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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.
Related Links and Info
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Water is one of the top priorities when you’re building an off-grid world (for the full list see here). Having suffered plenty of experience in doing it the wrong way, I was a little obsessed about water this second time around. I’ve made sure in my new off-grid world that water is in abundance. I can tell you now, the difference it has made to my workload and general comfort levels is huge.
So here’s a list of the top five ways you can obtain water in your off-grid world, with (as always) some very common issues to watch out for, plus one thing you absolutely must factor in to your off-grid water system right from the outset.
Wells are pretty common in off-grid scenarios. Humans have been digging wells for a long time, after all. If they are decent wells with plenty of water all year round, it’s all well and good. Even if you don’t have your own well, you can potentially bore down and create one. But, before you shell out a small fortune for a borer, do consider some of the pitfalls of wells.
The reality: I’ve seen a heap of problems with wells. The troubles begin (but don’t end) when, as they are wont to, wells dry up. Even here in very rainy northern Spain, I see a lot of people running low on water if the season is dry.
So… as always when it comes to water systems. Unless you are 101% sure you have plenty of water all year, make sure you have a backup. This is probably the number one rule with off-grid water. Rely on one source at your peril. I have three potential sources now, and that makes me feel very good indeed:)
The other issue with wells and water systems in general is of course pumps (protracted groan). I often hear people say, “Oh we’ll just pump it up.” That phrase is delightfully short and simple, and belies none of the actual aggravation pumps can cause. More on pumps at the bottom.
I think this is the water system of the future. Almost everywhere in the world, even in dry areas, there is rainfall at some point in the year. If you can harvest that water and store it well, you can change your world.
The best rainwater harvesting system I have ever seen was in Tamera, Portugal. It was a massive water-retention lake designed by Sepp Holzer. You can read more about that here. But the key difference between Sepp’s permie rainwater systems versus classic rainwater harvesting pools, is that Sepp uses clay to line the base of the lake, rather than concrete or any other impermeable man-made membrane. This is fundamental in dry climates because it allows a little natural seepage into the ground, thus rehydrating the entire area around the lake and balancing your local water table. Ultimately it transforms the actual climate, attracting more rain.
But not everyone is in a super-dry climate, nor does everyone have enough land for such a project. In which case, the most common (and effective) way of harvesting rainwater is from your roof. It is then collected in a big tank for later use.
The reality: The main issue with rainwater harvesting is storage space, because depending on how many months are dry and how big your garden is, you may find yourself needing a tank the size of a house. I think for small off-grid worlds, rainwater works superbly as a backup. The water is also beautifully soft, which makes your skin and hair all soft and shiny (if you like that kind of thing:)
You can read more about rainwater harvesting, and about Sepp Holzers’s inspiring work here.
These two Abundant Edge podcasts also give excellent advice on rainwater harvesting.
If you have a spring on your land, then I doubt you are reading this post. It’s the source I favour most, especially if it’s pure mountain water that you can also drink. Like wells or course, springs can dry up. But if it’s an open spring above your living quarters, then you may well be spared the pumping. I’ve seen lucky folk with spring water pipes pouring next to their houses. So if you’re looking for land and find one with a spring in it, go for it!
Brooks and Rivers
Again, if you’re looking for land and find a plot next to a river or with a brook in it, it’s probably a good choice. If it’s above your land it’s easier to drive the water down without a pump, but you have potentially more chance of flooding. If it’s below your land you’ve got to pump it up. Ram pumps are very interesting solutions to this problem though. More on them at the bottom.
The reality: Both brooks and rivers can dry up, so make sure you check their status at the end of the dry season. Also, in many regions rivers are communal, or much worse, corporation property. Or there may be limits to what you can do with them. This is why I favour springs. Generally, if you have a small spring in your land, the government or the mega-corporation has nothing to say.
Dew harvesting/dew ponds
This is essentially a very old but fast-developing water solution. Essentially all you need is a temperature reaching dew point/mist, and a tarp. In the old days, dew ponds were for cattle. A hole was dug, an insulator like straw was put down, and then puddled clay for waterproofing. See more details about the old dew ponds here.
You can make your own dew pond by digging a wide basin or pool, lining it with straw for insulation, and then covering it with a tarp. In the evening and morning, dew will collect in the tarp in a small pond. People have adapted this system for their roofs too, collecting the dew much like rainwater.
The reality: This is way, way easier in a cooler, damper climate than in a hot, arid one. In southern Turkey there was basically no dew point reached at all for about four months of the year, so good luck harvesting dew there. It’s still possible, but you need a much larger, higher-tech system. However, if your climate is temperate, oceanic, rainforest, or cool, dew harvesting can be a nice easy backup source of water.
Video of how to make a dew pond: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66tAHmRd5FE
As alluded to earlier, I hate pumps. My neighbour in Turkey was killed by one, which has done nothing to cure my aversion. Pumps often go wrong, and personally, being an independent type of lass, I dislike that my water supply suddenly becomes dependent on power.
Electric pumps (which could be solar) are okay for lightweight jobs, but don’t forget that mixing water and electricity is a high-risk venture (this is what killed my neighbour). Also, if you have a steep incline, electricity isn’t going to cut the mustard. You will need a petrol pump instead. These are noisy, expensive, and of course require fuel.
There is only one pump system I like, and that’s the hydraulic ram pump. Old school, that’s me. Ram pumps use gravity and pressure as their power source, rather than petrol or electricity. Basically you have a pipe with a number of valves in it, and the pressure of the flow (in say a river) pushes the water up a certain way into the pipe and through a valve, which closes behind it. When the next lot of water gets pushed up the pipe, it pushes the first lot through the next valve. And so on, until you’ve pumped water up your hill. Ram pumps have a lovely click to them as the valves open and close, too. The only disadvantage is that ram pumps can’t usually drag water up very steep inclines.
You can read more about the wonderful ram pump here.
Here’s a video on how to make one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enBEMgDR3-A
Yes, you need drinking water, but not nearly as much as you think. There’s far too much paranoia regarding water, usually spread by people who have zero experience of life in the wild, and who are spewing second-hand stories they’ve seen on the telly.
Remember: Depending on your annual rainfall and the size of your veggie patch/orchard, anywhere between 50% to 90% of your water usage is for your garden. On top of that, the vast majority of your personal water usage is for washing clothes and showering, so it doesn’t need to be pure, either. Then comes the washing up, which unless you’ve got good reason to believe there is giardia or cholera lurking in your supply, and you’re eating off wet plates, can also be washed in non-drinking water.
The amount of water you actually ingest is minimal. I have no drinking water in my taps and collect it instead from a pure spring nearby. I usually use between 2-3 litres a day. What you need most is water, full stop. Provided it’s not downstream from a chemical plant, you are probably fine using it for most things except drinking and eating. Most people going off-grid are moving to remote places, which are automatically less polluted anyway. That is, after all, the whole point, right?
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For just $2 a month you have email priority, access to my private news feed, and a monthly patron-only video from my land. (Psst… I’m building a small, stone off-grid world single-handed and on a very tight budget. If you want to watch how I do that, and how I deal with my woes as well as triumphs, it’s all on my Patreon feed).
Many, many thanks to the dear Mud Sustainers and the fantastic Mud community on Patreon for keeping this site running so far.
Lime is one of the most underused, yet versatile, enduring and elegant building materials out there. It's amazing stuff, and does almost everything Portland cement does but better. Yup, I said better.
Lime allows structures to breathe in a way Portland cement never can, significantly reducing the opportunities for damp in your building. It's softer and more malleable, and cures more slowly giving you time to work it beautifully before it sets. This softness is important in mortar work – especially in old buildings. Portland cement is too hard and non-porous, so it ultimately begins to 'eat away' at the stones. It's been banned by the English Heritage Society for this very reason. Lime is a fungicide and an insecticide, and in most places very inexpensive. Unless you're building a multi-story car park, lime is the way.
Lime generates roughly 25% of the carbon that Portland cement does in production,and then slowly reabsorbs that carbon as it cures. Seeing as Portland cement is currently the second largest emitter of CO2 into the atmosphere after fossil fuels, we could do with using a lot more lime and a lot less Portland.
Here are 8 gorgeous things you can make with lime:
Lime creates beautiful, breathable renders. It’s so much more suited to this job than Portland cement as it allows the house to air properly, creating a very different, drier atmosphere within. It’s anti-mold properties are also a boon if you are in a damp climate. Because it takes longer to set, you have time to work it into something of beauty.
If you have an old building, then lime mortar is a must really. Because it’s softer than the stone or brickwork, it doesn’t gradually eat away at them like Portland cement does.
I love lime paint (or lime wash) because it’s so absurdly easy to use. Most commercial paints come stuffed with chemicals, and create either an oily or plastic finish that doesn’t breathe.
Yes, you can use lime to grout tiles or flagstones (see above).
You can create limecrete from lime, which is durable and works perfectly well as a flooring. In ancient houses it’s the floor material of choice because once again, it doesn’t mess about with the self-airing characteristics of old buildings and allow damp to rise.
6. Sills and Worktops
With limecrete you can form beautiful sills, worktops, or steps. Lime takes longer to cure than Portland cement (about three weeks for adequate solidification) but is perfectly durable, and continues to harden over time.
7. Bubble Houses
You can mix lime, sand, and straw (or hemp) and make all kinds of structures with it. Have a look at this gorgeous bubble house in France by Kerterre (the video is in French).
8. The Taj Mahal
Okay I’m kidding, kind of. The Taj Mahal was rendered in a special kind of lime plaster called ‘araish’. It’s made by mixing burned clay with slaked lime, jaggery, and fenugreek seeds. It's held up pretty well, as you can see:)
Want to know how to use this stuff?
If you want to explore the Amazing World of Lime further, and learn how to use the white wonder, I have a new course out. It’s on a special introductory price for the next month at just $45 (plus your local digital tax), so take a look. It includes videos, slideshow lectures, and PDFs, and is completely downloadable.
I always update and add sections to my courses over time. Once you’ve enrolled in the course you’ll have access to all future updates.
The course includes:
Probably one of the most attractive features of an off-grid lifestyle is that it’s so inexpensive, leaving the dreaded day job behind becomes very viable. You have no power or water bills. You don’t (hopefully) pay rent. You are not spending idiotic amounts of cash on travelling to work, or on a corporate wardrobe. And most importantly of all, I think, is that the mere act of being outside in nature is in and of itself very fulfilling, so you are not wasting money on myriad distractions. I still say building with mud is one of my cheapest hobbies.
After a while you start growing your own food, which shaves a lot off your food bill too. I worked out that even in my paltry first-year herb garden, I saved about fifty euros on herbs alone in just twelve weeks! My friend said she’s saved thirty euros on tomatoes alone this summer. We’re single. If you’re a family, then growing your own vegetables is a big money saver.
Even so, as I learned to my chagrin back on Mud Mountain in Turkey, unless you are prepared to cut yourself off entirely from humanity, not have internet, or be a parasitic scrounger, you do need a few bucks to live off. In Turkey I was getting by (fairly uncomfortably) on about 150 dollars a month. Here in Spain it’s more like 350 euros. A good half of my outgoings are on petrol and communications (wifi/phone, etc.), and I won’t lie, I still harbour a dream of cutting those out one day. And then there are the times things ‘go wrong’, the inverter blows up, or your water pipes freeze, and you have to repair your infrastructure.
350 euros isn’t much… unless you haven’t got it. So I asked around in our Special Mud Home Facebook Group as to how the other off-gridders and system-escapees earn their crust.
How to make a living off-grid:
1. Teaching natural building and homesteading workshops
This is one of the most common ways people keep the money clock ticking. The learning curve for people building small off-grid worlds is immense, so once you’ve built your own little world it usually by default attracts others who want to learn.
Pros: Depending on your location it’s very viable. In Europe and the US, a lot of people want to learn this stuff.
Cons: You need a decent infrastructure in place to be able to host workshops. Then there’s the food issue (bane of my life). Who’s doing the catering for ten people, who no doubt have all manner of ludicrous dietary requirements? In my experience (and many others concur), workshops are exhausting. You’re not going to be running them every week.
2. Renting out your yurt/tent/campervan on Airbnb
You’d be amazed what you can rent out, so don’t limit yourself by thinking that your mud hut is too basic for Airbnb. Even a square of land in a beautiful place can potentially be rented out to campers. There is a hunger for beauty and nature and simplicity.
Pros: A nice little earner without a huge amount of effort.
Cons: Depending on your location, there may be legal or tax implications with this. It’s tricky to keep rented properties under the radar, and I’ve heard a few cases in various countries of local guesthouse owners complaining, and then fines being issued.
3. Selling your own produce/handiwork
A lot of folk are doing this in my area of Spain, because there are some tax advantages to being a stall holder:) Whether there is a local demand for fresh, organic home produce depends on your location. In Turkey, because everyone already made everything themselves, it was harder to sell your own creations. But in many, many countries, home produce is viable. Jam goes for five euros a jar in my local market, which is a pretty high markup I reckon:)
What to sell?
Jam, honey, organic veggies, chutneys, herbs, herbal remedies, soaps and natural cleaning products, bread, cakes, pasties, cheeses, butter, handmade jewellery, foraged food.
“I’m a big forage geek. Wild gourmet mushrooms sell high in the right season and restaurants ‘eat them up’,” said Wynter Spring in our Facebook Group.
Where to sell it?
In your local market, restaurants, create a ‘pick your own’ and let people do the hard work for you, or sell online.
Pros: Easy to stay under the radar and earn ‘cash-in-hand’.
Cons: Potentially labour-intensive. You need to be sure you have a market for your stuff.
4. Online teacher
If you are a native speaker of English you are lucky. You have ample opportunities to teach your mother tongue online. Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese are other popular languages to learn. But people are teaching almost anything online these days.
Pros: It’s flexible and sometimes pleasant to chat to different people if you’re getting cabin fever up there in your off-grid world.
Cons: You need a decent internet/power system. Teaching takes more time, energy and skill than people think. You have to prepare classes (usually), have decent social skills, and shedloads of patience.
A number of people edit journals and articles. Or if you speak more than one language, you can also flex your translation muscles.
Pros: Flexible. This is non-physical work (which can be important when you are off-grid, as you can get physically very tired).
Cons: Little room for creativity, so potentially quite tedious.
6. Retreats and Travel
These are similar to workshops in their need for effort, but retreats and homestays usually require better infrastructure and more comfortable lodgings. You can run spiritual, ecological, ‘writers and artists’ retreats or responsible cultural holidays like Poonam below:
“I have a little responsible rural travel project in the Indian Himalayas, where I have trained and hired underprivileged women, mainly widows and victims of domestic violence - www.fernweh-travel.com . Plus we have a homestay looked after by women too www.peachesandpears.net,” says Poonam, (also a member of our Facebook Group - it's nice in there:)
Pros: You will probably meet some interesting like-minded folk. Some are like angels bringing fresh air and ideas into your world.
Cons: You may meet royal pains in the backside as well:) For some, the end of the world = no chia seeds, composting toilets, too much quiet/noise, beds too hard/soft/big/small etc)...it goes on and on.
7. Social media manager/online assistant
You need to be fairly tech savvy and dextrous with a number of social media platforms to pull off being a virtual assistant. These skills can be learned though. A VA may have to upload blog posts, edit, sort out inboxes, post on social media, organise travel arrangements, do online research, write or collate newsletters, and more.
Pros: Flexible and not too time-consuming if you have the skill set required.
Cons: I think the most challenging part is getting yourself out there in the beginning so that people can hire you. There are a number of sites where online freelancers tout their wares. Here is a sample of some of the biggest:
8. Start Your Own Online Business
I think by now I could write a book on this, which is ironic, because not once in this off-grid adventure have I consciously tried to create a business. What I did want to do was create a platform, which by default is what you need to do if you want to stand a chance of succeeding in the smoke and mirrors world of online business.
Online businesses can involve selling products. But I’d say selling things is only one side of online entrepreneurship. You could be creating online courses, such as I do for the Mud Home, or offering services such as therapy sessions, or creating online communities.
“Over the past 10 years I've built my business as a master doll sculptor so that I would be able to one day explore my off-grid passion,” says Rhonda, who unlike me and many others was smart and got her ducks in a row before she left the system:) You can see her creations at https://creamsodabjd.com/.
Kirsty Henderson has called herself an accidental cartographer. She’s got a great blog post about how she fell into the online business of selling maps. http://www.portugalfromscratch.com/earning/so-how-am-i-funding-this-crazy-adventure/#more-63
Pros: Creative and exciting. It’s great to be your own boss.
Cons: There’s a lot of rubbish touted about earning millions online. Don’t believe a word of it. An online business is not a get-rich-quick option, but hey, that’s presumably not what you’re doing it for;) Still, for the sake of realism I reckon it usually takes a good two years to learn the ropes and get a decent online platform going (unless you’ve got a stack of money to throw at advertising).
9. Building/designing projects for others
When you have a built a few natural homes and are on the level that Shagun Singh is, you can design or build for others. “I started taking designing and building projects very selectively. These are mostly social with no charge but a few commercial ones too to support finances,” says the amazing woman behind Geeli Mitti in India.
Pros: Potentially lucrative. Could improve your standing in the natural building world.
Cons: Potentially exhausting and frustrating. You have to navigate other people’s vast and often unrealistic expectations.
If you are an expert with hands-on experience in any field, you can offer advice to anyone who’ll pay you by becoming a consultant. There are permaculture design consultants, natural building consultants, online business consultants… heck, even dog psychology and hairstyle consultants. This may be part of your online business, but not necessarily.
Pros: Potentially interesting work because you have a deeper level of input into someone’s project without the burden of actually making it happen.
Cons: Make sure you have decent internet. Your main challenge will be to find customers.
Links and Further Reading for Online Entrepreneurship
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It costs a fair bit in both money and my time to run this site without annoying adverts popping up. Quality posts take time to research, too. So if you are benefitting from or enjoying The Mud Home, please consider making a pledge on Patreon so that others can continue to access this free information in the future.
For just $2 a month you have email priority, access to my private news feed, and a monthly patron-only video from my land. (Psst… I’m building a small, stone off-grid world single-handedly and on a very tight budget. If you want to watch how I do that, and how I deal with my woes as well as triumphs, it’s all on my Patreon feed).
Many, many thanks to the dear Mud Sustainers and the fantastic Mud community on Patreon for keeping this site running so far.
Have your own project in the pipeline? Need inspiration or advice?
The Mud Home’s small, private, and very supportive Facebook group is a safe space for new mud builders and off-gridders. It’s also the most inexpensive way to get assistance from me. It’s filling up, though. The number of members is capped at 100 so I can give everyone the proper help they need. So if you want to be part of it, don't leave it too long.
So you need a hard slab on your floor but you don’t want to use Portland cement, because you’ve done your homework (or learned from experience) and know that Portland cement floor slabs are bad news in natural/ancient buildings. In this case, what you need instead is limecrete.
It still baffles me how few mainstream builders use lime, especially limecrete. I really don’t get, it to be honest. Are they scared? Too stuck in their ways? What is it? Lime isn’t any harder to use than Portland cement. It takes longer to cure, which means it’s a lot easier to correct mistakes than if you use Portland. It looks a lot nicer, too. It’s cheap, uses a quarter of the fossil fuels to manufacture, and it will pull damp out of buildings like nothing else. If you’re in a wet climate, lime is the way. What’s not to like?
Luckily for us, a friend of mine who shall thus be called ‘S’ has shared how she and ‘E’ made their limecrete floor for their Victorian cottage in Lincolnshire. Yes it’s to code, too.
How S and E Made their Limecrete Floor
Because S and E are in the UK, there are building regulations that have to be observed. But the system outlined here was pre-approved so it’s a great guide for anyone looking to make a limecrete floor system. Here we go:
1. First, because this is an old house that someone had unwisely stuck a concrete slab in (damp issues in abundance), the existing concrete floor had to be dug out to a depth of 30cm. You can do this yourself but it’s a nasty, heavy job requiring serious machinery, so you may prefer to get a builder in. “We removed all the rubble ourselves, seemed about a million wheelbarrowsful. You have to remove absolutely every bit of it, because if you don't any sharp bits leftover will puncture the geotextile membrane,” explains S.
2. The geotextile membrane (shown above with the lilac arrow) stops the dirt travelling up into the glapor insulation. Once you have a rubble-free base to your floor, you lay the membrane.
3. Next, S and E added the Glapor insulation. Glapor is foamed recycled glass and laid to a depth of 30 cm throughout. “More long days of shovelling and wheelbarrowing,” laments S.
4. The next stage was to compress the glapor to 20cm. For this, you need a plate compactor. "There's just no other way to do it," S says, "It's a nasty, noisy, heavy, slow job.” (He he he, I think a picture is emerging here).
5. Not yet defeated, once the glapor was compacted S and E then put down another layer of geotextile on the top. This stops the limecrete from sinking down into the glapor.
5. Because they were laying underfloor heating, S and E installed a geo-grid to hold the pipes in place, before laying the pipes themselves. They then used a pressure pump to pump water through the pipes to check there were no leaks, because once the limecrete goes down, that’s it! You can no longer access the pipes.
6. Once that's all done, the limecreting begins. First, you shutter off the section you're going to limecrete. “Obviously, start furthest from the door and leave the area around the door to last. Limecrete is much more forgiving than concrete and can be done section by section, provided you do the sections quickly enough that it doesn't dry out,” explains S.
7. The limecrete mixture was made as follows: “Our builder lent us a concrete mixer. The mix we used was 2.5 buckets of slabbing aggregate and one bucket of NHL lime, with a handful of fibres added for strength. Because of the slabbing aggregate we used, we did not need to use sharp sand, but many other systems do require sharp sand. You then add water bit by bit until the mix is the consistency of stiff porridge. Keep it mixing for 20 minutes, then empty into a strong wheelbarrow and wheel it indoors.”
8. While one person lays and tamps the limecrete in the shuttering, the other person mixes the next load. Once the entire section is laid and tamped to the level of the shuttering, you can finish it with a float or trowel, and create the type of surface you want.
9. Finally leave the limecrete overnight, before removing the shuttering on that section and setting up an adjacent section. Continue until the whole floor is limecreted.
10. Limecrete takes about three months to fully cure, but you can walk on it long before that. If you’re in a hot, dry climate, you need to damp (but not soak) the floor regularly to prevent it from drying too quickly and cracking. Once it's cured, use a stiff brush to remove all the loose dust. “You will need to do this repeatedly for quite a long time,” says S.
Something tells me S is happy this floor business is over:)
Last word on the matter from S
"This was by far the biggest, heaviest, hardest, nastiest job we had to do, but once we'd done it, we felt like we could tackle anything because no job we're likely to do here now will be as physically taxing as doing that floor!"
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Two Hybrid Timber-Bale-Cob Houses in Cantabria, Northern Spain
You may remember I visited a rather spectacular natural building complex in Cantabria a couple of years ago. You may remember two straw bale houses in the process of being built. Those houses are now complete (yippee!) Robert Alcock from Abrazo House gives a brilliantly detailed rundown on how they were made, and shows us around.
If you're a regular follower of the Mud Home blog you'll have already read a bit about Abrazo House. At this ecological learning centre in a tiny village in the green mountains of Cantabria, we've spent the past fourteen years building natural homes and doing permaculture with the help of hundreds of volunteers from all over the world. You can read all about the project in our free ebook: (http://abrazohouse.org/en/book/)
In 2016 we decided to apply our hard-won experience to a further natural building project: to create two new, beautiful and efficient eco-houses on another plot of land in the same village, with the aim of attracting like-minded people to live and work in this amazing part of the world. The houses are now complete and are on the market. (http://abrazohouse.org/for-sale/) For all you natural building fans out there, here's a quick rundown on the essentials of the project.
The site is 5000m2 of south-facing terraces with young woodland (planted after we bought the land in 2005) and a stream, in a small village in Cantabria. The "urban" zoning of the land meant we could get permission to build two homes there, and we went down the legal route of architect's plans and municipal permits. (NB We've never run into legal issues because of the unconventional nature of our buildings.)
Because of the steep, south-facing site, we decided to cut away into the hillside and build earth-sheltered houses. A key design element is the addition of a semi-enclosed garage to the north, in between the house proper and the hillside: basically doubling your useful space for just the cost of the roof.
The choice of materials was based on ten years' experience of natural building in this bioregion. Of course there would be loooads of cob: we love working with cob, it's cheap and easy to mix with our well-honed rotavator technique, and it makes gorgeous organic shapes. But we wanted these houses to be completely passive solar—not needing any additional heating in winter—and cob alone isn't quite warm enough to do that even in our mild climate, so we went for a hybrid construction: straw bales laid on edge (35cm thick) with a good 15cm of cob inside and out for protection and thermal mass.
A notable feature of our local landscape is the humungous areas of eucalyptus plantations. These non-native trees are mostly used for making paper, but they actually make a very good structural timber which is very durable if treated with borax solution. So we decided to erect a timber frame structure and green roof first, and build the bale-cob walls afterwards, allowing us to work under cover. We cut and peeled our eucalyptus trunks on a friend's land, less than 1km from the building site. Using them in the round meant stronger beams, and saved us an expensive trip to the sawmill.
Earthmoving and Foundations
On site, our digger crew scraped away the topsoil—which we piled up for use in mixing the cob later on—and found that the underlying subsoil wasn't soil at all, but rock. This meant a lot more expensive digging, but it did have two benefits: a nearly infinite supply of stone for building retaining walls and foundations, and a very solid base for the houses, with no need to pour a concrete foundation. In some areas we could go straight up from the bedrock; in other places we built a brick pier for the posts to rest on.
Timber Frame and Roof
Due to administrative delays we weren't able to start building the timber frame until December 2016, but once we got going it went up in just a couple of weeks. With the main frames up and temporary supports in place, we put on the rafters and the roof during the winter, luckily blessed with good weather, and were ready to start filling in the walls by March.
To keep the bale-cob walls dry, you need a good stemwall. Despite having plenty of stone on site, our stemwalls are mostly built from termoarcilla, a specially insulating type of brick that interlocks like Lego, because it's way quicker: we only used stone on the visible exterior walls. We filled in between the two layers with expanded clay pellets (arlita) — a lightweight insulating pellet that's a bit like Rice Crispies.
On top of the stemwall we put a thin layer of cob, and then it was bale time. It was pretty easy to keep the bales straight and stable by tying them to the post-and-beam structure; in some places, we strengthen them with bamboo poles tied through the wall from inside to outside. At this stage we just left a big enough gap for each window or door, added a wooden lintel and kept going with the straw bales. It's important to take into account that the straw bales will settle over time, so the lintels must be able to move with them. (Our lintels could have done with being a bit stronger, too.) Later on, we would come back and hang the doors and windows from the lintels, filling in around them with slip-straw.
The first layer of plaster we added to the bales was a clay slip—just clay soil and water mixed by hand and foot in a pit (an excellent way to make friends and get incredibly muddy), and applied to the bales by hand.
Electricity tubes get fixed straight on to the straw bales. Then it's time for the cob plaster—layers and layers of cob plaster until the walls are weatherproof, thick and straight.
On top of the cob we applied Ecoclay, a commercial earth plaster—basically a much finer version of cob. Then came the finish layer: gypsum plaster inside the West house and an extra fine commercial clay plaster in the East house, with lime plaster on the exterior of both houses for strength and durability.
On the market
The two houses are now on the market, together with 5000m2 of land with wooded terraces and a stream. The East house is furnished as a small family home, while the West house is slightly larger, with a loft and two bathrooms, and would be ideal as a studio space for working, running courses or as a rental property. We believe this is an exceptional property for the right people, who are looking for a place to realise their dreams of a life in harmony with nature. Please take a look at our webpage (http://abrazohouse.org/for-sale/) or check out our promo video (https://youtu.be/mgMiTj5ujCA) and get in touch if you want to know more.
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It’s actually pretty easy to add window and door frames into earthbag buildings. The most important thing, as always with earthbag, is anchoring things to the walls. But there are a couple of potential issues, so it pays to be aware of them.
1. Making a mould
The standard way to create space for your door or window is to make a mould. Some people use tyres, some use hay bales, most build a box out of wood or ply and insert it onto the wall where they want their window.
That said, I’ve never done it this way. I’ve always stuck the window or door frame straight into the wall, and built around it. There are pros and cons to both methods, as you’ll see in a bit.
As you lay earthbags up to the edges of the mould or frame, it’s crucial to add anchors between the bags that you will attach your frames to. What you don’t want in any kind of construction is the frames shifting or sliding about. They need to be securely nailed into the earthbag wall. How?
You can either make your own anchors from small planks of wood and slot them between the bags like this:
Or you can use metal brackets to do the same job (see Owen Geiger’s method).
3. Fixing anchors onto earthbags
Fix the anchor onto your earthbag by driving big fat nails (minimum 10 - 12cm) right through the anchor and into the earthbag.
I’ve found you want one anchor, every three or four rows of earth bags. Any less and things start wobbling.
4. Barbed wire
Once your anchors are secured, you lay the barbed wire over the top of the anchors, and nail it into place. This gives the upper row of bags something to grip onto. Once you tamp the lot down, that anchor is wedged. Now you have something to screw/nail your window or door frame into.
Issues to watch out for:
The snag with earthbag is this: The higher up you go and the more you tamp, the more pressure is exerted on the lower bags. So they will naturally squeeze inwards, pressing against your window or door frame, or indeed your mould. If you are using a mould this can make it difficult to yank out. The common recommendation is to stick wedges between the mould and the earthbag wall. Even so, most people still seem to find it hard to pull the mould out. A mould without rough edges will help your cause. Or perhaps a bit of plastic sheet between the wall and the mould would help it slide?
If you want to add window or door frames directly into the wall, your issue is this: Your frames must be tough or they will buckle under the pressure of the bags. This happened on my first house, where the window frames turned into trapeziums :)) You need to pay attention that your lower, upper and side lintels are heavy-duty, because they all bear the brunt of the pressure. We used 10 x 30 cm lintels on the build in Olympos, and they held up.
Good luck folks! And remember, everything has to be anchored together in earthbag building. If it's not anchored into your wall, it's not secure and may well wobble.
The Mud Home continues due to the funding of the Mud Sustainers and patrons on Patreon. Their contributions cover the web platform costs, 10GB of off-grid internet, the email list, hosting, and the now vital virtual assistance from the reliable and efficient Melissa. If you are benefitting or enjoying The Mud Home posts, please consider making a pledge. For just $2 a month you have email priority, access to my private news feed, and a monthly patron-only video from my land.
Starting Your Own Project?
The Mud Home small, private and very supportive Facebook group is a safe space for new mud builders and off-gridders. It’s also the most inexpensive way to get assistance from me. It’s filling up, though. The number of members will be capped at 100 so I can give everyone the proper help they need, so if you want to be part of it, don't leave it too long.
This is such an important post by Kristen Krash over in Ecuador. I wrote an Earth Whispering a while back on the subject of letting go of control and allowing your land to be. But there is no one-fits-all answer or prescription. This is why I love and strive to maintain The Mud Home’s worldwide perspective. Because every space on this Earth has a different story. Each place and people face different challenges and possess different strengths. I’ll hand over to Kristen for her hard-won tips on land guardianship in the degraded tropics of South America, plus her fantastic hacks and money-saving tips on reforesting.
Are you sure you want to rewild?
So you have some land and you want to manage it in a way that's good for you and good for the earth. You have your garden and maybe even a food forest planted and you're wondering, "Now what to do with the rest of it?" Here I'll discuss three options, how to determine what is most appropriate for your land, why, and how to do it.
The first is simply to let the land be. Relinquish control. Rewild it. What a lovely concept, humans stepping out of the way for nature's innate wisdom to unfold. Perhaps you might need to build some fences to keep farm animals out of the area you've set aside, but intervention is minimal. It's the cheapest and least problematic way to manage land and allows wildlife to thrive where it lives best, away from people.
But..Before you have visions of a spontaneous Eden in the back 40, make sure your land is a good candidate for rewilding. Are there trees and shrubs on the land or nearby? A mix of undergrowth? Lots of birds and small mammals to help distribute seed? Bees, bats, and other pollinators? Great. Wild away. But if you are missing any or all of these crucial factors, your land may be degraded enough to need help. It's a disgrace really, but some ecosystems has been so badly damaged by human avarice and ignorance that they have reached a point of no return. Generous and thoughtful human intervention can (and should) set the regeneration process in motion.
Know your land’s eco-history
Note that not all regeneration is necessarily reforestation. In the American midwest, for example, just a few meters of natural prairie contains dozens of species of grasses and topsoil several inches thick. Compare that to the mega farms of soybeans and corn growing in chemical-laced barren soil. Any diverse multi-layered combination of plants that functions as a system is regeneration. Know the eco-history of your land before intervening.
The story of Ecuador’s forests
Forest is the mature result of many ecosystems, and forests are at the most risk of destruction. Where I live in Ecuador, there's a lot of grassy pasture. It's green and pretty to look at at, but there's nothing natural about it. This was a dense cloud forest, replete with jaguars and monkeys, not cows. Logging companies cut down huge swaths of trees, then sell off the stripped land as "ideal for cultivation." In reality, food forests originated in the tropics (5,000 years ago) for a good reason: without a protective canopy of branches above and network of roots below, heavy rains hit the delicate soil like a blitzkrieg, making a muddy slurry and leaching out nutrients. Fertility is quickly lost. The big plantations of banana, cacao, and palm are completely dependent on chemical inputs to pump out the crops. People who can't afford chemical-intensive farming sow grass for pasture, cloned GMO seed designed to spread and prevent any "competing" vegetation (i.e. trees) from getting a foothold.
The logging and agro-industrial barons aren't just cutting down trees, they are committing outright ecocide. In the rainforests of Columbia, Peru, and Brazil. In India, Borneo, Malaysia, and Australia. In nearly every country in Africa that is not yet a desert. Pastures and monocultures spread like a green plague, eradicating old growth forest, the animal species that live there, and the know-how channelled through generations, a treasure trove of plant lore lost forever.
Jump-starting the recovery
The good news is, where humans have done the damage they can also jump-start the recovery. The other day I pulled on my high boots and hiked over to an area of former cow pasture we haven't touched since we began working three years ago. Apart from a very few struggling pioneer shrubs, I literally clawed my way through an acre-wide ocean of chest-high grass that formed a mat so thick over the soil nothing else could grow. A veritable green desert.
In vivid contrast, on the land where we have taken action, over a thousand trees and plants of a hundred plus species now thrive, providing food for us, fodder for our horses, habitat for increasingly abundant wildlife, foliage for beauty and shade, leaf fall to build soil, and interweaving roots to prevent erosion. Our regenerated land isn't merely a bunch of trees; it's a developing ecosystem that will improve with maturity.
If those aren't enough reasons to regenerate, here's the biggest "why" of all: trees, diverse plantings, and soil rich in organic matter constitute the most effective terrestrial carbon sink on the planet. Conserving forests and regenerating stripped land are our best chances for mitigating climate change, hard stop.
Tips and hacks on how to get a forest started
Now that you're pawing the ground to get out and plant trees, here's some hard-won nuggets of wisdom onu how to get your forest started.
1. First, research. Find out what your land was like fifty or a hundred years ago. Talk to locals. Find out what trees live long and prosper in your climate. Native trees are wonderful, but you don't have to be a purist. We've planted mostly native and a variety of species from around the equator. Diversity is key to resilience. Biospheres are shifting as climate change escalates. Dry areas are getting drier, wet areas wetter, and the whole planet hotter. Choose plants that have the best chance of withstanding likely changes.
2. Whether you have an acre or five hundred, regenerate what you can. Our land isn’t huge, but it lies midway between two reserves, serving as a resting point for migrating insects and birds. Every reforested acre counts. Don’t think you have to do it all in one shot. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and if you have tough pasture and compacted soil like we do, it's hard work. Cultivate smaller chunks of land, expanding your forest outward from a center. Plant fast-growing trees first. As they begin to create shade, habitat, and biomass, the work gets easier and more visibly rewarding.
3. Start a nursery. Buying trees can get really expensive. Save and germinate the seeds from local fruit. If you have trees on your land, collect seed pods when they fall. Cuttings are also a good way to propagate. Don't spend money on seed starting kits and sterile soil and all that stuff. One part compost mixed with three parts soil from your land will go much further and the seedlings will be more adaptive once planted out. We’ve planted hundreds of fruit, nut, medicine, and valuable hardwood trees from saved seed and have hundreds more getting ready for field. All for free.
4. Open your mind to different kinds of “productivity.” All trees are useful and productive of the five F’s: food, fodder, fuel, fertilizer, and fiber. Even if you never use your forest for anything, it’s still producing a sanctuary for wildlife, preventing erosion, building topsoil, and sequestering carbon.
5. Look for help, financial and physical. It’s out there. Our tiny two-person operation recently received a grant of 2,000 trees from a reforesting foundation. Find seed exchanges where you live and if there isn't one yet, start it. Get volunteers to help you plant; fine skills aren’t necessary.
Don’t have land yet?
If you're reading this in your row house or apartment thinking, as I once was, someday... you can do something now. Donate to a foundation or private reserve. In my personal experience, smaller projects have very low overhead and high commitment to making a difference. Your $5 or $20 or $100 would assuredly be allocated to the critical task at hand.
Final word. You can only post so many horrific articles about razed forests and melting ice caps without getting abysmally depressed. Got climate crisis anxiety? Plant a forest, or help make it possible. Lead by example and others will follow.
Kristen Krash is the co-creator of Sueño de Vida, a nature conservation center, permaculture farm, and natural building experiment in the cloud forest of Ecuador. To learn more about the mission, courses offered, work exchange opportunities, and land for sale, see their website: http://www.suenodevida.org/our-dream
The Mud Home is still running is due to the funding of the Mud Sustainers and patrons on Patreon. Their contributions cover the web platform costs, 10 GB of off-grid internet, the email list, hosting, and the now vital virtual assistance from the reliable and efficient Melissa. If you are benefitting or enjoying The Mud Home posts, please consider making a pledge. For just $2 a month you have email priority, access to my private news feed, and a monthly patron-only video from my land.
Starting your own project?
The Mud Home small, private and very supportive Facebook group is filling up. The members will be capped at 100 so I can give everyone the proper help they need, so if you want to be part of it, don't leave it too long.
(With details of how Cath made her super living roof)
Time for a different earthbag build. I’m letting you in on a mud adventure that has touched my heart rather. It’s one you won’t have seen before. Deep in the urban badlands of Brixton is a mud home with spirit. It’s plucky, original, and despite its size has plenty of personality – much like the woman who built it, in fact. Welcome to Mud Hut, built by Cath Coffey and the Mud Hutters.
For those outside the UK or who don’t know, Brixton isn’t some rural off-grid wilderness, it’s London. But while Mud Hut squats in the capital’s backyard, it harks back to somewhere else, somewhere much further south. Its roots stretch right back across Europe, over the Mediterranean, through the Sahara, and into East Africa.
“I always loved visiting my grandparents in Kenya,” Cath told me. “They lived in mud huts in a village on the foothills of Mount Kenya. My grandfather had two wives, each with their own hut, thatched with reeds from the river. Kids, goats, chickens and wood-fired cooking smells all intermingled. The sound of Kikuyu and laughter...It felt like a free life, if a strenuous one. They grew their own food, and were mostly self-sustaining.”
And it was this Kenyan life and family that inspired Mud Hut.
Mud Hut is 22 feet in diameter. It’s an earthbag house (hyperadobe) with rubble trench foundation, earth plaster, and wooden floor. The house was made with raschel mesh tubing, which Cath found from a certain Mr Jing Hou in China. “He was the only person I found who would send me a small quantity (500 metres),” explains Cath. “I still have plenty enough left for another structure or two! Mr Jing Hou loves the building...calls me Mr Cath.” :)
How long did it take to build?
“The house took just over a year to build, and that includes a long break for winter. It was constructed by myself and one other helper mainly. Del McCoy was my main wingman. The rest of the family were also amazing, each in their own way. I’ll always be indebted to friends who took time from their busy lives to help. It was a very special time,” explains Cath.
How much did the house cost?
“Honestly, I don’t know and I’m scared to total it up! I know it cost a lot more than I thought...scrub that...I didn’t think about the cost. I just had a compulsion to build.”
How to reduce the cost of your build
On the subject of cost, one thing I can say is that Cath is super smart about reducing building costs by using recycled and reclaimed materials. It makes a huge difference. I often think that with building as with travelling, you spend as much as you have. Do take note of Cath’s tips on foraging below, especially if you are in a first-world country where people shamelessly throw everything away.
How Cath made the living roof
Living roofs are always made like massive club sandwiches: there are plenty of layers. Cath really did her homework when it came to the roof. It’s designed for a cold, wet British climate.
1. The roof has a wooden frame (60% off from a family member who worked at a large DIY store).
2. The frame was covered with free reclaimed 18 mm plywood.
3. Next layer was carpet from the bins at the back of Carpetland (pure wool!)
4. Then Cath added 6mm EPMD pondliner (expensive).
5. After that there’s a root barrier (root barriers are always non-organic, otherwise obviously roots will burrow and your roof will no longer be waterproof.)
6. Finally sedum modules with Leca (expanded clay balls) infill.
“I know from my sedum roof at home that the sedum will eventually migrate and colonise the Leca. The carpet, sedum and Leca all make for good insulation. There is also 150 mm insulation batting in between the roof joists. The building is both warm and cool when you need it to be. Result!”
The pitch of the roof
People sometimes get this wrong, because unlike tiles or other roof systems, living roofs don’t want too much pitch. If the roof’s too steep you’ve got erosion issues; if it’s too flat you’ve got a swimming pool. About 5 - 10 degrees is optimum (that’s 1:12 or 2:12 max).
What about the edging?
This is the trickiest part of the living roof, if you ask me. Cath’s living roof is edged with steel garden edging. The EPDM is sandwiched between two layers of edging so that excess water drips off the lower edge. She plans to build planters with water-loving plants at the drip edge to take advantage of the run-off.
This is definitely a super model for a living roof on an earthbag house in a wet climate, in my opinion.
What was the most challenging part of the build for Cath?
“The doubt,” she replies. “The ‘do I know what I’m doing?’ The physical demands; earth is heavy. The protracted time period. Costs spiralling. The ups and downs of life.”
Mud Hut Today
Cath built this house for her artist sister, in fact. “She’s a compulsive maker and needed space.” And what a beautiful place for a creative to work within! It’s the ultimate she-shack.
Cath has kindly shared the resources she used to build Mud Hut.
On the subject of Owen Geiger I’ll also pay tribute, because he patiently answered my questions too, and whenever I’m feeling a little frustrated by my inbox, I always remember his generous example.
The only reason The Mud Home is still going is due to the funding of the Mud Sustainers and patrons on Patreon. Their contributions cover the web platform costs, 10 GB of off-grid internet, the email list, hosting, and the now vital virtual assistance from the reliable and efficient Melissa Maples. If you are benefitting or enjoying The Mud Home posts, please consider making a pledge. For just $2 a month you have email priority, access to my private news feed, and a monthly patron-only video from my land.
Extra note: I am currently off-grid with very limited power and engaged in a one-woman battle/dance with two roofs. It is exhausting. For this reason, at the moment I can only respond to questions from Mud Patrons who have chipped in to keep this site running, or from people enrolled in a course.
It was an amazing mud adventure. Kim Siu’s gorgeous hobbit house in Moray is now finished, and it's a showcase of natural building. It ticks every box: a straw bale house with rubble trench foundations, living roof, earthen plaster, wattle and daub/cordwood interior, and a stunning earthen floor. Not only that, but it was built to code. In the UK. Yup, you read that correctly. It’s 100% legit. Building permits In. The. Bag.
But let’s not lie. Clawing your way over those bureaucratic hurdles is anything but a picnic. “I’m not building again,” says a somewhat frazzled Kim this end of the build. “I don’t think my frayed nerves could take it. Two builds is quite enough. I’ll stick to buildings that don’t need permissions such as gazebos or chicken sheds!”
Many thanks to Kim Siu of Get Rugged and the Hobbit Hideaway for sharing with me this honest, warts-and-all story of a phenomenal build.
There really is no better foundation for a natural build than the rubble trench. Tried and true, it beats concrete hands down in terms of cost and drainage. You can read exactly how to build one here, but basically it’s a trench, in this case lined with geotextile membrane, and filled with stones and rubble. That’s it.
As with most straw bale structures, you throw up the post and beam structure first. That includes the roof. The straw bales are basically the infill for the walls. The advantage of constructing your roof first is that you have this wonderful sheltered area to store materials, use as a shelter, and work within.
I asked Kim how she went about obtaining those elusive building permits. This isn’t her first house and we documented the UK permit process in detail in a post on Kim’s other larger straw bale house.
“Getting planning permission and the building warrant followed exactly the same procedures as our other house,” explains Kim. “It was far easier this time though, as we had an architect that not only knew his stuff, but knew how to communicate with officialdom. Sam at Rocket Architects restored my faith in architects! He got us through all the permissions gracefully, without too much stress.”
The Building Team
Kim employed an alternative building firm in the UK called Hartwyn to build this gorgeous house. Yes, you don’t have to do it yourself, and there are some definite advantages for getting a professional in.
“Hartwyn commission Rocket Architects as part of their package. That’s one of the reasons that we chose them for our project, because we knew we needed to jump through many, many hoops. Especially as this build was a hardcore eco-house,” says Kim. “Hartwyn were the natural builders and educators. Another reason why we chose them was because they would recruit and teach students as part of the build. This was such a great fit for my vision of the build and how it could be beneficial to others.”
Yes, it was a wonderful concept. I followed the process online and found it heart-warming to see the next generation of builders being trained in another, more sustainable construction methodology. You can see plenty of photos of the students at work with Hartwyn on the Get Rugged Facebook page. It all looked great fun.
Where did Kim find out about Hartwyn? “Ah from Talking Natural Homes,” she says. When talking to Jeffrey (the Natural Builder) it was very obvious that our values were aligned and it was a no-brainer to choose Hartwyn.”
The Toughest Part of the Build
During the building of the main structure, things move along at a nice clip. Motivation is high, and something is blooming out of nothing. That’s the easier part, in my opinion. I think the toughest section of any project is the finishing. Everyone is tired. Money is running out. And plastering and detailing are trickier and more time-consuming than you think. Kim, it seems, would agree.
“I think the final stages where the most difficult as they sapped me of all energy. There was just so much detailing left to finish. We had several months left of sanding, sealing, scraping, painting, fixing and finishing to get it ready and this seemed to take forever. I was under so much pressure at the time as my mother was dying, and we had got into huge debt with the build and needed to get it rented out and bringing in money as soon as possible.”
What would Kim do differently next time?
This is where Kim said there wouldn’t be a next time. :)) “It’s the financial pressures and permissions that took the most out of me. I’m still knackered. Who knows though, a few years down the line and I may well be looking at an earthbag structure. I think if I did build again, it would be with earth and stone...”
He he he, watch this space. :)
5 great lessons to take away from this:
The Hobbit Hideaway now
Kim’s hobbit house is now the most beautiful little bed and breakfast cottage where it gives people the chance to taste what life is really like inside a bonafide natural home. Guests continually come away shiny-eyed and rejuvenated. If you’d like to know more about it, or book a stay, look here. https://www.facebook.com/hobbithideaway/
Photos by Dewi Roberts
Are you building or planning to build?
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