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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: www.punpunthailand.org, email: pareents@yahoo.com, 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, www.punpunthailand.org

(2) Interview with Jon Jandai quoted in ‘Earth Building in Thailand’ (2003), http://www.sustainableabc.com/i-thailand.htm

(Chiang Mai, 12th July 2010)

 

How to find … Panya Project and Pun Pun, Thailand

Filed under: How to find ....,Thailand — naturalbuild @ 8:18 am

[Maps to be added soon]

Panya Project and Pun Pun are near the village of Moo Bahn Mae Jo in Chiang Mai province about 2 hours north of Chiang Mai city. The cheapest (and most fun) way to get there is on the daily ‘veggy’ or market truck that leaves the city every day except Sunday, at 12 noon. It returns at 6 am in the morning.

1. Get to the truck departure point

To catch the bus from Chaing Mai first go to the Wararot Market in the north east of the city by the river. Once at the market walk to the river that is next to the market, when you are facing the river, take a left and walk up the road about 100 metres. You see see lots of trucks and red and yellow trucks (song-tao) lined up on the road. On your left there is a parking area for pick-up trucks between some shops. Take a left down the ally on the far side of the parking area. Look up and see a sign on top of the building that says Narkorn Ping Bazzar. You are in the right spot. (If you hit the Red Cross building, or the US Embassy you have gone too far, missed the left turn). You keep walking down the ally past the trucks for about 100 metres until you find a white truck that is slightly bigger than most of the others. Here is a photo of it (courtesy of Panya):

2. Take the truck north to Moo Bahn Mae Jo

On a window of that truck is a sign that says: Jon Jandai’s Farm: Pun Pun And a sign that says The Baan Thai Project. This is the truck. It will be full of bits for the markets up north. When it sets off (at noon) it visits other markets and picks up further supplies. It is useful to help the loading process. The trip all together takes about 2 hours, and on the way you stop at various markets to drop off the deliveries. You will ride the truck all the way to the last stop and it costs 50 Baht (about 1 British pound).

3. Walk up the track to Panya or Pun Pun

The truck will drop you at a dirt track near the entrance to the village. There is a sign that says “Panya Project” on your right. Follow that road for about 750 metres with views across rice fields on your left. The track forks and to the left is Pun Pun and to the right Panya Project. You are almost there. As you walk towards Panya you will see a thatched house on your right and then a big open air building that is the center of the project on your left. This is the Sala (communal space) which is the best place to find people.

Instructions on how to get their by driving or from Pai are on the Panya website.

 

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: http://www.amyshouse.net/, or email: emika_bibey@yahoo.com, 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)

 

Gender and ecobuilding 2: Communication not strength July 5, 2010

Filed under: Notes from fieldwork,Politics of building,Thailand — naturalbuild @ 9:31 am

As I am travelling around different eco-build sites I continue to ask about the importance of gender in eco-building.. Unfortunately, examples of women being leaders and full participants in build projects are rare – though I am aware of some great examples such as the Mud Girls in Canada and Amazonnails in Britain. In some places, like La ecoaldea del Minchal in Spain, heterosexual couples work as a team on a build, but in others building appears as a male domain.

When I asked the men whether gender is an issue the common response has been that gender determines physical strength and that as strength is an important attribute in building, then gender becomes important. Notably this is not seen as an unaviodable obstacle to women, and several of the men (and women) I recently interviewed in Thailand argued that some forms of building – like adobe – could be adapted for women by making smaller bricks, hence requiring less strength to lift.

At the same time some men also supported that age-old assumption that men are best at science (another apparent requisite for building) while women are more naturally attuned to the artistic elements of life. Following this logic, it was argued, men should do the practical design and building, and women could contribute to the aesthetics. This is so deterministic that I am unsure where to start in critiquing it, but lets just be clear that women can be, and are, just as brilliant at science as men, and men can be, and are, just as good at art and aesthetics as women. These are not attributes determined by gender, and neither weight is strength – as sportswomen have long been arguing. Rather they are assumptions that we are taught to accept as we grow up – they are socially constructed by society.

So why does gender remain such an important marker of difference in ec-building? An Australian women in Thailand noted that if it has little, in reality, to do with strength or science or art ability, then actually it was about communication, and the power implicated in that communication. This is expressed in two ways. The first is that intentionally or unintentionally women’s ideas about eco-building are often ignored, not acknowledged and not listened to. Their ideas are perceived as lacking authority on the subject and brushed aside without due consideration. The second is that women and men have been culturally trained to communicate in subtly different ways, which creates a disjuncture when trying to discuss a build project. I saw an example of this onsite where a woman wanted to talk over an issue and the man simply got impatient about ‘wasting time talking’. There is a need for far more conscious communication where all parties are aware of how their power might subordinate the other (often women) and exclude their contribution. This can be in how we listen or ignore others, but also in the language we use.

If women are not contributing to a build I would ask that the men in that project reflect carefully upon their actions and the way their simple acts of communication might be excluding a wealth of knowledge and labour. You do not know what skills women might have to contribute to a project until you start listening to them. As for the women, we need to learn to be bolder and louder if we are to get our ideas heard, but not feel that we have to change what it is about us that makes us women.

[Chiang Mai, Thailand, 4th 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: panyaproject@gmail.com. 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]

 

Heat, humidity, bugs and eco-building in Thailand

Filed under: Building materials,Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Thailand — naturalbuild @ 3:30 pm

It wasn’t until one landed on me that I realised that some termites can fly. As we huddled around the one fan on the Sala (communal building) at Panya Project  (Moo Bahn Mae Jo, near Tae Taeng, Chiang Mai) we watched the huge array of insects and bugs come and join us – a small snake, a large bug which looked like a cockroach but apparently wasn’t, flying beetles, salamanders, unending flies, mosquitos, moths and butterflies. Around us there was a concert of noise from frogs, birds and crickets. So loud that sometimes I struggled to sleep at night. In our earthern building without external walls there was little to stop the onslaught of bugs, and yet there was also something magical about being so close to nature. We began to debate whether all nature was good – as some struggled to rehabilitate the snake and rescue the cockroach-like bug. The only thing collectively agreed upon was that it was acceptable to kill mosquitos and flies, and non-one could think of a good thing to say about mosquitos. By that time most of us were covered in their bites.

It wasn’t just the humans who were suffering under this onslaught, the buildings themselves had had to be built to withstand insects – using raised concrete foundations to protect the adobe (clay and straw or rice husks) walls from being eaten by termites. The roof was in the main concrete aggregate fibre with a thatch edging as the heat, rain and humidity quickly degraded the natural materials. A roof made from a thatch of local grasses only lasted three to four years. In the neighbouring project of Pun Pun (a sustainable learning and seed centre) they had started using metal poles rather than wood as supporting beams in their lager structures for both strength and to better resist the degrading power of the natural elements.

When the storm came (it is the rainy season) with dramatic thunder and lightning, the winds blew the rain into the sala and my bedroom (in a newly constructed adobe and bamboo dorm). Things did not get soaked, but damp enough for us to rush around moving and protecting books and laptops. This was despite all the buildings having huge overhanging roofs.

I realised then how much I liked external walls. Despite having lived and worked in Australia, and for a short time in north Queensland, I have never really experienced a tropical climate like this. I can cope with bugs and flies and the odd snake, but the heat and humidity was beginning to get to me. The buildings on site had been designed to facilitate as much air-flow as possible in order to counter the heat and humidity. There was also little point trying to keep the bugs out, rather everyone slept under mosquito nets wrapped under our mattresses. Many of the buildings had significant ventilation space – either space between the walls and roof, no glass windows (just an open space) or using woven bamboo walls. This made the most of any cooling breeze and had the advantage of blurring the boundary between the building and nature – you could not escape your surroundings.

Staying in such eco-buildings in a tropical climate has made me realise not just that I am culturally attached to the need for external walls, or that I have a desire to shut out nature from my home, but that building in Britain is almost easier. Our main problem is how to keep warm and dry without using too many resources. Consequently our building need to be more robust than here (northern Thailand), but they rarely over-heat. As the climate around us changes, however, we might do well to learn from the eco-buildings here which are designed to withstand intense heavy rain (several are raised on stilts at Panya) and the heat of the dry season without using air-conditioning.

(Ban Mae Jo, Thailand, 2nd July)