New directions in informal settlement upgrading and community-led sustainable building practices – The Freedom Square shack replacement project – Day 18 (Thursday 2 Oct’14)

I came to learn how to build a cob wall; instead I learned the story of my life before I even stepped onto the building site.

It was day 18 at the Freedom Square shack replacement building site in Bloemfontein, but my first day on the premises. The walls of Lientjie’s new house were already about three quarters completed. The first one and a half meters from the floor up was made of compounded tyres and solid cob packed firmly into and onto a reinforced metal grid. From this solid section of wall up toward the beams, the building team has started to experiment with decorative wall building techniques such as inserting colored glass bottles in patterns into the cob and carving edgings onto the walls. The total effect is of a mud wall inserted with an array of miniature skylights. It was still early morning and the sun spilled through the little skylights in mesmerizing colour.

So how does one build a cob wall? In an ideal world it would be with a rigorously tested cob mix of course. However, in this part of Freedom Square location life is hardly ideal. Here lives the abject economic disadvantaged and marginalized, those whose only option is to make do with what they have. Even the earth lacks succor and consists of 70% clay. The Qala Phelang Tala building team, as change agent and mentor, has therefore devised a method of ensuring an optimal cob mix, by mixing in a ratio of dry horse dung and fine sand.

By now each member of the regular building team has established their niche. While Ellen Maphalane and Tiisettso Chobokoane were making bottle bricks, Abraham Nkotywa was layering the wall with cob mix and finished bottle bricks. Mokoena Maphalane carried buckets of clay, horse dung, sand and water to the mixing area and all stomped the cob mix together. Tiisetso two year old niece, Pimelo, was following suit and industriously heaving water back and forth in her small porridge bowl. Anita was decorating the cob walls with her carvings while Oretile, the little boy from across the street, was avidly watching her every move. He was totally engrossed by Anita’s unique skill and the beautiful wall art that she was creating.

1.Tiisetso showing the Occupational Therapy students the finer art of refining details on the wall.

Tiisetso showing the Occupational Therapy students the finer art of refining details on the wall.

Each member of this seemingly ragamuffin building team has his/her own story of hardship and grief, adversity and woe. Abraham is 62 and has suffered from cancer, interspersed with periods of remission, throughout is life. His four children all passed away young, two as babies and two during toddlerhood. His wife also passed away of cancer. Two years ago, during a particularly robust bout of full blown cancer, he prepared himself for dying and bequeathed his house to his brother. Abraham survived the cancer, but found himself homeless upon finally being released from the hospital. He now lives in a tiny, battered shack at the back of his brother’s house, the house that once belonged to Abraham and that he had given to his brother. Abraham used to be a builder and his natural skill is evident in the perfect symmetry of the wall that he is busy building, his bare hands the only tools of his trade.

Mokoena is only 28, but was born with a heart defect. He suffered a stroke at 26 and is now partially impaired on the left side of his body. Mokoena, physically supported by his mother, Ellen, walks 5km every morning from their shack on the other side of Freedom Square location to the building site. For Mokoena life has gained new meaning since he started participating in the building activities. He spent his childhood on the periphery of normal youthful activity. As a result of his weak heart, he could never participate in games and sports with his friends and school mates. Now he is in the thick of things, actively contributing hard labour toward building a house for a fellow community member, while at the same time learning the skills that will enable him to one day built his own house for himself and his mother.

Waldo and Hugo joining building activities in the school holidays; here Mokoena and Abram show them the 'seretse jive' (mud dance).

Waldo and Hugo joining building activities in the school holidays; here Mokoena and Abram show them the ‘seretse jive’ (mud dance).

Abraham and Mokoena both came to be a part of the Qala Phelang Tala building mentorship programme as a result of being out-patients at the University of the Free State’s Occupational Therapy clinic in Rocklands location. Their presence is testimony to the effort and dedication of Heidi Morgan and Bronwyn Kemp to reintroduce their patients back into their communities as fully functional members, able to contribute towards and participate in living a full life.

As for the humble story of my life – well, I was standing in the doorway of Lientjie’s existing shack dwelling and hesitantly introduced myself to the three adolescents inside. They courteously reciprocated and introduced themselves as   Thembeke (18), Lonkululeko (16) and Kenneth (15) and invited me in. We chatted tentatively for a while and I asked about the beads they were wearing. It turns out that they are a trio of aspiring sangomas. The calling from the ancestors runs in their family and each one of their lives is currently a conundrum of figuring out how to heed their calling, appease the ancestors, while still having a normal adolescent life and attend to school and studies. After about an hour or so Kenneth produced a small, vibrantly patterned bag and benevolently offered to throw the bones for me. I cautiously obliged. He asked me to blow three times into the bag. A short ritual ensued of shaking the bag, repeating my name and singing softly. He emptied the little bag on the floor in front of me.

The Freedom Square Shack Replacement crew on site, day 18.

The Freedom Square Shack Replacement crew on site, day 18.

I could not help but be transfixed by the contents that now lay scattered at my feet. Among the bones, shells, beads and trinkets lay four large steel nails. The first thing I noticed was that they all lay with their sharp ends facing away from me. I remember thinking: “that must be a good thing!”. According to my trio of hosts, this was indeed the case. It meant that there are no people in my life who actively wished me harm. As for the rest of the story told by the bones – all I am prepared to say is that it cut disconcertingly close to the bone. However, I somehow doubt that I will consent to having the bones thrown for me again. The prospect of those nails potentially facing me with their sharp ends next time is too dreadful to contemplate. Quit while ahead, me thinks…

Contributed by Amanda de Gouveia on behalf of QPT. Photos courtesy of QPT. Please visit their Facebook page for more photos of the day.

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Amanda de GouveiaAmanda 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.

Lebone Village launch

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!

Mandela day

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.

Peter McIntosh demonstrating how to make cob

Peter McIntosh demonstrating how to make cob

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.

Adding water

Adding water

Adding straw binds everything together and adds insulation value

Adding straw adds insulation value

Lots of people turned up

Lots of people turned up

 

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.

Getting our feet dirty

Getting our feet dirty

Peter McIntosh demonstrating putting cob into the brick mold

Peter McIntosh demonstrating putting cob into the brick mold

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.

Peter McIntosh demonstrating putting cob into the brick mold

Peter McIntosh demonstrating putting cob into the brick mold

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.

Some of the mudbricks that were made on the day drying in the sun

Some of the mudbricks that were made on the day drying in the sun

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

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.

 

 

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

Exterior

Exterior

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

http://dancelikeanelephant.blogspot.com

 

 

Reflections and observations on a recent visit to the former Transkei

I had the pleasure of recently visiting a really magical place, Mdumbi in the former Transkei. Mdumbi is about 30km north of Coffee Bay in the typical rolling green landscape. Travelling with fellow architects Carl Morkel and Wim Els at a slowish pace, either walking or watching from the car window, one is aware of a soft silence, endless, gentle rolling hills with the silhouette of small pastel huts and sometimes the ocean in the background. Grandmothers moving peacefully and slowly, a shout from one hillside to the next, fishermen just appearing as almost out of nowhere.

Figure 1: Typical Transkei landscape, round huts in pastel colours.

Figure 1: Typical Transkei landscape, round huts in pastel colours.

One would like to think of this place as the ultimate sustainable example of natural building. Huts have been made here forever with soil and clay, either with using the wattle and daub or with mud brick method. You could easily imagine that all buildings here are still made with the smallest possible footprint on the earth. There are tiny mud brick making “factories” all along the roadsides, with clay being excavated directly out of the hillside and the small holes being covered with grass growing over it fairly quickly. People are going about making the bricks, talking, mixing, moulding, laying the bricks out to dry.

Figure 2: Local mud brick factory with possibly best view in the world

Figure 2: Local mud brick factory with possibly best view in the world

Figure 3: Local mud brick factory with possibly best view in the world

Figure 3: Local mud brick factory with possibly best view in the world

 

Deep-rooted traditions, foreign to outside observers, is visible in the very nature of the buildings, with huts in ruins not because of a lack of maintenance but out of respect for the inhabitant that has passed to another life, with contemporary car tyres forming the crown of the round roof and sharp pieces of glass embedded in them, not for adornment or ornament, but to keep the evil owl away.

The “evil” that has crept into this landscape dispels the romantic idea that all here is inherently sustainable. The landscape is pock marked with entire hill sides being bull dozed to mine sand and left un-rehabilitated. Thermally poor performing materials with a high environmental cost, such as concrete block have become the status symbol for affluence. Understanding of all the reasons behind these changes, which are many, is the topic for another discussion, but the low maintenance of a concrete block building cannot be left out of the picture.

The “charm” of the degradable, organic buildings is thwarted by the very aspect that makes them charming. If just left, they can degrade. Easily. The national “eradicate mud schools” agenda is by now well known. It is a multibillion-rand programme. This year alone the delivery delays on this programme have apparently cost 7 billion rand. (Legal Resources Centre, 2014) The mud school has developed a very bad name. And it is only through involvement and education that this will change.

Figure 4: Wattle and daub degrading

Figure 4: Wattle and daub degrading

The reasons for the mud schools have a bad name is given one blogger as “having no toilets, having no electricity, having not water, coughing in a dusty classroom where the roof is caving in”…………..this from http://realisingrights.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/we-do-not-have-toilets/ Also read this http://mg.co.za/article/2013-03-08-00-forgotten-schools-of-the-eastern-cape-left-to-rot and this http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/Politics/Mud-schools-gone-by-2015-minister-20130226.

Why do these school buildings perform so badly? Traditional Transkei buildings require constant maintenance, since most of them lack the two really important protection criteria that natural buildings need to survive. A proper hat and boots. In trying to convince role players that it is not necessarily the “mud” that is the problem in these schools, Lesley Freedman and Andy Horn recently met and then sent a letter to Equal Education to introduce ideas around proper “mud” building standards that will not only improve the schools but also houses in the surrounding villages.

This brings me back to our reason for visiting the Transkei. We went there to take part in discussions regarding the development of a wonderful initiative, Mdumbi Green Destinations. This is a project envisioned by Mdumbi Backpackers in association with the Mankosi community. The Mankosi community will develop a community owned tourist facility where, amongst other sustainable aspects, the buildings will be made with natural, local materials. The local community will be integrated in the design, development and building process and will, apart from getting ownership and employment during and after the process, they will learn about using their local materials in an effective way that makes it last longer (and of course food production and other environmental sustainable things, but we are concentrating on this blog on natural building).

Spin offs of the initiative is that the Mdumbi Backpacker community has learned some valuable lessons and skills about natural building in the long process (read years) towards the project becoming a reality. And some of them learned these skills at Berg-en-Dal.

Through the Transcape “arm” of Mdumbi backpackers that focuses directly on assisting the community, an Eco Centre has been opened. Already here mud brick making, proper building methods (and food gardening) is taught to the local community. What is interesting that we observed when visiting the Eco Centre is that it was predominantly young men and women that took part in the mud brick making workshops, where at the “factories” next to the road it was mostly older women working.

Figure 5: Me at the Eco Centre mud brick training facility

Figure 5: Me at the Eco Centre mud brick training facility

Figure 6: One (wo)man mould_I like the size of this for when you work alone

Figure 6: One (wo)man mould_I like the size of this for when you work alone

Figure 7_Local stone_great to use for “boots” of the building

Figure 7_Local stone_great to use for “boots” of the building

 

Figure 8: Volunteers house at the Eco Centre – putting in proper floor

Figure 8: Volunteers house at the Eco Centre – putting in proper floor

So, I am really looking forward to being involved in this great project and will keep you updated……………..

 

Figure 9: Sunrise and fishermen at Mdumbi Point

Figure 9: Sunrise and fishermen at Mdumbi Point

 

Photo credits

Figure 1-8: Carl Morkel

Figure 9: Hermie Delport-Voulgarelis

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