(Plus how to make a Madras brick and lime roof)
Let me take you to another place, far away from lockdowns and empty supermarkets. Let me take you to southern India, to a beautiful mud sanctuary pioneered by a brave soul called Karen Shetty. Four years ago, the Divyalok eco-spiritual centre was treeless and empty, and Karen was staring at it wondering how to make her vision a reality. Today it is a mud, lime, and regenerative dream. What can I say? This amazing project is a testimony to the power of belief and inner strength.
On the surface Karen doesn’t look especially cut out for creating an eco-sanctuary from nothing. She was born in India and calls herself a cocktail of Scottish, German, English, and Rajput genes. For a long while she lived a more mainstream kind of life, with a Master’s in Business Administration, she ran a garment export firm for twenty-two years. But then ten years ago things changed, as they do. Karen met her guru, did a stack of meditation, and decided to live a little differently.
Taking the plunge
Four years ago Karen realised she yearned to live more sustainably in nature, so she took the plunge and bought seven acres of land close to a reserve forest, a sacred mountain and river, in a remote village in south India. From here on she began to build a retreat centre. Not that such a thing is a picnic, especially if you have no experience.
On the face of it she had no clue:
Karen was a complete novice to farming and construction when she bought her land, so she had to figure it all out by experimenting. Her first shelter (she calls it her mud building research centre) was made from coconut fronds, with a mud floor. The entire thing was built in a day! But it was a roof over her head, and that’s what you need.
On the face of it, Karen had nothing much to prepare her for the new life she was entering. She had to face a heap of utterly foreign situations and tasks: living alone, planting trees, no electricity or running water, and using mud to build, to name but a few. For three weeks she managed with a kerosene oil lamp. The water was from the river bordering the west boundary.
I point this out because I see so many people obsessing about building techniques and engineering skills when they enter this type of project. The thing is, these skill-sets (while useful) are not actually what’s going to get you through. I’ll tell you why Karen’s project is blossoming, and why she and her team managed to get five stunning earth cottages up, secure water and power, and plant an entire forest, all without much of a clue about what she was doing at the outset: Karen had both some spiritual/life strategies in place to keep her going when things got rough, and a pretty solid vision.
One Skill You Need to Cultivate
I used to mention this as a timid little aside, but as time goes on and I watch the same kind of people make a decent go of this game while the same kind falter, I will cut to the chase, and tell it how it is: One skill you need to cultivate when you move into this type of life, especially if you’re doing it alone, is meditation (or similar). Laugh if you like, but I see it over and over again. Someone with zero building or farming skills makes an amazing mud world appear, while a qualified engineer, architect or carpenter for some reason doesn’t. I’m not saying none of these folk make it happen, nor that practical skills aren’t important – my neighbour is doing just great and he’s an engineer – but the technical knowledge alone isn’t enough.
The Mud Buildings
Back to the building. Karen and her team have created an incredible array of stunning mud buildings. Sometimes they used adobe, and sometimes they used earthbag. All were built without architects or professionals other than a plumber/electrician, and with the help of local villagers.
The first building Karen and her team created was made of adobe bricks. Karen researched how to make them, and then gathered a team to help stomp the mud. These bricks were made from clayey mud and straw mixed, then poured into moulds, and left to dry rock hard in the sun.
A Special Madras Roof Made by Eighty-Year-Old Thatha
The next structure was an earthbag hut, and boasts a very special brick roof. It was constructed using an ancient Indian technique of lime, herbs, and jaggary. “The tiny cute bricks were specially ordered from an old brick maker who had put aside these moulds as they weren’t popular anymore,” Karen explains. “The technique was taught to us by an eighty-year-old mason who we affectionately call 'thatha’ (Grandpa in Tamil). It took us a year to find the right person. Other masons who came by said this technique failed miserably and the bricks would keep falling through the beams. Hahaha! We felt "thatha" was God-sent, as he was not practising his trade anymore and looking after his farm instead. He was so patient with my learning skills and I remain grateful to him. Always on time and very clean and neat in his work.”
How Thatha Made This Roof
“Lime was bought from a kiln close by and we slaked it at our place, mixed it with sand, and had to keep moist until we used it. We then took a herb called kadukai in Tamil (haritaki) which is also used for natural dyeing purposes. This was soaked in water for minimum 15 to 20 days and the water was used in the lime mortar along with a jaggery solution. This lime slurry was used to fuse the bricks on the roof which worked like magic. Without a support or any formwork the bricks stand together in the open spaces between the roof beams. We used wooden reapers from the timber mart, but traditionally they use the trunk of the palm trees which are tall and sturdy,” says Karen.
The Madras roof is created in three layers: For the first layer the bricks are placed vertically. For the second layer the bricks are laid flat and horizontally. The third layer is terracotta tiles.
This kind of roof is called Katta Kuthu or Madras roofing. “It really makes a difference, with the inside temperatures being much cooler than the outside heat,” Karen told me.
All the subsequent buildings have the Madras roof. Cottage number three is a beautiful adobe brick structure with a gorgeous natural interior.
When Karen and friends bought this property it had just one tree on it. Today the trees and medicinal plants total an incredible five thousand and counting! In the beginning there was no power or access, but after countless negotiations with government officials (having experienced Indian bureaucracy, and I can only imagine how much breathwork you need to do to get through this), today Karen has light, and two bore wells for water.
The next phase of Divyalok is to introduce weaving and handicrafts for local women who are often abused by drunk husbands and partners.
Divyalok really is an incredible story of regeneration from nothing. Never say you can’t create your world and make an impact, because the most unlikely people are doing it in the craziest conditions all over the planet. These days though, I will stick my neck out and say this: If you want to succeed, invest in and master the right tools, which are usually the inner ones.
You can learn more about Divyalok and connect with Karen here.
Things to Take Away from This Project:
1. You definitely don’t need to be an architect/engineer to create an awe-inspiring mud world for yourself and others.
2. As usual, perseverance is everything. Karen just keeps chipping away at her vision, and low and behold it manifests.
3. Traditional techniques are often the best. If you can find anyone who remembers the old ways, listen to them, hire them… heck, kidnap them if you have to:)
4. Belief in yourself and your mission can take you a long, long way.
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A list of the pros and cons for earthbag building, cob, straw bale, wood, stone, and wattle & daub.
Many people are planning and researching at the moment. January does that to people. If it’s natural homes you’re thinking of then here’s a comparison of a few building techniques you might be considering: earthbag, cob, straw bale, wood, stone, and wattle and daub. I've compared the cost, difficulty of technique, how the buildings fare in extreme weather, heating, and other advantages and disadvantages. This list was written with beginners in mind, so I hope it’s helpful.
Difficulty of Technique
Earthbag is labour-intensive compared to straw bale or wood, but the good news is the technique is fairly idiot-proof. Earthbag homes can be built fast, depending on the energy and organisation of the team. Finishing the interior may take longer though.
If you’re building a round house, the materials are very inexpensive. Mud is free. The sacks are inexpensive. Labour is the key factor for cost with earthbag, so if you have volunteers it’s going to reduce the price tag significantly. If you’re making a straight-walled post and beam structure, then it’s going to be more expensive.
Poor. R 0.2 per inch (still better than concrete though).
One of the attractions of earthbag is the freedom of design. Domes, circles, and wavy lines are all possible.
Earthquakes and Extreme Weather
Earthbag is without a doubt the strongest sustainable building technique out there. It has exceeded earthquake test limits with no visible damage. This is why it has become popular in seismic areas like Nepal. I can personally attest earthbag also performs amazingly in hurricanes.
In the Wet
Earthbag performs better in the wet than any other mud building technique because the bags and wire hold the dirt together in case of a flood. Again, as with all mud buildings, rubble trench foundations, a good stem wall and wide eaves are necessary.
Negligible. Plaster touch-ups, that’s it.
Because it’s a modern technique we’re yet to see how long earthbag lasts. But with decent rubble trench foundations, it’s estimated to stand at least a century.
Fireproof, soundproof, bulletproof. Earthbag is the survivalists’ dream:)
In mixed (wet followed by dry) climates, the clayey earth in the bags will swell and shrink, especially in the first year. This can put pressure on door and window frames, as the walls expand, compress the frames and then contract again.
Difficulty of Technique
Cob can be time-consuming depending on the climate, as each layer needs to dry before laying the next. Patience and some know-how are necessary. It’s a beautifully simple technique though. Perfect for artists, and fun too.
Mud is free. Labour, time and learning the art is where you could spend money. A great technique if you can find volunteers and have no pressing time limit.
Poor. R 0.2 per inch (better than concrete)
The beauty of cob is you can create all kinds of wiggly, organic shapes with it.
Earthquakes and Extreme Weather
Cob is stronger than poorly constructed concrete or brick, but not so great in floods.
In the Wet
It all depends on how high your footings are, and how wide your eaves. Cob can resist a fair amount of rain and weathering, but is not recommended on flood plains.
In the Cold
Earthen walls work well with passive solar construction, and heat up like a battery. But they are not recommended in climates that are subzero for months on end (for more detail on that look here).
Easy and enjoyable. You’ll probably just be patching up the final layer or the lime wash in the areas that see hard rain.
Centuries. Cob houses have been standing for centuries in the UK.
Difficulty of Technique
Straw bale is one of the fastest and least labour-intensive of all the natural builds. Bales are light compared to sacks filled with mud. You can have a house up in weeks. Finishing the interior may take longer though, and you’ll need some basic carpentry skills for a post-and-beam structure.
Usually pricier than mud building because of the post and beam structure. If you don’t have straw bales to hand this will also add to the cost.
Excellent. R1.5 - 2.5 per inch depending on which study you follow. The way to go in cold climates.
Although there are plenty of examples of alternative shapes created from straw bales, you are using a rectangular building block which lends itself better to straight lines when compared to cob or earthbag.
Excellent. Straw bale has been known to survive an 82-ton force on a shake table.
In the Wet
Moisture is the enemy of straw bale, and I’ve seen a few cases of bale rot now, which can be the end of your house if you’re not careful. Yes experts know how to mitigate this, and if you construct a decent rubble trench foundation, a high stem wall and wide eaves, straw bale can stand plenty of rain. But if you’re a newbie, you need to bear this tendency to rot in mind.
Plaster touch-ups. Usually easy and enjoyable.
With the correct foundations and moisture/fire protection, straw bale can last a lifetime.
Soundproof. Very snug.
- We’ve seen a number of fires in straw bale homes (Both Simon Dale’s went up in flames), so you really need to be super careful about your wiring, wood burner pipe exits, and so on.
- Mice can move into the walls if they find a hole to enter by.
Difficulty of Technique
You will need some reasonable carpentry skills to build a nice cabin.
Wood is always the priciest material in a natural build, especially if you’re going for quality, so a wooden cabin will no doubt cost more than a straw bale hut, and definitely more than cob or earthbag.
Very poor. You’ll have to add decent insulation to the walls in cold climates.
Poor. Wooden huts neither store much heat, nor prevent temperature exchange. This is one of their major disadvantages in my opinion.
Wood wants to go straight, so geometrical shapes are going to be the most logical for a wooden structure.
Better than stone. Worse than earthbag or straw bale.
How your hut stands up to a tornado does depend on how well built it is, but generally? Rather you than me.
In the Wet
Raised wooden structures will survive the wet quite well. You can stick them on stilts, for example.
Grrr. I find wood a right pain in the backside to maintain (though it does depend on which wood you’re using, and the amount of weathering your hut will see). Usually you’ve got to prevent it from sun and rain damage, which is expensive and time consuming.
This largely depends on the wood you are using. Some quality hardwoods last forever. Others, like commonly used pine, will need a lot of care.
Super fast to build. If you’re in a tight spot and need a roof over your head fast, wood can get you there.
Not soundproof, nor fireproof.
Difficulty of Technique
You’ve got to know what you’re doing with stone, especially if you’re building with a natural mud or lime mortar.
If you’ve got the stone on site, and you are a stonemason, fantastic! If not...ouch! In most countries hiring a stone mason is going to set you back a pretty penny.
Good. Performs way better with mud or lime mortar than with Portland cement.
Ah, stone is very aesthetic in the right hands. You can create all kinds of shapes, round or geometric.
Stone usually performs badly in earthquakes because the stones shudder and shift, thus loosening.
In the Wet
There’s no real issue with stone houses in the wet.
Very easy. Perhaps a bit of mortar pointing every few years?
With the correct foundations and drainage, stone houses last millennia.
The stones have a personality, an it’s quite wonderful to live with them. Another great thing about stone wall is that mice can’t chew through them.
Wattle and Daub
Difficulty of Technique
I think wattle and daub is quite underrated and underused in the trendier world of natural building. It’s not horribly complex. You will need some basic carpentry skills for the post-and-beam structure (much like with straw bale), but the wattling and daubing itself is wonderfully easy, and enjoyable.
Similar to straw bale in terms of materials. The post-and-beam structure is where the money goes.
Geometric shapes are best for wattle and daub, as the laths are straight lines.
Not sure. I only know them from the UK where there are all but no quakes. If you know, feel free to add in the comments, and I’ll update the post.
In the Wet
As with the other mud builds, if you have decent eaves and decent rubble trench foundations with a good stem wall, wattle and daub can cope well in the rain.
If lime washed, then the maintenance is pretty straight forward.
Excellent. Wattle and daub houses from the 15th century are still very much alive and well in the UK.
Other related articles:
1. Can you build mud houses in cold climates:
2. Mud Building Techniques Overview
3. Getting to Know Cob (Oliver Goshey)
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The great thing about being on the road is that you finally have the chance to visit other natural homes. Many of them are inspirational. All of them teach me something new.
Abrazo House is a cob/strawbale hybrid tucked away in the sweeping Cantabrian hills. It’s a perfect example of a well-built natural ecohome, with a green roof that flourishes in the wet climate, earth plaster created from clay on site, and a lime wash finish to protect it. The lower floor is made from insulated cob, and the upper floor is straw bale. It is, as you can see, quite beautiful. At 200 square metres, Abrazo House is the largest self-built natural home I’ve seen so far.
Robert, the creator of Abrazo House, has executed a number of impressive eco building projects to date. There is a cob cabin on the land too, and just up the road he has two more fabulous straw bale houses on the go which will ultimately be sold. Indeed this is something of a natural house empire with a view to breathing life and community back into an abandoned Spanish village.
But here’s a little secret just to encourage folk. Something went awry in the build of Abrazo House (which if builders are honest is par for the course in construction). And what do you know? I have something interesting to write about, and we all learn something new.
So what went wrong?
Originally Abrazo house was planned to be completely straw bale. Because the climate was wet and the build took a long time (four years in total), by the time the second floor was reached, the first floor had begun to rot. I don’t want to imagine how Robert and co. felt the moment they realised this. Personally, I would have lay down in the dirt, beat my chest and howled for a day. But Robert seems a mellow chap, so he probably flipped a little more quietly than I would have. And anyway there is always a solution. Many times it becomes the most outstanding feature of the house.
How did he solve the problem?
The issue was resolved by jacking up the first floor, removing the bales and then creating cob walls in their place. The cob easily supports the bales (which are far lighter than the solid earthern walls). Thus this has become a rather magnificent example of a hybrid natural home.
How did he increase the insulation value of the cob?
The reason Robert chose straw bale in the first place was that he was concerned about insulating such a large house. Straw bale has a high insulation value. Cob, on the other hand, has a high thermal mass value but is not particularly efficient for insulation (you can read more about that here). To mitigate this issue, Robert replaced some of the sand in the cob mix with sawdust. The result is a fabulous, attractive and warm family home.
Is this house built to code?
For those ever hungry for information on legalities: This is a natural home built to code. Yup, fully legit (as we say back in Essex). To do this in Spain you must buy an appropriate piece of land (edificable), speak to officials in your local government, get an architect to draw up an official plan, and then have it signed off by various titled pen-wielders in various offices. Obviously, each time you take any of these steps you will need to inhale and exhale deeply, and spend some money too. Patience and persistence are the two characteristics you must cultivate when embarking on a self build project anywhere.
Something else I learned:
Robert was mixing his earth plaster using an unconventional method (at least I’d never seen it done this way before). We laid a large layer of gravelly sand directly on the ground, then added a layer of clay, and finally some straw. Then the ingredients were mixed using a rotavator. Unfortunately I have no photographic evidence of me doing this, which is tragic because it was truly a battle between woman and machine:) To use this method successfully you need a fair bit of experience with earth plaster first, so you know exactly how the mixture should look. It’s quite hard to measure the quantities of ingredients carefully when they are spread on the floor. But because Robert knows his dirt and his climate well, he knows from sight and can assess the state of the mixture just by handling it.
If you want to read more about Abrazo House, or would like to help volunteer, go to www.abrazohouse.org.
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