Long before I built my house, back when I was setting up a yoga camp on Turkey’s Faralya coastline, fellow builder Chris Shaw said to me, “The land will tell you what to build, it’s all about the land.” It was an aphorism that adhered itself to my brain. And it has served me well.
Following the land is what humans always used to do when they built homes. Before settling anywhere or building anything, we would scan the topography of our terrain, discover which materials it had available, which climate it was in, and which gifts it had to offer. Because land always comes with gifts. The modern approach of marching in with a bulldozer, razing a plot to the subsoil, and then slapping down a whopping great cement slab is a very recent phenomenon.
Ten days ago while on my quest for new land, I stumbled on a perfect example of how ancient humans used to work with nature to construct houses...in France.
La Roque Saint Christophe in the Dordogne is a fascinating place for a natural builder. Humans have been living on and in La Roque for at least 25 000 years, so the place acts as a wonderful chronology of construction.
Initially, the troglodytes used the contours of the rock to live in, sometimes with animal hides tacked up like tarps.
Then a new technique arrived: Wattle and daub. It’s estimated wattle and daub has been around for as long as 6000 years. In La Roque Saint Christophe, the builders of the day would carve out niches in the rock and insert large beams to create a post and beam structure that jutted out from the contoured rock. This gave them more living space. Then they filled in the structure with a lath and mud daub, or with wooden shingles.
Later, by medieval times, builders replaced some of the wattle and daub with cubes of rock to create even stronger structures, and the troglodyte city became a sophisticated fortress, with roads, drawbridges, and cranes.
It was purely by chance that I found La Roque, and it is an exquisite illustration of natural building through the ages. So if you’re ever in the Dordogne in France, go have a climb around. You can find out more about La Roque Saint Christophe from their website.
A superbly useful interview with Kim Siu of the charity Get Rugged.
There are two ways of building yourself a natural home, no matter which country you are in: The unofficial way. And the official way.
The unofficial way involves skirting round the edges of the system, finding loopholes and sliding deftly through them. (I’ve seen this done in every country I’ve been to so far, though while entirely possible generally appeals to more risk-taking type of personalities).
Then there’s the official way. This costs more money, but may buy some peace of mind...in the end:)
Kim Siu, who runs the self build charity Get Rugged up in Scotland, built her beautiful straw bale house the official way. I was lucky enough to stay in that house, and talk to her. Here’s what she had to say:
Atulya: What do you think is the most important thing you need to build a house to code?
Kim: Sheer bloody-mindedness, and determination. That’s the number one thing you need. You mustn’t get ground down, and always keep telling yourself there is a way. Because there usually is. Even if you have to compromise. And sometimes we have to compromise in life. It’s just like that.
Atulya: I completely agree. You need determination no matter how you build. There’s always a way. There’s no problem without a solution. And sometimes you might have to change your vision slightly, but the basic core of it remains.
Kim: Yes. We kept our vision strong, but we just had to do little pivots every now and again. We found that working with the system, rather than trying to go against it really helped. We got the planners in from the very first stage, before we even parted with a penny. And then we did a staged approach, so every time we got some designs I’d go and speak to the planners, and show them what we were doing. Now we’re doing another build, so we’re doing exactly the same. I spoke with the planners. She came on site. I’ve showed her the early stages of the concept. And again, every time we develop the designs, we’ll take it to her, and she’ll give us her feedback. It’s actually really good, because you get a lot of foresight, which you don’t have to use as hindsight:) She’s not worrying us. She’s making us aware of things. Like road access, and different conditions. So we’re not surprised later on.
Atulya: Yes and you’re not forking out loads of money first, and then regretting it. So let me just clarify. It is totally legal to build a straw bale house in the UK, right?
Kim: Oh yes. Absolutely.
Atulya: So what did you have to compromise on?
Kim: We had to compromise on window sizes . They wanted the larger ones on the bottom. They wanted everything to be symmetrical, and didn’t like anything too quirky, because it has to fit in with the local vernacular. If you were somewhere else, like Findhorn where there are more alternative buildings, you’d have more freedom It’s very area dependent.
Also planners need to be dealt with on an individual basis. You’ve really got to develop a good relationship with them.
Atulya: Yes. That is the same everywhere. Relationships are key.
Kim: There are two government bodies you have to deal with: planners and building control. Planners deal with things like local vernacular, and you have some flexibility here. You can appeal their decision too. But building control is different. It’s the nuts and bolts of the build, your house’s sustainability principles, it has to meet various regulations. They want engineer’s certificates and things.
Atulya: Did you have to make compromises there too?
Kim: Oh that was the worst bit! In our build, there was an architect, a builder, and an engineer all talking to building control. This meant it turned into a very complex process. It could have been simplified by using a design and build company, because they design the building they’re going to build. Then you know exactly how much it’s going to cost, and it’s easier.
Eventually, I went to the building control officer and asked, “How can I make this easier for you to put us through building control,” and he said, “Get your architects and get your builders, and get them all sat round this table.” Really clear communication is essential.
Atulya: Does building control happen while the building is being constructed? Or before or after?
Kim: You can’t even dig a hole until you have a building warrant, and it took us about 18 months to get through both planning and building control.
Atulya: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to build a natural home the official way?
Kim: Either get a design and build company (the easy option), or if you’re going to build it yourself get a team you can work with, get people (engineer/architect) who know the codes and can help you get through planning.
Atulya: And the cost?
Kim: The charge is dependent on the cost of the build or the cost of the site. It’s proportional. So you’re talking several thousand pounds before you’ve even broken the ground.
Atulya: Which is more than my whole house cost! But there are advantages to doing it this way. What are they?
Kim: They’re not going to pull your house down. Mine is a family house. I’ve got four kids. I’m on a B road. People drive past us, so we’d have got told on before long. You have more security this way. In truth though, the main thing was to get a mortgage. We couldn’t have got a mortgage any other way.
Atulya: There you go. I didn’t know that. So you can get a mortgage even on a self-build natural home project?
Kim: Yes. Though only certain places. We got ours at the Ecology Building Society.
Atulya: And any last tips to close on?
Kim: Create decent relationships with everyone. Planners and building code officers are human beings too. Don’t annoy everyone too much. It’s OK to dig in sometimes for something you really want, but treat people kindly, and with respect. It goes a long way.
Getting permission to build a natural home in the UK. What you have to do:
1. Get planning permission. Call in a planning officer at the beginning to look at your site, and make sure you’re able to build on it. Some tests (drainage) are done at this stage.
2. Gather an experienced team (design and build company, or an architect/builder who knows the ropes). Go for your building warrant through a building control officer. (You can apply for planning and a building warrant together.)
3. Once you have a warrant, start building. Building control will turn up at intervals to check things.
For more information go to GET RUGGED, and pick up the free self build PDF. Or connect on Facebook.
IN THE USA? It's a very similar story. Here's an article by Sigi Koko on how to build to code in the US.
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Over at Rubha Phoil, a sustainable lifestyle project on the Isle of Skye, I had the opportunity to use another type of composting toilet. How lovely! This one was designed for several people to use, with a wet climate in mind.
All composting toilets work in the same way. The key is to keep the crap dry by adding plenty of aggregate. Sawdust, peat moss, cool ash, coconut coir, and dry leaves are all great aggregates.
In the Rubha Phoil toilet, the poop goes in one place (the bucket with the white lid), and the urine in another (the yellow bucket under the blue chair).
The bottom of the poop toilet has a hole, and that goes into a large wheelie bin, which is very practical for emptying. When the bin is full, it is emptied into a composting area, and left for 6 months to a year. This allows the pathogens to neutralize. The result is quite amazing; a peaty, fresh smelling compost perfect for gardening.
Composting toilets are insanely easy to make. They cost next to nothing, and turn your crap into gold. I’ve even got one in my van. It took me about 2 minutes to put together.
All you need for a makeshift composting toilet is a bucket, a toilet seat and aggregate. Line the bucket with a good fat heap of sawdust (or whatever you have to hand), then begin using.
The key to preventing unpleasant smells is the amount of aggregate.
Do you have to separate your urine?
This depends on your climate, your type of composting toilet, and how much aggregate you can lay your hands on. I never separated mine in Turkey, in my simple box style composting loo. In a very cold, wet climate (Scotland) I'd say separating is advisable. But if you have enough sawdust/ash etc, you can get away with some mixing.
The Bottom Line
Throwing the world’s most precious resource (clean drinking water) in a flush toilet, and then mixing poop into that clean water to create a polluted, pathogen breeding mess which then requires a treatment plant that squanders megawatts of energy to neutralize, is nothing short of mass lunacy. Some day it will be called an ecocrime.
How much does it cost to build an earthbag house?
It’s the question I love to hate. But I’m asked it a lot, and I understand. People want a ballpark figure before they decide if such a house is for them. The truth is, you could spend a thousand dollars on an earthbag house, or a hundred thousand. It depends on many many things. So before you zip over to that contact form to ask me, read on.
(A cost breakdown of our last earthbag build in Turkey 2016, is below)
1. What type of earthbag house are you building? A ten-bedroom castle, a school, a shed?
2. Are you paying for manual labour? Or do you have volunteers?
3. Which country do you live in? Are materials cheap there? Are skilled workers such as carpenters expensive in your country?
4. Are you a perfectionist? Or are you fine with a few lumps and bumps?
5. What kind of roof are you making? The roof is the most expensive part of the build.
6. Are you building a round house (less expensive and stronger) or a square structure? Post and beam? (The more wood in your build, the more it's probably going to cost).
7. Are you trying to build to code, or are you winging it?
All these factors are going to impact greatly on how much your house will cost. So, the short answer to “How much does it cost to build an earthbag house?” is “I’ve no idea.”
How can you estimate the cost? I decided to publish a breakdown of the cost of the 5.5 m diameter round house plus bathroom, we built in our earthbag building workshop in Turkey last year. (Thanks to Baykal for keeping a record of the figures).
But there are a number of things to take into account.
1. This was Turkey. As you will notice, some things are very inexpensive, others not so much. If you are in the UK the labour is going to look incredibly cheap. If you are in India, it's going to look expensive.
2. We used some of the earth from the site and some with a higher clay content was shipped in (roughly half and half).
3. We used more lime than you are ever likely to due to odd climatic conditions in our region. Thankfully lime is as cheap as chips in Turkey. In fact, now I think about it, per kilogram it's cheaper than chips!
4. At the time of writing, most of the exterior and interior plaster work had been done, but the floor hadn’t been laid and the bathroom was only half completed. The roof will receive a thick layer of clay on it too. So extra costs will certainly occur over time.
5. With the exception of the roof, the house was built almost entirely with volunteers and course participants.
Cost of the earthbag round house without roof.
Figures in US dollars based on the Turkish lira exchange rate at the time of writing.
Total house price = approx $ 6250 USD
Note: We estimated that if we had made a simple living roof as on my own mud home without employing a carpenter, such a roof would cost about 1000-1500 USD. In which case the total house price would be nearer to $3000 USD.
One thing I’ve learned is this: No matter how much you calculate and research, be prepared for your budget to be blown. For some mysterious reason (quantum physics? The illuminati?) all construction seems to cost twice as much as you estimate. Things take longer than expected. Other things go wrong. It’s just like that. So allow some nice wide margins in your budget. Or end up like me, and have to step back into the daily grind for six months to earn the money to finish.
Many thanks to Baykal for keeping track of the figures for us.
Last week, as luck would have it, I ran into a two natural builders tucked away in the hills of central Portugal. Lucky me; they showed me around their fabulous cob creations (not to mention plying me with vinho frisante and humous).
Take a look at this wonderful cob oven with cob seating area Frenk and Nicole built. It's gorgeous. But that's not the half of it. It's also water-resistant. The area containing the cob oven and seat isn't protected from the rain. Yet the cob has stood its ground.
How did they do it? They coated the entire thing in 3 layers of linseed oil. I'd heard about linseed oil from a few Mud friends in India where the stuff is cheap and easy to find, but I'd never tried it myself, because in Turkey the cost was prohibitive, more than organic olive oil!
"Yeah, it's not cheap here either," Frenk lamented to me, but good on him, he tried it anyway. "You heat the oil in a pan first, though not to boiling point. Otherwise the brush melts,” he explained.
Frenk and Nicole made their cob mixture out of clay, straw and sand. Initially, like me, they imported the clay. Then they realised the local earth was clay rich, and a glorious rust colour to boot.
Frenk is something of a rocket stove wizard, and has engineered another in his kitchen. If you want to look around it, check out the video. It’s very informative. The guy should have his own channel:)
This is a question that seems to come up quite a lot in various forms, so I’ve decided to write a post on it.
What Can I Put in my Earthbags?
The answer is: It depends what you want to do with them.
If you want superadobe, which is a specific technique to create solid clay/mud bricks by allowing the mixture to cure on the wall, then you need an damp earth-clay mix. About 20-30% clay is ideal. The mud needs to stick together in a ball when you roll it in your hand. It shouldn’t be breaking up like oatmeal.
What’s the big deal about superadobe? With superadobe, the earthbags cure on the wall, and once dry are rock solid WITH OR WITHOUT THE BAGS. A friend of mine forgot a stove pipe hole in his superadobe wall. In the end he had to dig out a hole with a teaspoon because the walls were so darn solid. He said it was like escape from Colditz:) You could burn the bags off, and your building would stay standing.
Experiments have shown you can add things into the damp clay-earth mix without too much impact, especially if the bags are left intact. Stones less than an inch (2-3 cm) in width can be left in. Some people have added things like pumice for insulation.
Stabilized bags for foundations.
You can mix your mud with lime to stabilize it for foundations, which obviously see a lot more water and pressure than the rest of your walls. You can also fill them with limecrete, gravel, or a mixture of both for the foundations.
Can’t you just fill the bags with sand? Or stones? Or any loose aggregate?
In theory, if your earthbags are tough and hold, you could put anything in them. The army have been building sandbag bunkers for years. They’re strong, bullet proof and safe. But here’s the thing. Rip those bags open and you have...you got it. A mess. There are a number of ways the bags can lose their integrity: Polypropylene bags deteriorate fast in the sun. Jute bags tend to rot if used in damp climates. And if you happen to have mice attempt to move in – which take it from me if you live in the wild you will – then every rustle and scamper is a harbinger of doom. Mice love to shred things like sacks, polypropylene or otherwise. The only thing they can’t comfortably destroy seems to be metal.
In truth these events are unlikely, especially once you've plastered the house (though mice can and do gnaw through earthplaster). But the bottom line is, if you want your earthbag house to remain solid even if someone slashes the bags open, superadobe is the way to go.
So there you have it. In an earthbag.
Now let's hear your stories. Have you tried filling your bags with something else? Did it work?
There you have it. That's what happens.
If you take a closer look at the photo though, you can see clearly what the issue is with Portland cement. It holds onto water like a sponge; an unbreathable sponge at that. Notice how the concrete render is cracking in a grid. Those cracks are occurring at the joins between bricks which are filled with concrete mortar. The mortar has retained the moisture, which has then seeped into the concrete render, and ultimately destroyed it.
This knowledge is crucial if you're thinking of repairing an old stone wall, rendering a traditional building, or maintaining a natural home. As Period Living says, "Sadly, the wrong techniques and materials are all too frequently used for repairs so moisture is sealed in, resulting in damage and decay, often with disastrous consequences to walls and floors."
So what should you use instead? Lime plaster and cretes, clay plasters and mud mortars are the way to go. Here's a useful article on the subject.
Have you restored an old natural home? Do share your tales and your tips.
There are so many examples of natural homes around the world. In the UK it seems every step you take, another earth gem rears out from a village street. Each inspires in a different way. Here's one from my home town of Wivenhoe.
For those who doubt the longevity of mud, the Garrison House dates back to the 17th century. It's a wattle and daub masterpiece, especially the pargetting in the earth plaster along the front. The wall has been coated many times over the centuries in lime wash, creating a thick, breathable shell which protects the plaster. Even the drainpipe has stood the test of time and is inscribed with the date 1678.
You can find more about the Garrison House from the Wivenhoe History website.
What has earth building got to do with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?
There was a bit of a debate over in the Natural Homes forum about my earthbag house, because obviously it isn’t 100 percent natural. And I think it’s fair to question the use of polyproplylene in a home, even if it's a small enough amount to fit in a suitcase. Yet while earthbag isn’t wholly natural, it is incredibly sustainable. Perhaps it pays to discuss the difference between natural building and sustainable building, because they are not the same thing. Though in truth I’m hesitant about entering finicky fact-lobbing debates. All too often they miss the point. Because beyond the natural and the sustainable, there's something else. It could be called Quality...
But first, let’s get finicky and cleave apart the natural from the sustainable.
Natural building utilises purely natural (ie. non-manufactured and non-chemical) resources such as wood, earth, stone, bamboo, resins, oils, sand, straw and clay. As long as your house consists of purely natural resources it qualifies as a natural home. This doesn’t necessarily make it sustainable though.
The word sustainable means you can continue doing something at its present rate indefinitely into the future. It means you’re not depleting resources faster than you’re replacing them. Nor are you polluting the atmosphere.
Sustainable architecture comprises many techniques. It could utilise materials that don’t cause huge depletions of fossil fuels or generate high carbon emissions, or it can reuse and recycle rubbish (often unnatural rubbish such as plastic bottles or tyres*) that would otherwise have languished in a landfill, or it may utilise fast-to-replenish natural resources such as bamboo.
If I were to build my house out of Lebanese cedar or old growth teak (or any other fast disappearing tree), it would be natural, but it would not be sustainable. If I live in an area where a particular material is in short supply, such as clay or sand, and utilise large amounts of it in my house, this isn’t sustainable either. Probably I ferried the material in from somewhere else using plenty of fuel in the process. Or I depleted my local reserves.
What about wood?
Theoretically, wooden houses are sustainable because trees can be replanted. However, if one takes into account the rate at which the world’s forests today are disappearing, it could be argued that using any wood that isn’t reclaimed or from a registered sustainable plantation, isn’t currently sustainable (because right now the reality is we are not planting nearly enough trees to replace the cut ones). And then there’s the power used to cut the wood and sand it...yeees.
Lest anyone think I’m leaping upon my high horse here or pointing fingers, I’m definitely not. My floor is made of wood, for a start. Anyway, once we delve into the vast quagmire of environmental consequences most high horses start sinking fast.
True, I have taken a stand against Portland cement. Why? Because it fails on every count: It isn’t natural. It isn’t sustainable (cement production is at the time of writing the second largest producer of CO2 emissions globally)**, and it isn’t even necessary, or nice to work with, or beautiful, or comfortable to live in. Cement makes no sense on any level, and yet is used more than any other material in mainstream building techniques.
But as soon as we move beyond cement, there is an awful lot of grey. This is why snap judgement really isn’t helpful. People throw too many misleading and uncorroborated facts about when discussing the environment. They hoist themselves upon soapboxes (mahogany? Bees-waxed?) of righteousness. And it’s utterly counter-productive. All that results is that Mr or Ms potential new eco-builder drowns in overwhelm, guilt and confusion in the face of a hundred and one competing environmental, physical, bureaucratic and security needs. From what I see, nine times out of ten when people are unsure, they choose concrete. Because concrete is a known, and if nothing else, fast.
Every person has to reach their own conclusions about their home, and these are generally based on climate, geology, resources, environmental impact and very importantly money. Yes let’s not forget money. Because natural and sustainable building isn’t simply the domain of the wealthy middle class in developed countries vying for the next spot on Grand Designs. Large tranches of the developing world don’t enjoy the luxury of deliberating over casein in their lime wash, or hiring the last stone mason in the region. What am I saying? 1 in 5 Americans are on food stamps, so presumably they don’t enjoy that luxury either. Much of the planet requires a very cheap, disaster-proof house in a hurry. I get it. I’ve been there.
Yet none of this is the point. Essentially, it isn’t about the money, or the resources or the materials. It’s about something else. Something more fundamental. And this week I was reminded of another way of expressing that 'fundamental' via a random conversation on Facebook (people do more than share cat photos on their timelines apparently).
Back in 1974, Robert Pirsig wrote the philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Back then at the tender age of three, I didn’t quite grasp it. But I read later it in 1999 at a time I was seeking some sort of enlightenment. Many have tried to define the great ocean of awareness that lies beyond thought. Pirsig’s metaphysical contribution to this was the term Quality. Quality, for Pirsig, is the fundamental force in the universe driving everything to manifest and evolve. Something akin to the Chinese concept of Tao.
What's this got to do with natural and sustainable building? Quality building is not about cob walls, thatched roofs or linseed oil. It’s about tapping into that fundamental force Pirsig talks about. It's about the Tao.
Huh? OK. Let's return to my earthbag house as a case in point.
First, why didn’t I go 100% natural?
He he...Well, there are all the logical reasons, such as its performance in earthquakes, floods and hurricanes (all of which descend regularly upon Turkey’s Mediterranean coast). Then there are the financial excuses; I only had $6000 at my disposal. There are the environmental reasons; pretty much everyone in the world could build an earthbag house and it would be sustainable because the polypropylene amount is so tiny. Finally there was the survival factor. I was living in a tent and winter had just arrived in the form of a hurricane. I needed something in a panic.
But ultimately none of these was the deciding factor.
Do you know why I built an earthbag home? The real reason?
I felt like it.
Yup. It was a feeling, not a rationale. An intuition. Because I had spent half a year camping on that piece of land and connecting with it. I listened to it and it inspired me; with shapes and materials and form. I sensed its power underfoot. I let it transform me, and my needs. The soil on the land was perfect for building with, wonderful to touch, wanted to participate. And the energy of the space was feminine. Circles bloomed in heart. A ring of earth, safety and love.
It just felt right. Perfect. Quality. Meditators, hikers, martial artists, inventors and creatives all know this zone. The pristine space far beyond rational argument where Quality ideas originate.
And in my opinion whatever home you decide upon, it’s this Quality that counts above all else. It doesn’t matter what you do, if it is inspired by that which is simultaneously within and beyond – that zone of Quality – whatever you create is perfect. Just right. Appropriate. In ways we might not yet even understand.
But how can you know if you are in the Quality zone? By cultivating awareness and moving into the zone beyond thought. By forgetting the numbers and arguments for and against. By sensing rather than thinking; subtle and beautiful feelings of clarity, intuitive feelings, a stirring in the heart. Without the heart, what is a home anyway? If the process is filled with kindness, trust, openness and allowing, and everything seems to fit miraculously together, these are good indications you’ve hit the zone.
Now I’m not saying rational knowledge is worthless. Or that things like available resources and environmental impact won’t play a part. You might feel inspired to build a dome out of gold bars, but unless you’ve stumbled upon the keys to the Federal Reserve, it’s unlikely to manifest. And constructing a reciprocal roof without some basic mathematical skills could prove interesting too.
Quality construction is a marriage between the Quality zone, reason and materials (and yes I realise there is a bigamist in that espousal). However, reason can’t go it alone. It is not an effective decision-making apparatus. We can’t balance the house of our lives upon a see-saw of pros and cons, because a single action can spawn infinite consequences, all unseen to us now. We don’t live in controlled Petri dishes, but in an infinite universe brimming with unknown factors.
Quality building is not about your carbon footprint. Nor is it some prodigious ego mission to prove yourself the most environmentally sound person alive. It’s not about showing off to your neighbours or even "saving Gaia" (whatever that might mean). It’s about being in the Quality zone. About connecting with yourself, the planet and the Beyond to make miracles out of the earth. Forget the clever debate and the misplaced moralising, if you’re not experiencing the Quality of it, you’ve missed it. And that’s that.
Anything to add to this discussion? I love to hear constructive ideas, so feel free to share in the comments box below.
Photo: Melissa Maples
Note: Many thanks to Peter Lloyd and Dyske Suematsu for unwittingly inspiring the conclusion to this post. I was wrangling with it for a couple of days when I happened upon their conversation on Facebook and poof! The article became a different place (and that's exactly how the Quality zone works;).
*It is often debated whether the recycled use of tyres and plastic bottles in earthships is indeed sustainable or not, as both these emit chemicals as they rot (though they would also have done in a landfill.)
** The carbon dioxide CO2 produced for the manufacture of one tonne of structural concrete (using ~14% cement) is estimated at 410 kg/m3 (~180 kg/tonne @ density of 2.3 g/cm3) (reduced to 290 kg/m3 with 30% fly ash replacement of cement). The CO2 emission from the concrete production is directly proportional to the cement content used in the concrete mix; 900 kg of CO2 are emitted for the fabrication of every ton of cement, accounting for 88% of the emissions associated with the average concrete mix
Many thanks to the Mud Sustainers supporting this site!
Atulya K Bingham
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