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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