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The Beauty of Mud and Straw

What could be more basic to life on Earth than mud and straw? The dirt beneath your feet brings forth grasses that become straw. When you combine these two elements with loving care you can create an enduring beauty that will thrill your soul, and a home that will embrace and protect you. We have been experiencing a renaissance in the use of natural materials for building throughout the U. S.

To make an earthen floor you need to add about 25% of finely screened clay to 75% sharp sand or crusher fines, with enough water to make something the consistency of a thick cake batter. Once this is thoroughly mixed, then several handfuls of chopped straw (several inches long) can be mixed in to help bind the material together and give the final floor some beautiful flecks of gold if desired.

This wet mixture is poured over a prepared base of thoroughly tamped road base (gravel and sand). The layer of adobe can be as thin as about ¾ inch, but usually it is more like about 2 inches. The first stage of pouring an adobe floor is similar to pouring concrete, where the wet material is roughly screed to get it uniformly level. With concrete, however, you must do all of the finish work within a few hours, before it sets up. With adobe the curing and finishing process can go on for weeks, or even months.

Once the initial pour has been leveled and troweled to get it roughly smooth, and it firms up enough to carefully put weight on it, the process of reworking the adobe with a steel trowel to press it further can begin. The reason for this is partly to force the pour into a monolithic mass, because the clay will shrink as it dries and form a network of cracks that must be sealed. Other reasons to press the surface of the adobe is to harden it for durability, and to bring the clay content to the surface where it can be polished (or burnished) to a lustrous finish. You can pour the adobe over in-floor radiant heat tubes, so that you can control the rate that it dries out; this can hasten the completion of a project by several weeks.

It is possible to add thin layers of pure colored clay to the surface, and work this to a fine polish. Such a coating is called an elise, and this makes the process even more of an art form. The elise can be a swirling mix of colors, each of natural origin.  It is also possible to add oxides or stains to the adobe to get a desired color.

Pressing an adobe floor is very hard back- and wrist-breaking work. It must be done on the knees, with a lot of force and a specific technique to get the desired result.  As the adobe dries out, it can be moistened with a spray of water to make it possible to continue to trowel it. The work is as much by feel as by look.

Once everyone is satisfied with the degree of finish, and the floor has completely dried, it can be sealed with several coats of oil and other finishes. Usually the first coat is pure boiled linseed oil that has been heated to allow it to penetrate further into the adobe. Successive coats of linseed oil thinned with odorless mineral spirits are then applied until saturation is achieved. A final finish coat of hardening oil (such as fruit, nut and tung oil) can polish it off. High traffic areas might receive a final coat of hard oil wax to further protect the floor.

Pouring an adobe floor is usually the very last aspect of a construction job, since the floor cannot be disturbed while it is curing. Those doing the labor usually go out on the floor with stocking feet, so as to not mar the work. The result of all this labor can be stunningly beautiful, and quite durable, even for a life-time if the homeowner is careful to treat it with respect. There is something about an adobe floor that connects one directly with the earth. Even with shoes on you can feel the natural resilience that is missing with concrete; adobe is much easier on the body and soul.

Straw and adobe are natural partners for passive solar home designs. The straw envelope creates thick, insulating walls that keep the warmth inside, and the adobe floors and mud plasters serve as thermal mass to store the heat and release it back to the space at night. When combined with in-floor radiant heat for backup, these simple measures provide great comfort.

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Building with Nature

“Natural building” has become a catch phrase for a variety of building techniques that generally employ unprocessed natural materials, such as earth, stone, and straw. The focus is mainly on the material itself, and to some extent the methods that are used to work with the material, rather than the architectural design or other aspects of building that might be explored. If the phrase is reversed to “building naturally,” this opens up a whole new level of consideration. Just what does it mean to build naturally , or to build with nature?

If we use the natural world as a guide for how to build our homes, we could look to other animals and see how they do it. Whatever they use to build with will be found locally; they don’t waste energy carrying things great distances. Beaver cut saplings along the creek bed to dam the stream and create a fortified home. Birds collect twigs and grass to make their nests. Some wasps gather mud to form protected space for their young. Many animals don’t carry materials at all; they simply convert an existing hole or niche as a suitable home, much as our ancestors used caves or rock overhangs for shelter.

Some animals do process the materials they find to render them suitable for building. Certain termites mix the soil with saliva to make a hardened shell; some wasps make a thin paper-like material to fashion their nests. But they always start with the materials at hand, and they process them minimally. This processing is done without tremendous expenditure of energy, and employs no complex technology.

All of the housing that animals (other than man) create is biodegradable. Given time, the sticks in the dam will rot, as will the bird’s or wasp’s nests. There is no build up of waste materials that would litter or pollute the environment. Sometimes things are recycled, such as a hermit crab claiming a castoff shell for a home. Furthermore, the homes that animals create are inherently non-toxic, because they build from entirely benign natural materials. The use of toxic materials would clearly not be appropriate for a species over time.

In the natural world animals tend to find elegant solutions for dealing with the adversity of climate. Many of them go underground for protection and comfort. This is a sensible approach, since the earth can buffer the extremes of temperature amazingly well, while also providing a secure and dry nesting place. Advocates of underground architecture know this, and also appreciate that building underground can release much of the utilized land back to nature for the use of plants and animals.

There is an efficiency and economy of nature that prevails because it works over time. Those animals that operate beyond this law eventually find themselves extinct or severely compromised in their vitality. If a species overpopulates an area to the point of depleting some of the natural resources that they depend on, then obviously they will have to move on to thrive.and this strategy may only work for awhile. Eventually all ecology must come into some degree of balance and equilibrium.

We humans must take a serious look at how we acquire and utilize available resources for materials and energy. We have been fouling our nest with industrial pollution, over-harvesting available resources, and adversely affecting the climates and environments that all species depend on for survival. Building with nature means being aware of how much embodied energy exists in the materials that we use, so that we don’t unnecessarily squander fossil fuels and contribute to global warming. It means building compactly so as to not waste materials and energy. It means using materials that are biodegradable or recyclable. It means designing our homes in ways that use the sun and the earth to heat and cool them. It means utilizing forms of renewable energy wherever possible. It means incorporating greenhouses and naturally cooled pantries in our homes to help feed us.

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Messages from Mesa Verde

I visited Mesa Verde in Colorado near the Four Corners. This was my first encounter with the “ruins” of the ancestral Puebloan people, progenitors of the Pueblo and Hopi nations. I had heard about Mesa Verde since I was a kid, but nothing could prepare me for the awesome reality. Despite the influx of tourists, there is a peaceful and spiritual quality that persists.

The most famous aspect of what was left behind there are the cliff dwellings, which are certainly magnificent. These finely crafted rock structures emerge from huge alcoves within the cliff faces, and from a distance resemble swallows’ nests, fitting into the surrounding rock just as naturally. Actually the cliff houses represent the culmination of about seven centuries of habitation at Mesa Verde. Then around 1300 AD the people abruptly abandoned their homes and moved south and southeast to establish other communities. There is much speculation about why they moved, but the most likely cause was a prolonged period of at least 12 years of drought.

The cliffs were only occupied for the last two centuries at Mesa Verde; before that, all habitation was on the mesa above. At first the people made rectangular pit houses that were dug partially into the ground and then built up with poles and sticks plastered with mud. The entrance was via a hole in the roof with a ladder descending to the floor below. Archeologists believe that from this simple pit house both the freestanding masonry pueblo and the underground circular kiva evolved. The cliff dwellings combined both interconnected pueblo “apartments” and kivas, which were used for ceremonial and community functions. Some of the larger cliff dwellings may have housed over a hundred people. Most of the Mesa Verdeans lived in this communal way, but there were also many smaller housing units scattered throughout the area. It is obvious that they were a very cooperative society.

Little did they know that their style of architecture would become so enormously popular many centuries later. “Pueblo” or “Santa Fe” style building can be linked directly to them. The Spanish introduced modular adobe blocks that make the construction go faster, but the simple stacked rectangular shapes with protruding vigas is native American.

These people were primarily farmers, growing squash, corn and beans in terraced garden plots on the mesa tops. They carefully guided water to their gardens. The mesa itself slopes gently toward the south, which improves the solar gain for gardening, and the colder air slides down the canyons and off the mesa, which increases the growing season.

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Permaculture Forum

As part of publicizing my new Essential Earthbag Construction book I spent some time answering questions about earthbag building in general at where they gave away several copies of the book to those who participated. As I spent more time at this site I realized that it is one of the most informative and valuable forums I have ever seen. It is enormously popular with permaculture enthusiasts from around the world. Topics covered include: gardening, farming, building, homesteading, energy, life styles, community, wilderness, resources, education, artisans and publishing. In other words, they cover a lot of the same topics that we do here at Natural Building Blog, so you might check them out. The folks who hang out on this forum are very knowledgeable and  helpful.

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Wood Chip Gardening: What I Wish I Knew When I First Started Back To Eden Gardening

Many people make mistakes with wood chip gardening and then run into problems. This video would have helped me so much when I started out with Back To Eden gardening. Here is the original Back to Eden video.

I had to watch lots of woodchip gardening videos to get all the details straight, so was glad to see this excellent summary.
Back to Eden garden tour
Pre-composting wood chips
The best woodchips are ramial woodchips.

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Homestead tour: While picking flowers for a bouquet I realize that I am rich! I talk about zinnias, beneficial flowers to attract pollinators to your garden as well as repel pests!


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Indoor Forest Gardens Using Low Energy Climate Battery Technology

Jerome Osentowski spoke at Bioneers in Boulder November 8, 2013 on Indoor Forest Gardens Using Low Energy Climate Battery Technology. He spoke about how to grow your own food year-round, even tropical fruits, using Climate Battery Technology – a greenhouse design with an emphasis on perennial polyculture and making the most of the space.

Learn more at Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute

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Hoarder Downsizes to Gorgeous TINY HOUSE with her Cats

Jen used to be a hoarder and her “things” were controlling her life. Now she has downsized into a beautiful, clutter-free Tiny House with her two kitties. She eliminated several bills and now saves around $600/month.


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Camp Woodstove Heater/Cooktop/Oven

Combined duty outdoor stove uses wood or pellets. One million views!


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