Earth is becoming increasingly popular in contemporary architecture: hundreds of projects of high aesthetic and technical quality are emerging across five continents. This material, which has low embodied energy, is readily available and appropriate for participatory buildings. It could help provide a solution to the needs for ecological and economical housing.
To enable both professionals and the general public to fully appreciate this building material, the following partners have taken the initiative, under the auspices of the UNESCO Chair “Earthen architecture, construction cultures and sustainable development”, to launch the first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture: the Labex AE & CC-CRAterre-ENSAG Lab research unit, the amàco project, the Grands Ateliers, the CRAterre association and EcologiK/EK magazine.
Wang Shu, 2012 Pritzker architecture prize laureate, is the president of honour of this TERRA Award, the trophies for which will be presented in Lyon on July 14, 2016 at the Terra 2016 World Congress.
Since its creation in 1979, the CRAterre-ENSAG Lab has been considered as the international research and training reference centre for earthen construction. It will organize in July 2016, under the auspices of the UNESCO Chair “Earthen architecture”, the Terra 2016. This World Congress takes place every four years on a different continent and will be held for the second time in Europe. It is expected to draw around 800 professionals, teachers and researches to Lyon (France).
The TERRA Award was initiated within this framework. It will be the first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture and a natural furtherance of the national award launched in 2013 in France by CRAterre-ENSAG, AsTerre and EcologiK/EK magazine.
The purpose of the TERRA Award is not only to identify and distinguish outstanding projects, but also to highlight the audacity of the project owners for choosing to use earth, the creativity of the designers and the skills of the craftsmen and entrepreneurs.
An itinerant exhibition will feature 40 buildings from all continents, constructed using various techniques (adobe, cob, CEB, rammed earth, plaster, etc.) for all types of programs: housing, public facilities, activities, and exterior and interior designs. The exhibition will be completed with lectures and workshops by CRAterre-ENSAG and the amàco project.
The search for outstanding achievements deserving of this prize and the associated exhibition will make it possible to generate the first worldwide database on contemporary earthen architecture. The resulting virtual library will be available both to the general public and professionals via this website.
The projects must have been completed after January 2000.
There are eight categories covering all types of programs, whether new or renovated:
- Individual housing
- Collective housing
- School, sports and health facilities
- Cultural facilities and religious buildings
- Offices, shops and factories
- Interior layout and design
- Exterior design, art and landscape
- Architecture and local development
Text from the Terra Award website.
Passive solar design is the starting point of sustainable building. Once one understands the basic principles of using the abundant natural renewable resources at our disposal we become more creative in our approach to design, more in tune and observant, reconnecting us with the natural rhythms that surround and sustain us, if only we would pay attention. Sustainable buildings save money, reduce your carbon footprint and provide a healthy living environment, transforming buildings from consumers of energy to producers and forging buildings that meet our needs.
From a permaculture perspective, incorporating these aspects into the design of your home are excellent examples of several permaculture design principles. To mention the most obvious: Observing and interacting with your environment to make the most of the sun’s migration, catching and storing energy, using and valuing renewable resources and services, integrating functions and elements rather than segregating them and obtaining a yield from the planet’s most abundant energy source, the sun.
Passive Solar Design uses the energy provided by the sun and stored in the earth. First we need to look at how this energy is utilized by defining insulation and thermal mass and then look at the strategies of how to incorporate them into our designs.
In this edition of the Owner-builder journey, Franz Muhl writes about a mud brick addition to his Scarborough home.
Five years ago, Peter McIntosh gave me +- 900 sun-baked mud bricks, for an extension to my house. With little start up money, a trickle of income, some plans on google sketch up, a pickaxe and, most importantly, plenty of time, I finally started the process a year ago.
At foundation level, with the skills that I had at the time, I used clay-fired bricks and a bitumen coat for damp-proofing. In March, I headed off to Berg-en-dal for a crash course with Peter. He traded his skills and knowledge in natural building for mine in brewing beer. To take clay, sand, water and a bit of straw in the right proportions and work it into a material for building, was a big revelation for me. Continue reading
Plasters and mortars are by far the process that I get asked about the most, and for good reason as plasters are what protect the building from the elements and give them their beautiful finish. Understanding how the material is going to behave right the way through the process, plasters and mortars should be planned for from the beginning. Plasters that are not planned are plasters that fail and if they do the building not only looks unsightly but loses a valuable layer of protection.
As discussed in the earlier articles on understanding earth and earth testing, it is important to establish the most appropriate earth mix at the beginning of the building process. This mix quite literally informs the whole building process from the ground up to the last 3mm of plastering. The initial testing phase establishes a basic cob mix that has both sufficient compressive and tensile strength and has acceptably low cracking. It is important to have an idea of how you will approach each phase and ensure that the different materials ‘talk to one another’ to prevent excessive cracking and delamination, which are the most common failures associated with natural building. Essentially the same original mix is manipulated to be appropriate for different areas, depending on the purpose. Areas that will require the original mix to be manipulated are, amongst others, the foundations and plasters.
It is important to remember that there are as many mixes as there are building sites and what follows is just a taste of what is possible. Over the years one comes to settle on a strategy that works and begins to perfect it to prevent failure. What follows works, but is by no means the only way and is one amongst many.
Let us imagine that the mix you worked out after the testing phase was two parts clay and three parts sand, i.e. 40% clay earth and 60% rough sand, and straw. Just an aside, this formula would indicate that there is a percentage of silt present in the clay earth (often the case), otherwise the clay percentage would usually be lower.
Let’s start with a mortar mix for the foundations. Firstly you will leave straw out of the mortar mix for the foundation, as it would degrade with any moisture. Obviously the foundation should be able to resist water, so using un-stabilized mud-bricks or cob is not possible; ideally you have rock available.
Lime is often seen as the answer to stabilise mortar mixes, as it hardens over time especially when exposed to moisture. However, lime is not friendly to the environment due to the high embodied energy i.e. the energy used to create the product. Over time lime does re-absorb the gasses given off by it during its production, the energy required in this phase is considerable and may well come from a polluting source such as coal. Furthermore, lime is quarried or produced by crushing coral. Lime also makes the material more brittle and prone to cracking, even though the material gets a lot harder, compressive strength is not everything. Often, lime is considered to be better than cement, not because it is less damaging to the environment, but rather because it is naturally occurring and an ingredient of cement. So the strategy should be to minimize its use.
Earth mixes are more plastic and able to resist a certain amount of movement so care needs to be taken just where you apply the lime. However the use of lime is beneficial in foundations where the pros of lime, its hardness and resistance to moisture, are required. With the earths in our example, a mortar mix that will work with the rock foundation is 30% clay, 50% sand and 20% lime. This keeps the material as close as possible to the original mix while getting the benefits of the lime right where you need it. If you pay attention to how the rock work is done you will minimize the use of the mortar and thus minimize the use of lime.
As your house is exposed to variances in temperature and humidity, you want to prevent the materials in the walls from moving at different rates as it causes delamination and cracking, which is in my opinion, the number one reason for a natural building failing. To help prevent this you need a good mortar mix. This is an area that your mix does not need to be manipulated. Between your mud bricks it is ideal if you stick to the original mix that came directly out of the testing phase, including straw.
While some imperfections are fine in the foundations and mortar mixes, any imperfection in your plaster mix will have dire consequences for you final finish. This is mainly because there is generally no amount of acceptable cracking in the final plaster as this leaves the building vulnerable to water erosion. In a nutshell, plaster provides the final finish look and provides protection from the elements.
I have adopted a three phase approach to plastering that is well accepted and works. The first is the scratch coat, the second the form coat and lastly the final plaster coat. The scratch coat is your original cob mix applied to the mud bricks to give purchase to the subsequent layers. It includes straw and is left rough often with lots of fingertip marks.
The form coat is just what it says and creates the final shape of the building. At this stage it is best to leave out the straw as you don’t want anything protruding through your final plaster coat. The form coat is hand smoothed in such a way that the final plaster coat can go on evenly with a plastering trowel or steel float. Fine cracking is still acceptable in this phase.
Prior to the final plaster you will need to do a number of tests on top of your form coat. This is done to ensure that there are no fine cracks that will lead to erosion by water. Often cracks create wonderful patterns and you may want to leave the mix to show off its beauty but only on the inside plaster. On the outside no cracking is acceptable after the material has been polished. Usually I do about four tests to select the best mix. Based on our theoretical mix for this article the four tests may look something like this.
- First your original mix, 40% clay, 60% sand with 5 % lime =105%
- Second reduce the clay a little to reduce potential cracking 35 % clay earth, 65 % sand plus 5% lime.
- Reduce the clay some more just in case there is still cracking to 30 % clay earth, 70 % sand plus 5 % lime.
- Lastly increase the clay content over the original mix, 45% clay earth, 55% sand plus 5% lime.
As these samples are applied so thin they will dry fast so decisions can be made fairly quickly, perhaps after three days or so. You will need to choose the mix that does not crack. If it so happens that none of them do, pick the one closest to your original mix to ensure that the dreaded delamination is ruled out. If you are confident that this will not happen then choosing the mix with the highest clay content will lead to a very fine finish.
Technique is as important as information when it comes to natural building and nowhere is that more important than with the final plaster mix. The final plaster mix needs to go on evenly between 3 and 5 mm thick. The mix changes slightly to include 5 % lime, but only in these last few millimetres. The reason lime is added to this final 3mm – 5mm of the walls is to improve the resistance of the final plaster to water; the percentage is kept low so that the material does not become brittle and prone to cracking, and allows the natural plasticity of earth mixes to overcome small amounts of movement and not delaminate from the wall. There is also a reaction that takes place between the lime and clay that is complete between 5 and 7 %, which greatly increases its durability.
The final plaster mix will need to be finely sieved so that bigger particles do not protrude through the plaster and the result is smooth and even. I prefer the common kitchen flour sieve. Don’t be put off, by how long you think it would take, because you really need so little for the final plaster mix that it goes quite quickly and you can do it directly into a bucket.
Once the final plaster is applied it is polished to provide a very smooth almost fine leathery appearance, further driving the material into the wall and providing durable weather protection. A plastic tool cut from feta or ice-cream tubs work well for this final polishing stage.
Once the plastering is complete, coat the building with three coats of raw linseed oil. Mix the first two 50/50 with mineral turpentine to ensure that the linseed oil penetrates well into the plaster. Allow each layer to dry before you apply the next. Finally a coat of undiluted raw linseed oil will finish it off.
Looking at the whole process as being one thing instead of being separate little bits helps to avoid common problems. Always pay attention to the testing phase, understanding that the same mixes you use for your bricks and mortars will be reflected in your foundations and plasters.
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Imagine being outside on a chilly Free State winter morning with the sun just coming out and starting to gently warm your body. Now imagine being told to take off your shoes in order to trudge in icy cold mud. I glanced at my fellow volunteers and I saw a collective dissent quietly dawn on our group – this is not what we signed up for!
It was the morning of 18 July, Mandela Day, and we were all gathered at Lebone Village on the outskirts of Bloemfontein to volunteer our 67 minutes for the orphans. We were standing in a circle around Peter McIntosh, who was valiantly demonstrating to us the endeavor of making adobe bricks.
The mix using ingredients easily available for the project was chosen after rigorous testing. According to Peter, the mix will differ in every situation, depending on the composition of the ingredients used. The chosen mix for the adobe bricks at Lebone Village was as follows: collect two parts red earth, 2 parts sand with rubble, one part fine sand and two parts water in the centre of large piece of 25” thick canvas material.
Now mix it all into clay with your feet by walking back and forth through the cold, wet mixture. When the cob mixture starts to flatten out, pull the canvas up-and-in towards you from the corners to bring the clay mixture back into the centre of the canvas and into a manageable heap. Now start stepping onto it again. The clay is the right consistency when you can make a ball with your hands and pull it apart into two separate pieces without it crumbling. Adding straw to the mud mixture assures bricks that are well insulated against cold and heat, the more straw you add, the better insulated your bricks.
While the majority of us were still apprehensively contemplating the prospect of braving the cold and mud with naked feet, one person rose to the occasion without hesitation. In the spirit of “first being a follower in order to be a leader”, Itumeleng Santo started pounding the mud into clay with some über cool dance moves. Itumeleng is an out-patient at the University of the Free State’s Dept of Occupational Therapy’s clinic at the MUCPP offices in Rocklands location. He is severely impaired due to a brain injury that he suffered during an assault. For Itumeling, taking part in the Mandela Day activities at Lebone Village was therefore also a day of getting therapy without being given therapy. The Dept of Occupational Therapy vision is to support and treat their disabled and impaired patients in such a way that they will be able to return to their families and communities and be able to fully participate in community activities again. The aim is for such patients to become fully functional individuals who can partake in economic activity and contribute towards their own livelihoods.
The MUCPP clinic of the Dept of Occupational Therapy is not only for patient care and therapy, but it also serves the wider community as a place where youth can hang around after school and in this way be kept off the streets. Heidi Morgan and Bronwyn Kemp, who run the clinic, aspire to teach these children skills that will help them to create their own employment upon completing their school careers. Learning how to make adobe bricks and tire pounding for alternative and natural building practices are two such skills.
This notion of self-empowerment of the impaired, disabled and destitute was the golden thread that ran through the activities at Lebone Village on the morning of Mandela Day. Stakeholders from support institutions to the disabled came from all over the Free State region to learn the new green building techniques of making adobe bricks and pounding tires. These are skills that they intend to take back to their home towns and villages, skills that they hope will enable them to become self-sufficient and self-employed, able to earn money and make a living for themselves, without being a burden to their families.
With the ice now literally and figuratively broken by Itumeleng, the rest of us started to get into the spirit of the day. The extra brave ones took of their shoes and started pounding cob with their bare feet. The more modest traded their shoes for gumboots to get the job done.
Some started working the cob with their hands. Anita put on some vibey music and soon the day was in full swing. Volunteers started forming little groups, each group working their cob on their own piece of canvas. Some people would collect the pounded cob and compact it into wooden molds set out by Peter for this purpose. These mudbricks would then be left to dry in the sun for several days, where after they will be ready to use for building.
The teaching of green building techniques to the greater Mangaung community also served as the launch of the Lebone Village Climate Resilient Arts, Crafts and Cultural Hub and was initiated by Qala Phelang Tala, a non-profit organization based in Bloemfontein and associated with the Centre for Development Support at the University of the Free State. Qala Phelang Tala is Sesotho for “Start Living Green” and is the brain child of Anita Venter, a researcher at the Centre for Development Support. QPT strives to empower “change agents” through social entrepreneurship in order to create systems addressing housing, food security, water efficiency and energy independence that are resilient to climate change. Their slogan is “Learn by doing!” This means that they not only preach green building and sustainable, environmental friendly living, but they also practice, implement and teach these techniques. QPT head hunted and hosted Peter McIntosh from Natural Building Collective, who is one of only a handful of natural building experts in South Africa. His experience in sustainable living practices includes sustainable agriculture, off-grid energy systems and an array of natural building techniques, all of which is in fruition on Berg-en-Dal outside Ladismith in the Klein Karoo, a farm owned and managed by the community and educational non-profit the Klein Karoo Sustainable Drylands Permaculture Project, where he is a resident and member.
Contributed by Amanda de Gouveia on behalf of QPT. Photos courtesy of QPT. Please visit their Facebook page for more photos of the day.
Amanda de Gouveia has been a research assistant at the Centre for Development Support at the University of the Free State since 2010, where she has mostly been involved in research projects on social development and local economic development. This has refined a unique repertoire of research skills, both qualitative and quantitative. She has also Masters degree in Research Psychology.
Reinventing the African Mud Hut Together
Nka Foundation invites entries for Mud House Design 2014, an international architecture competition open to recent graduates and students of architecture, design and others from around the world who think earth architecture can be beautiful.
Registration and submission of entries run from March 15, 2014 until August 31, 2014.
The challenge is to design a single-family unit of about 30 x 40 feet on a plot of 60 x 60 feet to be built by maximum use of earth and local labor in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. The client of your design is the middle-income family in any township of your choice in the Ashanti Region. Total costs of constructing the design entry must not exceed $6,000; land value is excluded from this price point. The entry should serve as an example to the local people that mud architecture can be beautiful and durable.
What is the design problem? The cause is this: in Ghana, as in other countries in West Africa, stereotypes about buildings made of earth persist because of poor construction. Earth architecture is fast giving way to modern dwellings made of cement blocks and other modern materials that are not simply expensive but thermally and acoustically problematic. From the cities to the low-income villages, use of concrete – despite its dependence on imported resources – is considered indispensable for building. The rising cost of the modern building materials manufactured from imported resources makes it very difficult for low-income families to become homeowners. Yet an excellent, cheap and local alternative called laterite, red earth, is available everywhere in Ghana.