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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