Q&A with Paul Marais, award-winning architect specializing in rammed earth

First off, congratulations on winning the Afrisam-SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture + Innovation for Sustainable Product/Technology for your design of the rammed earth Otto cottage in Maun, Botswana. 

Thank you, I am very pleased for recognition of this off grid, rammed earth building , where I designed and built the house, energy & water systems and sewerage.

The award-winning rammed earth Otto cottage in Maun, Botswana. Designed and built by Paul Marais. Photo courtesy of Paul Marais.

The award-winning rammed earth Otto cottage in Maun, Botswana. Designed and built by Paul Marais. Photo courtesy of Paul Marais.

How did you first get involved in natural building?

I have been always interested in natural buildings and as a student studied natural building in Malawi and Zambia.  I have travelled a lot in remote Africa and have an interest in indigenous architecture which is both material and energy efficient. 

Tell us about your journey.

I think the first time I noticed how effective vernacular natural buildings were was in northern Namibia where I visited the lettakka (reed) houses, which allowed for airflow while creating deep shade.  I lived with the San people for nine months, and learnt how little is required to create happiness.  I studied architecture at Wits University and spent all the holidays exploring remote southern Africa, and often was captivated at people making their own comfortable houses from locally available material.  I did a stint designing hospitals before I did mainly large houses, while still doing all the trips.  A near brush with death fifteen years ago made me realise that I had to concentrate on more conscious living and I moved out of the city and began experimenting and learning how to build with natural materials.

According to Richard Tomes from AfriSam, the three main criteria were regeneration, reconciliation and restoration, can you tell us how Otto cottage met these criteria? 

Otto cottage treads very lightly on a pristine site and it restores our ancient connection to nature in its reconciliation with the site, from which the house is made.  It recycles its energy and water and waste, creating a space for regenerative conscious living.

Otto cottage's master bedroom. Designed and built by Paul Marais. Photo courtesy of Paul Marais.

Otto cottage’s master bedroom. Designed and built by Paul Marais. Photo courtesy of Paul Marais.

How important is it that a natural/mud building won this award? 

It’s very important, as it helps create a desire for the product.

You seem to favour rammed earth as a technique/material. Why? 

Rammed Earth is technically no different to adobe or CEBs (compressed earth blocks), but it has two advantages that set it apart.  In creating large monolithic surfaces one has the opportunity to create beautiful artworks that resonate deeply with people and most people caress the walls.  The other advantage is that it is an acceptable earth building technique and does not have to be decolonised as adobe bricks and CEBs do.  It shared advantages over brick and mortar construction are in its thermal properties, the breathability of the walls and its cost saving both in monetary terms and in it’s low carbon footprint.  It can be labour intensive to create employment or done efficiently with machines to enable buildings to be constructed quickly.

Monaghan farm house built from rammed earth without any cement. Designed and built by Paul Marais. Photo courtesy of Paul Marais.

Monaghan farm house built from rammed earth without any cement. Designed and built by Paul Marais. Photo courtesy of Paul Marais.

What if any do you think is the difference between sustainable, green and natural building practices and principles? 

The main difference is just in terminology.  Sustainability refers to the fact that the building can be used with little energy input and can be repurposed or dismantled sustainably.  Green buildings are Sustainable buildings that also have a positive impact on the inhabitants and the environment.  Natural buildings are those made from natural materials and as such have a low carbon footprint and embodied energy.

Can you tell us more about the kind of work that you do?

I am primary a designer of energy efficient buildings and have experience in energy efficiency, renewable energy, water and sewerage provision.  I both design and build as this allows one to create the aesthetic and quality that is required.

What are some of the projects you’ve worked on that are most memorable and why? 

I worked for a Tibetan Lama created a naturally built retreat centre, Tara Rokpa in Groot Marico, and this was a time of experimentation and of creating valuable natural buildings.  This was good learning for me, and I admired the Lama’s view of not compromising on one’s vision.  I enjoyed Otto cottage tremendously as it required a vast amount of technical skill combined with pure artistry.  I also built a rammed earth house at Monaghan Farm that was cement free, bringing a new technology into the construction industry.

Tara Rokpa Buddhist retreat centre in Groot Marico. This octagonal building is built from mud bricks. Photo from Tara Rokpa.

Tara Rokpa Buddhist retreat centre in Groot Marico. This octagonal building is built from mud bricks. Photo from Tara Rokpa.

What were your highlights and low moments of your career? 

I think failures on site are always low moments, such as when shutters kick and walls need demolishing.  Highlights are completing a house and seeing the delight of visitors when they encounter it.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career? 

Generally it takes more time and effort on my behalf at present and so financially it’s challenging right now!

What is your approach to natural building? 

I like to see what the site has to offer, before deciding on the method and feel of the buildings.   I look at local vernacular for clues as to the effective methods as well as to how they have designed passive systems.

Do you think of yourself as having a particular style?

I go for simplicity in my designs.  We have as architects a habit of adding in unnecessary complexity.  Simple designs are more accessible to people, and have a longer lasting aesthetic.

What do you enjoy about natural building as opposed to conventional building? 

The freedom in the creativity and the fact that the building is not harmful to us and others.

You are busy with a PhD. What is it about and why are you pursuing it? 

I am doing a Doctorate of Ecological building practices mainly out of curiosity, but also to highlight in a rigorous academic way the advantages natural building has.  It will create documentation that will assist all natural builders to build quality affordable and durable structures that are acceptable to everyone.

What do you feel academic research has to contribute to a field like natural building?

Academic research is a critical tool to look at what we need for our future existence.  Without it we will always be a fringe activity.  It offers us the opportunity to become mainstream.

What would you say people need to look for in an architect when starting a natural building project? 

I would say passion and experience are the two most important qualities and of course someone you can relate too.  Architects not only bring beauty to your daily life but they guide you and support you in creating a beautiful home.

Otto cottage's open plan kitchen. Designed and built by Paul Marais. Photo courtesy of Paul Marais.

Otto cottage’s open plan kitchen. Designed and built by Paul Marais. Photo courtesy of Paul Marais.

What do you think are the elements of good natural architecture? 

I think aesthetic beauty, with good passive energy systems, built in a durable and high quality way.

Do you have advice for aspiring owner-builders about building with natural materials in South Africa? 

We still have many people living in natural homes in South Africa.  Don’t skimp on quality or aesthetics and remember a good earth home will outlast you.

How about for young architects that may want to specialize? 

I am seeing more and more interest.  Definitely I think the way forward, and having earth encrusted hands is the mark of an artist.

Important links:

Simply sustainable – Paul Marais website

Paul Marais on Flickr

Afrisam SAIA Awards

Short film about Otto Cottage

African Vernacular Architecture database

Sources: 

Richard Tomes quote 

 

 

 

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