the straight line is the road to hell

January 18, 2007


Last week I participated in an earthbuilding course in Whangarei (pronounced Fahngaray). Other than being our northern most city it’s not considered to be very signifcant – turns out however that it has been at the forefront of a revival in earthbuilding in this country.

The 3 main tutors for the course have all been heavily involved in this revival and in getting a set of ‘building standards’ recognised by the building authorities. What this means is that councils can’t just turn people away on a whim (like they used to do) if you apply for building consent for an earth house. Apparently New Zealand is the only country in the world created a set of standards for earth building.

Of course not everyone applies for building consent with earth houses since they’re very easy to build in out of the way places where council inspectors rarely visit, but that’s another story.

What is most intriguing about the standards is that the earth builders devised them so that the houses could be built  by ‘normal’ people. The result is that you can test your ‘standard’ earth brick by dropping it onto a hard surface from waist height and seeing how much is chipped off it’s corner. This approach caused a great deal of bewilderment amongst government beauracrats but the earthbuilders fought hard and managed to convince them that expensive laboratories and scientists weren’t required.

The thing with earth building is that every patch of earth is diffferent and could, in theory, mean laboratory compression tests would be required for every building job. This fact also meant that the course was more about learning to experiment and less about following specific procedures – an approach that is becoming increasingly rare in the industry (where I used to work) and in society as a whole.

As for the course itself, it was thoroughly enjoyable. I was reminded how much fun it is to work with a group of people and also how something like this is great for building a sense of community – something any village or tribe initiater should never forget.

The other great thing about the course is that there were painting, clay-working and sculpting courses being run at the same site which made for an excellent atmosphere, in fact I now think having a sculpter chipping away at a block of stone should be an essential aspect of any building site.

*The title ‘the straight line is the road to hell’ was a kind of catch phrase during the course. The picture above is of a house we visited, it was half constructed but the bedroom where I took this picture was finished. What you can see embedded in the wall are some blue bottles, a microwave dish and a paua (pronounced paawah) shell.


One comment

  1. I can already see the influence of the class right here on your site, and you know, it seems better, somehow (the centered text.) I’m gonna have to be more purposeful about finding like-minded people and courses. Would you consider posting more photos?

    Posted by: casemeau | 01/19/2007

    Unfortunately the text is a result of a technical problems rather than a reflection of a new found commitment to non-straightness. I wasn’t worried about not having a margin but I was frustrated about not being able to put spaces between the paragraphs, people tend to be turned off by bug clumps of text. Still, you want photos so that should be no problem, I presume it is photos of earth building. unfortunately I only took video of the actual course but there are plenty of houses we visited.

    And yes courses like this are great fun, you could try a permaculture course too for a similar vibe. Costs money though.

    Posted by: Aaron | 01/19/2007

    Curiosity, how did the course handle weather sealing? What standards were applied to dealing with rain and erosion? Also, how about foundations on unstable surfaces?

    Let’s face it. It’s wonderful to post/dream about building earth structures, but that isn’t the real problem with them. How do you build them so they can compete effectively with modern materials and give the owners and members of the community a sense that they are not going to turn into an eyesore, a condemned structure, etc.?

    I’d love to hear if the course taught more specifics about the building codes in New Zealand, and how you can solve modern constraints using earthen materials. How about roofing materials? What if you want to put a hot water tank or gravity fed water system on the roof? Can earthen bricks support that weight? If so, what size do you need, etc.

    Can multi floor structures be built under the NZ building codes using earthen materials?

    Are there course materials you could share with the internet community? This would be very interesting stuff.

    Posted by: Chris | 01/24/2007

    Sounds like an exciting development; I would love to see more photos. Are you making traditional adobes? What sorts of additives are you using?

    We are building with paper adobe, which makes all other earth buildings I know of obsolete. You just add dirt to paper pulp from waste paper or shredded paper, form into blocks (or make a house like a coiled pot) and you have a product that is tough, insulates and is great thermal mass. It will hold a screw, hold a nail, can withstand hammer blows, and is eartquake proof.

    I have thought of posting our photos on the web, but we are right next to a county complex here in the US, and everything we are doing is completely unpermited etc. I don’t want to rub their noses in it.

    But take some shredded paper, mix it with your local mud, and experiment!


    Posted by: Jim Burke | 01/24/2007

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