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
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
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.
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.
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