Monday, March 12, 2007

Recent building pics

We have more pics coming - and there are some below. In the mean time you can check out Annie K's website 'All About Building' to see some more photos of the house at this stage - no action shots but you can see where we've got to!

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A Mud Hut in the Suburbs

Reprinted from The Big Issue South Africa, March 2007 issue

Simric Yarrow writes about an unconventional building project in Muizenberg, Cape Town

About 10 years ago I first heard about earthen houses at a slide show presentation. The claim was made that, in the right location, an RDP housing grant could build you a double-storey 3-bedroomed house, with most materials (including second-hand windows) available for next to nothing – except for some ingenuity needed for the roof. Even better, the living walls were all natural and eco-friendly: made from clay, mud and straw, able to breathe so that they were cooler in summer and warmer in winter than conventional houses.

But the clincher, for me, was that communities could safely get involved in the building process – even children – with limited training and monitoring. In fact, ‘cob’ houses need a lot of labour, but in a country that has lots of labour, and lots of people needing decent low-cost housing, it seemed a godsend of an idea. Ten years later, the government may be progressing from shoddy breezeblock starter homes, but calling in ‘expert’ developers still misses a valuable opportunity to empower and build a community, not just a house. In some countries, rural communities will build an earth home as a present for newlyweds. Sisa Ngcuka, now part of our cob-building team, remembers watching curved rondavels being built as he grew up in the Eastern Cape. “They were made to last, built with great care,” he says. It helped him develop a real feel for building. “Now I’m a perfectionist, checking each day’s work is just right.”

So why aren’t these houses springing up everywhere? There are two reasons, and the first is pure bureaucracy. Despite acknowledgement from senior figures within the Housing Ministry over the years that techniques like adobe and cob are acceptable ways of building a house, there are no regulations for these ‘unconventional’ techniques. Consequently no housing subsidies are available for communities wishing to build out of earth, and no bank will give bonds for our cob house. New Zealand does have strict earth-building standards, and our engineer is making sure we comply with these – partly so that we can trail-blaze for future builders. In the mean time we have been lucky enough to raise most of our finances privately – and we have some necessarily novel plans for raising more!

The second reason lies in public perception of what makes a ‘real house’. It seems that there is, generally, little pride among South Africans in the heritage of African ‘mud huts’ like Sisa’s rondavels. West Africans may proudly think of their own great mud buildings, like Timbuktu’s Djingareyber mosque, but for urban South Africans of all colours a real, sturdy house must be made of fired bricks and mortar. How ironic, given that many of the oldest, most beautiful colonial buildings in the country are also made of ‘mud’ – such as many old Cape Dutch homesteads.

This is the perception we hope to help shift. There are quite a few methods of building with earth used presently in South Africa – such as straw bale, rammed earth, adobe, or our own cob mix. Almost all of them are being built outside the major cities, in beautiful rural locations. There have been a few houses built in greater Cape Town, but until now they have been on secluded plots in areas like Constantia and Hout Bay. By contrast, we’re building 200m from Muizenberg beach, on a suburban road with lots of inquisitive locals and tourists passing by: quite a first!

Making the cob mix is a real hands-on experience – and ‘feet-on’, as the cobbers get into a grape-crushing style tribal dance. Then we ‘knit’ the mix onto the wall, without moulding any bricks at all. The name comes from the west of England, where a ‘cob’ is a round loaf much like the muddy shapes we slap onto the wall. There you’ll find 16th-century cottages built like this and still lived in. The technique’s advantage for us is you can make elegant curves in your walls that bricks don’t allow. This is also what appeals to our architect, experienced cobber Etienne Bruwer. Etienne trained up Amos Mantshinga who now confidently organises our building team, Umanyano Cobbing. Members of the team also help us run public workshops, and now we have school parties booked too to experience the process. Kids get to learn about eco-friendly building as well as the immense satisfaction of contributing to something real, useful – and messily fun! We’ll be building through 2007, but even when the house is complete we plan to carry on offering building workshops on site. Not to mention celebratory pizzas for all budding builders from our cob oven!

Workshop updates and news

In the last couple of months we've had quite a few people on site coming to learn more and help build. In particular, Habitat for Humanity have been sending volunteers to learn more about alternative building in a hands-on way. This NGO usually builds in the townships, but this is an opportunity for them to expand their skills into eco-friendly methods. Habitat for Humanity were also responsible for co-ordinating a visit by volunteers from First National Bank in early March (nobody from home loans though yet!) The banks may be struggling to fund earth building, but the word is getting out there! We also had our first schools visit, with more lined up. Thanks to Janine for providing the photos from Habitat's first build, and you can check out more at her website:

Public workshops are currently once a month, on the last Sunday, from 9am to 1pm. The suggested cost for first-time cobbers is R50, and the workshop will take you through the basic processes (as seen in the photos below) and hopefully answer your questions. Next workshops: March 25th, April 29th, May 27th.

If you cannot make those times, or want to make a special arrangement for a school or other group, contact Carey or Simric on 021 788 6613.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

January photos

Packing the walls

On a January workshop, all ages getting involved! You can see in the background Alistair bending down to fetch some newly rolled cob. This is being packed onto the walls in front, and knitted/ kneaded into place. the walls have also been moistened up again to help the new layer bind to the old.

Children's activities
Amos helps Jack and Zorya load sand into the wheelbarrow - and Zorya cools off in one of the buckets of muddy water, which add to the mix, moisten the walls, and clean feet and hands!

Leaving room for the windows

and the tongue-and-groove is now mostly on for the first floor, on top of the joists. Late Jan 2007

Stomping the mix

On a January workshop - onto the tarpaulin goes our mix of clay, sand, straw, water, and of course bare feet - which mixes the cob better than any concrete mixer yet devised!

Monday, March 5, 2007

December 2006 photos

Kids in the clay

My two kids have loved being at the building site, as you can see, and apart from a lot of hosing down being needed, it's a wonderfully safe yet real building experience for kids. We've had kids aged 3 to 14 so far and one school visit so far. The clay is imported at minimal expense from a municipal dig close by as Muizenberg's own soil is basically sand. The mix in the cob ends up being about 20% clay, the rest being sand, straw and water. Some people are lucky enough to have the right kind of mix already on their building site!

Getting our feet stuck in - building the walls at last. Bare feet is the best method for mixing the cob so that it hangs together well. Cement mixers have been tried elsewhere but are not ideal. You get to feel when you have got the right texture, and your feet get a good work-out/massage in the process!

Garden wall view

This was the first wall the team built, while perfecting the right cob mix from our materials. As you can see it has been plastered beautifully, and with some nice curves. The plaster is basically a mix of cob with some lime, to which you can add pigments. The conventional brickwork you can see is in the centre of the house, around the plumbing/ toilets, and taking some of the strain off the posts for when the roof goes on (which will be before the cob walls reach that height). The temporary steel fencing will of course be removed! You can just get a hint of the mountain view behind.

The joists are on!

Our first floor is wood, and is far from a straightforward geometric pattern. This part features a pentagonal shape! The giant poles are gums that were being chopped down as unwanted alien vegetation (too water-thirsty for our climate). They've been protected with an all-natural varnish; also plastic at the top, until the roof goes on, to keep the top from cracking. Below you can see Siza getting going with a tarpaulin mixing cob with his feet. This was the level of the cob walls in early December. The house walls have yet to be plastered, of course, and the drying process is slow.

Michael using our giant sieve

This is to sift the sand from our site until it's usable for the cob mix.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Now it's down to the earth in Muizenberg

Article by Patrick Burnett as printed in Saturday Argus, Jan 20 2007, and reprinted in False Bay Echo, Jan 25 2007, and also Business Day February 2007. Text copyright West Cape News, no reprinting without permission.


A Muizenberg couple are taking eco-friendly building to the suburbs, constructing a house using gum poles and mud walls which they hope will blaze a trail for alternative, down-to-earth housing.
Not only is Simric and Carey Yarrow’s house being made almost entirely from eco-friendly building materials, but when finished it will harness the sun and wind for energy and recycle household water for use in the garden.
Although a small market, eco-friendly housing and even whole villages are not unknown in South Africa. But the Yarrows’ house is unusual in that it is being built in Muizenberg surrounded by brick and mortar homes and 200m from the beach.
Electricity and water shortages in Cape Town over the past year would seem to be a vote in favour of houses which minimise water and electricity consumption. But the Yarrows’ effort to build their dream house has been an uphill battle.
Lack of recognition for alternative building has prevented them from getting a bank housing loan – a problem that threatens to restrict the growth in the market for eco-friendly houses.
The project began last year and interest has been so great that the couple have put up a board outside the plot informing the public about the house.
They are also holding once-monthly workshops where anyone who is interested can squelch in the mud and learn about alternative building.
Part of what the Yarrows hope to do is raise awareness about the possibilities of eco-friendly building.
Speaking on-site this week, Carey, a sculptor, said she had always dreamed of building a home in the country that integrated with the environment.
“When we spotted this plot I thought why not do it in town? It won’t blend in with the environment but it will bring nature back into the city in a way that will alert people to the possibilities.”
Husband Simric said: “At the moment there is a general perception that people have to have brick houses, but it is possible to have a house that is built in other ways. I just think the reason people don’t go this route is through lack of awareness.”
The finished double-storey house will consist of a main section with two bedrooms, a lounge, kitchen and bathroom. A separate one-bedroomed bed-and-breakfast flat will complete the house.
All the woodwork is treated with environmentally-friendly products and thick poles sources from alien gums are being used to support the roof.
Only a small part of the house will contain a bricks and mortar structure, with the rest of the walls being constructed using an age-old technique known as cobbing.
This entails beach sand, clay, earth, water and straw being mixed together and stamped to a smooth consistency with the bare feet – with whoever can be roped in being invited to stamp about in the mud bath. Layer upon layer of the final mixture is then used to create thick mud walls.
Cobbing has been chosen because the materials are sourced locally, there is no excessive run-off into the water table and bricks and cement are avoided, both of which have negative environmental implications due to their manufacture, said Simric.
The thickness of the cobbed wall insulates the house so that it is cool in summer and warm in winter, using less energy for heating and cooling.
North-facing walls will optimise the earth credentials of the house, soaking up the sun for warmth.
A grey water system will recycle water from baths, basins and the washing machine.
The house will initially be on the electricity grid, but Simric said they hope ultimately to be off-grid and energy self-sufficient.
He said he believed that not using alternative technology missed a valuable opportunity to empower people to build homes and address the housing backlog. But bureaucracy was a major blockage to widespread adoption of the technology, he said.
Not only did the Yarrows have to get an architect to vouch for their house in order to get councile approval, but financing through a bank proved impossible. Simric said banks required approval from the National Home Builders’ Registration Council (NHBRC) before they could finance a house, but because the NHBRC had no guidelines for approval of alternative building, it was not possible to get a bond from a bank. As a result the Yarrows have raised funding privately.
Finding companies to do the work has been another difficulty.
Stephen Forder, who is doing a master’s degree in sustainable development at Stellenbosch University and who lives at the Lynedoch eco-village about 10km outside Stellenbosch, said: “I think this kind of building will become more mainstream as issues like global warming become more pressing.”
He said one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions was the production of building materials. Forder said getting planning permission for alternative building projects was a huge problem and South Africa was a long way behind taking advantage of developments in clean building technology.
The reasons were that the climate was “very forgiving” and energy was also cheap, meaning there was no immediate impetus to use different technologies.
Ann-Marie Moore, architect-in-training at Eco Designs Architects, said people were beginning to understand that there was “a corner of the market that is asking for more sustainable, eco-friendly developments.”
“Now we have a lot of interest from larger developments and increasing requests for renovations to make homes more eco-friendly,” she said.
Gavin Lutge, the freelance structural engineer involved in the Muizenberg project, said people were more interested in building in a way that was not damaging to the environment. As regards NHBRC approval, Lutge said the NHBRC did not have regulations for the construction of eco-friendly houses. As a result, the Muizenberg house was being built based on New Zealand codes.
But Kgomotso Mahlobo, chief operating officer for the NHBRC, said her organisation was “very interested” in alternatives and how these could be supported.
She said the backlog in housing was because of the constraints of constructing houses with bricks and mortar. If there was an alternative using acceptable standards that were SABS approved and complied with the building regulations of South Africa then “I don’t see how we could not support it.”
When asked for comment, the Absa group – one of the largest home-loan providers – confirmed that it did not finance alternative buildings.
Absa said: “Absa does not as yet finance eco-friendly houses that are built using alternative materials.
However, we are consulting with the NHBRC regarding this issue and exploring ways and means on how we can best accommodate this emerging building trend in our home loans and housing financing products.”
Builders had also been invited to propose innovative financing solutions, it said.