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.



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



cobbing in the rain


Every workshop leader’s nightmare among earth- and strawbale builders: Rain on day 1 of the workshop- especially for a weekend workshop. There you are, ready with tools, tarps and Straw hat and a handful of curious and excited  future cobbers and the sky opens up…

Here are some ideas to keep up the spirit in your group:

  1. Go outside and meet at the building site: its important not to get stuck in “under cover” or “inside” mode
  2. Use positive language: gratitude (rain is good for growing…) and avoid talking about the weather .
  3. Mix mud, even if you can’t build it: people want to learn the feel of the mix.

    rainy day at the workshop

    even in the rain we mix cob

  4. Have a fire where people can warm up and even dry a bit: the fire always becomes a community spot and allows people to connect
  5. At break time serve hot drinks, perhaps some cookies: we like our treats and warm cups =warm hands

    warming up with coffee

    warming up with coffee

  6. If you have to retreat to shelter use this time to teach about building with earth and natural design: keep it lively with sketching on whiteboard or paper, allow plenty of questions and discussion

    escaping indoor and learning another way

    escaping indoor and learning another way

  7. Build models under a roof: models allow creative ideas to develop and people work with mud
  8. If rain persists, build a temporary roof to work under: now this is something to consider having in place to begin with. A roof not only protects from rain but also provides shade when it gets hot

    make a roof over the site

    make a roof over the site

  9. Finally: Good food, it feeds the body and lifts the spirits.

Thank you to Doris Leitner and Carina Leithold for the use of their images.




The gable is protected by wooden boards.

The gable is protected by wooden boards.

Going for a walk recently we came upon this old house. I’m always curious when I see clay-infill or earthen plasters, so the exposed bits of earth caught my interest right away.

Post and beam on the ground floor

Post and beam on the ground floor

I’ve learned a bit about the local historical buildings too and could tell that this was what they call “Umgebindehaus”, where on the ground floor you see wooden posts and beams in the face of the wall behind which lies the livingroom (Stube) made of heavy wooden slabs that are covered on the outside by earth. The upper story is built on top of the post and beam structure, in local Timberframe (Fachwerk) style, also with earthen infill.

On the sides the Timberframe is visible

On the sides the Timberframe is visible

The corner post is mostly missing. Notice the Earthen wall against the woodslabs of the living quarters.

The corner post is mostly missing. Notice the Earthen wall against the woodslabs of the living quarters.


Once it was cozy inside with double windows to keep the cold out

Once it was cozy inside with double windows to keep the cold out

The owner’s dog was alerted by our looking at the front corner, which in turn alerted the young woman living in the new building behind the old house. She called out “Are you interested?” And when I explained my curiosity she invited us in to have a closer look.




“We’re trying to give it away”, she said, “it’s under protection as heritage building (Dekmalschutz), so we can’t tear it down. “

There had been interested parties – someone wanted to take out the “Bohlenstube” –the wooden livingroom- but then decided against it.

The old Livingroom with typical ceiling boards is still in good condition

The old Livingroom with typical ceiling boards is still in good condition

“You can take away the upstairs pieces and rebuild it somewhere else” she went on.

Upstairs we noticed that this building is seriously threatened: the roof is leaking in one place and on the other side the wall is open and the earth is getting wet and falling onto the floor.  Nobody is fixing it- instead a new building was built behind for the family to live in.

Wattle and Daub wall comes apart due to broken roof

Wattle and Daub wall comes apart due to broken roof


Sadly, this is not an isolated case: in this region rich with historic buildings, there are many in poor repair. Owners of heritage buildings must negotiate any changes with the department for heritage buildings. Unfortunately this often blocks good ideas, and discourages good intentions in the name of protection.

But when people can’t make changes (to increase ceiling height, create more windows, add pieces) then these building get left to break down and rot. And so they stand witness not to the beauty of former building skills but to a lack of positive cooperation on the part of those that are supposed to be their protectors.

One outcome of this conflict of interests is a very low market value of heritage homes.

In the case of the one we looked at: take it away for 1 Euro.

Should you be interested in contacting the owners, please email me


Amarula cob cottage north west

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!










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.

stabilizing a brick in space

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.