A few weeks prior to the recent (end of February, 2011) 5-day Natural Building course at the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project (aka ‘Greening the Desert – the Sequel’) in Jordan, I was feeling anxious. Not only was it my first time to teach a full-on workshop, but I had been planning to have a lot more of the building done. We had started working on one wall sometime close to the end of November, and we had not even finished that!
It all started after meeting Geoff and Nadia Lawton who were planning on starting work on the main building for the PRI Jordan site. We bounced ideas back and forth and were trying to make as good of a “model” as possible for a well planned, mostly earthen building. Soil samples were taken for earthen blocks, a local contractor was contacted for starting some foundations and things slowly started moving forward.
The PRI building’s main purpose is to be a place for instructors, volunteers, guests, etc. to come and find a place to stay at the PRI site. The building will have three bedrooms and a hall to be used as an office, lecture room and a place to convene. The building is oriented almost East to West, where the Western wall is made of straw bales with no windows or doors so as to insulate and prevent as much heat to enter the building as possible. The Southern wall is also of straw bale, again to minimize the amount heat entering the building. The Northern and Eastern walls are being built with compressed earth bricks, so as to make use of their thermal mass properties and bank as much coolness as possible to rid the building of excessive summer heat. Remember, in the Jordan valley there is very little fear of the cold. Except for a few months a year the heat is what needs to be tackled.
The course was getting very near and only one wall was put up. Things were not going as I had planned. But we had to put the task of continuing the building process aside and prepare for the course and get the materials and tools needed. Sasha Rabin, my teaching partner (and teacher), arrived and was helping me make sure everything was prepared before the first day of the course.
The first day of the course comes and the participants start to arrive; we had a very good group of people — from Norway, the UK, Cambodia, a handful of Californians who happen to reside in Jordan and a good number of Jordanians. A few had earthen building experience, some are architects and engineers interested in natural building materials but who’ve never actually handled any such materials, and a few others just interested in learning something new.
The five days of the course went by very quickly. People learned about natural and earthen building materials in general, how to choose the proper materials and methods for each person’s particular situation, and how design makes such an important factor in which materials and methods to use. People were given the chance to work with straw bales; cutting them, stacking them, tying them to make the walls rigid, filling in with slip straw, plastering and more. We mixed cob with our feet and built a part of the building with cob. People learned about how to make adobes. They saw how compressed earth bricks are made with a mechanical hydraulic machine. We built with compressed earth bricks, and learned how to choose a good mix for plastering. People even got a chance to make an arched window opening using bricks.
All in all, people got the chance to learn through mostly using the materials, and Sasha and I were always happy to answer any questions that arose during the building experience and talk about the history of certain materials and systems and what is the best way to choose a proper mix, etc. Although most of our answers were, as promised by Sasha at the beginning of the course, “it depends”. Because the best soil and the best way to use it and the strongest material, etc. always depended on where you are, what’s locally available, etc.
Five days later, we have a new group of friends, each having learnt something and taught something. The Southern wall has all the straw bale up and secured and a good part of it plastered. The Eastern wall is more than half way done. Now with the course participants as volunteers to help finish the building during the weekends, and a mailing list of around 80 people who may at some point come to help us, we will surely get this building done in no time.