Even though many buildings constructed of natural materials, particularly earth, have stood the test of time, the construction of buildings out of these materials almost completely disappeared during the 20th Century. This occurred due to the development of commercial building materials and labor saving methods which took on status and prestige connotations, even in Asia and Africa.
The skills and craft of natural building by artisans who were most often handed down specific situational knowledge by their forefathers almost disappeared, except for some small pockets of people scattered around the globe.
Consequently buildings constructed out of natural materials and methods are now rare and far between around the world.
Buildings constructed out of mud and other natural materials were until recently considered primitive, where images of African and Indian mud houses would arise in the mind of most, when the subject is brought up as a building option.
However small groups of people from the ‘hippy’ generation moved out into some of the scenic rural areas around Canada and the United States during the 1980s and ’90s and built houses constructed through rammed earth, cob, bale, and adobe brick methods. Designer builders like Meror Krayenhoff have assisted many notable people like Randy Bachman of the former bands The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive build beautiful rammed earth homes.
Likewise, in Australia, even with flawed regulations biased towards conventional dwellings, many owner builders flocked out to the outer Melbourne semi-rural suburb of Eltham, building mud brick homes inspired by architect Alistair Knox’s designs and methods.
The term earthen building incorporates a number of well known methods which include:
Rammed earth which involves developing a mixture of sand and clay, and compressing it within a mold to shape the walls, etc. Usually some form of insulation like polystyrene, polyurethane, or even old newspaper in the middle of the wall, which maybe also reinforced with steel rods.
Cob which involves developing a loamy clay like mud compound and mixing straw or rice paddy husks into it to build strength.
Mud based ferro cement, invented by Dr. Kamarudin Bin Mohd. Nor of University Kuala Lumpur, which incorporates a mixture of cement, sand and clay, which is rendered onto a steel or wooden frame sown through some form of insulation like conventional ferro cement.
Other methods important in the construction of natural buildings include straw bale dwellings which are usually rendered with a mud based mixture, and bamboo and thatches for the ceilings and roofs of mud based dwellings.
Building mud houses is more art than science. Learning the right mixtures to use based on the soil you have available is more a matter trial and error than calculation, and thus requires a certain amount of experimentation. making an earth house is more similar to making a cake than building a conventional form of house.
The material cost of building earth based dwellings is only a fraction of the cost of building a conventional house with commercial materials. However labor is the major cost.
Earth based houses are naturally insulated, so they will be cool in summers and warm in winters. They are extremely strong if constructed correctly, and proponents of earth houses claim they are resistant to earthquakes. Other advocates of earth houses claim that are very healthy with no irritant chemicals incorporated within the mixture to cause any allergies, etc.
There has been a small revival of earth house building in Asia over the last decade, however this revival is driven by a small number of champions like Ajarn (teacher) Smith, as he likes to be called, of Sakaeo, approximately 300 km North-East of Bangkok.
As an entrepreneur, Ajarn Smith runs a special type of business that is orientated towards empowering others to build earth brick houses, rather than for profit. As he says……”mud houses must be made with your heart”, it requires community collaboration. Thus the business of mud house construction in Asia is a social enterprise, which is about helping communities to organize themselves and acquire the specific skills to build their own dwellings.
The concept, at least at village level will not work through the engagement of direct contractors, it’s more a consulting arrangement. And this is where the benefits come in.
Earth houses are best seen as a community project, and as such are a potential game changer for a village. Building earth houses is about developing self reliance. And self reliance brings on many other benefits.
Earth housing as a cluster can be a source of value for a local community. Firstly, it helps the youth of any village build up self discipline, new skills, and even more importantly enshrines them with the ability to learn through trial and error. Secondly, such community projects build up great amounts of personal self esteem, which according to many academics is important in developing any form of entrepreneurship culture.
Community earth house construction can be a catalyst for regenerating a cooperative spirit in a village. Communal work brings back the old values of cooperation, once one of the cornerstones of village life. It’s through this cooperation where new sources of community opportunity can be created, and provide the basis for a small entrepreneurial economy. This is so important to keep the youth in any village today.
Many earth building village clusters in Thailand have become the basis for home-stay projects, which act as a platform for other income making activities like handicraft production, expanding the potential income base of the community.
Natural building is a potential tool in poverty eradification as well. It prevents the need to borrow money to purchase conventional building materials, thus reduces debt and reliance on high interest micro-financing within any community.
Community earth house projects can help change a village paradigm where there is an emphasis on developing self sufficiency, which without any village will most likely remain within the poverty trap. Mud housing projects coupled with solar panels and mini hydro systems to produce a source of electricity, allow the village to improve their standard of living with the need to be connected to the main electricity grid. Water can also be harvested from the roofs of buildings to assist in water self reliance as well.
Combined with organic farming, the indigenous manufacture of enzymes for cleaning and cosmetic products, and the use of natural ways of cooking , creates a completely new community paradigm.
In this way earth houses have an almost spiritual value, where it combines the inner person through their passion and skills, and hard work to the very environment the community live in.
Natural buildings have an important role to play in rural Asia, particularly in regards to developing communities within new paradigms outside the old industrialization frame. Community building workshops are becoming more popular where skills are being shared between both the ‘new and old’ worlds. It connects communities to the world, devout of any middle people.
Earth house development projects can become a new tool in poverty alleviation and as a catalyst in developing alternative economy, which maybe very important with forecasted world economic slow-down over the coming years.
However this to be achieved requires new cooperative business models, basing value upon labor and skills, rather than technology.
Social evolution may be about going back to the future.
Murray Hunter is an Associate Professor at Universiti Malaysia Perlis.