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Down to earth


Building a mud house is creative, fun and eco-friendly.

Outdoor operator Nomad Adventure recently embarked on a project to build a mud house on their premises as an experiment in alternative construction approaches and as a team-building exercise.

The mud house sits in Nomad’s Earth Camp in Kampung Chulek, Gopeng, Perak, an outdoor learning centre that runs adventure and experiential learning camps with green themes. Dubbed the Earth House, it was built using adobe bricks as well as mud and rice straw plastered over bamboo frames.

Earth Camp is also a showcase of how materials can be recycled and repurposed. They have picnic tables made from climbing walls (from the now-defunct Summit Gym) and shipping containers that serve as offices.

Greenhouses have been refashioned into dorms (with creeper plants for roof) and washing machine drums have been turned into recycling bins.

They harvest rainwater and store it in huge tanks for gardening and showering, replant trees and make garbage enzymes from leftover fruits and veggies.

To build their resource centre, Nomad’s director Chan Yuen-Li came up with the idea of a prototype eco-friendly shelter — on a budget.

The building materials had to be sourced locally and cheaply, and the impact on the environment had to be minimised.

After doing her research, Chan settled on mud as her building material. Mud buildings date back 6,000 years to Mesopotamia.

Ancient mud cities, like the 2,500-year-old Sana’a in Yemen and Yazd in Iran, are today living laboratories for architects seeking know-how in this construction material.

About half of the world’s population — three billion in six continents — still live or work in mud buildings (www.eartharchitecture.org) because the raw material — earth — is widely available — often on-site and needing little processing, meaning less environmental impact. It also has great ability in absorbing, storing and releasing heat when needed.

Increasingly, contemporary buildings in Europe, the United States and Australia are incorporating this ancient construction method.

Getting started

Chan roped in Ipoh-born Loo Jia-Ling to head the mud house project. An anthropology undergraduate from the US, Loo was then interning at Pun Pun (www.punpunthailand.org), a sustainable community committed to organic farming, seed saving and earthen building in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Loo has been involved in several earth building projects in Thailand, including a dormitory in an orphanage near the Thai-Burmese border.

Loo’s enthusiasm is infectious as she shows me around the Earth House.

“It’s very intuitive, really,” says Loo, 25. “Most people would say earthen buildings are not suitable for the tropics. But when I was in Thailand, I learned that it’s do-able if you deal with the elements, like overhangs to protect from the rain.”

Loo started by sketching the house plan and calculating the number of bricks needed. The ingredients for the walls included a gooey mixture of clay, sand and rice straw.

In wet and humid climate, it’s crucial to construct eaves and footings to protect the mud walls from the pounding rain, rising moisture and flooding.

Hence, timber posts, beams and rafters formed the skeleton of her Earth House and held up the thatch roof before the walls went up.

“Technically you can rest your roof on the adobe. But here we don’t have long dry periods, so you always have to think about protecting your walls,” explains Loo.

She used cement for the foundation and flooring.

“In really arid areas, you can get away without it. But here, termites and bugs will bore through the ground and start eating away at the building,” she points out.

There are many different forms of earthen buildings — adobe, rammed earth and cob.

Loo used adobe and the wattle-and-daub techniques since she was concerned about how quickly the mud walls would take to dry. To make adobe bricks, a mixture of clay, sand and rice husks were poured into a mould and left to dry out in the open.

The 4”x 8”x16” bricks took two to three weeks to dry, compared to a week in Chiang Mai during the dry season.

The wattle-and-daub technique involved weaving a frame out of bamboo strips and slapping globs of mud (clay-rich with rice straw) onto the frame. The frame held the structure up while the clay dried.

The clay, sand and bamboo were sourced on-site while the nipah thatch was supplied by a local in Kg Chulek.

Loo collected rice husks from the padi fields in Sekinchan, Selangor. Bamboo steamer baskets and vintage windows, recycled from old houses, were fitted into the walls to allow for ventilation.

Loo also added aesthetic touches like niches and random holes on one of the walls, which again helped with ventilation.

“One of my favourite parts of the process was plastering. I got to experiment with different swatches and getting the colours right,” Loo confesses.

Plastering or rendering helped protect the walls, reduced dusting from the dried clay and made the walls more durable.

Loo used sifted clay, fine sand and tapioca paste (as a binder), and stirred in some iron oxide (rust pigment) to give the maroon-brown coloured walls a rustic look.

For the outside walls, she added limestone to the plaster mix to make it water-resistant. Hairline cracks are common in dried clay walls so one needs to do minor touch-ups occasionally, Loo adds.

The beauty of the mud house is that its big, thick walls retain the cool temperature of the previous night and release it slowly the next day, keeping the interior cool.

“If you leave the windows and doors closed during the day, the cool air will remain for much longer. But if you open the windows, the cool air will dissipate into the atmosphere,” Loo explains.

Of course, the heat absorbed during the day will also be stored in the walls and released slowly.

Hence, Earth House had to be designed to facilitate air circulation and incorporated a thatch roof which helps to keep it cooler than a concrete or zinc roof, Loo says.

It takes a village

Just as it took more than 2,000 years and almost a million people to build the Great Wall of China (huge chunks of which were made from compressed earth), earth-building is extremely labour intensive.

In societies with mud dwellings, annual repairs and constructions are often turned into community events that bring people together and renew their connection to the land.

Not surprisingly, it took about three months and many eager hands to build the 16.5sq m Earth House.

Volunteers from the Boys Brigade, Help Institute and Kami (Kinta Action on Mental Health Issues), a family support group for mental health patients, chipped in to help as part of their team-building exercises with Nomad Adventure.

There’s something about sticking your hands or feet into gooey mud that brings out the child in you. The students had a blast, and Kami members found the process therapeutic.

“It’s remarkable seeing people really getting into it,” says Ong Su-Ming, chairperson of Kami.

“People don’t do this enough — using their hands to create or do something.”

Personally, Loo finds that more than just learning the techniques, the project helped her to learn more about herself.

“I learnt to be patient! I guess my message to others is that anyone can build, using eco-friendly, local materials,” says Loo, who is now back in Thailand. “Get creative, it’s fun!”

It remains to be seen if the Earth House will withstand our tropical elements. But ultimately the whole exercise was about getting people into the process of building something, Chan says.

“It’s about learning through experience. It’s not the end product but rather the process,” she sums up.

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