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: firstname.lastname@example.org, 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)