Student build story | Living buildings, Living food


Years after James Kuiper came on our natural building course, he’s created a sanctuary of living buildings and happy-gut probiotics and microbes. This is his story.

Mighty microbes

When you meet James for the first time, his exuberant energy is palpable but he channels it all into a passion for microbes, probiotics and gut health. He discovered this passion after he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer at the age of 17 and the aggressive chemotherapy destroyed his vitality and gut health. Seeking to return to his youthful energy, he spent several years learning all about cultured probiotic foods and has been sharing that passion with the world ever since. 

You would think that James would be all over the place like an energy bunny with all his exuberant energy, but his lifestyle and work proclaim a deep appreciation for the “slow life”; the microbes and probiotics he works with don’t understand our human conception of time and he has nurtured and perfected the microbial cultures he works with over several years. 

Working with ancient recipes from a range of international cultures like Miso from Japan and Sauerkraut from Germany, he has refined his cultures and processes to adapt to the South African climate through another passion of his – clay buildings in the shape of traditional round houses. He harnesses the living, breathing climate that natural buildings produce to create the healthy supportive environments that the delicately-resilient microbial cultures need to thrive.

This photo shows the two round living buildings with natural plasters and the firepit in front.

The clay bug bites  

James first came on our natural building course in 2018 after he purchased a house in Scarborough that Peter McIntosh built. The primary house was completed from compressed earth bricks for the original architect-owner in 2010, and is now available for the public to stay in via AirBnb.

This photo shows James Kuiper with a ball of cob on the natural building course he attended. His first experience with the potential of this living building material.
This photo shows James falling in love with living buildings after the students built an arch out of mud bricks on the natural building collective course.

Since attending our natural building course, James has gone on to complete two roundhouses, also known as rondawels in South Africa. The term is used to refer to vernacular round huts constructed out of earth with thatch roofs that still dot our rural landscapes in areas like the Eastern Cape and Kwazulu Natal.

The two round living buildings with thatched roofs in the garden on a rainy day.

James’ beautiful buildings showcase this vernacular design and demonstrate its potential performance most effectively. The first thing you notice when you step into one of the round houses is the temperature. The interior temperature is moderated by the thermal mass of the thick earthen walls and floor that releases heat when it’s cold and absorbs heat when it’s warm while the thatch roof serves to insulate the roof. The earth walls are constructed from sun cured mud bricks on a rock stem wall, and finished with three layers of natural plaster. The thatch roofs are laid on reciprocal timber roof structures and the design includes several other timber design features, including a floor in the double-storey hut, low-arched doorways, and Japanese style nooks for extra ventilation in the double-storey hut. The clay and straw for the bricks were sourced from an area two hours outside of Cape Town.

This photo shows the ground floor of one of the living buildings that James constructed from mud bricks.
This photo shows the staircase built out of mud bricks to the first floor of the living building. The bottom floor is for the fermentation room.

The earthen walls are naturally breathable and allow for the movement of air and moisture that creates the perfect climate for the microbial cultures to thrive. James’ incubation room creates perfectly consistent temperatures for growing miso mould. The walls are protected by three layers of natural plaster: the scratch coat, form coat, and the final coat with 5% lime in the exterior plaster. During the plaster process, James paid particular attention to the time it took to cure each layer as the harsh South African sun and wind can speed up the curing time and weaken the end-result. He adds raw linseed oil annually as additional protection. 

James envisions adding two more smaller rondawels to serve as bathroom and composting toilet. The foundation and rock stemwalls are already constructed for the composting toilet, and the structure will follow the same technique as the others to consist of mud brick walls, timber floor, and thatched roof.

This photo shows the composting toilet in construction with the rock stemwall in place.

Tasting the slow life

The story of James’ build demonstrates what’s possible when you treat earth, microbial as well as international cultures with humble curiosity. If you’re curious to experience a taste of James’ lifestyle, we can highly recommend staying in his house to experience living in an earth house in Scarborough’s wild beauty for yourself. You can also follow his fermentation adventures with his mighty microbes on Instagram at Sexyfood_SA and Misomite for more information about his product and workshop offerings.

– Written by Tarien Roux, Photos by Peter McIntosh on a rainy day



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