This summer I was lucky enough to housesit for Charlotte Organ. Frankly it was a dream. Apart from being a lovely person whom I hit it off with immediately, Charlotte is also a professional chateau and castle decorator, specialising in lime works and trompe-l’oeil. Charlotte has been in the lime game a fair while. “I became interested in the beauty of surfaces as a teenager when I worked on a S.P.A.B. project [The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings] repairing a Devonshire medieval longhouse,” explains Charlotte.
Charlotte has decorated some illustrious buildings, including Kilcoe Castle for Jeremy Irons. She studied Fine Art at Bristol and then began working as a decorator in and around the city. There she learned various decorative techniques such as colour washing, stencilling, distressing, rag rolling, sponging, marbling, and trompe-l’oeil. The ingenious part is that she’s transferred many of these techniques to lime in a way that is truly original. So buckle up your overalls folks! This is a master class in lime finish.
Why do you need to use lime?
Anyone who’s been around The Mud Home a while is no doubt bored of me banging on about lime, until they use it of course, after which they soon become a fellow lime evangelist. Lime creates a beautiful, dry, and healthy atmosphere, and if you haven’t had a go, you just don’t know what you’re missing. Lime is a natural fungicide and inhibits mould in damp climates. It creates a beautiful, clean finish, it’s inexpensive, contains no toxic chemicals, and boasts a very low carbon footprint to boot.
You can use lime in many ways: mortars, plasters, limecretes, and paints. I have a full article on that here. But Charlotte has used lime paint in ways I had never seen before, to create truly jaw-dropping effects.
Both in her own home and in a great many of her projects, Charlotte uses natural pigments to colour her lime paints, along with some interesting methods to bring out the colour. One technique I adored was how she created stylish and elegant walls by using stencilling. I had never considered stencilling on lime paint before! She sponged the walls with a pigmented lime paint, and then used pure pigment in the stencilling. It looks simply amazing.
Above you can see another interesting technique. Here we have a base coat of pigmented lime paint with squares of pigmented lime painted over the top. The colours were brightened by going over the lime paintwork with liquid beeswax, thinned with turpentine. Proper turpentine is needed here, not white spirit.
Another method Charlotte used was to paint the walls in a base coat of lime paint, and then paint over them using milk (casein) paints.
Here we are again (above photo) in Kilcoe Castle, and Charlotte has created a distressed lime paint technique by rubbing the lime paint and then waxing it.
Charlotte has used lime extensively in her own home, a beautifully renovated farmhouse in southwest France. I found it incredibly inspiring on all levels. In this bathroom you can see a vibrant turquoise lime paint on the walls.
Lime renders and paints adorn Charlotte’s farmhouse. She agrees with me (as does everyone living within lime walls) that it creates a warmer, drier atmosphere. Even on the eye the effect is cosy, as you can see by the lime render and warm tones of lime paint on the staircase walls.
You can see more of Charlotte’s amazing work (and there’s lots to see and be wowed by, I can assure you) on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/eneffetdecor
Her website is here: https://eneffet.co.uk
Things to take from Charlotte’s work
I often feel there’s too much worry about the rules of building works. Nowhere is this truer than with natural paints and plasters. I mean what’s the ultimate risk here? Your house isn’t going to collapse because the paint went awry. Charlotte has really proved that it pays to experiment and you can use all manner of exciting decorating techniques with lime.
More about lime paint (and relevant links):
Do you benefit from The Mud Home articles?
The Mud Home only continues because of the support of the good people on Patreon. It’s expensive and time-consuming to run. So if you believe it should stay open source and ad-free, consider making a pledge.
The 3 Things You Need to Do:
Believe it or not, mud homes work fine in wet climates if you build them right. What you need to understand at the beginning though is this: mud homes do not work like mainstream concrete and plastic houses, so throw most of your ideas related to them in the bin.
What do you need to consider when building a mud home in a wet climate?
There are three fundamentals you have to get right. If you do these three things properly, your mud home will be well set for damp climates. If you don’t do these three things, it won’t matter if you coat your house in concrete (ouch) or EPDM, you will encounter issues.
1. You need a rubble trench foundation. You do not want a concrete slab. I don’t care what the architect, the codes, or your mate Fred says, they are wrong when it comes to mud buildings. I feel like I’ve said it a lot, but if you’re new to mud building you may not have heard the news. Concrete wicks up water and holds onto the damp. It also doesn’t allow for water to evaporate. That is absolutely not what you want with a mud home. People have all sorts of erroneous ideas about foundations, but with mud homes the drainage is paramount. You want water getting away from your house as fast as possible. The rubble trench is the cheapest, easiest and by a long way the most effective foundation method for a mud house.
If you are building earthbag, you can create rubble trench foundations like this: https://www.themudhome.com/rubble-trench-foundations.html
If you are building another kind of mud home, then it’s basically the same, so still read that article. You can also watch this video, as it shows exactly how to do it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNN7T4fBQo4
2. The stem wall is very important. The stem wall protects the rest of your house from damp or accumulating rainwater, and stops your walls wicking up water. The stem wall is usually made of stone, and depending on your climate can be anywhere between 30-60cm high (above grade). If you are building with earthbags you can use gravel-filled earthbags instead (see the rubble trench article).
Normally we start the stem wall below grade (below the surface of the ground), so it acts as water resistant footings. Once the stem wall is sturdy and dry, you start to build your natural home on top of it. Some people advocate a vapour barrier between the stem wall and the cob/adobe. I never use one because as soon as a waterproof membrane is added, evaporation becomes impossible. Water will quite possibly seep into your wall one way or another, and if a vapour barrier is there, it prevents fast evaporation. Your wall will stay damp.
3. You need a good solid roof with wide eaves. The roof is the hat of the house, and I’d argue it’s the most important part of the structure. For a mud house in a wet climate, you want nice wide eaves to protect the walls (a good one metre long). If you do this, you are going a long way to protecting your earth plaster from the rain.
Other things you can do:
Backfilling around the stem wall is another great and simple way of keeping rain water away from your walls.
Installing decent guttering on your roof will help massively in preventing the ground below from getting soggy from rainwater run off.
Lime is the perfect substance for folk in wet climates. It “breathes” so it doesn’t obstruct airflow and allows any damp to evaporate. It’s also a natural fungicide. Use limecretes instead of concretes, use lime wash instead of paint. Use lime mortars for stonework. You may even want to add a bit of lime to your earth plaster.
What you don’t want to do:
Don’t cover your mud house in lime render or (OMG) concrete. Please. It’s a terrible idea. The clay in your mud house expands when it gets damp, the concrete or lime render doesn’t. It will eventually crack and fall off. Concrete will do something worse and stop the house breathing too, thus mitigating the half the point of cob/adobe in the process, and making your house damp and prone to mould.
Notes about natural plasters
People worry far too much about their earth plaster, in my opinion. I honestly don’t think it’s necessary or even a great idea to try and waterproof your plaster. The best thing to add to plaster to create a super strong but natural render is horse or cow manure. If you’ve built your footings and your roof well, your mud walls will only need a touch up every now and again, and frankly that’s quite good fun.
Extra Important Tips from Kristen Krash at Sueno de Vida who has built multiple mud houses in a cloud forest:
1. "Make the rubble trench foundation wider than the stem wall by 12-15 cm." This is a good point, and often happens by accident:)
2. "I would emphasize that people don't attempt to use plastic "moisture barriers" or any such thing in very wet climate. Water passes from areas of higher to lower concentration. Always and forever. Period. Meaning water is going to find it's way under or through your "barrier" and then not be able to evaporate. It will just keep moving to an area of lower concentration. As in inside your house.
3. "Don't build little nooks and shelves and such close to the ground level in your interior walls. I know it's tempting to be like "oh I'll just store my pots and pans under this table in this sculpted little nook, how cute!" Yes it is, for a season. Then you will be storing mold. The plaster will crumble from being damp. Keep your walls smooth and hard for at least one meter above the ground."
I so agree with this. I put my entire living quarters on the top floor of my barn for this very reason.
Resources and relevant links:
Kim’s strawbale hideaway in Scotland shows the foundations, stem wall, and roof you want for a mud house (or strawbale).
A great example of the rubble trench beating any other foundation method is how Gautam and Kim’s earthbag house fared in a monsoon. It also shows the perils of coating your mud house in a crete of any kind.
Kay’s balecob house showcase the rubble trench and stem wall very well.
Do you benefit from all the free articles on The Mud Home?
I receive no money from advertising. If you find these articles inspiring or useful, and like that this site is ad-free and clickbait-free, please consider contributing on Patreon to keep this resource going. Running The Mud Home is a big job these days, and involves multiple platforms, a virtual assistant, off-grid internet, never-ending updates, and my sustenance. A big thank you to all The Mud Sustainers, and everyone chipping in!
Mud mama Kim Fraser has been at it again! Kim’s magical space in Moray is turning into a fairytale empire. There’s a straw bale hideaway pulled straight out of the Shire, Baba Yaga’s hen coop, and now this fabulously funky little coorie hut. What’s “coorie”, you may well ask? The answer to that apparently takes an entire book to explain, so I’ll leave you to do the reading. But for the purposes of this article, the coorie hut is a feel-good place to snuggle up warm.
It will indeed feel good too, because the whole thing has been made with loving hands, local materials, and my two best buddies: good old mud and lime.
“She’s the result of using leftover materials to make something practical and beautiful!” explains Kim.
I love many things about this little hut, but most of all I love that it has developed completely organically with plenty of idea changes. This is what always should happen in a build. The idea that an architect creates an exact plan and your poor house is bolted to it like a prisoner throughout the build, is a very modern situation.
So, how was this quirky little beauty built? Let’s take it from the bottom!
1. Footings and stem wall
Now, this is a tiny structure, not a two-storey home, so there was no need to go overboard with the footings in this case. “The base was made with limecrete and stones found on site,” says Kim. This means the footings and the stem wall are all in one. All mud buildings need a stone (or similar) stem wall to protect them from damp and big rainfalls.
Just for the record, for most larger mud buildings you want gravel footings. It’s simply the easiest, most effective, and incidentally the cheapest way of going about it. Ditch the concrete pad idea. Just forget about that whole thing. That’s another kind of construction which isn’t beneficial for mud buildings.
2. Willow wigwam and mud daub
Next a framework was built using willow. This is a slightly different take on wattling. Basically you can create all kinds of mud (or indeed lime) structures using a wooden framework of some kind.
“She evolved from a willow wigwam to her current form using straw dipped in clay slip for the base layer then an earth daub with lots of straw to retain some warmth.”
At this point Kim still wanted her coorie hut to be a dome without a roof. I’m not going to lie; I raised my eyebrow at that. You can read all about why here. Nevertheless I was curious because heck, if anyone could make a mud dome work in Scotland, it would be Kim. However, eventually she decided to stick a roof on as a canopy.
“Our Workaway volunteers helped with the process and built the wooden roof splitting old logs left from another build. One side is thatched using fireweed, the other side is covered in shingles made from old leftover wood.”
So you see? There’s no reason everything has to be uniform. Kim used whatever resources she had to hand, and actually this two-part roof is one of my favourite features.
5. Painting and decorating
The coorie hut was painted with lime wash and stained with natural pigment, which is a clever way of getting a deeper colour onto lime wash. Later this year, once the threat of frost had receded in late May (May? Good Lord!) Kim laid a limecrete floor with the help of a volunteer called Georgie. But it’s far from over. “The Coorie has taken on a life of its own, and continues to evolve!” said Kim. More clay plaster is being made as I write, so hopefully there’ll be an update on this later on.
n Why the Coorie Witches’ Hut is so inspiring.
Finally, there’s one other major thing I love about this build, and that is that Kim et al. have taken perfectionism, hacked it into roughly hewn hunks, and thrown them on the coorie fire. The last anyone saw of them was in smoke form leaving the chimney. Perfectionism is a curse many of us are burdened with (ahem). It can (and routinely does) completely scupper a build, stopping anything from manifesting, or slowing it to the point everyone loses heart. This little woven hut is going to be very inspiring because it is a wonderful, happy, and lovely example that you don’t have to (or even want to) have everything machine-perfect when you build with mud.
In natural building you can play, experiment, change your mind ten times, try new techniques that no one has heard of, have a rough edge or two (or even make a feature of them), ditch uniformity, and create a beautiful organic space that people are dying to sit inside.
You could actually stay at Kim’s and see the Coorie Witches’ Hut for yourself. Book a place at the award-winning and gorgeous Hideaway Under the Stars. It is absolutely no surprise to me that Kim’s place has a flawless five-star review record on Airbnb, as I stayed at hers once myself:)
Follow the Hideaway on Facebook:
Follow the Hideaway on Insta:https://www.instagram.com/hideawayunderthestars
Do you enjoy the Mud Home? Are you inspired? Did you learn some decent information instead of finding vapid clickbait? The Mud Home is a labour of love, but it doesn’t run on wood chippings. You are reading this article (and the hundreds of others on this website) thanks to everyone supporting The Mud Home on Patreon.
All patrons have access to a massive archive of patron-only posts including my monthly videos, photos, and Q&As.
Now, I always say don’t build a free-standing exterior earthbag wall (ie. a garden wall or retaining wall), as they are so hard to plaster naturally and keep waterproof. But every now and again someone proves me wrong. Luke and Kath in New Zealand have created some mud magic here, which just goes to show, you should always take advice from experts with a pinch of salt:)
Luke and Kath have done a stellar earth plastering job here, and used multiple techniques to create a waterproof and natural finish. So yes it can be done, but it takes some know-how and patience. Happily for us they have generously shared their process and photos with me (and now you).
“We are in the far north of New Zealand. The climate here is not ideal for earth plaster, hot and dry for three to four months over summer and then usually a couple of months of very wet weather over winter. We are on a hill so the wind can at times be powerful and incessant,” explains Luke.
Yes, New Zealand certainly wouldn’t be the first place I’d be itching to stick earth plaster out in the elements. But this funky outdoor kitchen has stood three years so far. How come?
“We applied our first coats of lime/earth plaster, onto an earthbag wall, three years ago, with the help of your course. We did two coats at that time, then burnished the whole lot. It has stood the test of time well. The main issue has been a type of creeping grass which sends its tentacles out and under the earth, popping up under and through the plaster. Areas under the drip line of the roof have also weathered significantly. Portions of the sandbags had become exposed so we decided to redo the whole lot,” Luke told me.
My first comments would be that the plaster in these photos looks exactly how you would want it to if you want to stand a chance of creating a waterproof finish. There are no cracks, as the whole lot has been burnished very well (in this case with the back of a spoon). It takes a bit of practice to get this skill off to a fine art, and Kath and Luke have mastered it. One thing we will want to know of course is what was in that earth plaster mixture? The result is heart-warming because so many of the materials were foraged from the land. This was one of things I wanted to achieve with my earth plaster course. I’m not against people buying ready-made clay plasters, but it’s definitely not necessary. You can create amazing plasters using the ground under your feet, and without buying anything.
Here is how Luke and Kath made their water-resistant plaster, but be advised, don’t attempt to just copy this and think it will work. They are using their own soil and clay and sand, so it’s not a standardised commercial product.
“We used the same formula of plaster we devised from experiments before doing the initial coats. 10-15% lime, 20% clay/straw, 2-5% cow manure and the balance of sand. The clay we sourced from the stream at the base of our valley. Our soil is basically sand so once sieved is perfect. The manure is from the cows next door. We used hydrated lime (https://www.graymont.com/en-nz/products/hydrated-lime) and mixed with water first, as cheap lime putty is simply not available here. Once applied, we burnished the whole lot like the first batch, as we found that technique to be highly effective at making the plaster weather resistant.”
Animal dung, a bit of good quality lime* and some decent burnishing. This is why this plaster has endured.
Now Luke and Kath want to take the plastering further. This time they’re going to add some layers of linseed oil to the wall too.
*Luke and Kath used a high quality hydrated lime instead of lime putty. If you want to understand more about the types of limes out there, read this.
The Perfect Earth Plaster Course
If you want to create beautiful earth plasters from the ground you stand on, you might be interested in my flagship Perfect Earth Plaster Course. It’s a multimedia course with stacks of explanatory videos, PDFs to take away, and all fully downloadable.
My Free Introduction to Earth Plaster
If you just want a taster of earth plaster, sign up for my free introduction to earth plaster here: https://www.themudhome.com/earthplaster-sign-up.html
When is the right time for earthbag?
If you value The Mud Home and benefit from the barrowloads of free information here, do consider becoming a Mud patron. All patrons have access to an archive of exclusive videos, and other posts.
There are three main ways to create a gorgeous natural home for yourself. You can either build the thing from the ground up, find an old structure and renovate it, or buy someone else’s project. I’ve now done two out of these three, and have been considering the pros and cons for a long while now. So here is the Mud Home take on the matter.
Build from Scratch (Green Plots)
Renovating (Brown Plots)
Taking on Someone Else’s Project
There didn’t used to be many modern natural builds to take over, but that is definitely changing as more and more people try and set up alternative lifestyles or permaculture-based homesteads. So these days you could find yourself taking on a project that someone else has half-finished, or perhaps completely finished. This method brings its own raft of considerations, bonuses and headaches.
Be Generous Folks!
On that note though, it’s such a downer when people take over someone else’s project and start blaming every failure and every problem on the previous owner. It’s just not conducive to success or happiness, and ignores how incredibly difficult those beginning couple of years are when you first start a project. The attitude of gratitude builds dreams in my opinion. It’s the make or break of a good life. See what the previous owner gave you, rather than continually moaning about their mistakes. There is probably some similarity between you and the previous owner, which is why you were drawn to the same land, and at some point you have to take responsibility for choosing to become the new guardian.
Extra Things to Note
Many of the pros and cons depend on the particular building regulations in your area. In Europe it is sometimes easier to get through the red tape by renovating. I said sometimes, because hey there’s enough red tape around here to encircle the planet three times over.
Do you enjoy these articles?
If you’d like to show your support for The Mud Home, consider making a pledge on Patreon. All patrons have access to a bank of hundreds of private posts. Those pledging $5 or more a month will also have access to free audio reports and Q and As.
Many thanks to the Mud Sustainers supporting this site!
Do you find The Mud Home valuable? Please consider supporting the blog on Patreon. For as little as $2 a month (not even a coffee where I'm from), you can join the club.
BENEFITS FOR PATRONS INCLUDE:
Email priority, private Facebook group, review copies of my books, sneak previews of courses and books, Q and As, priority for courses and more.
Atulya K Bingham
"Beautifully written and inspiring." The Owner Builder Magazine
If you want the step by step guide of how I built my house, sign up for the PDF.
WHY NOT? IT'S FREE!
All the Mud Home How-to posts have been compiled into a PDF package with 75 articles and over 200 photos. You can still buy it now, and enjoy lifetime access to all the updates.
“Entranced! Be inspired by one who’s lived and breathed dirt.”
Kim Fraser, Get Rugged