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How Three People Came Together (and Stayed Together) to Make an Earthbag House in Costa Rica
It isn’t easy to build a house from scratch for the first time, and when you throw friends and lovers in the mix? Ooh...make or break, I reckon. So when a handsome couple from Costa Rica joined our Mud Home Facebook group in the winter, I did wonder how it would all turn out. There's a lot to learn from this project.
The Love Story and the Dream
Our story begins with Sam and Leora from California. A couple often to be seen balancing on surfboards as the sun turns pink, looking enviably tanned and healthy. The pair met three years ago and have been globetrotting ever since. Then they stumbled into Costa Rica. Here the love begins, with the land (it always starts with the land), the surf, and each other.
“After about two years of balancing travel with ‘real life’, we decided it might be time for a big lifestyle change,” says Leora, who spearheaded the design of what was a very ambitious earthbag house for first-time builders.
“One night Sam was cruising the internet and discovered this ‘out there’ natural building technique. We had briefly discussed, in fantasy form, our dream of leaving the U.S. to build a home and start a family. Sam and I spent the next few months daydreaming, scheming and researching Earthbag Building. We downloaded all of Owen Geigers PDFs and looked into The Cal Earth Institute that was just right down the street in Riverside, California. In many ways, we fell in love with it.”
From the outset, this project has been well-planned. Leora had studied interior architecture, so was in a good position to design her new home. “Sam and I spent the next few months concept designing every square inch of the project. We drew up site maps and floor plans and started to see our dream turn into a possible reality!” explains Leora, who is clearly not of the Atulya K Bingham seat-of-your-pants approach.
The dream took hold of them. But the only issue was, Sam and Leora didn’t own a place to realise it. No small holding. No land. So they returned to Costa Rica. After a long hunt, they finally found what they were looking for. “A raw piece of jungle, roughly three-quarters of an acre. It was perfect. We closed the land deal a month later, on my birthday,” Leora says.
Dreams are all well and good. But to haul them out of the swampy marshlands of fantasy and into reality, you need a game plan. In most cases of construction you also need help – the right help. As I said, this house was very ambitious for first-time builders. I blinked once or twice when I saw the size of it.
The project included two sizeable earthbag round houses joined by an earthbag corridor. There were circles and straight walls, cupolas, and massive arches. It was going to be naturally plastered, too. When I first laid eyes on it, I gulped, because I knew how much work it would be. But I didn’t realise that Sam and Leora had a secret weapon.
“I met Sam on a trip to Costa Rica almost five years ago,” says Murat Dirlik, an experienced alternative builder from North Carolina (think Frank Zappa on a surfboard meets Salvador Dali with a hammer, and you’ll be riding roughly the right mental wave).
“When Sam and Leora bought the lot here in Playa Peladas, they offered me the opportunity to come be their superintendent on the job. I was already burned out on hospitality management, so I jumped at the chance to do an earthbag project with my friends,” he says.
The House Begins
The rest of us in the Facebook group have been watching this build go up since February, and from the word go it was hard not to be impressed. The design was appropriate – buttresses and adjoining walls were going in the right places, windows were well-placed, and the earthbags were looking tidier than a neurotic’s bookshelf. But most of all it was the team work that impressed me, because this project could have so easily have gone pear-shaped.
It’s really hard to maintain good communication when you are tired and stressed, with any number of limitations (time/weather/money) hanging over you. What I loved about this build is how everyone was valued and had a role. I’m oversimplifying, because in truth there are many overlaps in duties, but Leora is chief designer and on site each day to iron out design issues, Sam usually deals with logistics, planning, supplies and workers, and Murat is head of construction, foreman of the crew, and brings the design into reality. Everyone has a say, and the team meets regularly to discuss.
From the outside this project seemed to be running so smoothly I could hardly believe there were any difficulties, but of course there’s always trouble somewhere.
“All told, I think the thing that repeatedly wore me down was negotiating the crew,” says Murat. Perhaps it is largely my own problem, because I have spent ten years running a very well-oiled crew made up of some of my best friends, so coming here for this project I had to abandon such expectations. Simply put, between the language difficulties (I speak pretty much fluent Spanish but not Guanacaste worker slang) and the cultural aspects of it all, as well as the individual personalities of the workers and their general lack of building experience, things could become pretty overwhelming.”
Yes, I hear you Murat. People are hard to manage. And the more people there are, the more trouble there is to negotiate. I’m often asked why I do so much alone. Honestly? Because half the time, even with the best intentions, ‘help’ just isn’t very helpful. People usually aren’t trained, and come with a barrel load of needs that you have to attend to.
“There was a palpable change in the stress level once we reduced our number of employees to about three people...so much easier to manage.” Wise words from Murat here. Keep your team a manageable size.
Sam and Leora had other issues, and I sympathise here too, because it is stressful when it’s your property and you are shelling out a lot of money for a build. “This has not been an easy project for us. I would say the most difficult part has been time, money and design management. This is our first project ever. We have learned a lot about stress control, remaining calm and collected during times of chaos and most importantly, how to remain a team and work together,” says Leora, very gracefully if I may say so.
How to do it right
As far as I’m concerned, this was one of the most successful first projects I’ve ever seen. I know it wasn't easy, but it never is. Watching from the outside, I have my own take on why it succeeded. Here’s a list of things this team did right:
Now, I might be a bit of a pantser, but even with my Mud Home in Turkey, even when I was in a tent without power, I still did my research. I bought the books, went to trusted sources, and wrote down information. You need to do your homework.
2. Communication and kindness
This team are excellent communicators. All three of them understand the importance of praise, and of valuing everyone’s efforts. All three met weekly to discuss the plan, and all three spent time off site having fun, too. There’s a lot of good feeling between them.
I would never normally recommend anyone who is building for the first time to try a project this big. If Murat hadn't had a decent amount of experience...
4. Asking for advice, and mitigating the ego
I tell you, when it comes to construction people are far too slow to ask for advice from an expert. And I get it. There is a continual barrage of opinions (many pretty misinformed) coming at you when you build something, so you get sick of hearing ‘advice’. But the truth is, heck, you’re building a house! Mistakes cost a lot of money. They might even bankrupt you. So just find an expert you trust and ask!
Who do I consider an expert? Experts are not people who spend all day blabbering. They are not your uncle Bob, or that guy up the road who keeps stopping by and adding his two-penneth worth. Indeed, in my experience real experts rarely give advice unless they are asked. The right person to take advice from is someone who has already done what you are doing. That’s it.
With my Mud Home in Turkey back in the day, I went to Owen Geiger for advice about foundations, and I had a friend at the end of the phone who’d already built a string of earthbag bungalows.
With the Costa Rican team, Murat was already extremely well-versed in many kinds of alternative construction, which is why it was running smoothly. But even so, when they weren’t sure, Sam, Leora, and Murat never hesitated to ask me questions.
That’s my take. But what do Team Costa Rica think?
Here’s what Murat has to say:
“I think that through a combination of my experience and familiarity with the building process (geometric concepts, design, engineering for strength, anticipating and planning ahead, setting up a workspace, and innovating like crazy in a place with little access to certain things we often take for granted) and Leora and Sam's understanding of how they wanted the project to turn out, we had a winner from the start. They knew that they wanted something nice and elegant, and unlike a lot of clients I have worked with, they had a proper vision from the beginning. After some growing pains we have come to trust each other and not hold onto any ideas too rigidly, so the project has been able to grow on its own in a really nice way...It's natural to get frustrated with one another and butt heads on a project as big as this one, so keeping that in mind and making sure to just have fun together is a crucial aspect of it. I would be hard pressed to think of doing this project with/for people whom I did not love, so maybe at the root of it all, that is how we have managed to overcome all of the difficulties and get to where we are now.”
Here’s Sam and Leora’s perspective:
“The most important factor in our success has been our unwavering determination to finish. There has never been a moment where we’ve even considered throwing our hands up and saying ‘we quit’...Through times of great stress and all-time lows, Sam and I manage to love our way through it, sometimes kicking and screaming, but at the end of the day there is always a hug and a ‘we’re gonna fucking do this!’ ”
A round of applause for Team Costa Rica. You did well. Very well.
Murat also put together this pretty damn amazing roof for the earthbag house. I’ll be outlining exactly how he did it in another article. So if you’re in the area looking for a man who can make gorgeous and inventive things with his hands, contact Murat.
And if you’d like to follow Sam and Leora’s story and see how this project ends, have a look at their blog: https://www.lovestrucktravelers.com/
If you’d like to be a part of our closed Mud Home Facebook group, where all sorts of builds are happening, and where I share what I’m building too, you can learn how to join here. When you join the group you will also get a free copy of The Mud Home Building PDF at the beginning of the month.
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