Announcing natural building course dates for 2017

Attend our natural building course this year and learn some essential practical skills to help you on your way to living the off-grid dream.

We are thrilled to announce that both our courses will be held at Jakkalskloof bio-dynamic training farm in Swellendam this year.

Dates for 2017:

  • 19 – 25 March: Natural building course: materials and techniques (7 category 1 SACAP credits) ~ Jakkalskloof farm
  •  14 October: Natural building course: materials and techniques (7 category 1 SACAP credits) ~ Jakkalskloof farm

For more information please visit our course page or send us an email at to book your spot!


TERRA Award ~ first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture

The TERRA award is a collaborative effort on an international scale to enable both professionals and the general public to fully appreciate earth’s increasing popularity as a building material of high aesthetic and technical quality. 

Earth is becoming increasingly popular in contemporary architecture: hundreds of projects of high aesthetic and technical quality are emerging across five continents. This material, which has low embodied energy, is readily available and appropriate for participatory buildings. It could help provide a solution to the needs for ecological and economical housing.

To enable both professionals and the general public to fully appreciate this building material, the following partners have taken the initiative, under the auspices of the UNESCO Chair “Earthen architecture, construction cultures and sustainable development”, to launch the first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture: the Labex AE & CC-CRAterre-ENSAG Lab research unit, the amàco project, the Grands Ateliers, the CRAterre association and EcologiK/EK magazine.

Wang Shu, 2012 Pritzker architecture prize laureate, is the president of honour of this TERRA Award, the trophies for which will be presented in Lyon on July 14, 2016 at the Terra 2016 World Congress.


Since its creation in 1979, the CRAterre-ENSAG Lab has been considered as the international research and training reference centre for earthen construction. It will organize in July 2016, under the auspices of the UNESCO Chair “Earthen architecture”, the Terra 2016. This World Congress takes place every four years on a different continent and will be held for the second time in Europe. It is expected to draw around 800 professionals, teachers and researches to Lyon (France).

The TERRA Award was initiated within this framework. It will be the first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture and a natural furtherance of the national award launched in 2013 in France by CRAterre-ENSAG, AsTerre and EcologiK/EK magazine.


The purpose of the TERRA Award is not only to identify and distinguish outstanding projects, but also to highlight the audacity of the project owners for choosing to use earth, the creativity of the designers and the skills of the craftsmen and entrepreneurs.
An itinerant exhibition will feature 40 buildings from all continents, constructed using various techniques (adobe, cob, CEB, rammed earth, plaster, etc.) for all types of programs: housing, public facilities, activities, and exterior and interior designs. The exhibition will be completed with lectures and workshops by CRAterre-ENSAG and the amàco project.
The search for outstanding achievements deserving of this prize and the associated exhibition will make it possible to generate the first worldwide database on contemporary earthen architecture. The resulting virtual library will be available both to the general public and professionals via this website.

Involved projects

The projects must have been completed after January 2000.
There are eight categories covering all types of programs, whether new or renovated:

  • Individual housing
  • Collective housing
  • School, sports and health facilities
  • Cultural facilities and religious buildings
  • Offices, shops and factories
  • Interior layout and design
  • Exterior design, art and landscape
  • Architecture and local development

Text from the Terra Award website.

CPD accredited natural building course: Materials and techniques

Our natural building course is comprehensive and covers a range of materials and techniques based on Peter McIntosh’s professional and personal experience working with these approaches and from having lived off-grid since 1999. You will be empowered to be successful and make rational choices whatever the given situation.

We’re excited to announce the first course of the year will be taking place from 26 April – 2 May, at Wild Spirit Backpacker’s lodge in the beautiful Nature’s Valley.

Take the first step to a sustainable future by learning hands-on natural building skills. Understand the alchemy of how different types of earth work, and do not work together, their potential and limitations. You will also explore questions around sustainable living based in Peter McIntosh’s experience living off-grid since 1999.

Email to book your spot!

CPD accredited Natural Building 7 day course_April_WS

Introduction to Cob building – Kenya

The Permaculture Research Institute in Kenya will be hosting a seven day cob building course. The course aims to be a part of the revival of natural building in Kenya; to help revitalize an ancient art and incorporate new techniques learned through past decades as natural building has gained traction internationally. 

Earthen Shelter in collaboration with the Permaculture Research Institute (PRI) in Kenya

WHAT: A hands-on course appropriate for both first-time builders and for professionals in the building trade who are interested in natural materials. In this seven day cob workshop, the focus will be on the characteristics of the natural materials most commonly used in construction:  clay soil, sand, and fibers.

WHO CAN PARTICIPATE: The course is appropriate for both first-time builders and for professionals in the building trade who are interested in natural materials.

WHERE: Laikipia Permaculture Centre is a 1.6 hectare farm located on the Laikipia Plain, north of the Rift Valley in Central Kenya. Founded in 2012 by permaculture teacher Joseph Lentunyoi and Permaculture Research Institute Kenya, the project aims to illustrate how regenerative agricultural practices can improve local food security and community health while preserving and rehabilitating precious ecological resources impacted by overgrazing and other unsustainable use patterns. As a demonstration site for water harvesting and conservation strategies, soil fertility building, holistic pastoral management, natural building and many other sustainable practices, LPC is developing a model with far-reaching potential for Laikipia, Kenya and East Africa as a whole.

WHEN: January 18- 24, 2015

PROGRAMME HIGHLIGHTS: The course aims to be a part of the revival of natural building in Kenya; to help revitalize an ancient art and incorporate new techniques learned through past decades as natural building has gained traction internationally. Benefits to participants and the local community will include acquisition of the skills necessary to build climate-controlled, sustainable, non-toxic, affordable housing without acquiring substantial debt.  The artisanal and ancestral skills of natural building have largely been lost through the 20th century. Commercial materials and conventional building styles have benefited from industry biased-regulations and are now largely associated with status and prestige. This is the case in Kenya, a country that is integral to the history of natural building and that still contains communities reliant on natural housing.

In this seven day cob workshop, we focus on the characteristics of the natural materials most commonly used in construction:  clay soil, sand, and fibers.

(1) The main focus will be cob, which combines these readily-available materials to hand-sculpt beautiful walls, benches, ovens, and fireplaces.

(2) Various other building techniques that utilize the same materials, including adobe block, light straw-clay, wattle and daub, and plasters will also be touched on.

(3) Discussions will be held on how to find and choose appropriate soil for construction, how to create various mixes and plasters, how to incorporate timber and stone, and how to use earthen materials to build walls, sculpt niches, shelves, and furniture.

(4) As a complement to the hands-on portion of the course, slide shows and discussions of the science and theory of natural building will bring deeper understandings and answer any questions.  Subjects include building design and siting, passive solar design, foundations and drainage, earthen floors, appropriate roof design, and wiring and plumbing for natural structures.

APPLICATION: To apply, please register online with the PRI .

For details on the project go to:

Please contact the Natural Building Collective to send us more information about your natural building events.

Breaking news: Six day course at Khula Dhamma, near East London 25 – 31 October 2014

I have been contracted to facilitate a six day course at Khula Dhamma, near East London at the end of October. This is in addition to the accredited course that I’m hosting at Magic Mountains retreat, near Barrydale in the Western Cape at the start of October. Both courses will cover the same basic topics, but you will be working with somewhat different materials. So if you can’t join us for one, maybe you can join us for the other course… Cobworkshop-KDRC




Contact Khula Dhamma directly at to book for the course there.

Mapping the earth buildings of the world

CraTerre – the leading innovation and research organisation into earth building in France – has launched an initiative to map the earth buildings of the world. If you know of one near you, no matter how humble or crumbling – please log it onto this map…

Natural Building in the Architectural Curriculum

The first time I made cob I was knee deep in trouble, there was no way of ever leaving this muddy business again. I simply love the smell and feel of wet earth being mixed. I guess it started when I lived in Prince Albert as a 5 year old and mixed “chocolate milk” in the empty-from-plants-but-not-from-soil flowerpots on our big stoep. My sister and I had to do it quietly and secretly, since my mom did not really appreciate us drinking the soil and water mixtures………….. (In that same garden we had plenty of chickens and ducks, figs and apricots, what a great place for a child to live.)

Currently, I try to impart my love of earth building to my students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). If possible we have an actual physical experience of working with earth and at other times it might be more theoretical knowledge, but applied in design and technological projects. Studio projects that deal with earth technology have become an integral part of the education in our Architectural Technology Department.

What interests me now, are ways in which natural building methods are both taught in the architectural curriculum and expressed in a contemporary manner.

Within the architectural education realm, I love Ithuba Science Centre, which was designed and built by students of the Faculty of Architecture of the RWTH Aachen University.

leon krige 1

Design-build projects are of special interest to me and are defined within the architectural curriculum as “essentially the full-scale investigation of the built form. The typologies of projects are varied, but share the characteristic that it typically gives students the opportunity to engage in a project from design to actual construction” (Delport and Perold 2012).

The project embodies for me the essence required in an architectural student project. It is real, hands-on, design-build, incorporates natural building methods, contributes to a real need in a community and does all of this in an elegant architectural manner.

leon krige 2

The Ithuba Science centre is part of the Ithuba Skills College, which is in Montic just outside of Johannesburg. The College caters for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and teaches them “English and Natural Sciences, but also practical basic skills like bricklaying, carpentry, sewing or electrical fitting during a five-year training”. (Faculty of Architecture RWTH Aachen University 2014)

leon krige 3

The light steel frame of the Science Centre was erected first and it was then filled in with a straw/clay mixture, creating a highly insulated monolithic wall according to traditional German practices. The mixture was placed into formwork which was moved upward as the work progressed. The building has large roof overhangs to protect and shade the walls and the roof structure is separated from the walls to let hot air out. (Designboom 2013)

leon krige 4

The Departments of Building Typologies and of Structures and Structural Design of The Faculty of Architecture supervised the project as part of their design-build program. A full construction booklet is available as well as a short video of the construction.

Students thoroughly enjoy hands-on, design-build work and work with more enthusiasm than on traditional studio bound projects. (Sara 2006) Where this practical work has meaning in both environmental and social contexts, the learning becomes incredibly relevant.  The more this type of work is integrated within the architectural curriculum, the bigger influence education will have on future practices within the architectural and building industry.


Delport-Voulgarelis, H and Perold, R. (2012). Creating a New Curriculum. ARCH SA Journal of the South African Institute of Architects. Issue 58. (Nov/Des 2012). p. 50-51.

Designboom. (2013). s2arch and RWTH aachen university build a new school in south africa. [Online]. July 2013. Available from [Accessed 24 Feb 2014].

Faculty of Architecture RWTH Aachen University. (2014). Student-constructured-projects Ithuba Science Centre. [Online]. August 2012. Available from . [Accessed 24 Feb 2014].

Sara, R., 2006. Live Project Good Practice : A Guide for Live Projects, Available at:

All photographs by Leon Krige who granted permission for the use thereof.

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Getting a feel for Light Earth

by Peter McIntosh

What I find exciting about natural building is that there are as many ways of using available resources as there are cultures around the world. No absolutes in terms of technique, consistency, design and use of materials exist. People approach similar decisions based on their physicality, life experience and imagination. It is always interesting to me to observe how people I teach and work with approach the material and I try not to prescribe my methods of doing things on people before giving them a chance to display their natural ability or cultural diversity. The world will be a poorer place if natural building became as regimented as the conventional building industry can be. Natural building is not a one size fits all scenario. It can’t be as the materials always vary depending on what is at hand, from rock to wood or a multitude of earths. What works here may not work there because the earth changes or the type of timber in your area is different and has different uses. What this affords us, is to become more engaged with the material and not reliant on books and building codes. There is what works and what does not, and a world in-between.

I have discovered for myself a range of techniques that work and have come to understand that technique is as important as knowledge. Little things become as important as the big things. Just how you apply a plaster coat is as important as the recipe for the mix. A material may not work in a particular way, but if you change the technique, add more or less water, put the material under pressure or just simply allow it to breathe you may have success. When I feel ready to abandon an idea that I thought might work, I find myself wondering what I am missing, because you can be sure that others with the same materials have found a way.

Combining the same materials in different ways has different outcomes in terms of structural ability and how they perform thermally. Adding just a little straw to a mud-brick will double its insulating ability and increase its tensile strength. That is not to say you want the material to become more insulating; you may want it to be a heat-sink, to radiate energy or simply just lighten the material up.

A good example of a material that offers both good insulation and a solid feel, while not being so heavy, is a mixture of straw and clay. Or, what I call Light Earth. This technique uses a common practice of placing the material in a simple brick mould and has many other uses too, from insulation in roofs to the walls themselves. It can be shuttered in situ or simply stuffed into spaces, made into boards for the ceiling or bricks.

One method of making Light Earth that I have found particularly easy is to do is to make a circle out of straw bales and lining it with plastic to form a dam.

1_Building a dam

The dam is filled with water about a quarter of the way, after which you can begin adding clay.

There is no exact recipe and a little experimentation is required. The more clay you add the thicker the ‘soup’ will become and the denser the resulting bricks. The dryer the clay is when you add it the better because it then dissolves quicker when added to water. Powering the mixer with loads of feet works best and I have a hard time stopping folks from having a clay bath during courses. Once all the clay has dissolved it’s time to add the straw. A whole straw bale is mixed in using the same method, although this stage of the recipe requires a little more effort.

2_Mixing the clay soup

Once all the straw is thoroughly coated with clay it is removed in heaps and placed on the side of the dam to drain back in any excess liquid. The mixture looks like a bunch of wet straw and not a heap of mud.

3_Extracting the material

This wet straw is then pushed into a mould with care taken to avoid layering. If the block is to be used as a structural element, for example a wall, the soup needs to be more dense so that all the gaps between the straw are filled with clay, otherwise its fine to have some gaps. Scoop any excess clay off of the top and return it to the dam.

The block moulds may be any size and can be as thin as 50 mm and one meter square if they are to be used for making a ceiling, just as you would use with conventional materials. The blocks below are 300 mm by 300 mm and 170 mm deep. A huge advantage is that Light Earth blocks are less than half the weight of a traditional mud brick and with the added advantage of all that insulation. Of course, the weight and thermal conductivity will depend on the amount of clay you added in the first place. As a rule of thumb the material approaches the insulating ability of a straw bale wall when it is 200mm thick.

4_Material in brick mould

Keep adding straw till the clay soup is used up.

These blocks are practically indestructible and survive repeated dropping with no effect. They do however take longer to dry in the sun than a mud brick and a good run of clear sky is essential. They take around 3 days to dry sufficiently before they can be turned on their side to speed up drying, depending on the weather. After about a week they can be stacked with gaps in-between the bricks to finish the process off and covered while stored to protect against the rain.

To conclude, Light Earth is a very versatile material with so many applications just dying to be tried and it’s a load of fun to make. I wonder what would happen if you threw a few kids into the mix as well?

Photos 1, 2 and 4 were taken during a Natural Building Course at Berg-en-dal, which Peter McIntosh co-facilitated with Neil Smith.

Photo 3 was taken at the Tara Rokpa Centre in Groot Marico, a Buddhist retreat where Peter was involved in the building along with architect Paul Marais.

For more information on the courses that Peter McIntosh is involved with please visit our Events page.