style presentations daily, as well as discussions and exchange. And free time for exploring, making friends and reflection.

I hope this helps you choose this program for your winter vacation- a true getaway with purpose!

Registration is open now: please email

IMG_0939 copy

 

 

Usambara Mountains
changing landscape
roadside offerings

Nov 22
Hot pink and blue are the roadside colors of Tanzania. They represent  three large cellular providers Vodacom, TIGO,  and Zain. The presence of their advertising shows up on tiny roadside stores to large block buildings painted in these colors that everyone knows.
The busride from Dar to Arusha takes 9 hours on “kilimanjaro express”. The landscape changes from the coastal flat land to red earth from which people make bricks, past vast areas of sisal plantation leaving the Usambara Mountains to the East. Looking West and North the view is wide open, small hills dotting the landscape.
We only stopped once for a 15 min food break at Kerogwe – a rest stop with restaurant, toilets and vendors selling fruit and newspapers.
Eventually towering clouds in front of us : Kilimanjaro is hiding. We drop passengers in Moshi and carry on to Arusha, another 70 km, now through green areas with rivers, small gorges and the everpresent mountains.  Mount Mehru to the West is visible – it anchors Arusha into place.
Seppo picked me up and we drove to his studio and gallery adjoining the Masai Cafe that his wife Julia runs. On display in the gallery are masks from different areas (not just Tanzania) and some prints of rock art on handmade paper by Seppo. The Rock Art is of course why this next project is happening- so I take this first impression as an invitation to awaken my curiosity.
Arusha is busy- and yesterday (Sunday) many churches held large celebrations for confirmation. The sound of their music and amplified voices reached everywhere.
Evening came with a full moon in the sky- first full moon in Africa this time. We went to dinner at a Lebanese restaurant. Yes this is truly a tourist town: you can eat greek, italian,lebanese,  ethiopian and probably a few other flavors. “too many mzungus” sais Julia, although she knows that this is what brings money to town, but also makes everything more expensive.
Today a little internet session and then off to Kondoa- another 4 hours in the Jeep. Away from the fancy food and busy streets.

Elke in the foundation trench

Before we start looking at the next location I want to just tell a little more about the Baobab site.
The builders went to work and quickly built the earthbag foundation. We topped it with a gradebeam to strengthen the structure and  provide good base for the blocks. Making a level form is easier said than done because the boards that are rented are not straight at all. So we did our best.

foundation done

By the end of Friday it’s all done and the lead builder Mohamed , Caito and I went around and marked doors, windows and special features into the fresh concrete. Hopefully this will reduce errors when they look at the plan. When I return in a month the site will be transformed and I expect to see the walls up and perhaps even the top floor slab poured.
A lesson for me: Thinking about saving money I thought using rubble would be better than good gravel. Turns out that rubble is hard to get, involves more transport and costs almost as much! So ask questions before making assumptions- and understand that what may be waste elsewhere is not necessarily seen that way here.

planting with Sally

Sally an I spent a couple of late afternoons last week planting the shrubs and trees she brought to the farm. David and Gabriel worked with us as we chose good spots for each. In a few years the garden will be tall and shady with all the beautiful trees.

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