Natural building is a global movement and many of us travel to work sites and teaching/ learning places far from home. We enjoy the mixing of culture and the many backgrounds that are shared.

For 6 months or so I have been posting weekly images on the German facebook page of There are plans to expand this into a full German website of the n: brand, so translating articles is part of what I do.

If you’ve ever used Google translate or bing or other online translating-robots, you’ll know the limitations- they can only ever be the first step, maybe a jump, but not secure and good communication.

When language becomes specific to building or talking permaculture, your small travel dictionary can’t deliver either so today I’d like to share two useful tools, one online and one in your hand glossary.

1. is an online glossary of terms around building that is published by the German head organization for Earth building, Dachverband Lehm. It covers English, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish and French.

2. A number of years ago at a Natural Building Colloquium I purchased a pocket size “Field Glossary for Sustainable development and Ecological Agriculture” published by for English and Spanish language.

If you have suggestions for other sites or travel-size books let me know- I’d love to find a Kiswahili version to continue working in East Africa.

There is a group of engaged researchers, builders and restorers in Crimmitschau, Sachsen, Germany who are planning the project “German Czech Lehmstrasse” . Lehm means claysoil – good for building- and Lehmstrasse refers to a selection of houses built with Lehm along a (for now) virtual route.

In preparation for this project (while waiting for funding) the group has conducted a few excursions for the education of members and to build connection with each other.

Here are some notes from the most recent drive on which we visited a number of places inside and on the edge of the future Lehmstrasse region.

The focus for this excursion was largely on the history of local farmsteads and their structures. Our volunteer- expert tour guide, Andreas Klöppel, shared plenty of facts and information in a very accessible way. His knowledge of the area’s sites was extensive, including anecdotes around village life.

A typical farm here was built around a courtyard and was composed of 2-4 buildings: a residence, a stable and a barn. Materials were typically stone for basements and sometimes ground-level, then oak timber frame (Fachwerk) for the upper story and roof. The frame- infill was historically done with straw-clay. Roofs are often slate (black) or clay-tile (red). Inside are large beams supporting wide, sometimes decorated, ceiling boards. What you can’t see is the clay layer above these boards on top of which the next floor is laid.

The buildings we visited date as far back as the 15th century. Old stone inscriptions give the year of construction and sometimes name of the builder. Elsewhere, inscriptions are carved into the timber above the door.

With the abundance of old buildings in the villages, I wonder, how can people use them today? One of the big problems these villages face is the fact that farming has changed and young people are moving to the cities. We see many empty houses and lifeless farmsteads. What are new and feasible strategies to inhabit these large ensembles? To me the large groupings of buildings call for communal living schemes: co-housing, ecovillage, multi generational living.

During our tour we saw the example of the Kunst und Kräuterhof Posterstein , where pottery , basket-weaving and herbal medicine courses take place. Group facilities have been built into the former barn, the main floor of the house holds a storefront for arts and crafts, and guests are invited to meander through the herb garden.

As a builder I see the challenge to carefully restore the old frames, finding graceful ways to fit modern needs for more light (larger windows), better insulation, and open rooms into the existing footprints of buildings. Below you will see some examples including the beautiful mass heater by Eckhard Beuchel  with its warm bench and backrest.

I hope that as the Lehmstrasse project continues to evolve, people will be inspired by examples of modern life in old settings, and that there will be life again in those old courtyards that stand waiting.




The prices of things as experienced Spring 2012
mostly in Mnenia village and Kondoa town
all prices in Tanzanian Shillings: 1500 TSh = 1 US$

A days wages for a laborer: 3000
Tea and chapati at the local teashop: 300
Bus fare Mnenia to Kondoa 5000 round trip
Delivery of a trailer load of stuff by tractor: 60 000
Delivery of water by donkey: 200/5 gal jug
1 bottle of beer: 2000
1 package of cookies 4000
5 tomatoes 500
1 bunch of onions 1000
1 litre of oil: 3000
1 kilo of sugar 2300

1 kilo of rice 4000
1 apple 700
1 banana 100
1 litre of fresh milk 1000
1 container of yogurt (supermarket Arusha) 4000
1 chicken (live) 10000
1 egg 300
1 fired brick 50
1 bag cement 17000
Meal in a local restaurant Arusha 5000
Meal in a tourist restaurant Arusha12000
1 pair of sandals from recycled tires 6000


Jane Goodall is coming to Arusha.
That’s a good reason to make a trip from our village camp and get on the bus. For 12000 Tsh (approx. 6 Euros) we ride along with people from the villages and their things , namely large baskets containing chickens,  to Arusha. 6 hours of rough ride and we’re glad to walk the few blocks to the Masai cafe where we will stay.
Lots going on here: Gary Wornell from Finland is wrapping up a printmaking workshop in the gallery. Gary is a renowned photographer and printmaker with a stunning portfolio of images and ceramics (his first artistic focus). He is working with Seppo Hallavainio to develop printing techniques on handmade paper. The result are images from the RockArt sites transported onto beautifully textured paper. Examples are now hanging on the walls that I plastered with the clay from Kondoa before we moved to the village.

Yesterday I helped host a fun “Face to Face with Gary Wornell” event that drew in many people for a free portrait session. I was not just impressed by the quality of the images but also by the individual attention Gary paid to each person that he photographed. Even a short five minute session became a personal session where he had the ability to engage with the people and bring out relaxed and beautiful pictures. See Gary’s blog for some samples.
It is a true professional who can keep the attention and stay focused for hours. And after all the photos are shot there’s editing and choosing and printing.  Our small team was able to support the work but the product was all his and required his personal touch.
Now the focus is switching and preparations are underway for Jane Goodalls arrival in town. The local “Roots and shoots initiative” ‘s office is fully engaged in the scheduling and setting up for her brief visit. Thanks to the connection between the Rock Art Conservation Centre and the Roots and Shoots team we will meet “Dr. Jane” here at the exhibition space at the Masai Cafe. Truly a rare opportunity to meet someone with such experience.


Elke on the train

going to Fez

I have dreamt of going to Morocco ever since I was a teenager in Germany, when it was still one of the destinations on the Interail train-pass. Marrakech was one of those names for me that carry mystery and calling. What better time to go than during this trip on Sabbatical.

Even today, where travel is easy and things we value, like safe drinking water, are readily available everywhere I’ve been, the sensual impact of a Moroccan town is big. Colours, smells, sounds and the mazes of old buildings and markets are at times overwhelming, but mostly awe-inspiring to me: I am definitely in a different culture!

Souk in Marrakech


Berber rug patterns

The Arabic world is rich with ornament: from jewelry to buildings, in metal, plaster, thread, wood and leather. Patterns and symbols carrying meaning and story are passed on from generation to generation. Craftsmen and women spend their lives working on fine details, often using methods unchanged over generations.


And yet: the modern global flavour is strongly influencing local tastes: everywhere, but perhaps more in urban areas, we saw a blend of worlds: traditional gowns, tight jeans, Moroccan leather slippers and western style knee-high boots. Cellphones are everywhere.

old and new in the souks


The old world of the Medinas is full of the richness of tile work and plasters. Visiting the Ryad Moqri in Fez, which is now housing a school for the traditional crafts, I learned a little about the technique of the fine plasterwork. The pattern is transferred from a cast using a powder-coating. Then the plaster is cut to the depth desired by the artisan. The result is a relief with strong shadows.


colourful relief plaster

Plaster Model

burnishing the lime finish


Old buildings require repair and I saw plenty of restoration underway. Newly plastered facades grace beautifully restored interiors. Modern materials replace older tools here too: a plastic burnishing tool.





New Lime Plaster finish

The sense for decor doesn’t stop in old town: high end condominiums also show attention to detail and seem to carry the traditions forward adding modern style.


Modern apartment buildings


Train Station Marrakech

light fixture at train station








Tadelakt plasters are a lime finish that we have just recently been learning about in Canada; Morocco is where this technique originates. We saw beautiful examples both indoors and out. They set the mood of a place and give elegance and beauty featuring cut out patterns and bright colours.


Tadelakt fountain



Tadelakt finish at the hammam

The waterproof surface isn’t used just for wet environments: here restaurant walls, hotel foyers and courtyard walls are finished with shiny blue, red and yellow. You can even take some home in the form of small containers bright turquoise, blue, pink or purple.

Tadelakt for sale

Small Tadelakt containers








As a designer and builder of earthen homes I appreciate the work of finishes as much as the construction of the building.

On a trip south into the desert we saw towns and villages of earthen architecture; some dating back hundreds of years and kept in use or restored, others crumbling and in disrepair. There are themes in the architectural form: corner towers, stepped rooflines, courtyards and large colourful gates.

Houses are built tight together three or four stories high. Narrow streets and walkways are bridged here and there by arches of stone. The old buildings are built of mud bricks or rammed earth on stone foundations, tapered on the corners. They are covered with earthen plaster that is rich with straw fibre. Cut patterns create sharp shadow lines . The colour is the colour of the earth around, ranging from red to orange and yellow tones.

bridging over walkways

The desert climate allows for clay roofs as well. Layers of bamboo and clay over wooden beams form terraces that blend completely into the landscape.

Mud Roofs






It’s not all good though; earthen buildings need to be maintained annually and slowly fall apart if not cared for. They do age gracefully and damage can be fixed- even by re-using the original materials. It takes time, interest and energy to make that happen and out in this desert new buildings are often built with cement blocks like everywhere else. In comparison  they appear sharper, their colours less attractive and clearly artificial. And if you’ve ever felt the difference inside when it’s 40 degrees outside you’ll stay with the mud.

I was often reminded of villages in Northern Sudan that I saw a few years ago: the private sphere of the courtyard behind walls of earth, bright coloured gates and large clay water urns on the roadside. A gesture of hospitality – even at the gas station.


Hospitality: roadside water urn