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In a world where we are continually bombarded with negativity and despair, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just the way humans are. Most of us are amazing in our own ways, and most of our good deeds and beautiful achievements are never mentioned or shared. This week, with Di and Bis’ courageous renovation project in Spain, I’ve got a story of both inspiration and compassion, not to mention dogs.
From Turkey to Spain with Seven Dogs in a Van
I know Dianne and Bismil from my years in Turkey, where these two animal lovers have a long history of adopting stray and abandoned dogs. Last year Dianne and Bismil took an enormous leap of faith. They decided to leave their beautiful self-built home on the Turkish Riviera and move with their seven rescue dogs, none of which are small (indeed one Turkish Akbaş weighs more than I do). The country they planned to relocate to was Spain.
Now, it’s pretty stressful transporting animals across borders, and I’ve often commented it would be easier to bring a warhead into some countries than a dog. But Dianne and Bismil were undeterred. First they bought a Mercedes van, kitted it out, and decided to drive all seven dogs the 4200 kilometres from Turkey, through Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, France and into Spain. That might be adventure enough for most people.
At the same time, they also purchased a massive but dilapidated farmhouse in Spain to repair for them and their dogs. On top of all that, when they sold their house in Turkey, the Turkish Lira had crashed. So let’s just say they are doing this on a budget. Feeling hot under the collar yet?
An Odyssey, or Two
It gets worse. Or better, depending on whether you’re the storyteller or the protagonists. Because Dianne and Bismil had so many dogs, they couldn’t fit them all in the van in one trip. So once they arrived in Spain with half the pack...wait for it...Bismil had to turn around and drive the 4200 kilometres back to Turkey to pick up the other half of the dog family! And let me tell you, when you’re driving a van with Turkish plates in and out of Europe, you’d better be prepared to have the thing frequently pulled apart at the borders, as well.
While Bismil was crossing a continent on a dog rescue mission, Dianne held the fort, conquered Spanish bureaucracy (no mean feat), and began renovating. When I visited her last winter, the property was in one heck of a state. We sat hugging mugs of tea in the shell of her kitchen, which she’d already begun to attack. “It’s a monster,” she said to me, shaking her head. “I’m not in love with it; it’s like an arranged marriage. I had to find something fast to house the dogs.”
But I know Dianne. Some people have vision, and can see how to turn beasts into drop-dead-gorgeous aristocrats. Some people have the touch of the witch.
Both Dianne and Bismil have worked their butts off this year, with seven hounds to feed and walk as well. But what they have got right, which so many people get wrong, is that they have moved step by step, room to room, rather than attempting to transform the whole beast at once. Moving in this way means you have the satisfaction of seeing one area completely finished. It gives you a beautiful space to sit in and enjoy while you carry on with the next job.
Needless to say, when I returned this year, I was pretty gobsmacked. The kitchen is unrecognisable. The roof is being completely overhauled. The whole place is taking shape.
A Naturally Recycled Renovation
What’s particularly impressive about Dianne’s approach is her commitment to recycling and using natural materials. She’s a real whiz at upcycling old furniture, and there’s no old bit of scrap she can’t wave her wand at and turn into something special.
Lime mortar, render and crete
She has completely transformed the walls with lime and natural paints, too. She used lime throughout the house to create a series of beautiful mortars, renders, and limecretes to preserve the old stones, eradicate mould, and allow the house to “breathe”. The result, as you can see, is both authentic and warm.
For the steps and sills, Dianne created a special limecrete. She used one part lime, one part brick dust, one part sand, and a handful of straw to form these hard-wearing and beautiful surfaces. The brick dust acts as a pozzolan, which makes the lime more cementitious, while the straw fibres help knit the crete together and add a more rustic feel. You can read more about limecretes like this here.
The walls were totally overhauled and it’s made an enormous difference to the entire vibe. Dianne and Bismil pulled off all the old concrete render, dug out the mortar, and lovingly cleaned the stones up. Then they mixed a lime mortar from sand and lime, and re-mortared the walls. The result, as you can see, is stunning. It creates a completely different atmosphere.
In other places they applied a lime render and painted it with a special milk paint. I love the look; it’s both authentic and cosy.
The only thing left in the kitchen is the pantry. Dianne plans to make a wattle-and-daub cubbyhole in the utility room for storing her groceries. Once that is done, she will build a bottle wall with earth plaster to separate the bathroom from the hall. A TV room is also appearing by knocking out one wall and adding a door.
Yes, the beast is being tamed, and looking more attractive by the minute. But I wonder, is there a fairytale ending anywhere for the arranged marriage? Will Dianne fall for her monster in the end?
6 Important Things to Take Away from this Build:
1. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, panic and try to do everything at once when you take on a building project. Instead, be like Di and Bis – work out which space you need to sort out the most, and complete it. Totally. Then move onto the next. Step by step.
2. Don’t leave areas half-finished before starting a new task. It leaves you (and everyone you live with) in chaos, and you end up feeling like you’re getting nowhere.
3. In renovation, more than half the work is undoing the mistakes of those who went before you. Factor this in when estimating how long it will take.
4. Lime really is the way in old buildings. It creates a much warmer, drier vibe in a place. It’s also pretty impossible for mould to grow on lime render or in lime mortar.
5. You don’t need to build a house from scratch to enjoy natural building. Natural renders and plasters can transform even the most uninspiring box into something healthy, beautiful, and special.
6. If all else fails and you don’t know how to make your place more homely, get a dog (or seven). They are guaranteed to warm up kitchens, hearts, and cold feet.
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Can you put earth plaster on drywall or gypsum?
We have some very inspiring people in The Mud Home Facebook Group; and a variety of artisans and building techniques. For the house renovators, Camilla MacDonald's and Erhard Groneth's work in Germany is going to be very interesting. It’s been wonderful to watch this farmhouse transform from a bunch of dust and brick like this...
And finally become this cosy, airy abode:
And it happened so fast!
Applying Earth Plaster to Difficult Surfaces
What’s a difficult surface for earth plaster? Any surface that isn’t porous and doesn’t breathe is going to be tough for clay: Portland cement, drywall and gypsum all fall into this category. What can happen is that because those materials don’t breathe, humidity collects behind the plaster and pushes it away from the wall.
But it certainly can be done. And I have to say, just by applying earth plaster you can radically transform the feel of your home.
How did Camilla Plaster her Walls?
Camilla had a tricky surface to plaster. She enrolled in The Mud Home Perfect Earth Plaster Course in the winter, and her work has contributed to an extra section in that course. It’s an example of the beautiful results you can create when you know what you’re doing.
1. First Camilla tested a lot of different primers and plasters on small areas. I cannot stress how important that is, because no one else’s plaster recipe is ever going to be the same as yours. Your walls, your climate, your clay and the atmosphere of your building are never going to exactly mirror someone else’s.
2. She properly prepped her surface (or substrate). In this case it was gypsum plaster and drywall. For a totally natural primer for non-porous surfaces, you could use wheatpaste mixed with clay and possibly sand. But sometimes a number of variables will conspire, and that won’t work. In which case you can do what Camilla did and buy one of the professionally formulated primers on the market. In her case she used Superputzgrund. Mike Wye in the UK also has one or two primers.
3. Finally she applied layers of plaster to her walls, allowing each layer to dry properly before adding the next. In some areas she added just two layers, and in others the full three layers. Was there a difference?
“Good question,” she says. “There is no visual difference, as the clay paint top layer is identical. But I would say the air in the rooms with the thicker layers is nicer...”
Using Clay Paint
One thing I love about this earth plaster job is the way Camilla has painted the walls. She used a white clay paint, and then added natural pigments to it. The result is original, light and airy. You may not have realised earth plaster can look this sleek. Her bathroom is quite a masterpiece.
I have now finished adding a new section to the Earth Plaster Course on Creating Beautiful Finishes for Your Plaster. It's a very comprehensive course, so take a look.
Do you really need to do a course? Can’t you just research a bit online and slap it on? It’s only mud, isn’t it?
Well, that’s what I did of course on my first earthbag house. And that’s why it took me nearly 2 years to get my plaster right. So yes sure, you can do what I did. If you’ve got plenty of time and patience, go for it :))
If on the other hand you want a simple but in-depth guide (with videos) on how to get your plaster looking great on a whole bunch of different substrates - earthbag, cob, strawbale, stone, or even drywall - then the course is going to be the easier and potentially cheaper option.
Here’s what some of the other course participants have said:
"I have two bathtubs of plaster ready to go Atulya! Your course was invaluable." Cath Coffey, earthbag builder in the UK.
"Very informative and good instructions in the text and videos! Absolutely helpful, thanks for putting it together." Nanda Doornik, cob oven builder in Ireland.
"Atulya has the ability to make natural building very accessible, empowering the participant to believe in their ability to do it." Emma Batchelor, course participant.
"Through the third lesson and loving it!" Wynter Miller, course participant.
This online course will show you:
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