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Natural Construction and Living from the Land

Natural Construction and Living from the Land

Four years ago, I moved to Costa Rica with a desire to travel, have new experience, and open my mind to other cultures. Having been born in the city of Buenos Aires, a megacity of four million people, visits to forests or natural places were things of family trips, perhaps once a year.

After three years in university, I felt something stir within me that called me to adventure, to the unknown. As I already had a contact with EcoEra, I got in touch with them to volunteer for a few months. In this way, I began to meet people and organizations who had the same ideals and before long, I met Milo Bekins, who opened the doors of analog forestry to me, and showed me how reforestation and the production of marketable products could go hand in hand.

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The idea of analog forestry fascinated me, since I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s not enough just to have a garden and grow food to make change, but rather that a more deep work is necessary to really begin to clean the planet. Although everything seemed complete, it felt like something was missing.

These days, we hear often about healthy eating, saving the forest, and recycling – even if they are seldom practiced in reality. But there is something that is rarely talked about, yet has an equally great value in terms of our ability to lead a life in harmony with the planet: How sustainable are our houses? Our buildings? Where do the materials come from? How is it possible to be so distant from a process so important in our journey on earth as the construction of our homes?

It was not always like this. Less than 200 years ago, people still built with natural materials, with help from their neighbours and friends. Houses were less dependent on heating and artificial ventilation, and the whole family participated in the construction process. That was the starting point for my interest in natural construction.

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Thanks to help from IAFN, I applied to the BothEnds scholarship that is offered through the JWH initiative, which seeks to strengthen leadership abilities in youth around the world. My idea was to take a course on natural construction, and finally I stumbled across a workshop on cob building (Cob building uses hands and feet to form lumps of earth mixed with sand and straw, a sensory and aesthetic experience similar to sculpting with clay. Click here for more information.)

Cob is one of the many methods of building with dirt. It is a simple construction technique that allows a free hand in its design. These aspects caught my attention and I decided to take a course on cob building in a town in the south of Oregon in the United States.

I met Ishe and Craig, a couple in their fifties; in her everyday life, she was a real estate agent and he was a conventional construction contractor A year ago, they moved to a farm in the outskirts of Roseburg, and their first order of business was building their house. Ishe has experience with cob construction from workshops and Craig has his background in conventional construction.

The course is made up of daily classes based on the book The Hand Sculptured House by Evans, Smiley, and Smith, as well as a few hours of work getting our hands dirty in the clay. In order to facilitate a sense of intimacy and connection in the group, they did not take on more than four participants. The course began with Ishe telling us “I am not here to teach you anything. I am here to help you to dislodge the knowledge that we all have inside us and that we have forgotten as a species: that we don’t need to depend on anyone, nor even have money to build a house.”

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From there, we got right to work mixing clay, sand, and straw and learning how those elements go together, and how to get a resistant and balanced mix. Once we could see a variety of results and analyze the differences, we began to get an idea of how to make a “good cob”. Over the first days, our minds started to open to a world of new designs, where our hands create a bridge between ourselves, the land and unexplored creativity.

Working with cob made me notice that in our so-called “advanced” societies we live in anti-natural buildings, with predetermined measurements, angles, and structures. This limits us to the use of heavy machinery and forces us to buy our materials instead of looking at what is around us. Cob buildings offer another kind of architecture, one that feeds our spirit, makes us feel good, and elevates our quality of life.

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