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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!

 

 

The season of gift giving is coming around as Christmas time approaches. Who do you choose to support with your donations or efforts? Are you hosting a seasonal party that could be a fundraising event? Does the company you work for support charity?

I am once again in Cameroon, working with Better World Cameroon toward the ambitious goal to transform the rural area of Bafut into Bafut Ecovillage. I invite you to consider some of our activities when choosing who to support:

Africa Kitchen Revolution stove projectOur stove project “Africa Kitchen Revolution” will train women in villages to build rocket cook stoves. In our experience this is a process that groups can learn to supply each member with a stove in subsequent weeks. A rocket stove is an energy efficient stove that uses small amounts of firewood, cooks two or more pots at a time, and has a chimney to remove smoke from the kitchen.
What a perfect gift for a family! Or even a village. A donation of $200 will enable us to run a workshop for a group of women.

 



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Our Permaculture learning center in Alegnwi will continue to be developed. This coming season we will build beautiful sleeping spaces for our visitors and volunteers. A solar system will be installed and the spring secured and constructed to deliver fresh, clean drinking water.
builders with raffia benchAs part of the center we look for kitchen equipment, and our hall and sleeping rooms will need furniture. To stay with our ecological building strategy this will be made by local craftsmen.

 

 

farmers dicuss colocaciaVillagers in more remote parts of Bafut are looking for support with farming issues and transport. Your support may help us find expertise on crop diseases to help insure food sovereignty.

Better World’s network reaches around the globe and we offer a few ways to make donations:

  • Paypal: on our website is a paypal button (top of sidebar) that takes you to the account of our Partner Ndanifor Gardens UK trust. Donations that are received this way get extra power, because funds raised by the trust are boosted by the British Government. If you live in Britain, you can also get your tax receipt from them. You can make general donations or name the project or purpose you wish to support
  • Those of you who are residents in Germany can make a bank transfer to our partner organisation SONED Berlin Friedrichshain e.V., account # DE53 4306 0967 8025 3066 01, BIC: GENO DE M1 GLS . Assign to either Better World Cameroon or Stove Project Better World Cameroon. Tax receipts are available for larger amounts upon request to info@soned.de
  • Using MoneyGram or Western Union is a fast and secure way to send your donation. You will have to name administrator Sonita Mbah or director Joshua Konkankoh for us to be able to receive the funds.

Please write to us if you have questions or concerns.

May the season’s blessings bring peace, abundance and good connections to all!

preparing the improved cook stove

Did you know that countless women in Africa cook the family meals on 3-stone fires? I don’t have statistics, but I see the evidence all around us both in the city of Bamenda and when we go to the Village. I have mentioned building improved wood stoves frequently since our arrival here, and many women say “I want one”,  but it took initiative and some funding (VSO thank you) to actually start building.

learning about building

It’s a project!

Wopong Jocelyn Achu asked me to come and teach 15 women in the small community of Pinyin in Santa, to the South of Bamenda. She is working as VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) national volunteer for HEDECS (Health Education Development Consultancy Services).

We set the goal to build one stove with the women in a workshop, perhaps start a second one and then leave supplies for them to build another five stoves by the end of the month of January. We hope that this will trigger further stoves to be done under people’s own initiative.

Some research into the topic in combination with my own experience from previous stove projects produced a handout with mostly visual instructions. I know what it feels like to learn something in a workshop and try to do it alone the next time: a guideline is helpful, and since not all women read or speak English, it had to be visual.

To make things affordable and easy to repeat I looked for simple, local solutions for elements like form work, chimney building, tools and materials.

presenting benefits of improved cook stoves

The workshop

We left Bamenda in the early morning by shared taxi to Santa, from where we carried on by motorcycle to Pinyin.  Mountainous terrain with densely farmed valleys, this is a highly productive region for vegetables that are distributed throughout Cameroon and beyond.

The women gathered in front of Lillian’s house, where we would be building the stove under a good sheltering roof next to the front door.  But not just women wanted to learn, a group of secondary school girls attended as well and many men and youth came by during the course of the day.

The list of materials :

the main material clay is in the yardMud bricks (the women had produced 230 bricks approx. 10x10x20 cm )

Claysoil ( the pit was in the yard)

Two sacks of sawdust

Small quantity of sand (most precious there because it is brought in)

 

Tools to have at hand:

Tropical hoe to dig and mix clay

Cutlass (machete)

Measuring tape (if unavailable use body measurements)

Buckets

 

Steps to designingsize the stove to the pots

  1. Take the largest pot that will be used on the stove and determine its volume
  2. The volume relates to the size of combustion chamber and heat path through the stove (all the same cm2), a simple chart is available to look this up:  download publication
  3. The width of the stove will be determined by the diameter of the pot plus insulation plus bricks
  4. The length of it is the sum of the first pot plus a second, smaller pot, plus chimney plus edges and channels.
  5. Finally the height of the stove as illustrated in the sketch

drawing of improved cook stove

 

much interest in cook stoves

Building the stove:

  1. Prepare a 1:1 (by volume) mix of clay and sawdust  (estimated 4 wheelbarrows of clay) and a clay mortar mix
  2. Layout on the ground: position pots, mark center lines  and edges on the wall
  3. Set edges with bricks and configure firewood feed and combustion chamber (considering 5cm insulation)
  4. Build up edges and combustion chamber.using banana stems as forms
  5. Insulate combustion chamber. We used banana stems as guides which I saw in my research, but decided to pull them up as we built up instead of leaving them to rot in place, as suggested)
  6. Fill voids with compacted earth or bricks
  7. At appropriate height set the first (larger) pot in place and fill around it with insulation mix.using the pot to form the stove top
  8. At the same height the channel to Pot 2 will be built with insulation mix, followed by pot 2 set into place
  9. Continue building up around the pots to desired height.

10. Make a channel to the chimney and set up a form to build the pipe (banana stem works here too)

11. Remove the pots and smooth all edges and surfaces inside, scraping down the surface around the pots to create hot air circulation. Place three clay supports to lift the pot- allowing heat to move under and around the pot.

proud owner of the improved cook stove

Tadah!

With the experience the women had – they already know how to mix mud, make bricks and lay bricks- we accomplished the first stove in about 4 1/2  hours- with much deliberation and figuring out the process.

To my great surprise everyone got up after the meal that followed, and carried bricks to the next house. And then the women went ahead and within 1 ½ hours built another stove with little input on my part!

women build the second stove Built in less than two hours

We will return to Pinyin to do some surface finishing and to see how things are. And we hope to light the fire in the first stove at that time. When all is done and our feedback is in, I will publish a full report and make it available for download.

At time of publishing this post, the women have built three more stoves and are on track for the last 2. I am now working with another group of women on constructing a cabin, an oven and a stove….stay tuned!

Pinyin workshop group

 

 

traditional celebration

When a traditional Cameroonian fon (king) has passed a new one must be “caught”. This was the case in Nkwen, one of the communities in the urban area of Bamenda. Ritual celebrations go on for days culminating in the catching ceremony at which dignitaries, traditional dance groups from many villages and the local residents gather at the palace grounds to greet the new fon. catching the fon at Nkwen

This happens with tremendous noise: guns are being fired, drumming and singing and a master of ceremonies on loudspeakers. People wear their colorful traditional clothing and anyone of stature in the community is there. We were happy to meet Mayor Langsi of Bafut, with whom Better World Cameroon works in close relationship. Bafut Mayor Langsi at celebration

Only a few days later, the Mayor Langsi was installed into office at Bafut council- following a successful re-election earlier this fall.

But it’s not just major celebrations that make volunteering rewarding and fun. While work isn’t always exciting or glamorous, we do make sure that we spend time together and acknowledge our achievements. When Italian volunteer Isabella Bonetti was about to return home we organized a farewell party in connection with our own housewarming. It’s not easy saying good-bye after three months of collaboration- but we’re grateful for a new friend.

The launch of the new website for Better World that is one of my projects here was highly anticipated by all of us here and our partners in the world. We’re happy it’s there and we continue to add more information and events as they come up. Check out next years International Summer Workcamp for young activists and change makers from Cameroon and abroad.

Joshua Konkankoh and the team in planning meeting

As the year draws to an end, plans are now made for the 2014 calendar: Permaculture classes, Natural building projects and a new office location in Bafut will keep us busy in the coming months. Sonita Mbah from our team is now a National Volunteer under VSO (Volunteer services overseas). In Cameroon VSO has been a strong partner to organisations supporting them with capacity building and placement of national and international volunteers. Sadly, CUSO has withdrawn their funding to VSO Cameroon which means that as of March 2014 there will be no more VSO Cameroon.

Volunteer Action

In my role as independent international volunteer and line manager for Sonita’s VSO program, I was invited to be on a panel on local radio”Afrique Nouvelle” . The program was part of the celebration of international volunteer day on Dec. 5. Also on the panel were from Better World, Silvestre Ngwasuh from VSO and Pascaline from COMINSUD.

interview on afrique nouvelle

Christmas is coming into our awareness as every morning some neighborhood loudspeaker is blaring Boney M’s Christmas album. The region here is very much christian so I expect that the holidays will become more and more evident.

Should you be interested in directly  supporting my work with Better World  Cameroon I’d be grateful for your donation through paypal (see link at top right).

Happy holidays to all – Peace and Prosperity in Sustainability

 

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

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