The Earthships, Building Autonomy

Nouveau-Mexique, Octobre 2015

After 2 months in Quebec, we are pursuing our investigation in the south of the USA, in the state of New Mexico. We land in the capital city, Alburqueque. « Let’s see, you have ticked the ‘tourist’box… why have you come here? » is the question from a suspicious immigration officer. Indeed, this city is not in the top 10 list of « around the world travellers ». The only vague touristic attraction is that it hosted the shooting of the Breaking Bad, So you understand ! New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the USA. Despite the drought the people are telling us that the state is selling the little water resource it has to its neighbour, Colorado, in order to get some cash… In the buses being driven along the endless boulevards, we meet exhausted looks, and see the painful bodies of those who cannot afford a car.

But for us, this stop was planned from the very beginning. Only a few kilometres away from Albuquerque, in the Taos desert, original ecological houses were born, i.e. the Earthships. They are the result of the imagination of an architect, Michael Reynolds, in the 70s, and these houses are built from used materials and aiming at a « radical autonomy ».

We have had the opportunity to visit a few Earthship models in Normandy (in Gers to be precise), in Turkey as well as in Quebec. But we wanted to go to the heart of the lab, to know a little bit more on these houses which appeal to more and more people all over the world…

1 Panorama paysage earthship 1
©Eco-logis. Earthships dans le désert du Taos

Our new adventure starts by thumbing a lift between the small town of Taos where we found some couchsurfing accommodation, and the dry plains of the sierra where the HQ of Earthship Biotecture is situated. On the second day of the shooting, when we tell our driver why we have come here, she says in a mischievous way « yes, indeed, I do know the Earthships… I am Michael Reynolds’s wife! » … « And you’re going to thumb a lift like that every day to do some shooting? Poor kids, it’s going to be complicated!… If you want, we have a pickup which is just there parked in the yard. You can use it while you’re staying here. » And without further delay she gives us the keys – and think that we have only known her for a few minutes! And our shooting all of a sudden is becoming far more comfortable. When we are driving the Reynoldses’ pickup, we are so happy on New Mexico’s dusty roads!

What is an Earthship?

The story of the Earthships starts at the very beginning of the 70s. In those days, the members of the « Club of Rome » are already doing away with the myth of an unlimited growth in a world with limited resources.1 Michael Reynolds had just graduated in architecture and he is already convinced that an economically and ecologically sustainable way of life starts with rethinking accommodations. Indeed, the building sector is at the origin of 30% of the greenhouse gases and uses up more than 40% of the global energy production !

Shocked by the waste of resources around him, he is wondering how to make use of the waste to build. Why not use tyres? This surprising idea will become the Earthships’ brand name. Each and every year, more than a billion tyres are produced throughout the world ; after being used for 3 or 4 years, they are piling up in huge open skips and sometimes they even catch fire rejecting tons of CO2 in the atmosphere (for instance in May 2016, in Spain). In the best of cases, those tyres are « recycled », i.e. burnt in cement factories…Seeing such unsatisfactory solutions, Michael Reynolds comes up with the idea of using them as they are compacting earth within to build houses. Once the walls are covered to protect them from the rain and the wind, few visitors will guess how they have actually been made!

Other used materials are also being employed in the walls of the Earthships and they play a much more aesthetic role, such as glass bottles which enable multi-coloured light to beam through the house.

tyre' wall           bottle' wall

 

Gradually Michael Reynolds has rallied around him a team of people who are convinced that he is on the right track and he is launching a good deal of experiments. The aim is becoming more precise: designing houses which have a low impact on the environment and aim at a «radical autonomy» «We have to find a way of being self-sufficient when it comes to our basic needs: food, accommodation, used water processing, waste management… Just imagine if 5 billion people start producing their own energies, the multinationals will have no customers for their products and they will eventually disappear! » Michael Reynolds says enthusiastically. « today we are in a vicious circle. We are like a herd of buffaloes running straight to the cliff. It is very hard to stop such a surge forward. You cannot stand in the way, yet you can try and influence some members of the group showing them that there are other ways… »

Between hybridisations and experimentations

The strength and the ingenuity of the Earthships was to draw inspirations from many ideas which already existed in the world of ecological building to bring them all together in one and the same building. Here are the main outlines: (click on the schemas to extend it )

• Passive solar use to heat the house.

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Earthship passive solar schema

On the south facade (in the northern hemisphere) a big slanted bay window enables the sun rays to enter deep into the house and heat the thick walls of the northern façade, which is partly in the ground. Thanks to the importance of the heat mass of the earth in the tyres, those walls make it possible to store the sun heat and to gradually redistribute it when the temperature starts to go down. In the Taos desert, the temperature can go down to _ 12°C in winter… but thanks to this system those houses need no heating!

aeration1
Earthship ventilation schema

• A 100% natural air conditioning
To cool the house, the designers of the earthships drew their inspirations from the principle of the Canadian wells. A chimney runs under the thick walls of the northern façade and makes it possible to cool the air flowing through. When the house temperature becomes too high, the opening of the chimney enables the fresh air to go inside the house and push up the hot air which then flows out of the roof windows.

• An remarkable water cycle

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Earthship water circle schema

The rain water flowing on the roof is collected in big tanks. The grey waters if the shower and the sink are collected in the greenhouse to be filtered by the plants before ending in the toilets. The black waters then flow into a phyto-cleaning pool outside the house. An interesting alternative for the more resilient to dry toilets! ( let’s recall that each time we pull the chain, between 1.5 an 7 gallons of potable water go to waste …)

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©Earthship biotecture. Earthship global schema

• Energy autonomy
All the energy of the ‘Earthship’ comes from the solar panels on the roof, sometimes coupled with a domestic wind generator. Both installations feed six batteries which can provide power to the house even when the weather is not favourable.

Earning the right to experiment

Today Earthships are all the go. But life has not always been a smooth ride for Michael Reynolds who has had to fight hard to be granted the permits needed to build. « In the beginning, I could not care less about permits » Michael explains, « I was just an outlaw and I have had problems [his architect warrant was confiscated] , I tried to fight the authorities, but I lost. Today I try to go beyond the building codes. We are not fighting any longer, we are trying to find a way to please the authorities while doing such things as also please us… ».

If in our society, it is rare to encourage the right to error, it is even less so in the building sector where the safety stakes are essential. Yet, the principle of precaution has become a synonym of inertia and a means for some big promoters to try and slow down the emerging new building methods which are less marketable. Michael and his team are claiming that innovations can only emerge by taking the risk of making mistakes. In the courses they are dispensing in the Earthship Academy, they report, with some humour, their trials and their err-tests (for instance, the first models had no separate hallway between the greenhouse and the living rooms. But it was so hot and damp that Michael decided to build a wall between the greenhouse and the living part.

Following their fight over several years (chronicled in Oliver Hodge’s « Garbage Warrior » ) Michael Reynolds and his team eventually managed to be granted the right to go on with the building of Earthships in Taos and attempt all sorts of experimenting on a site of 2 acres.

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©Eco-logis. Earthship building experimentation site

But this victory did not come without any concessions, as Phil tells us: « The very first models did not have any cement whatsoever in their structures, but when the authorities withdrew Mike’s architect warrant, outside engineers had to be employed to be granted the building permits. So we had to introduce concrete in the beams and their foundations. Gradually using concrete became systematic. But that does not mean that nothing will ever change. I would like us to return to our roots, yet we are held up by the building codes… »

Ironically New Mexico is the state in which the « The Trinity Test », was carried out, i.e. the first nuclear bomb test1. Is building ecological houses a more frightening weapon of mass destruction than bombs?

Building another life

visitor center
©Eco-logis. Earthship Biotecture Visitor center

These houses are getting more and more popular with the public at large. This year, more than 20,000 visitors came to the Earthship Biotecture visitor center! 250 students of all ages, from the USA, from Europe, from Japan come every year to learn the basics of the building technique during the training sessions of the« Earthship academy », for a whole month.

Phil, who has been working on the team for 20 years reminisces « When I completed the building of my Earthship at the age of 29, I understood that I was free, I did not have to earn a lot of money to pay the bills or pay back a mortgage. Today many of those who attend the Earthship Academy cannot find a job which means something for them in their sectors. Many young people can no longer live like their parents although they have a great deal of qualifications… They are looking to have a life which is based less on money and work, and for them Earthships are maybe the sign of some solution… »

How much does an earthship cost?

The cost of an Earthship varies according to the size of the building, the conditions of the building site, the materials used, etc.
The fisrt possibility is the order. Today Earthsip Biotecture is offering ‘turnkey Earthships’. For instance in Ger in Normandy, Michael Reynolds’s team came in 2008 to build the very first Earthship in Europe, helped by some local craftsmen. The building of a house took 5 months of work. The total cost of the house amounted to euros 190,000 for some 120m2 (links in french).
The other option is self-building to adapt your Earthship to your wishes and to your wallet, too! Many people get their inspirations from the design and embark with volunteers under the principle of crowd building site. Even if the cost is considerably lower, there are elements which do come at a price, such as the bay windows, the energy system and the filtration of rain waters. The first Earthship type house in Quebec (links in french) self-built in 2005, cost around $50,000 for some 60m2.

A universal model?

earthship haiti
©Paul America, Earthship Biotecture. Michael Reynolds Architect work with locals for the building of an Earthship in Port-au-Prince

 

Encouraged by their successes in the Western world, Mike and his team want to share their know-how in the poorest countries (especially following natural disasters in the Philippines, in Haiti, in Malawi…) by developing the cheapest Earthship models.

Yet Phil admits to us that there are limits to such an approach. Like many NGOs, Earthship Biotecture is embroiled in some of the hurdles of the help to development… « When we intervene in a country following a disaster, we can do what we know how to do to go fast, using the materials we are used to such as tyres or cement for instance… which is not always adapted! I would prefer to stay on site longer to understand the culture, observe the climate, identify the local materials available much better… But I do not know whether Earthship Biotecture can do it one day. Maybe the best thing to do in those countries is not to build Earthships as we build them here, but to work from traditional building techniques and improve them: so that they may collect and reuse the rain water, be better insulated and facing better climate sides… »

«What is the perfect ecological house in your opinion ? » we are often asked. It would be an illusion to believe that there is one optimum accommodation type, adaptable whatever to any and all places! The good ideas are there to be taken up, adapted according to the climate, resources, financial means, culture, etc… More and more hybrid houses appear and it is most probably the future!

 

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The Natural Building Coloquium

Nouveau-Mexique, Octobre 2015

« Nothing happens by chance, everything is a matter of appointment » Paul Eluard wrote. Our trip took us in October to a small village, Kingston, in New Mexico, for the 20th edition of the « Natural building colloquium » organised by Builders Without Borders. If in the USA the general trend is to build quite impressive concrete villas rather than small straw houses, there is in this country a very dynamic movement to build differently. « The USA is the biggest energy consumer on this planet. And 50% of this energy is not used by cars or planes … instead it is consumed by houses, to build them first and then to heat them and keep them cool in summer… So here any change, even a small one, can make a huge difference» states Ianto Evans, one of the pioneers of this movement to build naturally, who welcomed us very warmly indeed.

group
Participants du « Natural Building Colloquium »

20 years ago, Ianto and other eco-construction forerunners, such as Linda Smiley, Michael Smith, Matts Myhrman, Judy Knox, David Eisenberg, Sunray Kelly, Catherine Wanek… came from all around the USA to gather for a whole week in this very small village. The idea behind it all was to find the time to get to know one another, to exchange ideas and techniques so that they could all progress in their practices and for a collective dynamic to emerge. The network improved gradually: 20 years later, more than 150 people from all over the USA, but also from Japan, Taiwan, Canada, Australia, Austria, England, Mexico, France … gathered to take part in this « Natural Building Colloquium». It was a great anniversary to celebrate the progress of the movement, but also to take time to think about the challenges still ahead.

It was a wonderful meeting, far away from such huge events as « COP21 Solutions » where the multinational companies circulate leaflets without discrimination, for the purpose of signing significant contracts or « greening » their image in a way, without changing anything to the roots of the crisis caused by their business. For the participants to this colloquium, natural building is a starting point for others deeper changes: « The main thing is not so much to learn to put things together to build ecologically… » says Ianto Evans « what is happening here is going much further: we want to change society in rethinking our relation to nature, to the others, focusing on the main needs. Millions of people in this country are not happy with their way of life which goes against their ethics and creates global problems. What they do not know, however, is how to go about it to change it all. So our job is to offer solutions and one of those is to have a smaller and more comfortable house. Comfortable means that you do not have to take on a job which goes against what you believe in to earn enough money to pay for your house…»

Miguel Elliot cob oven IMG_2841 mur paille nbc20

During this week, almost 50 sessions were held, given by and for the participants, where they shared their experiences: « earthbag building around the world », « collecting rain water », « the history of straw bale building »… To offer the pleasure of « doing, » other participants offered demonstration workshops: a straw bale dome, a cabin in the trees, a mud-brick oven, an earthbag wall, more specifically, were all built in a very joyful atmosphere. In the evening, presentations on the more global stakes refer to the legal battles around construction codes, or analyse the natural building potential to try and keep climate change in check…

Although the schedule was already quite full, some participants decide to set up discussion circles amongst themselves on the various strategies to spread natural building to the public at large. The purpose was that it is no longer seen as « alternative » but that in the minds of the public it starts replacing those traditional buildings which are harmful to health and the environment. When the participants left, they had already decided to meet again for yet another colloquium in 2016 (planned for October in Quail Springs, New Mexico). Let us bet that by then the movement will have increased!

As far as we are concerned, after a year and a half of shooting various projects in different countries, this colloquium just confirmed our intuition: there is a world movement which wants to know all its members to become stronger. Like all the others, we also leave with new energy to carry on with our investigation!

Thanks to Owen Geiger and David Eisenberg for puting us in touch with this great network !

Thanks to all the people who accomodated us after this colloquium : Matts Myhrman – Nicholas et Jenny Holmes – Martin Hammer et Miriam Shipp – Bruce et Sarah King – David Arkin et Annie Tilt – Darrel Deboer – Liz Johndrow…

Thanks also to Ianto Evans, Catherine Wanek and all the participants for their kindness.

A final Thanks to, David Eisenberg and Rachel Prezton Prinz for the pictures.

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The Eco-village of « la Baie », from straw to resilience

Quebec, July 2015

After 9 months in Asian we are carrying on our investigation in Canada. Change of climate, culture and scale… there are woods stretching as far as we can see and distances are also stretching out. The roads in perfect condition and empty… What a difference with Asia! Landing in North America is also an experience of disrupting town planning, driving through towns, on a horizontal level. In the residential districts, the new houses look like the ones in a catalogue : perfect facades, aseptic lawns, garages and big cars. Here there is space and people living on credit ! Muko’s remark – a militant involved in the conservation of troglodyte houses in Capadoccia, whom we met in Turkey – comes back to us « For me, today’s standardised houses are a limit to imagination… I think it is more difficult to design another world when living in such a formatted, even sterilised, environment.»

But North America remains the land where everything is possible ! The continent hosts so many pioneers who are looking for other living ways. We are out to meet some of them in Quebec. Starting with the inhabitants of the eco-village of « la Baie », who invented a straw building technique which is heard of in Europe event and beyond, too: the GREB technique. Behind those initials there is the « Bay Ecological Research Group » which, for 25 years now, has been experimenting a post-petrol way of life !

The Eco-village of « la Baie » © GREB

To reach the small eco-village, we are driving along the magnificent Saguenay fjord which flows into the St Laurent river before climbing up the small path to the ‘tiny village’. Pierre and Marie-Thérèse, who have been leading the projects since its beginnings, welcome us in their cosy straw house.

Pierre tells us that it all started : « In 1972, The Club of Rome stressed the limits of our society based on an infinite growth in a world with finite resources. I was not known whether the resources would die out in 20 or 300 years… But it was totally unacceptable for us to have built a non-viable system over the long term, relying moreover on the exploitation of the countries lying in the south. It was our duty to find solutions to build a different world.»

This is the philosophy which, a few years earlier, pushed them into travelling to the USA, the Middle East, Europe and India to visit the ecological projects. Pierre remembers « Indeed we toyed with the idea of settling in communities in the south of France. But I could not stand the idea that one day I would be told « t is all very well to build an ecological house there… but in Quebec, temperatures go down below 30° in winter and dreaming of other ways of life, is a luxury which is just not imaginable here !».

An experimental eco-village

Pierre and Marie-Thérèse © GREB

With a taste for challenges, Pierre and Marie-Thé return to Quebec in 1988. Together with five other families, they purchase a piece of land of several hectares and decide to create an eco-village on waste agricultural and wooden lands. A key stage, prior to settling down, it was necessary to analyse the resources available and to observe the territory, so as to consider the possibilities and limits of this eco-system. So for most inhabitants, building with straw balls and a wooden framework proved to be the most relevant choice !

Beyond the construction, the project was also to meet other fundamental needs such as finding food, or getting energy. From the very beginning, the eco-village of « la Baie » is much more than a simple ecological district or a self-sufficient community. Pierre says : « Our intention was not to be survivors, quite the opposite. We did not want to save ourselves from such a catastrophe. We wanted to create a life laboratory and the successes and failures of that life laboratory would be made public. That is why at the same time at the eco-village, we founded the GREB, the Bay ecological Research Group. »

And year after year, some inhabitants left (Pierre and Marie-Thérèse are the only founders left) and others have arrived, attracted by the project. It is the case, for instance of Patrick Déry, who decided to settle here with his wife in 1994. Jokingly he remembers « as far as I am concerned, I would never have come in a community of pals. I was convinced by the idea of participating in the development of a broad scale viable society project.» A teacher-researcher, Patrick heads a research centre on renewable energies, and from time to time he offers his students to come and experiment on the village land. A tireless researcher, he also performs all sorts of studies on agriculture through the experimental farm he has set up. But the GREB became famous through another of his researches.

But the GREB became famous through another of his researches…

The invention of an efficient straw building technique

Using straw to build ? Despite prejudices which are still going strong, the idea is gradually becoming accepted.

It is quite cheap, there is plenty of straw everywhere, it has very good thermal and sound insulation qualities as well as many other properties – this is why straw is used more and more by the self-builders and some professionals, too. But in 1996, when Patrick Déry and martin Simard build one of the first straw houses in the village, the slow process leads them to find another more efficient technique. Then they come up with the idea of erecting a wooden double framework, compress the straw balls inside, and pour mortar with a formwork. After several attempts, the better adapted mortar finally consists in 3 volumes of sand, 4 volumes of sawdust, 1 volume of air lime and 1 volume of cement. The GREB technique was born !

Which are the advantages of this technique compared to other straw buildings ?

It is fast and simple (it may easily be chosen by self-builders) and so the costs are considerably lower. For instance, one of the houses of the small village, some 150m2, was built in 9 months and 3 weeks of that time were necessary to fill the framework with the straw balls. Its total cost amounted to euro 100,000.

Did you say « ecological » ?

Today the protection of the environment has the wind in the sails: from McDonald’s which has chosen the green colour to the big multinationals supporting the COP 21, everybody seems to show some interest in what is happening to the planet. Yet Patrick feels sorry that the term « ecological » is being used in a wrong way and too often for absolutely anything, especially in the building sector : « In Quebec today, the consumption of energy becomes a concern when the house is being lived in mainly. But there is no consideration for the energy spent during the building stage or the destruction. Where do the materials come from ? How have they been extracted ? Did they require significant transformations ? How can they be recycled ? All those questions have to be asked… Indeed everyone looks for optimum energy performance, but that is not the end of it: the global ecological balance of the house has to be taken into account, from cradle to grave. »

© Andy Singer

Unfortunately that abusive use of the word ‘ecological’ does not occur in Quebec only. Jean-Baptiste Thévard, Pierre and Marie-Thé’s French nephew, who was a great contributor to the spreading of the GREB technique states : « In France, the building sector represents 45% of the greenhouse gas effects and it is catastrophic. We are still building energy wrecks: when a new building is being erected, it requires as much energy as a 60-year use of it! So there is a « carbon debt » even before people start living in it! When straw is being is being used in building, it is the opposite: carbon is being stored prior to using the building. As a comparison, a passive house in France means 15 KW per m2 per year. With the GREB technique, we get some 20 kw m2 per year without any mechanical ventilation or other electronic system, since the walls breathe. »

Nevertheless some people in favour of eco-building, 100% natural, claim that the GREB technique uses cement to make mortar. « I can hear this criticism … but for me, those 8% cement considerably reduce the drying and building time and thus enable to democratise this type of ecological houses… » says Jean-Baptiste. Pierre adds : « We are not saying that absolutely everybody must use straw balls to build. Maybe the most ecological would be to build with other materials or even not to build at all, but to increase the occupancy density of the existing housing, to insulate them better…»

Building with straw, an idea which is gradually taking over

This summer the eco-village is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The inhabitants have decided to celebrate this event during a day’s meetings. More than 200 people who wanted to see came to visit the village, took part in conferences…

That is when we met Jean-Baptiste Thévard, back here, in this place which proved a milestone in his personal path and for the GREB. « In 2001, I came to pay a visit to my uncle and my aunt and help them with the building of their house with straw. The easy and efficient GREB technique was an eye opener! Back in France I decided to work on the promotion of this technique ». A few years later, he is the co-author, with Vincent Brossamain, of the book « Building one’s house with straw » which has been translated into several languages. Jean-Baptiste is also the co-founder of the Approche Paille association which has trained some 1,000 people to the GREB technique… thanks to this work, today there are almost 400 such houses in France and others in Belgium, Italy, Spain, Rumania, Ukraine, but also in Chile, Argentina and even in Morocco !

Who feared the big nasty wolf  ? © Walt Disney

But why is this technique not more developed when it appears as so efficient ? Patrick gives his opinion on that « The current house is a mirror of our society: it has to confer a certain social status to the owner, just like the car. In this consumption world, a straw house does not quite fit in with the trend of the day… » In the collective subconscious mind, a straw house sounds like a reminder of the house of the three little pigs, not strong and very basic. Yet, in the eco-village of « la Baie », just like elsewhere, the houses are just as much worth as the conventional ones. Once the finishing coat has been put on, a visitor would definitely find it very hard to guess which materials have been used to build them !

Beyond the prejudices – which tend to crumble, at least start to – the development of straw building is slowed down because there is no economic potential, industrially speaking at least. Going through the various tests to prove the reliability of the straw is quite expensive … but could contribute a great deal to the general interest. But neither the Government nor the main contractors’ companies seem to be ready to invest in this material which moves away from the traditional economic paths (less needs for factories which would transform and recycle, transport, tools…)

And yet, thanks to a daunting work, often on a voluntary basis, progress has been made. In 2012, « Le Réseau Français de la Construction en Paille » published the « professional rules of straw building ». this work, acknowledged by the building trade professionals, the public authorities and the insurance companies, enables the professionals to make any type of straw building and at the same time to be covered by traditional insurance contracts. The BREG members are very happy with that and they can be pleased with the work done on the over side of the Atlantic Ocean « For us, today’s challenge is to work just as well to spread the technique through Quebec, and to build bridges between the territories to push legislations forward everywhere ! » says Pierre.

It’s Heating on all the floors !

Masonry heater © GREB

For the inhabitants of the eco-village, the ecological house means much more than just the walls. Each house must meet certain characteristics which have been registered with the town-hall in the local town planning scheme. Especially as regards the south façade with large windows to enable the heat and the sun rays to enter.

As for heating, the inhabitants chose masonry heaters which, together with the GREB mortar, add significant thermal inertia. This choice does enable the house to store the heat emitted and spread it uniformly for several hours. Another advantage of such heaters is the complete combustion of the wood, i.e. the gases are also burnt instead of being rejected in the environment as is the case with the traditional open fires. To get even further benefits from the energy produced, pipes run through the masonry heaters to heat the water of the house in winter.

To get even further benefits from the energy produced, pipes run through the masonry heaters to heat the water of the house in winter. When spring comes around, solar panels take over. Patrick’s idea was to fit photovoltaic panels (converting light into electricity ) rather than thermal panels (converting heat into electricity) : « This is a completely heretic idea in the scientific community and it is certainly true that in the hot countries, thermal panels are more efficient to heat the water. But in Quebec, because of the cold and freezing temperatures, they are far less efficient. Working on simulations, I noticed that using photovoltaic panels in our latitudes would be 3 and 5 times cheaper than thermal sensors. Together with the lower cost of photovoltaic panels, the idea to connect such panels directly onto the boiler brought the return on investment down from 75 years to 20. That is true for the south of Quebec which enjoys a very cheap electricity thanks to hydroelectricity. But if we consider the northern parts where they get their electricity from oil power stations, we are on investment returns between 3 and 4 years ! »

Towards resilience

it’s open on its maximum © Delize

Beyond the houses, the inhabitants of the eco-village and all the people working on it are actually focusing on another project. Benoît Thévenard, Jean-Baptiste’s brother, also understood something when he went through the GREB.

« At the beginning of my career as an engineer in aeronautics, I did not quite understand what was at stake when I heard about the natural resources depletion, more specifically petrol. It is only when I went for a training period with Patrick Déry that I really understood what it all meant. In fact, the problem is not at all that petrol tends to disappear, but that the production is going down while the demand still increases. I thought « so, if there is no petrol any more, we will cycle…. » but I did not realise the global consequences that would impact the economy, the wars for the resources supply… »

Benoît decided to specialise in energy issues and the petrol peak. He has become a conference speaker and decided to make his analyses known to associations, local authorities and even Parliament. In 2012 Yves Cochet (a former French Environment Minister) entrusted him with the drafting of two reports for the European Parliament : « Europe in front of the oil peak » et « Towards resilient territories in 2030 ».

What does resilience mean ? « c’est It is the capacity of a system to live through a shock or disturbing change and adapt to it, re-organise in a different way while retaining one’s identity, one’s main functions and capacity to react » Benoît explains. At the eco-village of « la Baie », as well as in the growing movement of the Transitions Towns, this issue is at the heart of the concerns when it comes to climate changes and the resources depletion.

Patrick tells us a small story about that, which took place in the early days of the village « in 1996, there was a very huge storm in Saguenay. Suddenly the people found themselves cut off the networks and for many of them, it was sheer panic. Just imagine, no light, no heating … and of course in the middle of the winter! The people who lived in Saguenay were evacuated. We were also called, but we did not want to leave because we had everything we needed! Food from the summer, enough water, heating through the masonry heater… For many people that storm proved a real nightmare, and meant anxiety. We managed to consider that event in a serene way since we had already embarked on a resilient approach…»

The Eco-village of « la Baie » during hiver © GREB

Something has been said over and over again since we started on our trip: many people tell us that the seasons are not what they used to be and are changing year after year: draughts in Turkey, late monsoons in south east Asia, colder winters in Quebec. The consequences are genuine indeed and are unfortunately going to get worse: painful harvesting, climate refugees, disappearances of biodiversity, wars over resources…

Despite such sad establishments, the governments do not manage to / do not wish to change paths and continue along the same blind alleyway : « Las year in France there was an important debate to think about the means to implement an energy transition » Benoît tells us but we can see he is annoyed with it all « At the end of the day, there was an incoherent text to please everybody, whether electors, industrials… The law provided to cut the country’s energy consumption by half, which is radical, while forecasting a 1.7% growth per year till 2050. That is a fairy tale, no more! Historically no economic growth can take place if energy consumption does not grow as well ! »

Do one’s hummingbird share…

Rather than wait for others to act or for some of those elected stop running after impossible dreams, the eco-village of « la Baie » inhabitants are doing their share. Evidencing their success is the fact that the project increased in 2011 with the purchase of a new site, 3 times bigger than the first one. New families come and settle but the philosophy has remained unchanged, as Pierre states « only » ten additional houses are going to be built gradually. We could have planned 3 times more, it would have been more profitable financially, but we would have gone over what our small ecosystem can bear. » Amongst the new arrivals, Anne (Pierre and Marie-Thé’s daughter) and her husband, Marc-André, built a beautiful straw ball house and are involved in the village life. The lasting of the project is ensured by a new generation of people who intend to carry on building and imagining simplicity as a will and … happiness.

Before leaving, we ask Pierre if he is confident for the future of the planet. He quotes mischievously a line taken from “Lord of the Rings”, when Pippin (the hobbit) asks Gandalf if hope still lives in spite of the Goblin hordes at the fortress’s gates. He takes on a deep voice and just like Gandalf declares « There is no hope, …. but a Mad Man’s hope ! »

This mad man’s hope is being transformed by the village inhabitants and all the builders we have come across for over one year into communicative and renewable energy ad infinitum to build another world…

Thanks to the eco-hameau’s member for their reception and the extra pictures

Click on the picture’s arrow to see the slide show.

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The Mud hutters, in love with earth

Thailand ,March 2015

Kathmandou-Bangkok via Calcutta: three days on the road, non stop (15 hours on a bus/ 25 hours on a train/ 3 hours on a plane…), so you can easily imagine how relieved we are to reach the Thai capital city! After one month in Nepal, what a contrast me see here … we are quite surprised by that city. Compared to it, even Paris seems somewhat ‘has been’! Skyscrapers, adverts on huge screens, over air conditioned aerial metro, hyper connected passengers, malls in each and every district, brand new pickup trucks… Many of the Thai people have jumped on the bandwagon of the consumption society, even if it means getting into debt over several decades.

It is said that the Tsunami in 2004 was a booster for the construction of the country. With all the money flowing in from international solidarity, the investors have built on a massive scale, even if it meant that they had to expropriate a few people and they had to build hastily in swamp areas, especially in Bankgok. Who cares if the buildings fall down as a result of the next natural catastrophes…

Now we are leaving behind us the bustling life of the capital city to reach the happy small village of Ban Phia Ram in the Isan region, in the north east of Thailand. There we meet up with Brian and Tukta, a young Anglo-Thai couple, who are building an impressing house … using bags filled with earth !

Brian & Tukta: in love with Thailand

     

They met a few years ago in Thailand, on the very touristic island of Koh Phangan. Brian had put in brackets his life in Cambridge to open up a bar with a friend and Tukta was working in a hotel on the coast. After living together in England for a few years, they decided to return to Thailand and settle there, on a piece of land (or rather the end of the jungle!) given to them by Tukta’s parents as a wedding gift. Tukta was dreaming of building a traditional concrete house on it. But Brian was thinking of something completely different “ok to build, yet the house must reflect our image !”A plumber since the age of 14, he already had a long experience of « conventional» building sites. But at the same time, he was getting more and more interested in aquaponics and natural pools. Following this ecological approach, he felt more and more strongly the need to build a house using natural materials. He was convinced that this quick method was also ecological and quite affordable after taking part in a workshop for several weeks in Chang Mai on building using earthbags, organised by Paulina Wojciechowska (an architect who specialised in this technique).

A mad house !

Step 1: erecting the walls

The couple chose a 15-m diameter round shape (!) which is maybe one of the biggest houses built using earthbags. Impressing for a first… “We had not actually planned to have such a big house. But, when initially we drew it on the ground, I felt it would be too small. So we decided to widen it a bit, then more and more… and eventually we ended up with a huge living surface! When I turned to a specialist for some advice, he laughed at us saying “gosh, you are building a circus ! » Brian tells us still laughing about it.

« Indeed we are a bit mad, so we decided to call the project “the Mud Hutters” recalling the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland » !

Mad indeed, yet nevertheless well organised: with some help, in a few months, the earthbag walls have been erected (to discover the detailed technique, read our article in Nepal). Just like other builders met previously, Brian and Tukta found it quite difficult to convince the villagers to take part in this unorthodox building site “At the end of the day, the women mainly accepted to work on this building, the men were more sceptical. They worked very hard, but it was not always easy to get them to focus when they started chatting and sharing a laugh with other women, especially for me as I do not speak any Thai! Tukta was the translator, so I had to be very precise when I asked something so that she could explain it to them then…

Many Western volunteer workers (via the HelpX and Workaway networks) also came to lend a hand. Brian says “that proved a very precious help indeed! But there too, it was not an easy task to lead the work, especially when some workers were older than me. I had to keep thinking of the what sort of work I would ask from them; getting used to each and everyone’s personality; taking hold of the situation while remaining cool since those people are actually here on holiday and give us a hand for free … I had to show a great deal of flexibility and discipline ! »

Step 2 : having a roof.

Brian had a dream: he wanted to build a reciprocal roof for the house. With a friend he built a prototype in just 2 days. This first attempt convinced him, so he was ready to actually build it in real size, but he had to back down because the village carpenters were afraid of using this technique they did not know, for such a big house. So the roof was eventually built in a traditional way, with a bamboo and wood structure covered in woven palm leaves. During the construction of the roof, Brian had to go back to work in England to earn some money. So the new supervisor was Tukta and she did it alone, being once more the translator between Brian and the workers, remotely, sending him every day photos of the progress via email ! « Of course it was not the best solution, but at least it was a trigger for Tukta who became the head of the site. She became more confident for the later work ! » says Brian. We needed the help of some twenty villagers to erect the central pillar of the structure !The final work is magnificent and very impressing. “We are proud of the result, but we find the inside is a bit too dark. If we had to do it again, I am not so sure we would build such a big house. My advice to all those who start building their own house, to start on a small scale, even if it involves extensions later on, but it will prevent them from getting exhausted…”

Step 3 : coating the walls.

In Nepal we took part in the earthbag wall building, we are happy to be able to see the next step. The couple chose a natural earth coating. For the first coat, the mixture has a straw base, with earth coarsely sieved and water. They want to manage to make the mixture stick to the bags so as to create a base for the second coat. And the one who is in charge of that hard work is Tukta’s uncle. We find it difficult to believe he has never done that in his life when we see the impeccable work he has done! For the second coat it is a mixture composed of the clay from the site (finely sieved, water, sand and some colouring « we could as well have added some buffalo dung; the old houses in the village are coated like that. But as it is not very pleasant to work, we preferred to choose some other type of mixture » Instead, they make use of some type of glue, made with flour and water that had to be boiled together. Tukta’s mother mixes it all for hours standing in front of the fire. Incorporated in the coating, it enables a better grip and helps it harden.

There is no miracle recipe when using an earth coating: each and every builder has to adapt his mixture according to the quality of the earth, adding more or less sand and more or less water. So multiple tests follow to find THE right dosage, applied in the right way so that it will not crack. With infinite patience, Tukta applies the coating and has to wait for the night to go out and get the ‘verdict’. Several times, she has to start a whole wall again because it cracked. Yet she does not lose courage and takes her task with some philosophy « earth is some kind of magical material and mistakes may be forgiven. It can be given a new shape as often as you like… Moreover, sometimes, merely using a sponge will smooth the cracks away ! ».

In-between two shooting sessions, Chloé gives her a hand with applying the coating and erasing the imperfections with a thick damp sponge. And with good music the work is rather pleasant! In the meantime Brian sets to work on the joints of the windows and doors. He is trying to retain the natural round shape of the angles caused by the earthbags « am a perfectionist … I could spend hours on that! The most difficult is maybe to finish the house. Some people say that natural construction is easy …I think one has to be careful not to give wrong ideas. It is an extremely long and intense work. But the final satisfaction is much bigger than all the energy you put in it! »

Step 4: embellishing the house and the garden.

At the same time as they were working on the construction, Tukta has already planted and carefully tends to several banana trees, papaya trees and multicolour flowers. On either side of the alleyway leading to the house, they have planted bamboos which will soon meet several meters above ground to form a canopy of foliage.

Since the beginning of the work, she has also been collecting huge traditional earth pots which were used as water reserve (since there is no running water in the village) and they have gradually been replaced by industrial pots. She goes from house to house to convince the Ancient to give them to her and she offers to pay for them. The cracked ones will be used as decoration in the garden while the others will be used as water reserves for the house. For the inside decoration, they had also shown their resources. The couple chose to use the big wicker fishermen’s baskets as lanterns «they are being made by an elderly man in the village. I wanted to learn from him… Unfortunately he passed away a few days ago. I have not had time to ask him. It is sad to see that all this know-how is gradually lost… We should never procrastinate and learn whatever we are interested in » says Brian sadly. From time to time some villagers come and see the building site, ask a few questions, give some advice or express their admiration. « At the beginning, we were really looked upon as mad people because we used bags to build ! » jokes Brian. « The first thing the people say when they step inside is that the house is really beautiful and then they are amazed how cool it remains ! »

A new house in the happy village of Ban Phia Ram

Even if Tukta and Brian’s project still seems a bit strange to some inhabitants, the couple is now fully integrated in the life of the lively village. Tukta loves to spend time with her parents since she found them again, visiting her neighbours, discussing with the Elderly… As for Brian, even if he admits that it is sometimes tiring not to have any privacy, he loves to joke with the inhabitants and learn Thai little by little… « This is exactly the atmosphere which convinced me to come back and live in Thailand, but in a small village, rather than in a touristic area. In Europe, this friendliness has completely been lost, and so has the pleasure of living together… » Here the « Farangs » (the foreigners) are welcomed with open arms to take part in the many entertainments of the village. There is always something going on (while we stayed there, there were no less than four celebrations). Even the burial of the wicker basket maker was an opportunity to share meals with music being played, for several days on the row.

In Thailand, the construction of a house is also a festive event which has to comply with several traditions. Son a priest came to bless the site prior to placing the first bags. When the house have been finished, the whole village came for a big banquet. Brian and Tukta have also set up a small house for the Spirits who live there (so that they are not “jealous” and play dirty tricks on their house!). Everywhere in the country, such Houses for the Spirits are set up in front of the houses, garages and fields. Each and every day, the inhabitants pay homage to the spirits offering them sweets, incense, flower garlands… and even Fanta drinks … and they are believed to be very fond of those! The altars are often made in coloured and gilt concrete. As for Brian and Tukta, they found one which reminded them of their own house: a magnificent miniature wooden house which is there to be set up as soon as the house is built.

The « Mud Hutters’ project »

When Brian and Tukta built this house, they were also building a more global life project. «Today, we are stuck because of regulations which make us lose the know-how and the knowledge of materials which so far went down from one generation to another. The habitat is one of the first energy consumer and uses up a great deal of natural resources, and it generates 1/3 of the greenhouse gases generated. In about ten years’ time, the Earth will be people by another 1 billion people, which means more houses, more resources and more energy consumed, and more generated greenhouse gases. Sharing our know-how and our skills as regards construction, we can actually make a difference » this can be read on the home page of the Mud Hutters’ website. Now there house has just been finished, so Brian and Tukta organised a first workshop to share their experience. Some fifteen participants – half of them being Thai people from the surrounding areas – enrolled (to be checked). In the future, Brian and Tkta intend to buy another plot of land to build shelters (or tents) in the trees and accommodate more trainees « We really want a simple life: now this house is done, we grow our vegetables, we will not need a great deal of money to live ! » says Tukta enthusiastically. Brian adds « In the long term, I would like to live from my passion for eco-building, organising workshops here, but also getting involved in other projects, particularly rebuilding those areas which have been destroyed by natural catastrophes. »

… And as far as we are concerned, after meeting very nice and interesting people in Thailand, we are off to the Philippines to film the ‘windship’ (an earth-ship resisting gale force winds) built on the Leyte island following the dramatic Haiyan typhoon (Yolanda) in 2013.

To get more information on Brian and Tukta’s project: http://www.themudhutters.org/

Click on the picture’s arrow to see the slide show.

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Building with earthbags in Nepal

Nepal, febuary 2015

« Namasté, Namasté ! » We are welcomed by the smiling border policemen we meet at dawn as we alight the bus, on the Sunauli border, between India and Nepal. We are happy to be arriving in this small country which, following our Indian experience, seems calm and relaxing ! No more cows at each and every corner, less waste and emptier roads – even if we still suffer on the mountain side road meandering to Kathmandu. In the Nepalese capital city we meet Durga, the founder of First Step Himalaya (FSH), the NGO organising the working site where we are going to settle for a fortnight or so.

To reach the small village of Sangachok, we have to cross the Kathmandu valley. The landscape in front of our eyes is just magnificent: the terraced cultures give way to the hills and in the distance the Himalayan Hills… But also the brickyards which may be seen everywhere and literally « eat » up the valley. Durga complains « such factories are a catastrophe for the environment. The ground level has gone down several meters since the companies are digging deeper and deeper down to extract the little clay left in the ground. Now, as there is none left, they are reverting to mixing earth to cement… » It is easy to realise that during the monsoon rains, devastation must be even more important for the few cultures left because of the soil erosion. «Such a great deal of energy is necessary to bake those bricks. Yet the laws are not very strict here, so the people make use of just anything as heating fuel: old tyres, plastic, … »…. and this polluted air stagnates in the Kathmandu valley, locked in as it is by the natural barriers of the surrounding mountains. After spending a few days there, we are unfortunately hardly surprised to hear that it is one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Yet, how can some changes been brought to the choice of construction techniques in Nepal ? The transition government has had other priorities, with the painful drafting of a new Constitution since 2008, following the Civil War (1996 to 2006) which brought down the monarchy in favour of a Republic. For all those years of political instability, the development of the country has been in stand-by. And yet there was so much to be done! Just an example : in the capital city, electricity is rationed (there are several hour-long power cuts each and every day) when the country has one of the highest hydroelectric potential in the world with the seasonal melting snow from the Himalayan Hills… On a lesser scale, solutions to trigger off small changes are there to be seized, as may be seen through First Step Himalaya’s initiative !

Durga, returning to the village

On the evening we arrived in the village, sitting on the ground with our very first plate of daily dal bat, lit up by flashlights, Durga discloses a leaf of his story. His childhood is a sad picture of the stories we hear when we are told the stories of children from poor countries.« I am the youngest of a family of eight children and I grew up in a small village nearby in the valley without any access to the road. I went to school irregularly. Between the age of 7 and 10, I was lucky to attend school, but I had to walk for two hours, barefoot, sometimes carrying a 15-kg rice bag on my back …it was hard to focus. » What was school like ? « I remember broken benches, a board, overcrowded classrooms and very basic teaching methods… ». But very quickly his duties to his family took over: looking after a small sick nephew while the family went to work in the fields, getting married at the early age of fifteen to a village girl… Durga who did not want to buy this future ran away trying to make money in Kathmandu. There he works for several years in various restaurants (earning rupees 200 / month, i.e ; euro 2), learning English gradually when he had the opportunity to meet tourists. That is where he comes across Fiona, a few years later, a young Scottish girl who is working in the capital for a Nepalese NGO, who becomes his new partner ! After living together in Nepal, the Civil War drives them out of the country into India, before moving on to New Zealand. In this new adoptive country, they never forget Nepal. With their experience and know-how, the pair decide to set up « First Step Himalaya » in 2008 to offer a new future to the village children, different from the one they would have had in their birth place.

Since FSH was set up, it has built a kindergarden and a small library in the village of Sangachok. Durga proudly leads us during our visit and he is obviously very emotional about it all. « In July 2009, three children only attended our kindergarden (In Nepal it is not common for children to go to school before the age of 6). Today on top of that school, we also help 23 schools and more than 40 classrooms in the area by supplying them with material and pedagogical resources. » The NGO is also developing a training opportunity for teachers, which comes as an addition to their studies which are unfortunately limited because they lack training colleges and trainers in the country. But so far such training sessions used to take place in the kindergarden… and then the children were off school ! Durga and Fiona therefore decided to set up a project to build this centre fully dedicated to this purpose…

Earthbag building ?

The small kindergarden built by FSH a few years ago was built in cement, but « in Nepal cement is really of very poor quality. Look at the walls: they are already cracked ! » Durga complains. « For the training centre, we have decided that we would choose something different and, after a great deal of research, I found out about the earthbag technique … which seemed to me to be THE solution » Is an earthbag construction a far-fetched idea? Mickey, an 1american volunteer, who came to take part in the work, explains in a chuckle : « Most people have never heard of this technique. When I tell them that all we have to do is fill bags with earth and pile them up, few people think I am serious ! » And yet this surprisingly simple technique is worth looking into more seriously.

First step, the foundations : digging over some twenty centimetres deep (or more depends of climat : frost, rain…) where the walls are going to be built. Then rather than filling the trench with concrete, Durga placed a first layer of gravels, then on top of it, two rows of bags also filled with stones. This process used now for decades with earthbags buildings tried and true. More than reduce the ecological and economical cost, gravels – more than concrete – reduce the infiltration risk for the wall.

Second step: Erect the walls by filling the bags with earth. No need to look far away: the earth comes from the site, but the bigger stones have been taken off and it has been slightly dampened. As they dry, the bags are becoming as hard as bricks!
For the bags, imagination is not lacking. In Asia, many builders choose big rice bags of some fifty kilos content, and they recycle by giving them a second life. As for Durga, he has chosen a big roll intended for the wrapping of the Nepalese carpets. After cutting sausages of several meters, he eventually chose a smaller length (1.50 m), which is easier to handle.

In between each and every layer, one must be careful and pack the bags well, ensuring that the walls remain straight and, if necessary, add barbed wires to avoid any sliding. And, because one is never careful enough, Durga also planted vertical reinforced concrete anchors (others prefer sticks or bamboos…) in the angles, at regular intervals. Those various steps are repeated till the wall has reached the desired height.

If Durga chose to build square rooms, most of the earthbag buildings are dome shaped and are called Super adobe type. Such habitats which look as if they had come straight from the Star Wars Tatooine planet have been popularized by Nader Khalili, an architect of Iranian origin. He was concerned of the climate change effects and the unfair poor housing, so he developed such very low cost habitats which are also easy to make since they require very little manpower and local materials.

FSH won its bet, Durga estimates the cost of the training centre (without the roof) foundations, walls, ground, plaster… at somewhat around 9 000 € for a surface on the ground of 80m2 « Because the building is cheaper, it makes it possible to keep the money for the pedagogical material, to pay the teachers, to maintain the building… Here some NGOs build 5-star schools which are really visible to establish their fame, but then they leave them means less so they cannot actually operate, it is such a waste ! »

An intensive and happy Building Site

Each morning, we work on the site as soon as the first sun rays come out, together with some Nepalese workers Durga employed after overcoming a great deal of obstacles. Indeed, even if he was already famous and respected in the village, he found it hard to convince the first ones to come and work on this very unusual building site. With a great deal of explanations and perseverance, a first villager came and today there are six or seven of them who come and work on this site daily.

Durga also decided to offer some students from one of the high schools of the area to come and help in exchange of some money, and to be awarded a precious certificate rewarding his/her volunteering work which may help them to migrate to New Zealand, Australia or elsewhere, looking for a better future. The girls are mostly interested in this opportunity, even if they already have very full days. Prior to joining the site, in the late morning hours, they got up at 5 am to walk to their school a few kilometers away. In the evening, some of them may be seen walking home with 25-kilo bags of rice on their heads… They contribute to the joyful atmosphere, they try to teach us a few Nepalese words, which makes everyone laugh when we repeat them wrongly.

We are also impressed by Durga’s sincere commitment, who courageously leads the site, thinking of everything and joking with all the workers. Even if the work is exhausting in the sun, the result is very rewarding: in barely ten days, the walls are almost 2 meters high.

And then as a reward, some days, after the rain, the mist disappears and reveals the majestic Himalayan chain behind the hills…

The Event of the Village

The construction breaks the quiet routine of this small Nepalese village which lives at the same rhythm as the sun. The magnificent agricultural terraces which form the hills required titanic work, generation after generation, dug up and maintained by men’s and buffaloes’ strength.

After the daily chores (filling the water cans ; going and picking branches for the fire and leaves for the cattle ; spreading the compost in the fields…) the inhabitants have no leisure time, except visiting one and other and discussing while sipping tea. The FSH building site is quite an event, and many villagers drop by to see the progress of the site. Some are somewhat skeptical, like one of the teachers who admits that she is waiting to see before being completely convinced that the construction is strong. But most of the people who want to see seem rather convinced by the technique and ask some questions to Durga such as « can we add another floor ? » … To those who are not quite convinced ; Durga explains patiently and with plenty of pedagogy. « I ask them why they bother to transport all the ciment or bricks to Kathmandu when they find all the natural resources they need here ?! » During this time those children or elderly who are bored come from time to time to give a hand.

Will other earthbag houses be built in the village following this project? What is definite is that First Step Himalaya is not going to stop here, now that it has taken off! In the last few days, Durga can proudly announce us that the NGO has just been awarded new financial grants that he is already imagining how he can use them to build another earthbag building in his own village : «with the experience we have just gained, we will do even better and more quickly ! ». For the time being the walls have been erected and now the work ahead is to coat the bags quickly since they cannot resist well to the UVs… We leave this joyful team and take to the road again towards Thailand… to meet a young couple who are coating their lovely house made of earthbags and bamboos !

Few days after the achievement of the teacher’s training center, the Sindupalchok region was strongly damage by the earthquake of the 25th april 2015 and theses aftershoks. Among the debris this construction is still standing, like the other sixty earth-bags building in Nepal… This is an evidence of the great resistence of this constructions, as a lot of people are proclaiming for years, without the financial possibility to organize large tests. Today more and more nepaleses victims and NGOs are choossing this technic to rebuild the damaged areas…

Discover First Step Himalaya and their work in Vidéo :

To know more about this NGO:

http://www.firststepshimalaya.org/

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Ralegan siddhi, example of rural Development

India, january 2015

We have been walking through cities and villages in India for three months by now. And more than once have we found ourselves at a loss faced with the challenge of finding food, accommodation and meeting the needs of over a billion people. How can the passengers be induced not to throw their waste from the trains, but then we must admit there are no bins either? How can we express the pain we felt when we saw the pile of stagnant plastics in the rivers ? Which right would we have to teach lessons when the only difference between these Indians and us is that we grew up in a country where public hygiene and infrastructures are services that have existed for a long time, even before we were born; and when our country sends our old aircraft carriers to be dismantled in their country because the law regarding protection of the environment and labour code are far less stringent there ?

With that in mind we reach the small village called Ralegan siddhi, some one hundred kilometers away from Mumbai. Spurred on by their leader, Anna Hazare, the villagers have taken practical measures to start the economic development of their village thanks to a more sustainable management of their natural resources. Here our concern is not to learn to build an eco-accommodation, but to try and understand how this village managed to escape poverty and become what it is today, i.e. a « development model », visited by both Indians and foreigners from all over the world..

     

Situation in Ralegan siddhi

Anna Hazare and his family grew up in Ralegan siddhi. Like so many young men, studying has proven impossible and he had to leave the village and go to the city to earn some money. When he came back from the Army in 1975, he found his village ridden with poverty, unemployment and addiction to alcohol. He felt desperate and set his mind to dedicate his whole life to change his native village.

Anna Hazare’s first target was to find a solution so that each and every person could have enough to eat : « First and foremost, we had to work so that all the villagers who are physically able find a job and are able to feed properly, as well as the whole families (…) Only then is it possible to think about passing on some knowledge because nobody can learn anything on an empty stomach« .

How is it possible to convince hundreds of people to change their habits and their behaviourial patterns ? Mr. Raut, Ralegan siddhi’s former school head, enjoys telling us how the village moved forward : “ One of Anna Hazare’s first actions was to try and put an end to all the quarrels and fights between the villagers, encouraging them to do voluntary work and work together to repair the Hindu temple, Sant Yadavbaba. They gradually learnt to understand each other better, to know each other better and to help each other. The village has become like a big family.” Anna Hazare did not merely supervise the construction of the temple, but he was the first one to actually start working on it :If you expect to be changing people’s opinions, it is impossible to do so by just preaching and recommending, you have to lead and be a role model for them. Since everyone is going to try to find out where you live, how you live and what you do. » His energy became catching and soon some villagers started following his example and they became more and more by the day. This work around the temple has laid new foundations for the village which, fourty years on, still remain the pillars of its development: a strong social link and a tradition of voluntary week to build the community’s infrastructure..

An examplary management of the natural resources

We had heard of Ralegan siddhi as a sustainable development model. When we arrived, we were looking for solar panels, wind farms and houses built with natural materials… and first of all we were quite surprised not to find such markers which, for us, stand for (or used to stand for) an eco-village. After pondering over our projections of values and asking the inhabitants and the representatives of the village, we understood that taking into account the environment is at the very core of the Ralegan siddhi’s development process… As we were strolling to Ralegan siddhi’s library, we were lucky to meet Anna Hazare and we found the time to ask him about this stake : « Climate change is an issue for the whole world and that is why the villages have to develop through programs which take the environment into consideration. Today, the excessive use of natural resources (water, wood, petrol, coal…) is a serious danger for the environmental balances our lives depend on. »

First challenge: water management. In this farming village, the inhabitants are depending very much on the monsoon which brings water between June to August. How can this water then be saved throughout the year and used for cultivation? There are no proper infrastructures and the existing ones are not looked after and that has caused a great deal of periods of famine. The first real important works were the watershed program, a huge plan to build and strengthen the village’s dykes so that the rain water may be led and stored in huge wells. The villagers’ voluntary work has made it possible to work on this huge building site and the whole village to be protected from any water shortage.

      

Second challenge: avoid the rain waters to erode the ground. Two important measures have been implemented. First of all preventing the cows from grazing absolutely anywhere. We knew that, but actually seeing it is quite striking. In India the cows are free to roam wherever they want…. Although still sacred animals in Ralegan siddhi, they are nevertheless tied up to prevent them from eating the bushes and small trees because their roots do retain the water (which is also a great help to some families who can gather the dung more easily and use it to produce biogas.) The second important measure was to forbid wood to be cut anywhere: today if one tree is felled, five new ones have to be planted.

Such decisions managed to stop massive deterioration of the arable land and, together with cultivating plants needing less water, to see the whole village enjoying three harvests a year instead of barely one only a few years back.

Anna Hazare, an Indian fighter against corruption

Encouraged by the successes in his village, Anna Hazare wanted to help other villages to carry out the very same experience. His lawyer tells us : “When Anna Hazare strated to try and promote the development of villages, he realized that there was widespread corruption: in the villages, in the watershed program and forest management ministries… In 1992, he started sending complaints to the government and they were never answered. Those people who had been elected never sanctioned those officers incriminated. He then understood that corruption was so widespread that it was even found in the highest levels and amongst the top leaders of the country. Gradually many villages had heard about Anna Hazare’s fight and contacted him to mention similar problems. In 1996 he began to organize meetings and demonstrations, but it was not enough. In 1999, we then decided that action was needed regarding the laws and enforcement. Our fight, together with demonstrations and hunger strikes has led to a first anti-corruption law in 2002, then a second one in 2011. » The latter has more specifically led to an Ombudsman to be appointed in each of the 29 States of the Federation of India and the drafting of a citizen charter explaining the rights of the people and the extension of the Ombudsman’s power at any and all the levels of the administration.

Simultaneously, an anti-corruption center was built in the village and the Indians from all over the country, come there to file their complaints. « This fight, even if it is far from being completed, is a very strong symbol Anna Harare’s lawyer adds. It proves that an ordinary citizen who has never attended any further education course, can with his own will and abnegation win against the most powerful people. »

This fight raises further questions though. Many people spoke up to point to several radical means sometimes used by Anna Hazare to carry out his fight: death penalty against some corrupt politicians, completely ban alcohol and cigarettes in the village … and whip those who do not comply with the rule, if needs be.

Can the end, even if it means success, justify all the means whatever ?

A village sowing the seeds….

Once the village pulled out of starvation, education could be emphasized. The villagers built a school on a voluntary basis for the village children, but also for all those from the surrounding areas, who did not do well at school or those early school-leavers. “Here the poor students are our priority! It is a school giving a second opportunity ays Mrs Kumawat, an English teacher. Here, just like the village, stress is placed on the importance of group work and the protection of the environment. We moreover can watch garbage collection in the yard, which takes place each and every week and done by the students and their teachers setting an example.“All the trees in the school have been planted by the students of the school through the years. They are also entrusted other plants they can take home and grow there.And then, three times a year – on 15 August, 26 January and 2 October – the children carry out some “spring cleaning” of all the common areas of the village. »

The village has also has followers outside. We happen to bump into a group of three young students from Pune : «Anna Hazare came to speak in our university. So we wanted to know more and take advantage of our holidays to visit this village everybody is talking about. Later on we will most certainly work in a city, but we also wish to contribute to the development of our native villages. » During our stay, we come across other groups who have come to visit Ralegan siddhi. Older students have come with their lecturers, from Kashmir, some 1000 Kms from here!) to study the irrigation system in the village in more details.

The aspirations of Ralegan siddhi’s inhabitants today

Now that the villagers cane at two meals a day, accommodation and well managed infrastructures, what are their aspirations? Sitting under his tree in the schoolyard, the wise Mr. Raut tells us « Once the primary needs are met, happiness is in the head. Today Ralegan siddhi’s inhabitants get all the basic needs. But day after day, the standards are developing. If you look at other people, you always want more: a TV set, the internet, a mobile phone. If it proves necessary, then why not? But many people want such material goods only to be like their neighbours….

From this point of view, an example is particularly striking in the village. A few years ago, several geodesic domes were built by several inhabitants to prove that it was possible to build strong houses at cheap prices… « But today, Ralegan siddhi’s inhabitants have a little bit more money in their pockets and they prefer to live in conventional concrete houses since they correspond more to how people imagine a « decent » home, Mr. Raut sadly says.

In fourty years, Ralegan siddhi has managed a considerable transformation through the work and collaboration of all the inhabitants and the commitment of a charismatic man. How will the village develop after Anna Hazare? Mr. Raut, the former school head seems to be confident when asked this vital question : “After Anna Hazare, a collective leadership shall be set up and will no doubt be better than his because the villagers will have learnt from him. A collective leadership is better than an individual leadership since, if some leadership members are bad, others may stop them. It may develop in a bad way…. But we are confident. »

Will Ralegan siddhi’s inhabitants resist the calls of the city and its lights, of the consumption society? Only the future shall tell. For the time being, several inhabitants told us proudly that many more of them are leaving the city to return to the village than the other way around… Now it is time for us to leave this pleasant village to move on to another one, in Nepal where a teachers training centre is being built using earth-bags as building material. Who knows… tomorrow those Eco-Accommodations may become the reference when people choose how to build their own houses !

Click on the picture’s arrow to see the slide show.

Thanks to the anti-corruption center of Ralegan Siddi for the archive images

1 chloe et olivier et hazare
1 bis chloe et olivier devant la carte de l’inde
2 – construction du temple
3- temple du village
5- grand puit
6- interieur du puit
7 retenue d’eau
9 irrigation des plantes
10 modelage terrasses
10 bis modelage champs
11 paysage des champs
12 femmes dans champs de fleurs
13 femmes revenant des champs
14 construction dome
15 construction dome
18 couple d’agriculteurs
19 fermier et sa charette et boeufs
22 plantation des arbres
25 nettoyage volontaire rues
26 nettoyage volontaire
28 bis ecole primaire
29 chloe et olivier au milieu des eleves
30 chloe filme les enfants du village
31 chloe filme dans jardin
32 chloe et famille
32 bis chloe en sari avec femme du village
35 enfants qui jouent au karam
36 tenancier du shop
37 maman et son petit sur charette

Saraya, an eco-lodge in Goa

India, december 2014

Going south now ! By bus, by train, by rickshaw, sometimes surrounded by blaring hooting since the drivers choose hooting rather than indicators, sometimes we close our eyes not to look at the truck driving towards us, but we manage and arrive in Goa all in one piece. Is this still India? Till not so long ago (1961), this tiny State used to be Portuguese and the influence can still be felt very much so. Here the food consists in fried fish, and even beef (surprise, surprise!), the big white churches side by side with the Hindu temples and mosques… and some people even still speak Portuguese today ! With time, goa has become a tourist destination and they come from everywhere and all walks of life. On the paradise type beaches, with their coconut palm trees (they are cleaner than elsewhere in the country!) you will find wealthy Russians, broken Hippies who never left the place after their trip; zen couples who are living with and for yoga; party goers (going from one rave party to another, silent ones since headphones have replaced the loudspeakers so as not to disturb the birds)… In the middle of this blend of people, Indians can also be seen, who are more or less begging for money since they live from the tourists, as well as some fishermen. This is the surrounding of “Saraya”, a somewhat different eco-tourism project, where we are going to stay for a few days.

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We arrive in Saraya when it was already dark. We are being introduced to Deeksha, an energetic middle aged woman who is at the head of the project. Despite the exhaustion of the day, she together with her daughter Titli are proud to accompany us to the end of the site so we can discover the small houses which are soon going to be welcoming tourists or resident artists. In the night, the lights inside the cabins make those houses look like lantern-houses the elves are using. Inside, the lamps made of branches, raffia palms or wicker send lovely beams of light on the walls and the floor. Deeksha sighs as she closes the door but it reveals satisfaction: the “yellow house” is the first one to be completely finished! Four others, also build in clay, as well as two big bamboo cabins on pile, are expected to be ready within a few days. This is the last lap! The target is to open for the Christmas tourist season….

Go with the Flow

Gradually Deeksha tells her story: we learn that she was in charge of many a building site as an architect, in Dubai and elsewhere. In her family, the daughter follows in the mother’s footstep as an architect and the son as an aircraft pilot. When we all stop for tea, she says with a certain emotion « this project is a dream I have had for thirty years. Even before my children were born… Today, this dream is becoming true, but my children and their friends are there to help me… I have been really lucky in life ! »

Instead of using concrete and steel, as she used to do before, Deeksha decided to build using natural materials. « In the beginning, we did not think of building the walls with soil only. But when we started digging the land and we realised the remarkable quality of clay, we decided to use it as such without adding any straw or sand…» In a few months, the walls were actually up. The small rivulet that flows between the cabins shows the volume of soil we had to dig out! Bamboo is the second key material in Saraya: it is used for the poles of the cabins on pile, the stairs, the dormitory’s grounds… here, no assembling with recycled pans as was the case in the Sapna Ranch, but strong ropes since the builders are very proficient in the art of knots! For the internal walls, Deeksha has had the women from the surrounding villages weave big palm panels. As for the roof, it is made with big leaves which cover plastic sheets « this is the only material which is not ecological and which we agreed to use in the building regrets Zora, Deeksha’s son, “since so far we have not been able to come up with a satisfactory solution. We are looking for an alternative … maybe big linen canvases? Anyway the roofs will have to be replaced after each monsoon. Yet, there is nothing to worry about when it comes to the earthen walls, the majority of them stood through the latest rainy season, they are strong indeed!” » Even if Deeksha planned the site, she has remained open to any new ideas that came up as building was going on. A golden rule that many self-builders we met had also embraced. And, by the way, in Sanskrit « Saraya » means « the travellers’ rest »… but also «go with the flow» !

      

Now that the main part has been built, there are still a few small details before the opening: the garden must be terraced, the furniture must be created and placed in the rooms, the last walls must be painted, the floors must be covered with mats… And for once we are arriving just towards the end of the building for the finishing touches! Deeksha, who has also worked as an interior decorator, is particularly fussy over the details, and she shows a great taste. In-between two issues to be solved, she cannot help getting hold of nice pieces of bark or branches she comes across and she already visualises them with excitement as lamps, door handles….

Parallel worlds

Upon discovering the place, it is difficult to believe that all that work has been done in barely a year, especially when compared with the other building sites we have taken part in so far… We get the explanation on the day after our arrival, when we see about twenty workers arriving on site, who come and work here daily! They left the north of India (much poorer) to earn some money here as day labourers. So here we are in a conventional work site, with paid workers and an employer like Deeksha’s previous building sites, yet there is a difference: « I had never used such materials before… and in fact the labourers told me how to use them! Since most of them have built their own houses in their respective villages with what they had on hand, natural and local materials, I asked them to guide me ».

During those first seven months in our travel, we have been lucky to experiment other types of work organisation based on voluntary work and offering fairer relations. Maybe, sometimes it is better to work – for free – exchanging know-hows which will last a lifetime, rather than to earn paper money whose value is very much floating around with the markets… The labourers we meet certainly cannot afford the luxury of choosing, but if they could, would they be here? And what is their opinion about those buildings for tourists? Futile, or on the opposite they think that they put emphasis on traditional know-hows? How do they see the voluntary workers who come from far away countries to help Deeksha? And what are their dream houses? With the money they are earning here, are they dreaming of building “real” concrete houses once they return to their native states? We would have loved to ask them all those questions and so many others too, had we been able to speak their language !

Meeting Deeksha also gives us the opportunity to question an Indian architect as to the possible solutions to the problem of poor housing : « I cannot say that I am against concrete since I used to work with concrete for years. It is strong and its strength does not require evidence. Furthermore many beautiful buildings have been erected in concrete, all over the world » But could such buildings in natural materials as are found in Saraya be a better solution than concrete for the inhabitants of the slum areas which spread over miles in the Indian megapolises ? « Indeed, it could be an option since it is economic and ecological…, but whatever, the local as well as national authorities would have to set up huge town planning projects. And the political leaders do not actually wish to legally give permission for such areas to be used to house the poorer. Nobody intends the inhabitants of those slum areas to actually settle down officially in such areas which are strategic economically speaking. Yet, if such town planning projects came into existence, I would sign on to be amongst the first ones to take part……»

Local Development

The development (the enthusiasm, even) of eco-tourism may entail smiles, leave doubts or even annoy a little… But for Deeksha, it is already a way to prove to the globe-trotters that such houses can be strong AND nice as well. And maybe also convince them to build some like that when they go back… would it not already be half way down the road?

Moreover, Saraya is not one of those superficial ecological projects. Deekshat, together with her children, are striving for the operation of the place to have as little impact as possible on the environment. The restaurant will be working on the direct distribution principle, i.e. the fruit and vegetables will be grown in Saraya’s patch or be bought from those farmers who live in the nearby villages. « A compost recycling the organic waste generated by the restaurant will be used to fertilize the vegetable patch. We would also like to propose to the restaurants in the surrounding area to recycle their own waste to produce biogas » Zora explains. In charge of the vegetable patch, he planted several vegetables using both the permaculture techniques and the moon calendar.

Saraya will also be a cultural link. The former big colonial style house is going to be converted into an art gallery, bookshop, room to compose music « there are currently only very few places offering such possibilities in India. My objective is for such a place to offer a space to artists who have nowhere to exhibit their productions ». For the opening, Deeksha has offered to one of her son’s friends – a very gifted drawer – to exhibit his work in the gallery with its freshly painted walls in such colours as purple, orange, bright yellow…, such colours as only the Indians can produce! Outside there is going to be an open-air cinema and a wide space under the trees to meditate or practise yoga… At the same time, Deeksha would like to give life to a local network. Sha would like Saraya to be, not only a place welcoming foreigners, but also the people living in the district. For instance, she intends to keep one day per month for the elderly people living in the area to enable them to meet and gather. She also wants to give value to the local craft in the gallery, employ local chefs and local farmers for the restaurant…

Opening soon

Saraya is expected to open in a few days’ time… Even if for some time now, the Indian administration has given headaches to Deeksha holding the final permits and authorisations back. The local politicians are holding back because they have backchiching on their minds. One day, while on an official visit and making it more or less clear that opening is not yet certain, Deeksha keeps a straight face and tells us later that « those people cannot stand when people stand their grounds and even less so if they are faced with a woman. They would love it if I were to beg and plead rather than what I am doing when I stress their own responsibilities. I am attempting to make them see that Saraya will also benefit the whole life in the district, boost the local economy… but those local politicians are simply not interested in all that! ». As is the case in many places, corruption is one of the evils of this country, deeply ingrained as well. An Indian we meet later on will also tell us, half-jokingly, half-desperate « here, if you have, « Ghandis » – you can do whatever you like ». The « Gandhi » are the notes bearing the effigy of the famous man who would no doubt be very sad to hear that unfortunately so true sentence…

For us it may, however, also be a sign as we are travelling to the small village of Ralegansiddhi which is where Anna Hazare is staying. She is very famous for her fight against corruption and she also succeeded in pulling her whole village out of poverty by convincing the inhabitants that they would actually benefit from a sustainable management of their natural resources.

As for Saraya they won their bet: Deeksha and her team could open for Christmas and welcome their very first visitors !

Click on the picture’s arrow to see the slide show.

 

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Sapna ranch, the world is a laboratory

India, november 2014

For the first time since we left France, we are actually boarding a plane in order to avoid the border area between Iran and Pakistan which is too dangerous for the time being… Strange feeling to be leaping from one country to another: our small snail switched on its turbo reactors! We are soon leaving behind Mumbai’s frantic life to spend a few days in the small town of Alibaug, a little bit further south. There life seems sweeter: less people, less pollution… Why do the Indians feel that crave to move to such huge cities, even if it means they have to settle in the slums? Maybe more so than anywhere else they are in dire need of accommodation. On the road, several adverts for concrete catch our eyes « the engineer’s choice »/ « stronger and longer » are the words on the slogans which are hand painted. Concrete building … is it really the only solution and the good solution ?

Pondering on those questions, we are soon on the way to join the Hasmukh site at the “Sapna Ranch” in a small village in the Maharashtra State, between Mumbai and Pune. Hardly off the bus and already the rickshawala (rickshaw drivers) have guessed where we are heading for. One of them takes us on board and off he cycles on the narrow path winding through the hills. Just like the previous self-builders we met in Italy, Greece or Turkey, Hasmukh has settled in a real natural jewel « I wanted to leave the lights, smells and noise of the city ». And so he did !

Bamboo at all floors !

« You’re just in time to share our meal ! » Hasmukh says to us with a big smile. The atmosphere is friendly. About ten people are there: Indians and foreign volunteers who took part in a ten-day workshop which ended on the day before. We take a seat with all the others on the mat of the big bamboo dome, the living room of the Sapna Ranch. Hasmukh built it together with other volunteers in one month, after lengthy research on geodesic domes. The building techniques are based on an assembling of triangles – a non-deformable geometric figure. It is not only esthetical, but this netting is a favourite of Hasmukh’s who is pleading for the idea of the « forgiving design » : « this type of dome may be erected without any specific skill since its structure can do with small mistakes. Each and every triangle is resting on others, so if some bamboo happened to break, the others would bear the load till it is being replaced.» On this dome, the bamboos have been cleverly joined together through attachments on pans to cook chapatis (small flour and water pancakes, which are very popular in India and eaten as bread) !

Hasmukh proudly shows us the bamboo courtyard, next to the dome : « it has been erected by two women who had never ever done any building before! I showed them a model and in a few days it was up and standing !»

     

Bamboo is the main raw material used in the Sapna Ranch. Hasmukh buys it from local producers and he is planning to eventually grow his own in the future. We are discovering the properties of this incredible material: it grows between 30 and 60 cms a day during the first three days of its life to reach its final size in just one year. Then three years are required so it becomes strong and may be used as building material. After those three years, its mechanical properties become very performing, allying lightweight, flexibility and solidity. For us, it is most probably only the first steps in discovering this material traditionally used in south East Asia, even if, Hasmukh deplores the use of concrete which is becoming standard practice : « This type of dome could very well be transposed in the cities, it would be bigger, but the proportions would have to be calculated with precision. What a pity that people are resorting to concrete so much today when a renewable, economical and quality material is available locally ».

Two other small bamboo houses are next to the dome and are being used as bedrooms by Hasmuk and the volunteers who come and go as well as by those participating in workshops. He called them « casa uno » and « casa dos » referring to a Spanish proverb « mi casa su casa » : your house is my house. Just like the previous volunteers, we combine the pleasant and the useful by increasing the bamboo furniture of the Sapna Ranch. Gradually the place is being furnished by the various people who come and go: we are sleeping in a bed made by the previous ones and are building chairs, ladders, stools for those who will be coming after us, as well as a Molki game. Hasmukh quickly gives some indications as to the dimensions… and soon all that becomes reality. He leaves us a certain amount of freedom and that is an incentive for innovation: the deckchairs are becoming nicer and nicer and more and more sophisticated. Why take two days to build a ladder or a chair when those could be bought in a jiffy ? Maybe because we too often forget the working time which is required to earn some money…

Between sawing exercises, we take advantage of the extraordinary situation to admire many exotic birds and their green blue, turquoise feathers. In the distance we can even see a pair of toucans! Other colourful animals, more or less friendly, also inhabit the place: scorpions, spiders, praying mantises, frogs, chameleons, butterflies and other dragonflies…

A laboratory – ecosystem

Since Hasmukh landed in this wild plot, four years ago, he has successfully built a small ecosystem. First he had to get water: it is actually pumped from a source, then filtered and stored in big reservoirs. Part of it is heated, very efficiently too thanks to a 300L solar boiler « I am happy with this investment, it is far more efficient than solar panels to give everyone hot water ! » The « grey water » of the shower are drained in pipes which are going to water the vegetable garden and the big banana plantation. But the novelty, dating back a few days only, is the installation of the dry toilets the workshop participants have just completed. After several researches, Hasmukh chose separation dry toilets to avoid the smells: urines are drained directly to the banana trees which are resistant to acidity. The faeces are separated giving enough time to dry before being combined to soil and vegetable compost. After several months, this compost may be used in the garden as natural fertiliser. In the long term, Hasmukh is planning to combine them with animal and vegetable compost to produce biogas thanks to their fermentation. He is encouraging everyone to make use of dry toilets. « This is quite a challenge because the Indians are used to water! I keep both types of toilets, but I do hope that the mentalities are going to change through experience. And in the traditional toilets, I would like to set up a flushing system which would use the grey waters as is the case in earthships. Do you realise that in this type of toilets, we are using 10 to 15 litres of water whenever we are flushing the toilets ! »

Later, he introduces us to another realisation elaborated during the workshop: a small homemade geothermal heat exchanging system. A several-meter long trench has been dug to place a pipe. On both ends, two ventilators, one outside the dome to let the air in and the other outside together with a small ventilation turbine. What is the principe ? To make use of the inertia of the ground which remains at a relatively constant temperature all through the year (the deeper you dig, the closer you come to the average earth temperature), to cool or heat the house. Sapna Ranch is still connected to the local electricity grid, but in the long term Hasmukh does hope to become self-supporting thanks to his energy saving, his biogas station as well as his solar panel and water heater. This is an actual experimenting piece of land : « as opposed to Shakespeare who wrote that “life is a game and the whole world is a stage”, I would say “the whole world is a laboratory and life is experimenting ». We soon find out that all those brilliant ideas are no more than the premises for a far more ambitious project that he is actually trying to set up.

The EBHLE project

« After working as a consultant with the most famous researchers, for the most important laboratories on emerging technologies, I realised that all that only benefited the elites. I therefore decided to use what I learnt to help the children in both rural and tribal areas. For me, real technology is the technology that will improve the quality of the lives of those who are closest to the bottom of the pyramid. » Those few sentences read on Hasmukh’s HelpX and Workaway profiles prior to our arrival did not lead us to imagine the huge scope of his alternative school project. During one evening, he introduces the project in detail, which he named EBHLE « Experience Based on Holistic Learning Environnement. » : offering children a way to learn through experience. « For me, education is vital. But there is a difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘literacy’. Today teaching is focusing on giving back knowledge. Worse even, those children who make mistakes are being blamed. In my former job, I worked together with many researchers and I did understand that it is precisely by making mistakes that discoveries are also being made. Unfortunately, a student is only allowed to experiment when writing a PhD. I would like to offer this opportunity from a tender age. ». Quite an interesting finding: read EBHLE aloud and you may hear ABLE.

We also find out that the dome is in fact the prototype of a classroom or rather of the « learning environnement » as he prefers to refer to it. The aim is to build some thirty similar ones and to welcome 300 children by 2020, starting progressively in 2016 ! « Can you see these huge boards? They are in fact chalk boards. But they are not for teachers only. The children are also encouraged to write on the walls ! » They have just been put up and they are already being used: there is a mixture of things on it: the plans to build a chair, a list of common tasks, a child’s drawing, a series of calculations… a genuine think tank. Hasmukh goes on « he first floor of the dome will be a living place, the second one a dormitory. » The other innovating idea is to offer to those parents who want to (or even grandparents) to live on site to help towards a better transmission « there are so many elderly people who have so many thing to teach those youngsters and they would be delighted to be given an opportunity to do so rather than be sitting at home bored to death… » The children who benefit from such a project will come from all walks of life: some will be paying for enrolment, others from poor families will be allowed to attend the lessons for free. « The school will cover the tuition fees with the proceeds of the artisanal and agricultural productions, such as the bananas we are growing. I do not want the children from better off families to feel they are paying for the others. » And he goes on: « This mixed group is essential for me. During the first workshop, I noticed that the children who live in the street are overall far more innovative and resourceful than those going to school. Difference is an opportunity since complementarity is born out of the difference. The allegory of the five fingers of a hand is a good example: it would be a real handicap to have nothing but thumbs! That is why I also hope the school is going to welcome disabled children. They will learn from each other…»

      

The classes will not be groups of the same levels but rather groups formed according to the children’s abilities and envies. The lessons will be an opportunity to acquire traditional knowledge, but through eco-building, eco-energy, ecological agriculture, the breeding of animals… « I wish to base learning on the five senses. I get my ideas from neuroplasticity. The human brain is not used to its full capacity and more specifically because the education system is limiting the possibilities from childhood onwards. Take for instance the example of a flower. In school the children will learn its name and its shape, but that is all. Instead they should be taken on an outing so they can see what it really looks like, but also touch it, smell it, taste it…» Aso Hasmukh’s project is totally in the opposite direction of the Indian system, but also of the globalised school system « The current government is encouraging people to settle in cities to increase the number of urban workers. I went to visit the schools in the nearby villages and the level as well as the resources are a real disaster. There is a rumour that if a teacher is being disciplined, he is sent out here… ».

Building with others

If Hasmukh is at the core of this somewhat crazy project, several other people may be found around Sapna Ranch. « When I arrived I really wanted to work with the people of the nearby villages. I employed some punctually, but it did not prove successful because they did not understand the philosophy behind the project… and it is still like that. Some make fun of my buildings and others think that I do business with the volunteers! I eventually understood that the people cannot be changed if they do not want to. I am not wasting my energy any longer with them, now I try to work with those people who go in the same direction ». Maybe one day, when the school starts, they will understand what I am after. Who knows ? (Erdem experienced the same difficulties for the construction of his earthship in Turkey.) « So I spent three years almost alone, working here with my four dogs and two cats as sole company! But I believe it was important to be by myself in the first days. It was like a meditation period, yet it was action ! » Indeed Hasmukh likes to repeat that he is a person who acts rather than talks. « At the very beginning, I wanted to take part in an eco-village project with several other Indians who were in the same dynamics. We met on several occasions… but it did not take me long to see that we were going round and round in a vicious circle. That is when I decided to start off on my own. We still meet from time to time… For them the building has not yet started, they are still holding meetings (!) »

Even if it takes time, more and more Indians are showing an interest for an alternative lifestyle. The significant number of people who enrol in the workshops offered by Hasmukh is evidence of it all. Most of them are people living in the cities, with a good social position, who wish to see other experiences before taking the plunge and creating something as well. It is the case of Vipin, for instance, whom we meet. He is over the moon with the workshop and Hasmukh’s initiative. « For you Westerners it may be easier to see the failures of capitalism and to try and find other ways because you experienced it. Here most people are still dreaming of the promises of capitalism». For a few months, the Ranch has also had a new inhabitant, Maneswar, a young Indian of 29 years of age. He left his region (the State of Assam, near Bangladesh) and travelled across the country to earn some money. While he was working as a security agent in a neighbouring city, he met one of the future participant in Hasmukh’s workshop, who talked about it to him. He was overwhelmed with the discovery of Sapna Ranch. Hasmukh offered him to stay and render some services in exchange. « I am earning less than in the city, but what I am learning here makes me so much richer: speaking English, meeting volunteers from the whole world, looking after the vegetable garden and the banana trees, building… The members of my family do not understand my choice, they think I am earning a lot of money and that I do not want to send them any… They would like me to send them more all the time, even if I explain that it is impossible for me. But I have made my choice. I have decided to live in a simple way and I am happy here ».

Maneswar cascade

Manoj, a young Indian who is staying for a few days and whom we meet a few days later is also facing the same lack of understanding from his family. Unlike Maneswar he studied and then landed a job in a bank. Gradually he realised how absurd consumerism is and now he is aspiring to live a simpler life. He decided to travel for two years throughout India to find out alternative projects and intends to set up an eco-tourism agency to promote them. « My family, and above all my parents, do not accept my remarks on their lifestyle because I am their son. They feel it is not my place to teach them lessons. There is a sying with us ‘everybody loves Buddha, but nobody wants to host him ! »

Before leaving, waiting for the bus which is late, on the small earth path, Hasmukh asks us : « did you see the film « School of life » ? » We have not… But sometimes realty is just as inspiring as films. Here for sure we are not in a place which is giving a lesson of life but much more in a school teaching life, and we wish it a long lasting future.

To learn more about Sapna Ranch, the coming workshops and the EBHLE project, turn to the :

Website

facebook page

Click on the picture’s arrow to see the slide show.

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Living in the rock ?

Turkey, august 2014

At first sight, Ushisar, where we set foot one morning in July, is a Turkish city which is no different from any other… Except for a huge castle sculpted directly in the rocks stands over the city and on its foot we discover a first valley of troglodyte houses. We enjoy going through those impressing dwellings… empty, though. At sunset, we climb up to the top of the castle to discover the expanse of the Göreme natural park we are going to visit for the next three weeks or so. Wherever we look, we can see landscapes which are either like the moon or like a fairy tale. Welcome to Cappadocia !

Here, nature has made full use of its imagination: both wind and rain have been digging the tufa rock (a soft rock originating from volcanic debris) for thousands of years. Men’s ingenuity has taken advantage of this rock which is “easy” to dig into and created extraordinary dwellings of any kind of shape and size. Hittites (1,500 BC), the first Christians, Byzantines, Turks lived in them. What is happening to those dwellings today ? Is it still possible to live in them ?

      

Meeting the Teke family : disillusioned with concrete

Prior to reaching them, we contacted several inhabitants via couch surfing and are pleasantly surprised to find out that most of them are either tourist guides or fly hot air balloons (something which is a must in this area). Some of them offer their help to rent scooters, quads, discover the blue circuit, the red circuit… Yet, when we arrive at Khamil’s -our host for about ten days- we understand, at our expense, that the presence of guides in this network is not quite disinterested.

We decide to keep away from tourist circuits and guides and let our feet take us over the paths to discover the region. And soon we reach the “pigeon valley”, one of the many valleys of the national park, green and shady. Here, some tufa rock colons have been dug by Men to turn them into pigeon holes. The farmers in this valley have been making use for hundreds of year of the pigeon droppings as natural fertiliser for their vegetable gardens. Indeed pesticides and fertilisers have gradually taken over, yet some pigeon holes seem to be used still.

As we walk along, we are becoming aware of some hammering and it is not long before an elderly man calls us “Merhaba! Come and have some tea!” As we are curious (yet we cannot avoid thinking that he is going to try and sell us something) we go up to join him. Not only Mehmet offers us some tea, but he also makes us taste some of the vegetables from his garden….fertilised with pigeon droppings, of course. Mehmet methodically digs the rock at the bottom of the pigeon hole with clubs and huge nails. Although tufa rock is rather crumbly rock, it is nevertheless not an easy job and we are quite impressed with his courage. Olivier takes over from him for a little time and does the hard work! In spite of the language barrier, we understand that he drives a coach for tourists and he comes here to work with his wife, in the cool air of the late afternoon.

As a pleasant closeness sets in, we come back twice to give him a hand. We try to take our camera out, but we feel he is not really at ease with that… On the third day, Mehmet calls his son, Kadir, so he can meet us. He is the manager of a hotel in Göreme and he is also a tourist guide. In perfect English, he tells us a little bit of his parents’ story… « When I was a child, my family used to live in a troglodyte house in the centre of Göreme. There was hardly any comfort, but life was good! Since my parents did not have the money to refurbish the house, they had to sell it and settle in a traditional concrete house. A wealthy hotelier has completely changed the troglodyte house. He even fitted a jacuzzi and he now rents out the rooms at no less than euro 200 the night minimum!»

We now understand why they did not really like to be filmed : « my parents want to build a small bed and breakfast house at the foot of the pigeon hole. But, to be honest, with the UNESCO’s protection policy, they are forbidden to do so. In theory this is a good law to protect our natural heritage. But there are double standards. For those people who do not have a great deal of money, those rules are extremely strict. Sometimes, for instance, it takes six to seven months to get connected to the water network and get the necessary permits. Yet, the wealthy hoteliers, whether Turkish or foreign, who are building swimming pools and lifts in those houses are never ever being bothered. The government thinks that, since they are creating jobs and bring in money, they can do what they like… According to me, the UNESCO rules are a good thing, they could even go further… but they have to apply to each and every one.»

A few days later, we meet Kadir again in his hotel, who agreed to answer our questions while sharing tea « In Göreme, 70% of such dwellings are today lived in by tourists. But in those small villages away from the tourist places, most troglodyte houses are still lived in by local people because they are perfectly well adapted to the climate of the region. The rock keeps a constant temperature of around 15° all the year round. In summer, when the temperature reaches 40°C, there is no need for any air conditioning; in winter, even if it goes down to – 20°C, they use up to three times less heating than in a standard house.». And all that because they have been built (or rather dug) from local material, and therefore those houses are energy saving and so less costly.

As we talk with Kadir, he expresses a certain emotion, his impressions on the impact of tourism here. « Although I work in this field and although we have a far more comfortable life style because of tourism, I realise the price we have to pay for it all. Before, we were much closer to our families and friends. Today, everybody wants to make more money, but that crave is a non-ending race! And since we are always trying to get more money, we have no time for our families. Worse even, we are competing against each other. I have practically no contact any longer with my uncles, for instance. (…) The modern houses have also changed our way of living. When I was a child, we used to play in the pigeon valley with our friends. Our challenge was to climb in the pigeon holes and bring back an egg in pristine condition. Now, in the new house, my son only plays by himself on his computer… We are gradually losing our culture. » After a sip of tea, he adds « It is all very complex since we also need the tourists to live. In theory I am not against the tourists, I want the people to discover this magnificent area… But not that way. »

Tourism at any cost

During that time there are many couchsurfers staying at Khamil’s: Russian, Georgians, Italians, Americans, French… Most of those tourists only stay in Cappadocia for a few days. This is indeed long enough to enjoy the beauty of the landscapes…but it certainly limits the contacts.

Since we are enjoying the luxury of not being pressed by time, we travel thumbing a lift. And it works very well indeed, so much so that sometimes we have not even really put our hands out that already a car has stopped. Most drivers work in tourism, one way or another. With those who speak English, we take the opportunity to understand this phenomenon a little bit more in depth. A hotelier tells us « Nationalities and sociology of the tourists are changing. With the crisis, we have less and less Europeans. But there are more and more Brazilians, Russians and Asians… There is nothing to worry about, there are people almost all the year round here ! ». Carlos, a Belgian carpet trader adds « most tourists travel with tour operators and stay no more than four days. Some, like the Asians, work like mad for thirty years to be able to afford a tour of Europe in three weeks. It is the trip of their life. Except that they have no time to actually understand where they are. Can you imagine the cultural shock for them ? » and he adds « That type of tourism has nothing but advantages for us, carpet traders. I sell about twenty of them to a bus of fifty people! But that destroys the balance of the area completely…»

Strolling through Göreme, the main city in the natural park, we become aware of the impact of that mass tourism. Most houses have been bought up and transformed into « hotel caves ». Some have been refurbished and renovated as the original houses and others in styles which no longer correspond to the troglodyte houses. The rest of the city is but souvenir shops, restaurants, places where quads may be rented and other agencies to fly in hot air balloons.

Ushisar, the neighbouring city, is following suit as to the transformation/gentrification but a few years later. In the historic centre, most houses ae up for sale or being worked on to become wealthy « hotels with shops » since the city decided to go for luxury tourism. A whole side of the Ushisar hill has been bought up by a promoter who turned the small streets into an open air hotel. In spite of the full season, the city seems to be a dead place. Because the houses are being worked on, but also because, as a young receptionist tells us « the wealthy tourists do not go out: they can enjoy everything in the hotel itself: bar, swimming pool, etc. During the day, they go on tours in the valleys. So those tourists’ money does not really go to the small shops owed by the original inhabitants…»

The impact of tourism is such that, as Kadir tells us, « the inhabitants of certain villages around are jealously protecting the beauty of their villages and keep it to themselves. Despite the easy money that tourism could bring in, they bluntly reject the idea that the place where they live becomes another Göreme.»

Mazi : on the surface and underground, a city being transformed

We can also feel the imminent transformations when we arrive in Mazi, a small town, to visit an underground town. These towns are the second tourist attraction in Cappadocia. Just like the troglodyte houses, they have been shaped by digging in the rock and they have been used for centuries by different populations, like the first Christians in Turkey, persecuted by the Romans.

Mazi, the underground town, discovered a few years ago and still being renovated, is less famous than Derinkuy and Kaymakli, which attract hundreds of tourists a day. To go there, there is no public transport, only taxis or thumbing a lift. At the entrance, a small sign indicates the entry to the tunnel. We find Isan there, who leads the few visitors against some money on the side. With another man from the village, he takes us through this maize.

These towns are several floors high underground and they could host tens of thousands of people for several months. Everything was ready inside: stables for the animals, warehouse for the food stocks, dining room, toilets, wine cellar, wells of impressing depth… We are absolutely fascinated by the various engineers specialists of air ventilation, communication and defence of such genuine fortresses. Stone doors weighing several tons block the entrances to the tunnels with in the centre a hole to let the spears through and harass the potential attackers. Above, pipes have been dug to spill water or boiling oil. I?an tells us that tens of towns like that are supposed to exist in the area and would still remain unknown. Seeing such ingenuity and complexity, some people (including himself) think that they may not be only the work of Men and that supernatural beings would have a hand in them…

Upon leaving Isan, we wonder how his job will develop when the renovation of the site is over « I would like to be one of the official guides, but I have no illusions whatsoever. It is hard to become a guide and the jobs are for those who have good contacts in the government. But it does not matter. If the worse comes to the worse, I will open a souvenir shop in the village… »

When we come out of the visit, the huge tank of a lorry is at full work. Workmen are hurrying around to pour the concrete slab, watched by a group of villagers pondering over it all. Are they thinking about the imminent transformation of their own town? Mazi is much poorer than the cities in the natural park we have seen so far. As we are thumbing a lift back, we walk by a collective oven and a man offers us a hot bread just out of the oven. Will this oven still be there in a few years’ time ?

Safeguard engagement

In the enchanting « red valley », we meet several people shooting a film, and amongst them Gaetano, an Italian photographer. He is part of a huge programme from the university of Tuscia working on saving the heritage of Cappadocia. For several years, a team of researchers have been coming regularly to list each and every troglodyte house, church or remarkable place in order to create an interactive museum over the internet, more specifically. Such researchers are working in close collaboration with the government and the Cappadocia area which commissioned them… But Gaetano regrets there is not enough money for Research « we are going on because we are in passion with what we are doing, but it is a very precarious situation. We have to keep looking for more money as the project moves forward… In fact, we should find other private sponsors…»

 

A few days later, via the internet, we get in touch with the « Cappadocia History Culture Research & Protection » association. Mukreim sets an appointment with us for the following day for an interview, in the lovely city of Avanos, in Venessa Pension. The place we discover is much more than a hotel. In one of the cellars, this fan has set up a contemporary pottery gallery, the city of Avenos specialises in. On the first floor, he created a museum to emphasize and give value to old daily items he collected. But the key of the visit is the underground city he discovered under his hotel a few years ago and that he is busy refurbishing whenever he has some time. « Muko » does everything by himself, with the help of a few other members of the association he has set up : « the government only does very little to save this heritage. Worse even, sometimes it takes part in its destruction. So, with other citizens, we get mobilised. We organise conferences, demonstrations, communiqués. These days, we have heard some good news: we have managed to get a help to renovate a 14th century chapel.»

Muko’s commitment to citizenship is not so far from political activism. Several times he went to demonstrate in Taksim Square in Istanbul to participate in the huge protest movement Turkey experienced in 2013 to defend public space and claim more democracy. Jokingly he points at the tear bomb hanging from the ceiling « I have exhibited here with the other items in the museum since it is part and parcel of History ». A little later, without pondering on it, he will refer to the year he spent in prison when he was younger because of his political opinions and ideas.

Just like Kadir, Muko grew up in Cappadocia, in a troglodyte house. He has always had a fascination for such houses. « Each one is unique. For me, today’s standardised houses limit imagination. The rooms are the same size and inside, one can find the same furniture coming from the same shops… I think it is difficult to imagine another world when living in a formatted, even sterile, environment. Look at the hill over there, it is a district which has just been built massively in concrete by one and the same promoter… »

After this investigation in Cappadocia, we take to the road again, on our way east. On the parking place of the bus station in Nev?ehir, we get to know a nice family. Chloé asks one of the girls to teach her how to put on a head scarf. She laughs and shows her with a great deal of dexterity. In a few days, we will be in Iran…

More that this article, watch our filmed letter about cave houses adressed to the school’s project partner

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Payamli’s Erdship

Turkey, july 2014

It was planned even before we left : our shooting-trip would take us for a month to Erdem’s to discover his “erdship”. And suddenly, there we are, in this little village of Payamli, 30 kms away from Izmir, in the western part of Turkey. In the coach on the way there (the only one in the day), an elderly man asks us in German where we are going. When he recognises the name of our host, he tells all the other other passengers : « hey, they’re going to Erdem ! ». And enthusiastic comments can be heard from all of them and nobody was surprised we were actually going there. Half an hour later we can see Payamli behind a curve. A small village perched in the hills and from a distance it could belike all the villages we have in France, with one difference though: the church steeple is a minaret here. The elderly man decides to be our guide and leads us to the gate to Erdem’s little house, opposite the village hall and Ataturk’s statue.

Return to the Earth

The famous Erdem being away on a permaculture training, other volunteers welcome us in the communal house he is renting while the building site is going on. In the evening we meet levent, Erdem’s twin. Since March he has been tending the vegetable garden that he proudly shows off to us the following morning. Levent had a good job in Berlin in a company selling energy, especially nuclear energy. After a few years of hard work, he understood that the job did not give him any satisfaction any longer « I managed to negotiate my departure from the company. With the money I travelled for a year and at the end of the day, I decided to buy a big plot of land with Erdem in Turkey. I also chose to resume my studies in agroforestry in Germany at the beginning of the academic year. While I was waiting to go back, I started this experimental permaculture garden here. Everything you can see here is no more than a few months old ! » And with a laugh Levent adds « We grew up in between Germany and Turkey. I am more German, I plan… Erdem is more Turkish: he shoots off, he improvises! In a nutshell, we are a good team ! »

After spending his childhood in Germany, Erdem returned to Turkey, where his wife and his parents were. During his tourism management studies, he invested in a small hotel in Istanbul, that he refurbished. Then he gradually managed to buy others … and now he has five bed & breakfasts around Taksim Square. The quality of life in Istanbul became rather painful when his first daughter was born, the couple the ndecided to move to Izmir. In love with the houses there, Erdem first tried to buy and renovate middle-class residences in Izmir to turn them into hotels. But this project did not materialise since the owners preferred to sell those houses to foreign investors, and the local council was not really concerned about saving the national heritage (despite its magnificence) in Izmir. In those years, gradually, Erdem’s envies changed. «Now I want to feel lighter, to work less, to improve the quality of life… I would like to sell my youth hostels at a good price and focus on my new projects, here in this village». And he does not lag behind when it comes to projects !

Erdem bought two « peaces of land » as he refers to himself a year and a half ago. The first one, at the foot of the village, wit ha splendid view over the surrounding hills and the cove of Urla. Ancient vineyards and a few almond trees are witnesses of the agricultural past of this sloping plot. In turkey, more and more farmers find it difficult to make ends meet and so they sell their lands. What is Erdem’s idea? He wants to build several ecologically economical houses with his own hands, create a vegetable garden and set up a pedagogical place with workshops around eco-construction and permaculture. The second plot Erdem bought together with Levent is huge and situated a little further in th hills. Here ancient vineyards and fig trees grow and the view over the sea is breathtaking. In the long term, the twin brothers want to build bungalows there and turn the place into an eco tourism plot.

The Erdship, a house which is equal to none

But right now, the first house must be built. Erdem chose to do so with Earthsip models in mind : houses built from recycled materials aiming at energy autonomy and offering a genius management of household water. Since those were set up some fourty years ago by Michael Raynolds, an architect, in the Taos desert in New Mexico, hundreds of such earthships have been built on the planet.. Some earthships are official and have been built by the Michael Raynolds team or by people who went on a six-week course given by the earthship academy. Since Erdem had no money to spend on either, he decided to make free use of the principle… He could not make use of the protected Earthship word, so he decided to call his house « Erdship » (which literally means Erdem’s house) a wonderful image name for this house built from wood from the shipbuilding yards in the port of Izmir, whose shape recalls a ship’s hull. As we arrive on site, we immediately recognise the main characteristics of the Earthships :

=> A half buried structure on the northern side of the house (particularly adapted to this piece of land which is a big slope), to keep the rooms fresh in this part of the house, even when the sun is scorching outside

=> A large bay window, facing south, with windows on a 60° slant (inclination, depends of the Earthship’s latitude) so that the low sunbeams in winter can shine in to the end of the room and the summer ones shine on the plants on the other side of the bay window. Those plants may often be eaten and are used to filter the grey water of the shower and the sink, which will then be used for the toilets ! (see the drawings herein below).

=> We also discover the walls built with glass bottles which let the light come in as so many multicoloured rays

=> And other walls … made with tyres! Why did Erdem choose to make use of tyres ? «It is a perfect container: it can be filled with rubble. And then, it is absolutely free, I got them from the various garages which were only too happy to get rid of those old tyres. In general, used tyres are burnt to be recycled, which entails a great deal of pollution. I do not call that recycling…» It is an economical technique, but it is exhausting work : « we are talking about six tyres a day per person… we must have filled 480 of them !» Ensuite, les murs ont été enduits avec un mélange d’argile, sable et de chaux. Then the walls were covered with a mixture of clay, sand and lime. That is exactly the technique Roj had chosen for his foundations inToziel.

      

An experimental building site

While Erdem takes us on a tour, he tells us « you’re going to laugh, but in fact this house was not planned! A year ago, I started preparing a 20m2 plot of land to build a water tank for the “actual” erdship. Once the work started, I thought it would be stupid to use such a nice plot for a mere tank… why not build a small erdship in a few months, as a training building? And that is what I did and gradually I could not help enlarging the main room: from 20m2 we ended up with 40m2, then I added a room to be used as a bathroom… and now, “the testing ground” is around 60m2! I had no plans to start with, that explains why everything is not quite straight… I am learning as I go along ! »

To turn this mad idea into reality, Erdem first worked with three village people. « But it did not really work out. They could not understand what was in the project. Why was I set on building from tyres when it may be done with concrete blocks? And since it was hard work, they could not find enough motivation. » Since then, he has been relying on several networks like Workaway and HelpX. People from all over the world come and help him and they come to learn as well, and they get board and accommodation in return. « I have come across very pleasant surprises. For instance, the glass walls in the bathroom were put up while I was absent. It is a very good leap forward for the plot! ! » We are surprised by the autonomy Erdem grants to the volunteers as they come to work for him. In part because his many projects force him to leave and delegate the construction to the volunteers and in part because he leaves a place to the others indeed so that they may also experiment by themselves.

The first stages were fast. The tyre walls were put up in three months as well as part of the roof. But since then, it has not been an easy taks to finish the roof. Before we arrived, Erdem had alread build and unbuilt his roof (a first time to build an extension to the house, then a second time because he did not like the result)… Finding out that the roof is leaning dangerously on the the window frames, we engage in long discussions with Erdem (sometimes a bit exhausting), and he eventually painfully decides to take it down once more. Together we decide to add columns and beams to relieve the windows. So we accompany him to the banks of a small river at the bottom of the land to look for a few uprooted tree trunks. What can be more local? A neighbour also offers him some pieces of wood which will be put to good use. For a month, Olivier and Erdem erect the roof system. Quite a programme, even more so as Erdem must often go away to deal with his various businesses and spend time with his family. A month later, the roof system is in place once again, but much stronger. And the result, with the exposed twisted trunks really looks nice!

Sawing seeds

Just as was the case in our previous work stop in Stagones, we notice that water has been a genuine challenge. « When I bought the plot, there was no more than a small hole filled with natural water, and that is now the frogs’ pond. I thought that there must be other underground sources. I called a water diviner and I watched him work. It is very simple, all you have to do is hold two copper rods in front and move forward…When I was looking for it, I “felt” there was a source on top of the plot. I decided to have it dug up, without knowing how deep beforehand. I was lucky, there was water, 15 meters down…, I had just enough money for that ! ». Thanks to that resource, I can irrigate the vegetable garden and get water for the Erdship.

 

Since then, Erdem and his twin Levent have planted several varieties of tomatoes, peppers, melons, water melons, aubergines, courgettes and other peppers… Levent complaints «it is a scandal, today the seeds sold in the shops are sterile after a year. So we recovered some here and there, in Germany, but also here. » We offer them some Nikos from Stagonès gave us. Seeds and ideas are made to go round, that is a nice aim for our trip ! « this garden has been thought to comply with the principles of permaculture: nature must be watched before acting, planting complementary species, man’s hand must be kept to a minimum…Unwanted plants are taken out, but they are not thrown away, they are kept ther so that they turn into fertilisers when they rot. That is why the garden looks like a jungle ! » Just as they did for the house, the twin brothers are in the experimentation phase « we have planted many tomatoes very close to each other and we did not put any supports … and now they have taken over a bit too much ! ». Erdem and Levent are not often here, so they entrust us with the watering taks and harvest from the garden as well as managing the henhouse. Every day, we used to go looking for vegetables and eggs… it is Easter every day now! Since we stayed for a whole month, we can watch the life of this land (new plants, chicks being born…), and we feel in charge of this piece of land, like the Little Prince and his rose.

An Earthship in Turkey…

Erdem has chosen not to ask for any permission to build such a house on his land since he knew the answer. « Some time ago, a neighbour started to build a lovely wooden house. He applied for a building permit while work was in prcess… and it was refused. What entailed, building stopped and he put his land on the market again! The government is not very fond of alternative buildings… Yet, all around there are nothing but huge real estate projects, making ample use of concrete, to destry the landscape »

As the house is progressing, there is a wider curiosity from the village inhabitants for Erdem’s project. Several people come and see us on site. A neighbour sports his hat here almost every day and offers us figs and tells us a lot things in a pleasantly friendly way … but we do not understand. We also feel that the inhabitants must be puzzled to see foreigners who come and help with te building (without getting paid for it either!) as well as the house itself. The seem happy to see new faces and they give us bread, pears, olives… The children say “hello” in their shy ways and the wome stop to “chat” when they chat under a tree after watering their vegetable gardens for a long time, just like us, once the scorching sun has gone down. They remind us of Russian babuchkas with their colourful baggy trouers they combine daringly with their head scarves which show many flower patterns. The contras with the looks of the westernised women in Izmir is striking. This is a mere tip about the diversity found in Turkey today.

Outside the village, more and more turks have heard of the Erdship project through the Facebook page. That is the case for Mercan, a young man from Izmir whom we make friends with. He fspent his first school years uner the fundamentalists of the “Gülen brotherhood”… « IlThey are very influential. They pay for the studies of the young people, offer them a great deal of activities… and at the same time, they brainwash them. I gradually realised that since I started to feel bored and to realise that they would be repeating the same things over and over again without ever analysing them! I decided to move away from them, going to another town and enrolling in university… I read business and graduated a short time ago. But in fact, I am not part of them. My great grandfather used to build dry-stone houses. I am fascinated to understand how he did it and I would love to renovate them. In my family, almost everybody is the building trade or some associated trade: my father is a painter, my uncle a carpenter… but the traditional know-how is lost. I would like to manage to combine all that with modern inventions, like the earthships. When I come back after serving my time in the army (compulsory in Turkey for boys) I will carry on learning, to build something where I can live with Indira, my wife. »

A few days before our departure, the small village of Payamli is bubbling all over because it is organising its second edition of the Fig Festival. Farmers and individuals come and sell their fruit and vegetables to the many visitors. Concerts, speeches follow each other on the stage and it is a very different village now! Erdem decides to set up a stall to sell his very first harvest: figs, squash, tomatoes, but also jams, vinegar, grape molasses… Levent’s partner is a marketing consultant, so packaging has been stressed… In one evening and one morning, our gang decides to set up a lovely stall. Jam jars decorated with checkered material, small labels… Some stunning vegetables are put forward to catch the visitors’ eyes: two squashes of around ten kilos, vegetables with original shapes and colours…As it is at home as well, the people are curious and want to taste “actual” local products which are not all the same size and shape.

This stall is also the opportunity to introduce the Ership project : « building with tyres? Why not ! » « What can be done with glass bottles? Walls so that the light comes through ! » that is what can be read as captions to the photos. The stall isquite a success: all the figs have been sold out, and some strategic contacts (especially with the son of the neighbouring town’s mayor) have been taken. One regret only for Erdem: he did not enter the competition for the nicest fig, which could have been an excellent advert. We are happy for his success… but we cannot avoid thinking that there was no space, or hardly any, for the financial aim, at such a small scale.

And during that time…

On 10 August, the presidential election took place in Turkey. Unsurprisingly, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is elected for the first time directly by the voters, with over 52% votes. Mercan, levent and Erdem, really disappointed with the rslt, tell us how much the Country is gradually locked by that dreadfull intelligent man: corruption, controlling the media, weakening the lay state of affairs… But at the same time, they all tell us they feel a change has been happening since the many demonstrations in Taksim Square in 2013, which have spread out to several towns. Levent : « It all happened suddenly, a burst in the privatisation policy of public space. Building just another commercial centre in Istanbul when there is hardly any green space, that does not mean anything! Gradually demonstrations have turned into a more general claim for actual democracy. » Even if those demonstrations did not lead to a victory because of the violent repression (fife deaths and over a thousand injured people), they played a part in the energence of critical thoughts and the birth of citizens’ initiatives. We cannot help comparing that with the Occupy and Outraged movements which flourished in Greece, Spain, France and the United States in 2011…

New volunteers have arrived to help Erdem and his brother and take over from us to work on the twins’ somewhat mad projects. As for us, we are thinking of moving a little bit further to the East in Cappadoce, and this time we are going to discover something different – no new buildings, but ecological houses, yet they are hundreds of years old, sometimes even thousands of years old !

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