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Lama Foundation, San Cristobal, New Mexico, USA February 4, 2011

Filed under: Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs,USA — naturalbuild @ 7:19 am

Dancing on a wooden floor in an adobe dome built the 1960s was not really how I had envisaged my visit to the Lama Foundation . Yet this collective moment of fun somehow helped connect me to this community in a way I had not expected.


Open day dance inside the dome (built 1968) and the dome from the outside at The Lama Foundation

Clutching to the steep hillside of the Sangre de Cristo mountains north of Taos the Lama Foundation has been building since 1968. Principally a spiritual centre – following the teachings of Ram Dass and his infamous Be Here Now book which was compiled and published onsite – it has an eclectic mixture of eco-houses. These houses have changed quite radically over the years not least because on 5th May 1996 a fire destroyed the majority of the site, leaving rather miraculously the central dome and the old wooden octagonal kitchen. As much loved as the initial dwellings were there was a view that many had been in poor repair (much of the wood had rotted) and ill-equipped to cope with the extremes of the New Mexico climate (long winters, heavy snow and constant winds).


The old wooden kitchen and carved wooden door

Now the range and diversity of the houses is inspirational. There is a log cabin, a straw-bale house, a new base for their cottage industry being made from straw-bale and adobe combined, some yurts for visitors, small vault homes, a hybrid house and many more. Over the years different visitors and residents have experimented with a variety of methods and styles – particularly hybrid approaches. This is when different methods such as straw-bale are used alongside adobe blocks or stone walls. Thus they make use of straw-bale in the north-facing walls (to keep the place warm) and adobe in a south-facing wall (because it allows a building to heat up more quickly than straw).


Hybrid eco-house at The Lama Foundation, and a inside wall – half adobe half straw

Use of adobe on site was originally inspired by the nearby Pueblo constructions in Taos and many local Indigenous Americans came to the site in the early years to teach the newcomers how to build with earth. The adobe prayer room near the main done is particularly interesting – with a very small entrance (you have to crawl inside) and a sunken circle in which to sit it is completely peaceful. Many of the houses are also deliberately small – such as the vaults designed by Shay Salomon – which are thus cheaper to build and easy to heat. The vaults are straw-bale with aluminium shingle roofs which hang over to the ground each side. Moreover under New Mexico building code very small buildings do not have to comply. The community setting encourages the building of small individual houses and the collective use of the large communal space. There are communal bathrooms, kitchen, library, music room, winter meeting room, and outdoor sheltered eating area.


The adobe prayer room and communal bathroom


The small vault houses

Building here is a collective process and part of a spiritual practice for many, one resident said they ‘build with clay, mud and love’. Another noted ‘building a house is so human and it has been taken away from us … it is so satisfying being able to build a house’. Some of the ‘special places’ like the stone hermitage have been built in silence and others such as the two vaults were built just by women. In fact Lama has hosted several women-only build workshops which were deemed necessary in order to create a safe space in which women could experiment in building and expand their confidence without the intrusion of men. Nevertheless the majority of building on site is still done by men.


Straw bale house at The Lama Foundation and prayer flags

The way in which the Foundation has been set up limits residents to a maximum stay of seven years. Resident numbers are limited to the number of houses available on site (currently eight) and the site is most active in the summer months when a large number of volunteers (summer stewards) come and stay. However because the main focus of the site is spirituality rather than eco-building then the co-ordination of building or the skills available is very much dependent on who happens to be around. This has created maintenance problems for the core full-time residents who are there all year because of the sheer number of buildings and the use of natural materials which require regular attention and patching. This tension between a lack of time and skills and the focus being primarily elsewhere has led to the use of concrete and stucco in recent buildings which is not very environmental. They have had at times to make compromises. These compromises have been less about saving money and more about reducing labour requirements.

One resident noted that permaculture principles which were increasingly being integrated into community life suggest ‘you should start small and then work your way out, and so we should make sure we can cope with maintaining the buildings we currently have before we build more’. Thus the place seems to be in a constant flow of moving forward and correcting earlier mistakes. The main dome is quite cold (lacking insulation) and some damage to buildings is the result of a lack of sufficient roof overhang or ‘boot’ and the harsh weather. But more recent structures learn from these mistakes and a new straw-bale house has a foot stone boot to protect it.

The whole community is off-grid; generating electricity through photovoltaic cells, using compost toilets, wood for heat, and water from an on-site spring (and some rainwater is collected). Water is heated in the main through a propane heater because their solar capacity is limited.

Solar power in the roof

There is undoubtedly something magical at the Lama Foundation, less in a spiritual sense for me personally, but something about its location and the freedom in which eco-building has been experimented in. I left longing to stay and to move into my own little vault house on the mountain side.

The Lama Foundation regularly hold open days and events. Please see their website for further information:

Also see Cobb, A (2008) Early Lama Foundation, published by Lama Foundation and Salomon, S (2006) Little House on a Small Planet, published by The Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, USA.

[4th February 2011]



It’s the people who make eco-houses wonderful February 3, 2011

The more eco-houses I visit and the more people ask me which were the best houses and which makes inspired me most, the more I realise it is the people who inspire me, not the houses. It is the way people have approached a build, navigated the problems, had the confidence and passion to try something new out which is the amazing part. In the main we know how to build good eco-houses – the same mantra has been repeated to me many times now; passive solar, natural local materials, self-build and volunteer labour, keep it small and simple, ventilate as well as insulate and make it a thing of beauty. For some this takes 2 years other’s 8, but most have built along these similar and good principles. What is different is how they have achieved this and in what circumstances – in rural Argentina by themselves, in a newly emerging community in southern Spain, or in central Los Angeles. Each has to overcome different problems – financial, social, collective, regulatory, neighbours, weather and bad luck – and it is in how they do this and still complete their build that I find most inspiring.


Jenny Pickerill with her hosts who are building an adobe house in San Francisco Del Monte De Oro, San Luis Province, Argentina and Delfine building a wooden zome at La ecoaldea del Michal, Molvizar, Spain

A great deal of thought, love, passion and energy gets put into each of these buildings and the more I look at them the more all I see are the faces of the people who have created them. At each visit I have tried to photograph the builders and their images now loom large to me, before the house itself. This is before you even begin to consider the act of living in the house, which is often a transformative process in itself where bits which did not quite work get changed, initial imagined layouts altered and, of course, the people themselves often taking on a more ecological way of life now that they have created the setting and shelter to live how they wanted. Neither do any of these houses or people stand still – all continue to evolve, motivated by the confidence of a finished build that they can improve or do more, or simply that they are the energetic sort who will always be moving forward in life.


Alix Henry, architect and self-builder, outside her Earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico,  and Kelly Hart, my guide around eco-houses at Crestone, and builder Steve Kornher using his flying concrete method, USA

So what did I learn today on my visit to Peninsular Park Commons, a co-housing development in the north of Portland, Oregon? The houses were funky, with lots of eco-features, but more importantly they make great ice-cream, the pot-luck dinner included wheat-free peach cobbler, the blue grass music in the garden was a wonderful celtic mixture and the people were all welcoming and warm and interesting. I spent ten minutes looking around the houses and three hours enjoying the company of the people.


Amy at her Earth House in Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand, and Open Day at Peninsula Park Common co-housing project in Portland, Oregon, USA

So I would like to thank all the people who have made my trips and research so productive and such fun, especially those who have taken the time to drive me to places, talk to and explain things to me, and so often allow me to stay in their homes. It is the people who have made these houses wonderful. It is the people and the social aspects of eco-housing which deserve further study.

[Portland, Oregon, 21st August 2010]


Los Angeles Eco-Village, California, USA August 7, 2010

Filed under: Cost of housing,Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs,USA — naturalbuild @ 5:04 am

Centrally located between downtown LA and Hollywood, just behind one of the main road arteries of the city is Los Angeles Eco-Village. An oasis of calm and greenery the two blocks of 1920’s apartment buildings have been bought and converted by the group. Established in 1996 it is a long running and permanent fixture which not only houses thirty or so people but acts as a central hub for many green activities and campaigns in the city. Its purpose is perhaps best summed up by the building manager, Lara Morrison, who said living here is about ‘improving your quality of life while reducing your resource use’.

The front of 117 Bimini Place

The two buildings themselves were brought by CRSP (Cooperative Resources and Services Project) when they had fallen into disrepair and had a low occupancy rate. Lois Arkin (CRSP Executive Director), who had long lived locally, felt it important to help rebuild the community in the wake of the 1992 riots which resulted in several buildings in the area burning to the ground. A group of people interested in creating an eco-village had been looking for a spare plot of land on which to build afresh, but it soon became evident that it was preferable to work with a community needing help and revitalisation (it is a low to middle income area). So they set about eco-renovating the apartments, careful to allow existing tenants to stay, and gradually ecologically-minded tenants moved in. It is still an ongoing process with only four apartments with solar power and five with grey-water recycling systems (which until recently was illegal in the state of California). But most have been renovated to habitable standard and lots of eco-materials used in the process like ceramic tiles, bamboo and cork floors, or the car-tyre flooring used on the stairs. No air conditioning units are used by village members though a few ceiling fans have had to be installed in the second floor apartments to cope with the summer heat. But wooden blinds and shading using plants have helped keep some places cooler. It is an old building and there are structural and financial limits to what can be retrofitted to enable natural ventilation.

A kitchen in one of the apartments and Bimini Terrace

Ecological living here is as much about changing behavioural practice as it is about green buildings where composting and recycling are encouraged, vegetarian meals shared at the weekly ‘pot luck’ dinners (where everyone brings a dish to share), water and energy use metered in the Bimini Terrace block (but not yet in 117 Bimini building), and tenants receive a US$25 monthly rent reduction if they do not own a car. New tenants have to pass a rigorous 18 month membership process whereby they prove their eco-credentials and fit with community living (there are weekly Quorum meetings where consensus is used to make group decisions).

The porch entrance and lobby

Living here is also about changing relations within community. As in many big cities it is usual for neighbours to never say hello and for community ties to be weak. Part of the goal of the eco-village is to enhance local friendships, encourage people to talk to each other, and make the community feel safer so that people allow their children to play outside.

The chairs under the magnolia tree and a mosaic door stop

The accommodation is structured around 48 individual apartments of varying sizes from roughly 400 to 1000 square foot. Several of these have been turned over to communal use – a large community (meeting) room with adjoined kitchen, a bike store and food bulk room (where members can buy shares of rice, coffee, pasta etc from large storage boxes), and laundry. Communal use is made of the large lobby (which is also used for events) and the courtyard with inviting chairs and tables sat under the shade of the magnolia tree. At the back of the blocks several garages have been converted into workshops.

The bike store room and metal gate from old bikes

For many years the blocks were owned by CRSP and let to individuals but the group are now in the process of incorporating as a limited equity housing co-operative (with a Community Land Trust owning the land, Beverly-Vermont Community Land Trust) and in doing so formally buying the blocks from CRSP for perpetuity. Affordability of apartments has always been central to the project where the definition of affordable is when 30% or less of your income is spent on housing costs. This district is currently a ‘rent burdened’ area whereby many must pay more than 30% of their income for what is often sub-standard housing. Current rents are between $455 and $730 (depending on size of living space) and are several hundred dollars cheaper than equivalent places in the area. The financing for purchasing the buildings came from private supporters who have since been paid off and the rent has always covered repayment, renovation and maintenance costs. Now that these loans have been repaid they can afford to buy the buildings as a cooperative and use the rent as repayment.

Outdoor seating and hallway

What is most striking about the block is the amount and variety of greenery. The buildings are surrounded by fruit trees and flowers which edge out into the road and the newly constructed ‘bulb-outs’ (curved pavement areas advocated for by village members to the city council designed to slow traffic and green the neighbourhood). The courtyard is a forest of edible plants around a huge magnolia tree with tomatoes, herbs, peppers, chard, borridge, bananas, peaches, apples, apricots, figs, mint and comfrey. There are chickens too and plans for bees. Out on the street members recently secured permission to grow macadamia nut trees on the verge (after long health and safety discussions about people slipping on fallen fruit) and are in the process of establishing a learning garden (White House Place Learning Garden) across the road where they will run workshops for school children.

The courtyard garden, chickens and tomatoes

One of the eco-village values is to ‘engage our neighbors and broader communities in mutual dialogue to learn, teach and act’ and to ‘take responsibility for each other and the planet through local environmental and social action’ (notice on community board) and these are reflected in the number of different activities that are run from here. There are bicycle rights groups and an organic vegetable box scheme packing and distribution point. There is constant pressure on the city to improve the public transit network and the eco-village now has excellent access to public transport – with a new subway station in the last ten years and a RapidBus line. There is also a group seeking to revitalise the Los Angeles river, and as an entity the eco-village tends to get lobbied to give its support to certain initiatives or support mayoral candidates, for example. While I was visiting there was a presentation by the LA Sierra Club trying to get the members to back a campaign against coal. Finally there is lots of artwork, they have painted their street intersection and electricity pole, and there is a colourful metal gate made from old bicycle parts.

The painted electricity pole and sunflower in the courtyard

The painted street intersection and art on the courtyard wall

If you would like to visit the eco-village it is located at 117 Bimini Place, Los Angeles, CA 9004 (it also incorporates 127-133 Bimini Terrace). They run tours fortnightly on Saturdays but you must make reservations ( or 213/738-1254) and there is a $10 tour fee (though this is also a sliding scale depending on your income).  They are unable to accommodate drop-in tourists.

If you would like to visit for longer you can arrange to stay in one of the apartments for a few days or weeks; contact Lara Morrison, To get there by public transport take the red underground metro line to the Beverley/ Vermont stop, walk south along Vermont for two blocks and then right up 1st Street a few metres until you see Bimini Place on your right and the intersection of White Place.

[Arizona, 6th August 2010]


Aldea Velatropa, Cuidad Universitaria, Buenos Aires, Argentina August 5, 2010

Just to the north of Block 3 of the University, in the area known as Cuidad Universitaria (University City) are some concrete foundations surrounded by trees. At first glance it looks deserted but delve a little further into the undergrowth and you soon come across tell-tale signs of colourful political art work, a half-constructed some, gardens and the tents. Here, in central Buenos Aires, like the eco-village Velatropa. This university land of approximately one acre has now been occupied for three year (with no resistance from the University or the state).

Wooden dome and wind turbine

It has a transient population dominated by young University students (or those recent graduated) but even in winter, when I visited, had 20 residents. Although most people sleep intents there are several permanent eco-buildings on-site. The best of these is the main communal structure which houses a meeting space, library, art studio and kitchen which extends outside to several external ovens and food storage areas. This building is an experimental combination of adobe bricks, wattle and daub (using bamboo), bottle walls, beautifully shaped curved glass and quirks like a shutter made from flattened tin cans.

The kitchen and communal building, and a wall of the communal structure

The library and view of the windows from inside the communal building

Experimenting and recycling are two key activities onsite. All the materials for the buildings have been reclaimed and sourced for free. There are carefully ordered stacks of wood and ingeniously made bolts on the domes made from old drinks cans. Bricks are being made by compressing plastic bags into used plastic bottles and adobe bricks are made onsite. A reclaimed wooden dome is being given wattle and daub walls using bamboo to create the structure on which to ‘hang’ the clay. Elsewhere onsite a sandbag building is half complete. Someone has built a wind turbine from a bicycle wheel and recycled plastics and a solar hot water heater from old drinks bottles. This experimentation does mean that not everything works perfectly and in the recent rains the inside of the art studio was damp, perhaps built without a protective raised foundation. But that everything here has been made for free is the bigger message they are trying to convey.

Construction of bricks for building from used plastic bags and plastic bottles

In fact, Velatropa are trying hard to illustrate just how wasteful society is by deliberately recycling all that they can. They collect waste from around campus and beyond and recycle it, they run workshops with school children on making art from waste, and work with architecture students on building using discarded materials. The site has several stacks of plastic bottles, tin cans, plastic bags and cardboard. When I visited they were drying out the filling of a futon mattress they found dumped nearby which they are using as cushion filling.

Wall of the communal building and wattle and daub dome in progress

Inside and outside the communal building

There is a dedication to self-sufficiency here, but urban style using the waste of those around them as much as growing what they need in their large and luscious gardens (lemon and grapefruit trees, beans and legumes, celery, herbs, lavender and aniseed and many more which I could not recognise). With every act that they do for themselves however, such as build onsite, they seek to impact far and wide. So they extend their gardening by making seed bombs – seeds wrapped in small clay balls – which they distribute onto other empty land. Every Saturday afternoon the local architecture students some and help them build, building workshops are held as are other events about sustainability.

The garden

Perhaps their main asset though is their site and the welcome they give to strangers. A arrived without warning or an introduction and with terrible Spanish. For the first hour my hosts spoke little English and yet they took the time to show me around, communicate what they were doing with warm smiles, sign language, and the gift of bots of plants to eat and smell. Rarely have I felt so welcome at a place.

If you would like to visit they have an excellent website which has bus information and satellite maps. You can also take a taxi from central Buenos Aires (costs around AR$50 pesos, about £10) and ask to be dropped at Block 3 of University City. Visiting late morning or in the afternoons is best.

[Buenos Aires, 31st July 2010]


Straw bale house, Yacanto, Córdoba, Argentina

Filed under: Argentina,Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs — naturalbuild @ 7:43 pm

With glorious views of the Sierra de Comechingones, the straw bale house at Yacanto is possibly the largest straw bale house in South America. At 257 metres square (excluding the terrace) and two floors, it is a large house. It was built by Tim Cullen and completed in 2005, with a second small house finished early 2009. There is a wow factor with this house, especially inside where the high ceilings, huge rooms, numerous windows and solid thick walls create a feeling of permanence, space, and protection from the elements outside. The house is oat straw bale infill with block walls as its main supporting elements. The roof is corrugated aluminium necessary to cope with the odd hail storm but not be too heavy on the structure beneath. The walls have a soft yellow lime render. In all, the house took just nine months to build.

Straw bale house at Yacanto

The main advantage of straw bale for Tim is its thermal properties in relation to its costs. It is a temperate climate here with the extremes of cold winters and hot summers. His walls are 51 cm thick with a thermal capacity of 48. In comparison a single brick wall has a capacity of 19, a double with fibre-glass insulation (which is too expensive to be used in many local houses here) only raises the capacity into the 30’s. Moreover, he estimates that to achieve the same thermal properties using adobe or cob the walls would have to be 90 cm wide – a long and costly form of construction in comparison. The roof is also insulated with fibreglass, a membrane, and a wood and beam ceiling.

Door and veranda of the house

Ti had not built before and he simply read lots of books and sought advice from those in the USA and UK who had built straw bale. He does not consider such building complicated or requiring professional assistance, though he did get an engineer to check his structural calculations. He was able to make full use of information freely available online. His experience and success illustrates that paying professionals is often not necessary – if you adequately research your build.

The principle motivation for the use of straw bale in this building has been cost – that straw was the cheapest way to achieve the thermal capacity, but also that it was possible to build it using ‘unskilled’ labour, in other words often young men who not only have never built using straw before but had few building skills per se. Tim was able to direct this workforce using the knowledge he had gleaned from books and online. The second, smaller but still with two bedrooms, house only cost US$20,000 to build, just US$2,000 per square metre. This included the windows, doors, and bathroom and kitchen fixtures. He estimates that this is 50% less expensive than the same size house built in brick, and it is important to him that people should not be subjected to “debt slavery for life to inhabit a pile of junk”. While very functional as a house it is less aesthetically pleasing than the main building and on first inspection looks remarkably similar to local brick houses. But perhaps that is the point – it is better built, ecological in the materials it uses, cheap and is better suited to the climate, and yet it also does not require a cultural shift in order to be acceptable. For all intents and purposes it fits into the local cultural norms of what constitutes a home.

The smaller second straw bale house – outside and in

Most houses in the vicinity have been built to be cooling in the summer heat, rather than warming in the winter cold. They have been built to mitigate what is perceived to be the more difficult climate – that it is harder to cool than to heat a house. But with straw bale it is possible to curb the extremes of hot and cold and in the main house the larger number of windows have been deliberately positioned to maximise the possibility of natural ventilation in summer, without losing heat in winter. This house does not have, nor need, air-conditioning or ceiling fans, but it does need fires lit all day in winter. This concern about over-heating has also influenced the orientation – that passive solar gain is minimal because the house faces east to make the most of the stunning views of the Sierras. That said the small straw bale house has no windows in its southern wall in order to protect it from the harsh winds of Patagonia. The straw bale and natural lime render also enables the walls to breathe which help in temperature control.

View of the front of the house and inside main living room

This is an earthquake region, albeit that they are rare, and Timothy believes that the straw bale is flexible enough to withstand a seismic shock. In one recent quake a little plaster cracked but there was no major damage. Bigger threats from nature, however, are the ants, and the heavy rain and winds. There are a huge variety of ants here and they eat everything including straw. So the house has had to be protected from them. While in Argentina someone told me a story illustrating their ability. She was planting out some red flowers. She planted them, turned around to sort out the next seedling for transplanting, returned to the flowers to find the petals gone and a long line of ants carrying little bits of red away. These creatures are not to be underestimated and Argentina has been described as ‘a giant ant hill’. Thus the straw has had insecticide added and is lime covered which is a natural disinfectant. The floors are brick on top of four inches of coarse sand and four inches of brick rubble designed to discourage ants. Finally, in terms of natures’ threats to buildings are the heavy rains and winds of the region. Hence, large overhangs on the roof, a protective external plaster (three layers), and slanting window sills.

Detail of the roof

Straw bale building has no tradition in this region. Instead the design and principles were copied from a house in Canada featured in the The Straw Bale House Book. So the ideas have been imported and Tim was not born here. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that Timothy is not your stereotypical environmentalist and it has been important to him to demonstrate that eco-building happens beyond the usual realm of ‘hippies’ and saving money is enough motivation alone for choosing to build this way.

The future of straw bale building in Argentina, however, is far from clear. It has not really been taken up, not even by those workers Tim trained. There is still local fear and resistance to it as a building technique, though nationally this house has been the subject of a newspaper article and a documentary. Moreover, there is not a ready supply of straw bales in the region, partly because beef is a bigger form of agriculture and partly because what straw there is, is cut into large round bales which cannot retrospectively be turned into rectangular bales. Thus any straw bale builder has to commission the growth of straw specifically for purpose a year in advance (to allow for drying time).

There is another potential limitation to straw bale and that is the cultural emphasis on decorative housing – colourful and ornate (if it can be afforded) where Tim believes it becomes about “fashion over function”. For many his house does not fulfil the criteria of necessary appearance (though to a foreigners eye it has a majestic beauty) which in itself curtails its potential replication.

View of the front (facing east) of the house

When this house was constructed the building regulations were not enforced, but this is changing. Although in the pampa (countryside) it is possible to build as you wish, new regulations are being developed in the village which require prospective builders to submit plans and pay for approval. However, the local planners have said that straw bale will be permissible as long as adequate footings and columns are in place to withstand some seismic activity. Finally, this house does not use solar thermal water heating or any renewable energy technologies because they are prohibitively expensive.

The new geodesic greenhouse dome

This house is an example of careful research, cost-based choices, courage of convictions, and an open planning and building regulations system. It demonstrates a tension between function and aesthetics and a problem with a lack of locally available materials, but the small house in particular fits within many of the existing cultural norms of building and only time will tell if it is replicated further.

Flower pots on the wide window sills and the smaller second straw bale house

Tim is keen to welcome volunteers, especially those interested in helping expand his vegetable growing business (in a new and very large geodesic dome greenhouse), but please do not turn up unannounced. Contact him before arriving via email: To get to Yacanto either fly or take a bus to Córdoba, then take a bus to Villas de las Roasas which is about 10 miles north of Yacanto. You will need Tim to meet you there. There are several bus companies that serve the route and several buses a day. The journey from Córdoba to Las Rosas takes between three and four hours and you have stunning views of the Sierra on your way. Please note that the house has three dogs who although very friendly might not suit someone not comfortable with dogs.

View of the changing colors of the Sierra at sunset from the house

[Buenos Aires, 31st July 2010]


Casa Tierra, San Francisco del Monte de Oro, San Luis, Argentina July 30, 2010

[Versión en español abajo]

Miranda France in her book Bad Times in Buenos Aires said that to live in Argentina was ‘to live at the end of the world’ (1998, p.57). Yet traveling through the vast landscape of San Luis province on my way to Casa Tierra in San Francisco del Monte de Oro, I felt like I was in the middle of a huge and diverse continent – which did not need to care where it was in the world. It had mountains (the Sierra de Comechingones), a huge blue sky, fertile soil and a fresh beautiful air.

San Francisco del Monte de Oro is a small rural town nestled between two hill ranges. Two hours from the nearest small city it is rustic with its dirt roads, simple single storey houses, plain but elegant Plazas, numerous food shops, and, to the east, a powerful river surrounded by palm trees. It used to be bigger in years gone by, though now the tourist industry is coming to town and a new bus terminal glimmers in the anticipation of their arrival.

Casa Tierra – the main house

Casa Tierra, just to the north of the town, is the almost complete home of Nathalia and Diego Ruiz. It is an adobe house which curves towards the north with a living roof, a separate office and library building (Lak’a Uta, meaning earth house), and a separate wattle and daub bathroom block. The Lak’a Uta has no wood in its construction; instead it has a curved adobe roof designed by Jorge Belanko and look of an old Moroccan building. These buildings are all incredibly aesthetically pleasing, with details of lizard designs on the wall, coloured bottles casting light inside and curved glass windows looking out on the countryside beyond. Inside, the curved spaces invite sitting and the fire place warms the room as well at the kettle. Despite not yet having a finished roof it already feels like a place to peacefully dwell.

Fire place and hallway

Lak’a Uta the office

They chose to build in clay because it was cheap (rejecting the need for a 30 year mortgage for a tiny flat in the city), local, you can build curved walls, and it is easy (it forgives mistakes and can be easily maintained and repaired). Since building the living roof they have decided to avoid using wood as much as possible because it is very expensive and is not available locally. Similarly they rejected using straw because it is not easily available. If they chose to build adobe mainly because of cost they have also sought to make their build affordable by using workshop participants as cheap labour: “If we needed to pay builders natural building is not much cheaper than a conventional house. Labour is the same or more. Costs are a third materials but two-thirds in labour” (Diego). So they have only spent AR$ 5,000 (Argentinian pesos, £800) on the build. All they have had to buy is wood, glass, bags for the foundation (which they filled with rocks), some sand and some earth. Recently they have bought unfired clay bricks from the local brick factory because they are cheap and it saves them a great deal of time. In other words, the time savings are worth the cost and with similar justification they have occasionally used concrete if it saved them a week’s manual work. This build has not been quick – interrupted by having children, the necessity to make a living and a commitment to providing inspiring workshops which has meant starting a new building before others are complete in order to teach new skills. This time, of course, increases costs but has greatly enhanced their relationship with the local community and allowed them to experiment and alter their design.

Inside the finished room and view from the north

Their house is not big because it is deliberately designed around function, not objects or action. When people first design a house they often create a huge dwelling believing “that every actions needs a room when it should be about function and a room can be used for several functions” (Nathalia). Obviously the bigger the house the harder it is to heat and as the temperatures can go below freezing at night here in winter, and fuel is expensive or has to be collected manually, it is important to find a simple way to heat your house. But needs also often change in life and Casa Tierra has been designed so that it is relatively easy to add rooms, which is what they have done as their family has expanded. The need for ease of use while looking after a young child and another on the way has also triggered them to build an internal bathroom (whereas previously all infrastructure was in a separate building).

Bathroom in foreground, and detail of office

Building has been a very collective process at Casa Tierra. Nathalia estimates that 150 people have helped build their home in some way and that this collective approach has been incredibly important for the sociability, personal connections, fun and support, and enables a focus on the actual building process because the support roles of cooking and cleaning are shared.

Nathalia and Diego learnt themselves through several workshops in Patagonia (southern Argentina) and chose adobe to build partly because it is easy to teach others; you do not need to be an expert. Out of the 150 people who helped them build only 20 had previous building experience. Most importantly in terms of skills they believe in the importance of practical learning; learning through doing, feeling the materials, and understanding their attributes. For them it was especially important because they had no practical training and are from non-building backgrounds, highly intelligent but with their career experience in offices in Buenos Aires. So they value practical experience and in so doing see this as a critique of the current education system which does not provide people with the necessary skills for survival. Consequently, they place great emphasis on running workshops to teach others the necessary skills for building.

Oven (with roof yet to be finished) and hallway

Although their principle aim has simply been to provide a home for themselves, Nathalia and Diego have always sought to do this in a publically accessible way which might lead by example. They have sought to have ongoing conversations with local communities and encouraged visitors – always letting them know what they are doing and why. They are keen not to take on the role of convincing others that their ideas are superior. Rather they hope to make people aware that other solutions – to cold dark houses, or a dwindling supply of firewood – are available. They have done this by sharing workshops with locals, when natural building teachers visit they arrange a session open to all in a local school, and are seeking to work with community groups. They have almost finished building a library of eco-building and permaculture material. Their strategy then is to lead by example, illustrate through practice what is possible and most importantly not overcomplicate their message. Keeping things simple is essential in a small rural town where most people have very little, but basic needs which are often not met. So “we want to solve our needs in the most simple way and then share that. Not in a theoretical approach, but totally practical. We need to show it in practice” (Deigo). This approach seems to be working with locals asking their advice on building and a recent open meeting being well attended.

Lizard detail and inside main room

Many locals had mud houses historically and their grandparents built using mud, but it came to be viewed with shame, as representing the housing type of poor people and thus many aspired to a red brick house instead emulating ideas imported from Europe by the rich of Buenos Aires many decades ago. The traditional mud houses made using mud bricks were square dark buildings which although warm in winter and cool in summer where not the most inspiring to spend long periods of time in. Instead the new natural building movement wants to modify this technique to create brighter and more aesthetically pleasing homes, but illustrate that this builds upon, rather than rejects, this earlier tradition. In this way it helps give value to locals’ skills and heritage that have been rejected by many contemporary architects, planners and councils. In building they also used the traditionally local technique of adding cows’ blood to the external plaster which apparently works wonders as a waterproofing and protections agent.

This move to building earthen homes once more is in large part due to the need to build houses suitable for the bio-climate using local resources. This attention to climate is reflected in the lack of south-facing windows (where the harsh winds and rains flow up from Patagonia) and large windows to the north (which being in the southern hemisphere is where they benefit from passive solar gain). With large roof overhang the house still remains shaded for many of the summer months, but catches the lower warming sun in winter.

Refreshingly gender has been acknowledged here as an important issue in eco-building, Perhaps ironically for a traditionally patriarchal society which still maintains much of its machismo, the Ruiz’s were first taught natural building by two women (a course organised by Kleiwerks [link]) and think it is important that women are specifically encouraged to realise the possibilities of building in a culture where it is considered strong and heavy work and thus a masculine activity. They believe it is about both genders understanding and knowing their own bodies and its limitations – that there are men too who doubt their capacity to do manual labour. Moreover, it could be argued that many aspects of natural building challenge a macho way of doing things, that it involves a sensitivity of touch with materials which are soft and malleable and the effects of clay can often be subtle. So building becomes about more than physical work but creative judgement; which both genders need to learn and practice. For many it is simply about confidence and seeing that others like yourself can do it which stimulates a self-belief – thus the importance of practical learning and workshops run here.

Clay detail and use of bottles in design

The Ruiz’s purposefully chose to build clay in San Francisco del Monte de Oro because of its tradition of clay building, unlike Merlo to the north where there is perhaps a bigger ecologically-minded community, but very restrictive planning and building regulations. Technically five blocks north of the town their plot is considered pampa (countryside) and thus building regulations are unlikely to ever apply here. But regulations are being formulated for the town itself (as tourist development is expanding) and Nathalia and Diego are keen to ensure that clay buildings are formally accepted, perhaps even advocated, within these regulations. So part of their role is to positively influence the emerging legislation before, like in some other regions, clay housing is excluded from permissible building (one such house, in another region, has already had to be demolished because of regulations).

Building in rural Argentina can be a lonely process and Casa Tierra has relied upon, and benefitted enormously, from an international support network which has provided solidarity, knowledge and emotional support when times have felt tough. As Nathalia said “at times I thought it was just an interesting chapter in life and then we would move on” but the support enabled them to preserve and flourish. That said, the strength and courage with which they have approached this build and their commitment to and generosity in sharing their knowledge and skills is itself a huge inspiration for low-cost building everywhere.

The local river and forest

Casa Tierra accepts visitors for tours, and volunteers through the WOOFFing network. If you would like to visit be sure to contact them in advance rather than simply arrive as they often have commitments. They also run workshops on natural building; details are on their website. Contact via email:, or via the website: For directions see How to find … Casa Tierra.

[Buenos Aires, 30th July 2010]


Miranda France en su libro Malos Tiempos en Buenos Aires (Bad Times in Buenos Aires) dijo que vivir en Argentina era vivir “en el fin del mundo” (1998, p. 57). Sin embargo, viajar por el gran paisaje de la provincia de San Luis camino a la Casa Tierra en San Francisco del Monte de Oro, sentí que estaba en medio de un gran y diverso continente, el que no necesitaba preocuparse sobre donde estaba en el mundo. Tenía montañas (la Sierra de Comechingones), un gran cielo azulado, tierra fértil y un aire puro y fresco. 

San Francisco del Monte de Oro es un pequeño pueblo rural ubicado entre dos cordilleras. A dos horas de la pequeña ciudad más cercana es rustica con sus carreteras de tierra, sus casas simples de un piso, sus Plazas sencillas pero elegantes, numerosas tiendas de comida, y en el este, un poderoso río rodeado por palmeras. Solía ser más grande en años anteriores, pero ahora la industria turística se esta estableciendo en el pueblo y una nueva terminal de autobuses brilla de anticipación ante su llegada.

Casa Tierra, justo al norte del pueblo, es la casa de Nathalia y Diego Ruiz que casi esta terminada. Es una casa de adobe que da vuelta hacia el norte con un techo verde, una oficina separada y la biblioteca un edificio con el nombre de Lak’a Uta, que significa casa de tierra; un bloque separado zarzo y embadurnado que es el baño . La Lak’a Uta no tiene madera en su construcción, en lugar tiene un techo ondulado diseñado por Jorge Belanko y tiene el aspecto de un viejo edificio de Marruecos. Todos estos edificios son increíblemente agradables estéticamente, con detalles de lagartijas en las paredes, botellas de colores distribuyendo luz dentro de los edificios y ventanas con vidrio ondulado con vista hacia más allá del campo. Adentro, los espacios curvos invitan a sentarse y las chimeneas calientan las habitaciones al igual que la tetera. Aunque no se haya terminado el techo, ya se siente como un lugar donde se puede vivir tranquilamente.

Rechazando la idea de sacar una hipoteca de 30 años por un pequeño apartamento en la ciudad, ellos decidieron construir con arcilla, ya que es mas barato, el material es local, se pueden construir paredes curvas, y es fácil: perdona errores y el mantenimiento y reparo es fácil. Desde que decidieron construir el techo verde han decidido evitar el uso de madera lo más posible porque es muy caro y no esta disponible en el área. Igualmente, rechazaron el uso de paja porque tampoco se puede conseguir con facilidad. Además de decidir construir con adobe, específicamente por el costo, también buscaron hacer la construcción mas económica al utilizar participantes de talleres como mano de obra: “Si necesitábamos pagar albañiles, casas naturales son mucho más baratas que casas convencionales. El trabajo es el mismo o más. El costo es un tercero en materiales, pero dos tercios en mano de obra” (Diego).

Por lo tanto ellos solamente han gastado $5,000 pesos Argentinos (£800 libras esterlinas) en la construcción. Todo lo que ellos han tenido que comprar es madera, vidrio, bolsas para la fundación las cuales están llenas de rocas, algunas de arena y otras de tierra. Recientemente compraron ladrillos de arcilla secados bajo el sol de una fabrica de ladrillos local porque son baratos y ahorran tiempo. En otras palabras, el ahorro de tiempo vale la pena y con la misma escusa, en ocasiones, han usado concreto si les ahorraba el labor de una semana. Esta construcción no ha sido rápido – interrumpida por tener hijos, la necesidad de trabajar y su compromiso de proporcionar talleres inspiradores lo cual ha significado el iniciar la construcción de un nuevo edificio, antes de  completar otros, para poder enseñar nuevas técnicas. Esta vez, claro, los costos aumentan pero ha aumentado su relación con la comunidad del área significativamente y les ha permitido experimentar y alterar su diseño.

Su casa no es grande porque esta diseñada deliberadamente en relación a su funcionalidad, no a sus objetos o actividad. Cuando las personas diseñan una casa, ellos normalmente crean una gran habitación creyendo “que cada actividad necesita una habitación cuando debería de pensarse sobre la funcionalidad y que la habitación puede tener varias funciones” (Nathalia). Obviamente entre más grande la casa lo más difícil es calentarla y conforme las temperaturas pueden llegar a ser extremadamente frías por la noche durante el invierno aquí y el gas es caro o debe de ser reunido manualmente es muy importante el encontrar una manera simple para calentar la casa. Pero las necesidades también cambian frecuentemente en la vida y Casa Tierra ha sido diseñada de una manera en que sea relativamente fácil agregarle habitaciones, lo cual han hecho conforme su familia ha crecido. La necesidad de acceso mientras cuidan de su hijo menor y otro en camino también ha hecho que construyan un baño interior; mientras que anteriormente toda la infraestructura del lugar era de edificios separados.

La construcción ha sido un proceso colectivo en Casa Tierra. Nathalia calcula que 150 personas han ayudado en la construcción de su casa de alguna manera u otra y que este enfoque colectivo ha sido sumamente importante para la sociabilidad, conexiones personales, diversión y apoyo, y ha permitido el enfoque en el proceso actual de la construcción porque el papel de apoyo entre la cocina y limpieza son compartidos.

Nathalia y Diego han aprendido a través de varios talleres en la Patagonia (Sur de la Argentina) y escogieron adobe para construir en parte porque es fácil para enseñar – no se necesita ser un experto. De las 150 personas que los ayudaron a construir, solamente 20 tenían experiencia en construcción. Lo más importante en relación a habilidades, según ellos era aprendizaje a través de práctica: aprender a través de hacer, tocar los materiales, y entender sus atributos. Para ellos era especialmente importante porque ellos no tenían entrenamiento práctico y no tenían conocimiento sobre construcción, sumamente inteligentes pero con experiencia profesional en oficinas en Buenos Aires. Por lo tanto ellos valoran la experiencia a nivel práctico y esto ellos lo ven como una crítica hacia el sistema educativo actual, el que no provee a las personas con las habilidades necesarias para sobrevivir. Consecuentemente, ellos ponen gran énfasis en crear talleres para enseñar a los otros las habilidades necesarias para construir.

Aunque su principal interés ha sido el crear un hogar para si mismos, Nathalia y Diego siempre han buscado el hacer esto de una manera públicamente accesible, lo cual puede servir como ejemplo. Ellos han buscado mantener conversaciones con comunidades locales e inspirar a visitantes – siempre dejándoles saber lo que están haciendo y por qué. Ellos están inclinados a no tomar el papel de convencer a otros de que sus ideas son superiores. Todo lo contrario, ellos esperan informar a las personas sobre otras soluciones están disponibles para casas frías y oscuras o un escaso subministro de madera.  Ellos han logrado esto al compartir talleres con personas de la comunidad; cuando profesores de edificios ecológicos visitan, ellos planean sesiones para todo el quien quiera llegar en la escuela local, y están buscando trabajar con grupos comunitarios. Ya están a punto de terminar la construcción de la biblioteca de material de edificios ecológicos y material de permacultura.

Su estrategia, por lo tanto, es dar ejemplo, ilustrar a través de practica lo que es posible y lo más importante no complicarse con su mensaje. Mantener las cosas simples es esencial en un pequeña pueblo rural donde muchas personas tienen poco, solo las necesidades básicas las cuales varias veces no se satisfacen. Por lo tanto “nosotros queremos solucionar nuestras necesidades de la manera mas simple y compartir eso. No con una aproximación teórica, sino que práctica. Necesitamos mostrarlo en la aplicación” (Diego).  Este acercamiento parece funcionar con las personas del pueblo que piden sus consejos sobre construcción y una reunión abierta recientemente fue muy bien recibida.

Muchos de los residentes tenían casas de barro históricamente y sus abuelos construían usando barro pero llegaron a ser vistas con vergüenza, representando el tipo de vivienda de una persona pobre, por lo tanto muchas personas aspiraron a cosas con ladrillo rojo en lugar,  imitando las ideas importadas de Europa por las personas ricas de Buenos Aires de generaciones pasadas. Las casas de barro tradicionales hechas con ladrillos de barro eran edificios cuadrados oscuros, que aunque eran calientes en el invierno y frescas en el verano, no eran las más deseables para pasar grandes periodos de tiempo. Sin embargo, el nuevo movimiento de casas naturales quiere modificar esta técnica para crear casas más creativas y estéticamente atractivas para que no las rechacen aunque se basen en la construcción de la tradición previa. De esta manera, se ayuda a valorar las habilidades y herencia de los residentes que han sido rechazados por muchos arquitectos contemporáneos, planificadores y autoridades.  En construir de esta manera,  ellos utilizan técnicas tradicionales de agregar sangre de vaca como yeso externo, el cual aparentemente funciona de maravilla para impermeabilización y agente protector.

Esta estrategia en construir de nuevo hogares de barro es en parte debido a la necesidad de construir casas apropiadas para el bio-clima usando recursos locales. Está atención al clima esta reflejada en la falta de ventanas viendo hacia el sur, donde los vientos duros y las lluvias de la Patagonia provienen; y las grandes ventanas hacia el norte, por las que estando en el hemisferio sur es donde se benefician de la pasiva ganancia solar. Con techos largos encima, las casas aun consiguen sombra durante los meses del verano, pero aun logran alcanzar el pequeño calor del sol durante el invierno.

Refrescantemente genero se ha reconocido aquí como un tema importante en la eco-construcción, tal vez, irónicamente, para ser una sociedad patriarcal que aun mantiene mucho de su machismo, los Ruiz aprendieron sobre construcción natural por dos mujeres (un curso organizado por Kleiwerks [link] )  y piensan que es importante que las mujeres sean particularmente alentadas para que se den cuenta de su potencial para construir, dentro de una sociedad en donde construcción es una actividad considerada como un trabajo pesado y fuerte, por lo tanto, un trabajo para hombres. Ellos creen que es sobre los dos géneros, que ambos entiendan y conozcan sus cuerpos y sus limitaciones – que también hay hombres que dudan sobre su capacidad para hacer trabajo manual. De igual manera, se puede discutir que muchos aspectos de casas naturales desafían al macho en la forma en que hace las cosas, ya que requiere un toque delicado con los materiales que son suaves y moldeables y los efectos de barro muchas veces pueden ser sutiles. Por lo tanto, construir se convierte en algo más allá que trabajo físico si no que también requiere criterio creativo, lo cual ambos sexos necesitan aprender y practicar. Para muchos es solamente cuestión de confianza y ver que otros al igual que uno pueden hacerlo lo cual estimula auto-confianza – por esto la importancia de aprender durante la practica y los talleres que ofrecen.

Los Ruiz apropósito decidieron construir con arcilla en San Francisco del Monte de oro por su tradición en la construcción de barro, lo contrario a Merlo en el norte donde tal vez hay una mayor comunidad ecológicamente conciente, pero con mayores restricciones en planificación y reglamentos en construcción. Técnicamente 5 cuadras norte del pueblo de su terreno es considerado pampa (campo) y por lo tanto las regulaciones para construir son poco probables en aplicarse en esta área. Pero regulaciones se están formulando para el pueblo, ya que la industria turística esta creciendo, y Natalia y Diego están interesados en asegurar de que las casas de barro sean aceptadas formalmente, talvez si es posible apoyadas, dentro de esta regulación. Por lo tanto, parte de su papel es de influenciar positivamente a la legislación emergente antes de que como en otras regiones, las casas de barro sean excluidas dentro de las construcciones permisibles (una casa en otra región, por ejemplo, tubo que ser demolida por las nuevas regulaciones).

Construir en el área rural de Argentina puede ser un proceso solitario y Casa Tierra se ha fiado y beneficiado enormemente, de una red de apoyo internacional que ha proporcionado solidaridad, conocimiento y apoyo emocional cuando han pasado tiempos duros. Como Nathalia dice “a veces yo pensé que era solo un capítulo interesante en mi vida y que luego seguiríamos adelante” pero el apoyo les permitió continuar. Con eso dicho, la fuerza y el coraje con el que se han acercado a esta construcción y su compromiso a ella y generosidad en compartir su conocimiento y habilidades es en sí admirable para casas de bajo-costo en todas partes.

Casa Tierra acepta visitantes para tours y voluntarios a través de WOOFFing network.  Si desean visitar por favor comunicarse con ellos con anticipación, en lugar de simplemente llegar ya que normalmente tienen compromisos. Ellos también dan talleres sobre construcción natural; detalles están en su página de red. Contactar por correo electrónico:, o a través de su página en la red: Para direcciones vea:  How to find … Casa Tierra.

[Buenos Aires, 30 de Julio 2010]


Eco-building in Argentina: Diversity and vibrance July 28, 2010

[Versión en español abajo]

When I chose Argentina as one of the countries I would visit to explore eco-building several people questioned my choice. Even in Buenos Aires my research topic raised some eyebrows – ‘why here?’ they asked, ‘I did not know of such things’ others would say. I chose Argentina because I was looking for a country with a temperate climate which had a newly emerging green building movement; in order for me to understand what factors encouraged people to start eco-building and how such ideas were spread. I have quickly discovered that the eco-building movement here is diverse and vibrant, and perhaps most importantly for me, concerned with costs – often deliberately trying to appeal to those with little money.

View from the Sierra de Comechingones and a rural town street

Argentina is a truely vast country. It was not until I spent 11 hours on a bus from Buenos Aires to Córdoba that I began to comprehend just quite how large it is (as I only crossed a tiny section of the country). Outside the three main cities (Buenos Aires, Córdoba, and Rosario) where almost 40% of the population live there is a very low population density with 25 million people spread over the remaining 2.5 million kms square. In San Luis province there are on average fewer than 5 people per km square. To the east the land is particularly flat with the ubiquitous cow grazing and soya bean production, and the odd horse, sheep and goat for variety. It is winter here now so what few trees there are are leaf-less and the trees are more bush like than anything else. To the west the Sierras rise with rocky tree-less tops and hovering Condors. Then, of course, there are the Andes. South the landscape changes dramatically as Patagonia takes shape, steep sided valleys form, and snow falls.

Rural house and typical brick house in San Luis province

Occasionally punctuating this landscape are a few small simple, single storey houses made from brick with a tin or tile roof. Above each is a water tank and the windows are rarely very big. They are heated by a single fireplace. Some have a small veranda, but many do not. Everything is quite simple and rustic. Beyond the main traffic arteries roads are rarely tarmaced. Most of this land is considered pampa (countryside) and while there are no restrictions on building in most pampa areas there are few people to build. Places become quickly remote out here with only the main towns and roads linked by the excellent bus network, and many people have been encouraged by government housing programs to move from the hills into the towns Argentina is not a wealthy country with estimates that as many as two-fifths of the population are living below the poverty line.

Eco-building in this context cannot ignore the reality that many people live in basic conditions. Although in the cities there are some more expensive green buildings which are high-tech in their design and systems, in the pampa the emphasis is on simplicity and local materials. Thus there is a burgeoning adobe natural building movement with its centre at El Bolsón, Rio Negro, Patagonia. The home of the Land Ethic Action Foundation and an excellent place for natural building workshops is La Confluencia run by Mark and Ellie Jordan. Jorge Belanko is also one of the main advocates and trainers in the region.

Casa Tierra, San Francisco del Monte de Oro

Further north is the Yanantin Foundation in San Luis, and one of their projects – Casa Tierra – is an almost complete adobe house in San Francisco del Monte de Oro. Here they are trying to build without wood because it is not available locally and is incredibly expensive. They are also placing particular emphasis upon connecting with locals – sharing their workshops, encouraging visitors and taking their talks to local schools. The appeal of adobe is not just that it is a freely available local material, or that it suits the climate (keeping houses warm in the winter where at night the temperate falls just below zero celsius, and cool in summer when it can reach as high as 40 C) but that it is also the traditional building technique of the region. Although unfortunately associated with poverty, mud houses have long existed in this area and many houses in San Francisco are adobe from two hundred years ago. The movement in El Bolsón and the Yanantin Foundation are in part trying to revive this ancient tradition and remove any shame or stigma attached to it. It is not only cheaper than the contemporary trend for red brick construction, but requires far less heating (done here by using firewood) and is cooler in summer. Moreover, many local builders still know how to build using mud as they were taught by their grandparents.

Old clay house and inside, San Francisco del Monte de Oro

Importing a different way of building is the use of straw bale in Yacanto and Merlo, in Córdoba province. Here newcomers have brought in methods from Canada and the USA to build a large straw-bale house – El Trébol Del Monte – and others are experimenting with a combination of straw and bamboo in the hills near Merlo.

El Trébol Del Monte, straw bale house at Yacanto

Also tackling the issue in a completely different way is the Centro Experimental de la Vivenda Economica (CEVE) – a non-governmental organisation based in Córdoba which seeks to build low cost housing using sustainable building components and tools for community organisation. Its emphasis is primarily upon providing affordable housing and not natural building. But they train people in building for themselves and are experimenting with recycling plastic bottles into bricks, recycling water from a sink unit to flush toilets, and using materials with a low embodied energy.

The Colectiva de Mujeres Granja Agroerologice have set up a farm called La Verdecita in Sante Fé, which seeks to challenge the multinational corporations spread of soya bean production in the area by teaching alternative forms of agriculture. In particular they work with local low-income women and have been teaching natural building techniques so that they can renovate their own homes with clay and build their own new meeting space. This is an eco-feminist groups who are using eco-building techniques to empower local women to have more choices in life.

On a national scale the recently (2006) formed Argentina Green Building Council which advocates (from Buenos Aires) for more adoption of green building approaches has just begun its first affordable green build project. In addition there are emerging eco-neighbourhoods, like Eco Barrio Villa Sol in Córdoba, and more activist orientated projects liked the long standing Gaia ecovillage at Navaro (west of Buenos Aires) and Aldea Velatropa which is an eco-space near the University in Buenos Aires where workshops are run, among other activities.

In all, green building in Argentina is diverse and vibrant, and although in many ways is new the techniques being practiced have historical resonance in the region. The understanding that building using local materials also greatly reduces costs is one of the principal motivations here and there are many groups working hard to improve the quality of housing for those on low incomes.

(San Luis, Argentina, 28th July 2010)


Cuando escogí Argentina como uno de los países que visitaría para explorar edificios ecológicos varias personas se cuestionaron mi decisión. Aun, en Buenos Aires mi tema de investigación causo controversia ¿por qué aquí? Me preguntaron “nosotros no sabemos de esas cosas” algunos contestaban. Yo escogí Argentina porque yo estaba buscando un país con un clima templado que tenia un movimiento que estaba comenzando a surgir con relación a construcción ecológica, para que así yo pudiese entender qué factores motivaron a estas personas a comenzar con construcción ecológica y cómo estas ideas fueron esparcidas. Rápidamente he descubierto que el movimiento de construcción ecológica aquí es diversa y vibrante, y talvez lo más importante para mí, se preocupa ante el costo: a menudo tratan de atraer, deliberadamente, a  personas con poco dinero.


Vista desde la Sierra de Comechingones y una calle de un pueblo rural

Argentina es realmente un país inmenso. No fue hasta que pase 11 horas en un bus desde Buenos Aires hasta Córdoba que comencé a comprender que tan largo es, ya que solo había cruzado una pequeña parte de este país.  Afuera de las tres ciudades principales, Buenos Aires, Córdoba, y Rosario, donde casi 40% de la población vive, hay una baja densidad de población, con 25 millones de habitantes esparcidos sobre los restantes 2.5 millones de kilómetros cuadrados.  En la provincia de San Luis hay un promedio de menos de 5 personas por kilómetro cuadrado. Al este, el territorio es particularmente plano compuesto de pasto para vacas y producción de semilla de soja y caballos impares, ovejas y cabras como variedad. Es invierno aquí, por el momento, entonces los poco árboles que hay no tienen hojas, pero los árboles son mucho más arbustos que cualquier otro. Al oeste, las Sierras que al subirlas se ve están formadas por rocas sin árboles y con Cóndores o buitres que las rodean. Luego, por supuesto, está Los Andes. Al sur el paisaje cambia drásticamente conforme la Patagonia toma lugar, en donde se forman valles inclinados, y cascadas de nieve.


La casa rural y la típica casa de ladrillo en la provincia de San Luis

Ocasionalmente, con vista al paisaje hay unas pocas simples y pequeñas casas, de un piso hechas de ladrillo con un techo de estaño o teja.  Encima de cada una hay un tanque de agua y las ventanas son raramente grandes. Se calefacciona a través de una chimenea y algunas tienen un pórtico o galería, pero muchas no. Todo es sumamente simple y rústico. Mucha de esta tierra es considerada pampa o campo y mientras que no hay restricciones en construcción en la mayor parte del área de la pampa, hay poca gente para construir. Los lugares rápidamente se convierten en áreas remotas aquí, con solo las ciudades principales y carreteras, conectadas por la excelente cadena de autobuses, y muchas personas han sido convencidas por programas gubernamentales de vivienda a que se muden de las montañas a los pueblos.  Argentina no es país rico, con un promedio en dónde más de dos quintos de la población viven bajo el nivel de pobreza. 

Construcción ecológica en este contexto no puede ignorar la realidad que muchas personas viven bajo condiciones básicas. Aunque en las ciudades hay algunas casas ecológicas más caras con diseños y sistemas tecnológicos más avanzados, en la pampa el énfasis es la simplicidad y los materiales locales. Por lo tanto, se esta desarrollando un movimiento de construcción natural de adobe ubicado en El Bolsón, Río Negro, Patagonia. El hogar de la LEAF (Land Ethic Action Foundation) y un excelente lugar para talleres de construcción natural es la Confluencia administrado por Mark y Ellie Jordan. Jorge Belanki es también uno de los principales partidarios y maestros de la región.


Casa Tierra, San Francisco del Monte de Oro

Un poco más hacia el norte está la fundación Yanantin en San Luis y uno de sus proyectos Casa Tierra -una casa de adobe en San Francisco del Monte de Oro casi completada. Aquí se está tratando de construir sin madera ya que no está disponible localmente y es increíblemente cara. También están poniendo gran énfasis en entablar relaciones con los residentes, al crear talleres, invitando visitantes y llevando charlas a las escuelas locales. Lo llamativo de adobe no es solamente que es un material local fácilmente disponible, o de que sea ideal para el clima, manteniendo las casas calientes durante el frío cuando la temperatura de la noche cae al nivel de bajo cero grados centígrado, o fresco en el verano cuando las temperaturas pueden llegar hasta 40 grados; pero de que es una técnica tradicional de construcción en la región. 

Desafortunadamente asociadas con pobreza, las casas de barro han existido por un buen tiempo en el área y muchas casas en San Francisco son de adobe desde hace doscientos años. El movimiento en El Bolsón y la fundación de Yanantin en parte están intentando de re-vivir está antigua tradición y quitar la vergüenza o el estigma que le persigue. No solamente es más barato que el nuevo movimiento de construcción de casas de ladrillo, pero requiere menos calefacción (hecho aquí a través de madera) y son más frescas durante el verano. De igual manera, muchos constructores locales aun saben como construir con barro, ya que eso fue lo que les enseñaron sus abuelos.


Vieja casa de barro. Vista por dentro, San Francisco del Monte de Oro

Importando una diferente forma de construcción es el uso de fardos de paja en Yacanto y Merlo, en la provincia de Córdoba. Aquí los nuevos residentes han traído métodos del Canada y de los Estados Unidos para construir una gran casa de fardos de paja, el Trébol del Monte, y otros están experimentando con una combinación entre paja y bambú en los montes cerca de Merlo.


El Trébol del Monte, casa de fardos de paja en Yacanto

También enfrentando la problemática de una manera diferente es el Centro Experimental de la Vivienda Económica (CEVE) una organización no-gubernamental localizada en Córdoba, que se preocupa en como construir casas a bajo costo utilizando componentes de construcción sustentables y herramientas para organizar a la comunidad. Su énfasis, principalmente, es proporcionar viviendas económicas y no casas naturales. Pero ellos entrenan a las personas en construcción y están experimentando con botellas de plástico reciclable a ladrillos, reciclar el agua del lavado para echar agua en el inodoro y usar materiales con poco consumo de electricidad.

La Colectiva de Mujeres Granja Agroerologice ha construido una granja llamada La Verdecita en Santa Fé, quienes compiten con las compañías multinacionales difundiendo la producción de semillas de soja en el área a través de la enseñanza de formas alternas de agricultura. En particular, ellas trabajan con las mujeres locales de bajos recursos y han estado enseñando técnicas para la construcción de casas naturales para que así ellas puedan renovar sus propias casas con barro y construir un nuevos para sus reuniones. Este es un grupo ecológico feminista que están usando técnicas de construcción ecológica para fortalecer a las mujeres de la comunidad, para que tengan más opciones en la vida.

En un censo nacional del 2006 formado por el Consejo Argentino de Construcción Sustentable establecido en Buenos Aires y que favorece la adopción de más acercamientos para la construcción ecológica, han iniciado su proyecto de casas ecológicas económicas. Igualmente, están naciendo eco-comunidades, como el Eco Barrio Sol en Córdoba y más proyectos activistas establecidos, como Gai la eco-aldea en Navarro en el oeste de Buenos Aires, y Aldea Velatropa el cual es un eco-espacio cerca de la Universidad de Buenos Aires donde se realizan talleres, entre otras actividades; ambos llevan ya vario tiempo de haber sido establecidos.

En total, la construcción ecológica en Argentina es diversa y vibrante y aunque en muchas maneras es reciente, las técnicas que se practican han sido de resonancia histórica dentro de la región. El entender que construir con materiales locales también reduce el costo, es uno de las principales motivaciones aquí y hay mucho grupos trabajando duro para mejorar la calidad de las viviendas para esas personas de escasos recursos.

(San Luis, Argentina, 28 de julio, 2010)


Pun Pun, Ban Mae Jo, Chiang Mai, Thailand July 12, 2010


Rice field onsite and adobe house

Sitting high on the hill overlooking the small village of Ban Mae Jo, Pun Pun has a glorious view of the valleys and hills for miles around. Jon (pronounced ‘Jo’) Jandai and Peggy Reents started the project in 2003 with just 20 Rai of land which locals considered to have very poor soil and thus had little promise. Pun Pun has since grown to cover far more of the hillside and another community – You Sabai – now sits high behind it too. Fifteen people now live on site fulltime.

Pun Pun is primarily a sustainable living centre concerned with seed saving and teaching the broad range of skills you need for sustainability, of which natural building is only part. This is motivated by a desire to be self-reliant, as many Thai’s once were, and thus providing the four basic needs of life – housing, medicine, clothes and food, for yourself. Thus, for example, the seed saving centre is a deliberate subversion of multinational companies domination of seed and pesticide sales which have resulted in many farmers being in debt to them. Pun Pun wants to reinvigorate the ‘diversity and variety in our food and crops’ (Yao) and increase their flavour. Thus while there are currently only three types of tomatoes standardly available in Thailand, Pun Pun has collected 100 varieties and are both building valuable stocks through propagation, and distributing them freely to farmers across the country.


Dining hall, cafe and solar hot water heater

The construction at Pun Pun is big – both in the size of some of the buildings and in their number. There is a recently completed meeting hall which towers over the other buildings with its two storey’s and a small third level. It is made from a combination of adobe and metal supporting beams with a concrete aggregate-fibre tiled roof. The new kitchen and eating space is similarly constructed and both have enough space upstairs to sleep large groups of visitors. Elsewhere there is a cafe housed in the fist adobe building on site which now has hot water heated by a solar cooker design adapted to heat water rather than food. There are numerous other residential houses – all adobe of various forms and with different roofs – thatch or tile. Jon and Peggy’s house is a majestic two-storey adobe double roundhouse which inside makes the most of its curved walls and views of the valley below.


The meeting hall

This focus on adobe was triggered by Jon Jandai’s visit to the earthern buildings of New Mexico. USA. Finding them cool inside in the heat of the day, and of a simple construction, he endeavoured to replicate them in Thailand. The process of building has been experimental and has had to adapt to the tropical climate. After the first house on site it was realised that larger roof overhangs were needed to protect the walls, and there is an ongoing fight to prevent the termites reaching the walls and wood. Thus all the walls begin on raised concrete, and as Yao said, ‘if we had no termites we would be more natural in our building’. While it is acknowledged that a thatch roof of grasses is better suited to the climate – it enables good ventilation – and a concrete aggregate tiled roof is hotter, the tiles last considerably longer and have been used on the larger buildings where replacement every few years would be both costly and considerably time-consuming.


Jon Jandai and Peggy Reents house – adobe with grass thatch roof

This focus on longevity in part motivated the initial experiments with adobe in Thailand. Jon Jandai argues ‘earth building is the oldest, most sustainable and strongest form of building’ (1). There was also a need to find a long-lasting cheap alternative to concrete which is rapidly becoming the build material of choice across Thailand. The shortage and high cost of teak wood, the traditional build material of the region, and the short lifespan of other natural materials often used for building here – bamboo and thatch – has left concrete and cement a clear favourite. Adobe is one of the few alternatives which can be freely, or at least cheaply, sourced locally, learnt easily and yet still has a robustness and longevity which can entice people away from using concrete – well that is what Pun Pun is hoping anyway.


An adobe house and inside

In addition to being a relatively easy technique to learn and that ‘we can all do it’ (Yao), Pun Pun deliberately focuses on working with groups who want to build together. They are less interested in the individual who wants to build their own house and instead view building as a necessarily collective process which should enhance community. The aim is to rediscover the traditionally collective ways of community in Thailand. The days when jobs were shared, families supported other families and little money exchanged hands. Thus ‘we take back the old tradition to work together and help each other. If five people each want to build a house, they all build this house together and then move to another house, then another’ (2). This not only challenges the capitalist consumer culture, but views building as a form of social change activism which can make communities more resilient and self-reliant, ultimately more sustainable. It views building as a process of sharing and building support networks.


Adobe bricks ready for building, and the cafe entrance

This focus on community is also a critique of the problem of privacy which Jon considers the antithesis of community, ‘privacy doesn’t help anything. It creates your ego only, and makes your own walls bigger’ (2).

Pun Pun is a project heavily dominated by Thai nationals with a few foreigners added to the mix. This creates a useful combination. The Thai contingent are better placed to understand the cultural barriers and opportunities of natural building in Thailand, to know the climate in which the buildings must function, understand the nuances of the countries’ politics, and, of course, speak the language. Yao says that the best ways to encourage natural building here is ‘to make everything very simple. There is no need to make it complicated. You can do it very cheaply’ (Yao). The foreigners have their role in this process of dissemination too because, rightly or wrongly, their ideas and practices are respected and Thais’ wish to emulate them. Thus ‘they respect the foreigner, if a white person is seen doing something … the locals think it must be OK. But the ideas need to be communicated in a way they can understand’.


Adobe houses with raised roofs for ventilation

This emphasis on simplicity, collectivity, and using an easy technique all help make these buildings affordable, to a certain extent. Pun Pun is very much working against the prevailing model that you should have to work half your life in order to afford a house. The logic being that all other animals can easily build their own home, and we should be able too. Thus far, however, enthusiasm for adobe building in Thailand has tended to be limited to the middle classes and there is a trend for using it to create tourist resorts rather than homes; ‘people struggle to see that you can live in them, that it is not just a guest house, it is a home for all’ (Yao). That said  the response has been overwhelming in recent years and Jon is in great demand as a teacher and advocate of green building. His adobe buildings can be found across Thailand.

Perhaps the defining lesson from Pun Pun is best encapsulated in their saying, ‘whenever you are doing something, if it is hard, it is wrong’.


If you would like to visit Pun Pun please see their website:, email:, or call: (66) 081-470-1461. They run excellent two month long internships every winter, some shorter courses, and you can also volunteer, or go as a day visitor. There is also a CD ‘Earthern Building’ which describes their approach to adobe, available from Pun Pun.

(1) ‘Earthern Building’, a CD produced by Pun Pun,

(2) Interview with Jon Jandai quoted in ‘Earth Building in Thailand’ (2003),

(Chiang Mai, 12th July 2010)


Amy’s Earth House, Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand July 10, 2010

West of Pai in the village of Ban Mae Khong is Amy’s Earth house, the first adobe building in Pai. Built in 2004 she has since expanded to seven earth bungalows and a dorm building, and runs it as a guesthouse for the increasing numbers of tourists (mostly Thai rather than foreigner) heading north into the green valleys and forested hills of Mae Hong Song (Thailand). She never really intended to run a guesthouse, she wanted to invest in a property and build a home that would be robust enough, and in a good location, to cope with the changing weather of the region. She wanted a house that would last. Pai has been hit by heavy floods in recent years which damaged a lot of property in the town, and any house here has to cope with the heat of the hot season and the humidity and rain of the wet season.


Inside and outside one of the earth houses

Amy (a Thai originally from Bangkok) was inspired to build adobe by her boyfriend at the time, an American. He had volunteered on a couple of natural building projects in the region and, with Amy, organised a group of volunteers to build on Amy’s land. It took just six months to complete the house; making each adobe brick themselves from clay on site using a wooden frame, to fitting the roof. In Thailand this is considered a long time to build a house and they deliberately ‘did not work all day because it is too hot, so we just did what we wanted to’. They were also hampered by running out of water at times (the site had no infrastructure or facilities), which meant they could not make the bricks or mix the clay mortar. Amy is critical with the obsession of speed in building because locally this has led to a preference for concrete houses which ‘can be finished in a week’. For her, building cheaply and naturally meant taking her time and having fun by working in a group. She notes it would be almost impossible to do on your own and that such builds have to be a collective process otherwise it would be a long and lonely journey. This raises fundamental questions about how we currently build our homes and often view them as individual rather than more collective projects.

Part of the fun was in using the body in the build – not just as labour but in feeling and touch. They mixed the clay with rice husks using their feet and ‘we used our feeling, touching to know’ with their hands when the clay was the right consistency. The sense of touch is important in earthern building even after completion – the soft curved walls invite interaction, in a way concrete walls do not.


Glass bottle wall and design detail

During this first build Amy learnt from her boyfriend and has never had any further training. She has simply experimented and asked advice when she needed it. She also identified parts of the build – the plumbing in the toilet – where she wanted more expertise and employed locals for those jobs.

The interest her house generated encouraged her to build more. Though this time she trained some locals and paid them to build the guest bungalows. She said training them adobe building was relatively easy, though at first they thought the method quite odd. Thee buildings, beautiful and peaceful to stay in, are a mix of influences and methods, and for Amy nothing is ever finished. She continues to experiment, improve and evolve her houses. Eco-building in this context is a fusion of ideas from around the world complicated by the way natural methods are mixed with vernacular style and modern building techniques. Thus, the original adobe building here was inspired by American tradition but Amy is about to experiment with new thicker thatch roofs designed and used by Chinese in a local village (Ban Santichon). Non-natural materials have been added in where the eco-approaches were proved somehow to be deficient. Thus the bungalows now incorporate a tin roof (sandwiched between a woven bamboo ceiling and external leaf layer) to increase waterproofness and reduce the debris that was falling internally from the original grass roof. The bathrooms, which are open-air now have cement block walls because the original bamboo surrounds did not give enough privacy for guests. The new dorm building has a roof of metal beams and aggregate-fibre tile roof. This last material choice was mostly one of cost. Wood is expensive and the prefered wood – teak – is now in short supply because of excessive logging and recent government strict regulation of its use. The result is an interesting mixture of methods, a pragmatic approach to eco-building.

The irony of this approach was that because the local earth Amy used to build he houses is grey ‘it looked like concrete from a distance’. So even the natural elements were not perceived as natural by visitors. Her solution was to paint them an earthy orange. The implication being that eco-houses have to look eco to be believed. This creates an interesting disjuncture. On the one hand if we want eco-buildings to become mainstream we tend to adapt them to fit into existing expectations of architecture and home. On the other hand, if they don’t look different enough people don’t believe they are special in any way and miss the broader environmental message.


The now orange walls and a house surrounded by vegetation

Amy’s Earth House and her earth bungalows were made affordable by building in a place where until recently land was relatively cheap, using adobe which is easy to learn quickly and to pass on which reduces the need for skilled labour, and using volunteer labour. By dramatically reducing the amount of wood used in construction, a radical move away from the Lanna all-teak buildings of the area, then costs are further reduced. There are no structural beams in the adobe walls, just the roof beams and the wood of the window frames and doors. Clay was used from the site, rice husks brought cheaply from a local village, as were secondhand doors and windows. Amy has also deliberately limited the size of her house and the bungalows partly because ‘Thai people are outdoor people so we have lots of outdoor space’ and partly to keep life simple. Her building has also been a process of making additions over time as she could afford it – modular building.


Eating area and sala tower

The guest buildings are also designed to reduce the need for extensive draining systems by placing the shower head directly over a trench of plants which then directly benefit from the waste water. It has the additional effect of brining nature right into the home. It encourages interaction with nature at a rather intimate moment – when you are washing – and in is this way challenges our often sterile view of cleaning and reminds us of the environment in which we live. Although being able to live much of our daily life outside is weather dependent, perhaps if our houses were smaller and the boundaries blurred between our homes and nature, we might engage with nature more. Much of our desire to build large fortress-like houses is cultural – a sign of wealth and status, or a fear of society. Perhaps we need to learn not to shut out quite so much of the environment from our homes?


Bathroom and view from the sala

Any problems Amy has encountered tend to involve the maintenance of the buildings, that some of the walls need patching every few years and the leaf roof only lasts three years. As Pai has started rapidly expanding the electricity supply has become less reliable (she is attached to the mains) which in turn cuts out the water pump. But Amy navigated the planning permission (required for business premises) with ease and has found the regulatory system supportive of her building.

Amy’s house has helped spread the appeal of natural building in northern Thailand. Many have wanted to replicate her, but with mixed success. There is another adobe guesthouse in Pai inspired by Amy’s, another individual house built by the workers Amy trained, but there are also unfinished projects or buildings were they built with adobe bricks which were too small and their walls collapsed, or they attempted it alone and discovered quite how long it takes. So while an eco-building can serve as an inspiring example which helps spread environmental ideas, there is also a need for training or detailed information in order to ensure people’s first foray into eco-building is a success. One such group offering this training in Thailand is Baandin. As Amy herself said, eco-building in Thailand remains the preserve of the middle classes and has yet to be understood as an affordable methods for the ‘grassroots’.


If you would like to visit Amy’s Earth House visit her website:, or email:, or call (+66) 086 190 2394. There are several buses a day from Arcade bus station in Chiang Mai, and minivans almost every hour. It takes about three to four hours from the city. Once in Pai it is a further 3.5 kms west to Ban Mae Khong. You can either hire a motorbike or take a motorbike taxi (they are willing to do the trip with your luggage too – a rather interesting experience if, like me, you have a large backpack!). Amy’s rates vary according to season but at their peak are an affordable 16 British pounds a night for a whole en-suite bungalow. Amy offers an all day food and drink service (excellent mango smoothies!) and is a brilliant guide to the area.

(Pai, Mae Hong Son, 9th July 2010)


Panya Project, Mae Taeng, Thailand July 3, 2010

Past the rice fields and towards the forested hills lies Panya Project near Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Established in 2004 it has become a site for experimentation and education in permaculture and natural building. In its 10 acres there is a large communal building (the Sala), nine residential dwellings, a new large dormitory, a shower block, compost toilet block, storage building and plant nursery.

The communal building (sala) and inside – dinning room and kitchen

Between all these buildings is an abundance of nature – birds, butterflies, frogs, snakes, salamanders and, of course it being a tropical climate, mosquitos and flies. At first the trees and undergrowth appear as a mangle of greenery. But after a while you notice that fruit surrounds you – mango trees sit outside the dorm building and there is a fig and a pineapple growing amongst the bananas on the way to the shower block. Much of this is carefully planted with legume trees supporting the fruit growth. Despite a long dry season and a dry wet season thus far, the place is lush and green and the trees shade and envelope the spaces calved out by the residents.

For a project so young (five and a half years old) there is an impressive amount of building and the infrastructure, the design of systems and construction of buildings according to permaculture principles, is almost complete. It was setup by a group of young Americans led by Christian Shearer with the aim of creating a permanent community. For a variety of reasons few of the founding members stayed full-time and it is now more a transient place where people come to learn skills and work the land for a few months and then move on, though several volunteers return annually. The advantage of this flux in residents, however, is that it feels quite a vibrant place invigorated by the energy of new arrivals. When I arrived there were 17 people on-site and numerous projects in mid-flow (like planting, tidying the store and finishing the dorm).

A door to a guest room and a residential house

All the buildings on-site are described as natural buildings and the majority are earthern, built using either sun-dried adobe bricks or wattle and cob, with both techniques using clay and straw or rice husks. Much of the clay has been taken from the site itself, though recently some has had to be purchased locally because so many holes were being created onsite. Adobe has been combined with bamboo which is used to create a second storey and comfortable sleeping environment sitting above an earthern ground floor. That these buildings are considered by Panya as natural rather than eco-buildings reflects a difference in the priorities of the project. The focus here is on health and ‘feeling emotionally well’. The environment is important but secondary to a nuture of the individual and building a healthy society. Thus using healthy organic and natural building materials is more important than the environmental performance of a building, albeit that adobe was chosen partly for its thermal qualities. This is perhaps best illustrated by the use of mains electricity supply – there is only one PV panel onsite – though electricity is not used for much more than lighting. This difference between natural and eco-building is subtle, and Panya have had, through trial and error, to adapt their initial all-natural focus in order to ensure their buildings survive the tropical climate and in order to collect water. The onslaught of termites, heat, humidity and rain act as fast degrading agents on natural buildings and cement is now used for foundations (to discourage termites reaching the adobe walls) and concrete-aggregate fibre sheets for roofs to enable rainwater collection, which is not possible from a grass thatched roof.

Residential buildings onsite

Natural building is also a chosen method because of its route in vernacular architecture (though earthern techniques are not vernacular to northern Thailand) and thus its rejection of the need for experts. This values spontaneous, intuitive and accessible forms of building. For Panya this approach is less about advocating that adobe buildings should be replicated, and more about empowering people to believe that they can build a house (and numerous other skills) themselves. It is about facilitating a do-it-yourself culture, using whatever materials and designs suit. In this way Panya tries to be about much more than the buildings and residents consider the process of building and its completion as enhancing community (all builds are a collective process), part of a broader vision of changes required, an expression of creativity, and as a nucleus of ideas they hope people will take with them worldwide. Thus at Panya a house is more than just a shelter.

Some aesthetic touches on the buildings

There is a slight tension in Panya’s choice of natural building technique. Traditionally local houses were made from teak wood or bamboo and built on stilts. Recently there has been a shift towards using cement blocks on concrete foundations, which often then require air-conditioning. Earthern building was imported into the area by Jon Jandai after he visited New Mexico, USA. Supporters of the technique argue that it suits to the northern Thailand environment – providing a cool space when it is hot and a warmer space when it is cool. However, others question whether the local vernacular architecture is better suited to the climate. It is clear, however, than earthern building is preferable to the recent trend of cement and concrete housing both environmentally and for comfort.

Panya has put into practice the belief that walls and houses can isolate us from nature and each other and that if we re-design them we can better integrate nature into our daily lives. This is best exemplified in the Sala wich has few externals walls and is a very open space. It is protected from the elements by a large over-hanging roof, but allows much of nature in. Other buildings have no glass in their windows.

Bamboo, adobe, wattle and daub, and thatch constructions

Just as I discovered on my visit to Spain, overseas eco-communities seem to place greater emphasis upon building good bathrooms and toilets then we do in Britain. At Panya there is a large adobe shower block – divided by gender – with two showers, a changing area, a beautifully mosaiced bench, sink and shelf unit, all surrounded by banana trees. Although there was a lack of water which limited us to bucket washes, it was a luxury to have such a carefully designed space for washing. But then again this should not be a luxury, I consider a bathroom a necessity to ensure a basic level of comfort in life. Do we not do this in Britain because it is harder – that the building has to be more robust to withstand the elements and we have to heat our water, or because we have different priorities?

Shower room and compost toilet block

Eco-building is made affordable at Panya in several ways. Thailand offers comparatively cheap land (approximately 30,000 pounds for 10 acres) and low living costs. There is also a perception that there are no planning or building regulations that require compliance in rural areas. By using several materials freely available onsite, or cheaply from local villagers that costs of materials are almost negligible. That said many of the dwellings are also purposely small – one house has just three metres by four and a half metres floor space. This reduces both build time and material requirements. Labour costs are reduced in three ways: by being self-taught they eschew the need for experts; they rely heavily on volunteer labour; and when a job really needs doing they use the local labour force which is comparatively cheap. The choice of method also reduces cost as once the bricks are made using adobe is a quick construction process. Finally, because Panya is in the tropics houses can be less robust and do not require heating, removing the need to create air-tight structures or efficient space-heating designs.

If you would like to visit Panya you can either attend one of their courses on permaculture or natural building, or go as a volunteer. Details about volunteering are available on their website, and you can email: The accommodation is basic but you get to sleep in a natural building in an amazing tropical environment. Take lots of insect repellent, mosquito nets are provided.

[Chiang Mai, Thailand, 3rd July]



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