Owner-builder journey ~ Building ‘home’

In the first edition of the Owner-builder journey, Laurie Simpson writes about the challenges of building with mud in on the edge of Hwange National park, Zimbabwe.

Seven years ago, after years of travelling, looking for the next adventure and never feeling like I belonged, I followed my partner to live in his home, Zimbabwe. The moment I arrived I knew I had arrived ‘home’, even though I had never set foot there before. It was a strange and beautiful feeling and one that kept me from leaving despite many difficult times over the years.

Dance like an elephant

Dance like an elephant

Two years ago, I started building ‘home’ using mostly materials that are found around us. It’s been an amazing journey of self-discovery. It started with reading books and articles that inspired me to live a life that was in sync with nature. Previously, I felt like we were just spectators watching nature go by as if we were not a part of it. From all this research I quickly realised just how destructive modern building techniques were and how much sense it made to build with natural materials.


I decided I needed some hands-on experience before I could start building ‘home’ for our family. I discovered Berg-en-Dal eco-village and enrolled myself on the natural building course. The course was both practical and theoretical and I had an amazing time with the two facilitators Peter McIntosh and Neil Smith. Other than this short one week course I had no building experience at all, but I felt it really gave me the confidence I needed to throw myself into my own project.

I went home and started to test soils and plan my building project. I wanted to build this home totally by myself as it felt so personal and I loved the process. I also saw how in the community around me some women were still building traditional huts using natural materials. The huts are made from very high clay soil, usually from a termite mound and so crack a lot. Since restrictions were set for where people could live (there are no fences, so wild animals move freely) homesteads are no longer temporary, and the longevity of these buildings began to matter. These days, people opt for more modern materials that are costly both financially and environmentally. I wanted to prove to myself and to others that it was possible to build a home from natural materials that was comfortable in our climate, could last a long time and meet all our needs.

Sculpted spiral plaster detail

Sculpted spiral plaster detail


From the beginning, I fell in love with the process of cob building, mixing sand, clay and straw with my feet and making big balls of this mix to sculpt the walls. I was so in love with cob in fact that I was blinded.  I had made up my mind even before trying cob building on the course; and once I started ‘mud dancing’ that just sealed the deal for me. I was also set on doing everything 100 % natural and making no concessions, that I ended up making some mistakes.  I started to see this after a year of building a somewhat large round cob house. I had built the stone foundations and half of the cob wall, but as I was building alone it was very slow and the rainy season was approaching. I had to cover the walls to protect the cob as there was no roof yet.


One of my biggest fears when I was first researching cob building was termites. There are many termites where we live and they go everywhere. Still, I didn’t want to put a metal termite barrier between the foundation and the walls as this was both an added financial and environmental cost. Yet, when I covered the walls the dark moist environment was perfect for them, and they moved in to the walls. It was very difficult to face, but I had to reconsider everything!

I had started to be interested in natural building because of Permaculture, a process of designing systems that work with nature rather than against nature. I realised I should have done a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) before doing a natural building course, as this would have given me the tools I needed to think through all the elements and design a home with nature in mind.

So back to Berg-en-dal I went to do a PDC. I had to re-think and re-build my confidence to continue, and after two amazing weeks, a lot of emotion and good advice from Peter McIntosh and the PDC facilitators, I had the energy to go back home and rethink and re-design. It has been just over a year now, and I am almost finished building what has changed into a small home. It has just two small bedrooms and a small living space, the rest are verandahs and outdoor spaces. I will still use the previous structure, but in a different way.

Sun baked mud-bricks for the wall and termite barrier between rock stemwall and brick wall.

Sun baked mud-bricks for the wall and termite barrier between rock stemwall and brick wall.

I learnt my lesson and adapted: I could still do mud dancing but now made sun-dried bricks. I made many new tests using the same clay that my neighbours were using. The difference being that I added sand to stop the bricks cracking and made very thick walls. I made sure I had finished these in the dry season and put the roof up on poles before the rains started. I had one person helping me some of the time and I called for help whenever I needed more specialised information. The foundations are stone again and this time I made a metal termite barrier between this and the walls.

Cob bench

Cob bench



Local clay tiles for the floor.

Local clay tiles for the floor.

To see our dream come to life is amazing. It’s been an exciting journey thus far and it’s only just begun, in the next couple of months I hope to move ‘home’ with my family and carry on testing and promoting natural building and Permaculture in our community. There are many challenges living with wild animals such as elephants and lions and surviving from the land. The soils are very sandy and the dry season can stretch out for very long periods, but I believe that there are simple and practical solutions so that we can take care of both people and wildlife.


You can follow what I am doing on my blog




The reflections and observations of a sustainable practitioner on the recent International Union of Architects World Congress (UIA) in Durban

As a senior lecturer in the Architectural Technology department at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology I get the opportunity to write and present papers at conferences, congresses and symposiums, with the benefit to see what is happening in the field and to consider where my own work is situated and where it could be going. Last week I was privileged to attend and present at the International Union of Architects World Congress in Durban. Besides the wonderful weather, I got to experience being part of an international discussion on practice and education, attended by about 4500 people from around the globe.

In the words of the conference organizers, the theme was ‘OTHERWHERE – looking elsewhere for other ways of creating a better future. The subthemes were ‘resilience, ecology and values’. ‘Resilience‘ explored questions around ideas of emergence, poverty alleviation, and the spatial economy. The second subtheme of ecology sought to “acknowledge the role of the architect in a bigger, interlinked, and systemic network and encourage a longer term view in the design of the built environment”. The third subtheme, ‘values‘, explored approached to “practice in Africa with a feeling that the agency of external donors needs to be tempered to benefit local inhabitats – who are currently being excluded from their own self-determination”. These themes resonated with my own experience as an educator and someone that is passionate about natural building.

The underlying tone of the Congress was self-reflexive, and a lot of presenters questioned the role of the profession while almost demanding it to become more responsive to both social and climatic issues facing the planet. There was a call to move from the “starchitect” syndrome to a more huminatarian and appropriate technological approach. This call resonated strongly with the paper I presented there with Rudolf Perold entitled “Towards Entrepreneur-Activist Architectural Practice”. We started with this quote:

“For we may soon find that we have too many architects skilled at designing museums and mansions and too few able to work with indigent people and communities in need of basic housing, sanitation, and security” (Fisher 2008). 

One of the key note presentations was by Toyo Ito, winner of the Pritzker Prize in 2013. The form of the buildings presented could have one swooning, but the underlying tectonic principles of that form took so much steel and concrete that one cringes at the environmental effect. The formal ideas of most of the buildings were apparently inspired by nature and natural principles, for example, the way in which a tree grows or the bones in a human body connect. But that is where the analogy to the natural ended for me. Such a form executed in steel and concrete, in my opinion feels entirely inappropriate and becomes an empty albeit beautiful response.

But then there were also keynote presentations by the likes of Cameron Sinclair who started Architecture for Humanity in 1999 together with Kate Stohr, with a cellphone and laptop and one or two projects. Currently the organisation is involved in designing, developing, managing and financing the construction of a variety of projects in over 20 countries (Aaronson & Architecture for Humanity, 2012). Their modus operandi is to embed architects on site that volunteer and help restore or rebuild community facilities, often in the aftermath of disaster. What wonderful work they have been doing over the past decade or so!

Another personal highlight was from keynote speaker Francis Kéré who you probably know of if you are reading this blog. Francis Kéré came from a small village in Burkina Faso, studied in Germany, then returned to his own country to work in his own community. He went on to win the Aga Khan award for Architecture with his very first building! He does work similar to that of Architecture for Humanity, but he works mostly in African countries, almost exclusively with natural materials and has a deep understanding of local passive design strategies. It is worth reading the “about” page on the website, and browsing the projects that they have done and are involved in.

There were many “side shows” at the congress. I presented in two of these with my colleague Rudolf Perold. The first, was the Architectural Education Forum (AEF), a locally initiated forum which “critically discuss how to improve architectural educational practice here and now and to exchange relevant information. Its main focus is issues that are relevant to architectural education in Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, which includes global and regional concerns. Its membership consists mainly of teaching staff from schools of architecture from over Africa, but there has also been support and interest from other associations concerned with architectural education based on other continents” (Janse van Rensburg, A. 2014).

The presentation that followed ours in the AEF was by Professor Vasanth K Bhat from Bengaluru, Karnataka, India, where he is Dean at Acharya’s School of Architecture and has his own practice. He presented “A Case for Inclusion of Appropriate Building Technology and Sustainable Building Design in Undergraduate Curriculum in Developing Countries” and discussed the inclusion of local earth technologies into the undergraduate curriculum. Often architecture programs follow a very generic curriculum without specific local content and he is making a concerted effort to include locally relevant technologies.

Our second presentation was for the Global Studio. This studio focuses on work in and for communities. Again there was much discussion that resonated with our paper about the architect becoming a more active participant in society. We discussed the idea of “architectural professionals that have re-defined the manner in which they work, and for whom they work, specifically addressing informality and poverty in their practice. These professionals are changing from being predominantly pre-determined problem solvers into a problem identifiers or project initiators” (Cary & Public Architecture, 2010, p.xii). This change in work approach asks of the architect to become an entrepreneur, identifying the project and problem and then finding the funding to pay for both the professional services and the execution of project. A place has opened, locally and internationally, for this new kind of professional – one that works on the ground, close to the needs of the broader community”. (Voulgarelis and Perold, 2014)

In my opinion, UIA 2014 was all-and-all successful and gives me hope for the future of (earth) architecture in the world.



Aaronson, D., & Architecture for Humanity (Eds.). (2012). Design Like you Give a Damn (p. 335). New York, New York, USA: Abrams.

Fisher, T. (2008). Public-interest architecture: a needed and inevitable change. Berkeley Prize. Retrieved April 02, 2014, from http://www.berkeleyprize.org/endowment/essays-and-articles-on-the-social-art-of-architecture/tom-fisher-essay

Van Rensburg, A. (2014). Architectural Education Forum. (p.1). Internal discussion document. WITS. South Africa.

Voulgarelis, H. and Perold, R. (2014) Towards Entrepreneur-Activist Architectural Practice. International Union of Architects World Congress. Durban, South Africa.


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