In this edition of the Owner-builder journey, Franz Muhl writes about a mud brick addition to his Scarborough home: “Let me build a home from fertile materials that is beautiful and healthy to live in, have a very low footprint and would grow a forest if you left it.”
Five years ago, Peter McIntosh gave me +- 900 sun-baked mud bricks, for an extension to my house. With little start up money, a trickle of income, some plans on google sketch up, a pickaxe and, most importantly, plenty of time, I finally started the process a year ago.
At foundation level, with the skills that I had at the time, I used clay-fired bricks and a bitumen coat for damp-proofing. In March, I headed off to Berg-en-dal for a crash course with Peter. He traded his skills and knowledge in natural building for mine in brewing beer. To take clay, sand, water and a bit of straw in the right proportions and work it into a material for building, was a big revelation for me.
When I came back, it was the beginning of April. I was confident about the process but hesitant to start. I wouldn’t have started that day but Andries, the guy who I hired to work with me, did arrive for work. I started the first clay mortar mix. I didn’t know him then but Andries was great to work with. The first bricks looked awkward (a bit skew). It’s fine! Keep going!.. It’s important to find someone with the right energy to work with. This is your house! You want it to grow positively.
I was blown away again and again with the thrill, the love, the buzz in one’s hands and feet. I kept saying that I wanted to build another place after this. I remember thinking: “Right! Let me build a home from fertile materials that is beautiful and healthy to live in, have a very low footprint and would grow a forest if you left it.” Making a mess around the property with clay and straw is only bringing more fertility in. What a nice thought! If only all buildings followed this principle, cities would be proud examples of humans creating huge fertile areas; as other creatures do. The garden and the house (and you) are growing together and there are so many different jobs to do that one can choose, dependent on your condition that day or the weather.
Windows and doors were all restored or handmade by me. The floor in the bedroom is very hard, reclaimed narrow Oregon coming out of an old Rondebosch home. I prefer finding old wood and wooden furnishings because of the quality of the wood and the work put into it. These pieces feel warm in my hands. Very often, what I found would affect the new mood the house would take on. Each one is unique. The end result should achieve its function and be beautiful to be around. That’s all. I am not a perfectionist.
For the ceiling, reeds were harvested from the top of the mountain with permission from parks board. I added a layer of hessian to hide the silver sisalation and isotherm followed by the roof sheeting. This year, the reeds weren’t so great but it still ended up looking good. It just adds character.
It has been interesting to see how everything moves with the energy that is around. Or in other terms: you are looking for something, people give input; it comes, but not as you expected. Your ideas change and I knew I was only making the best choice I could at the time, which is fine. Acceptance. New life. New awareness. New understanding.
The walls started with the gifted mud bricks. The plaster is the same clay/sand proportions in the wall so it binds into the wall such that, when you are finished with it, it is actually a part of the wall and not a “layer” on it. On the exterior, a smooth hard finish means less erosion on the surface by driving rains. Ideally the walls should be protected by having the roof extend out as a veranda, the further the better. As long as you are aware of this then you will make a plan. It’s the fun of trying something new. You have to work with it for a while and I found it generously rewarding. I still have to put the floor into the new living area floor. Most of the house needs a final earth plaster and there are renovations on the new kitchen. So, it’s not finished yet, it’s been a year and a good time of the year to finish. And now the garden must come. Scarborough sand, Stellenbosch clay plus a couple of cubes of well matured home-made compost was perfect.
It’s been a year of building. I have plenty of time. The energy went from the house to the garden over summer and now, in autumn, I am moving in to finish the house. Seasonal activities. The most important aspect of this last year, has been the feeling of connectivity with nature, my greatest mentor in this project, if I’m paying attention. Building with earth is a skill I have always wanted to have the time to apprentice in. Learning this skill came from getting a crash course with Peter Mc and then doing it. I got as much advice as I could from many sources. The difference in feel from the existing house and the new clay walls was obvious to see and more obvious to feel. At the end of the day, there isn’t always an answer and you must take responsibility to make choices. That’s rewarding! I am so glad I did this.