Building with Natural and Recycled Materials
In some languages, the word house is synonymous with home.
Thinking about building an ecological shelter as a space to rest, relax, recharge, rejuvenate and be safe, working with natural materials seems like erm… a natural choice. Unlike a concrete building that requires high-energy to produce the cement, a house built with natural materials is not only more ecological, it is also porous and breathable.
Using natural materials also helps us recognise that everything comes and goes; we are merely borrowing materials from Mother Earth to build a dwelling for the short time we are on Earth. With unprocessed materials, they can go back to Her in the most natural and least altered way when it has served its purpose of providing us shelter, and be reused again going through a natural process much like the water cycle. Be it bamboo that biodegrades into organic matter or sun-dried mud that can resumed it’s original state after much soaking.
In the past year or so, we have been learning to build mostly with locally sourced mud, bamboo and recycled old wood.
Bamboo, that is fast growing, strong and pliable, is easily and affordably available here in Northern Thailand. It is also good to know that there are regulations as to the quantity in which the amount of bamboo can be harvested. In the village, if one wants to harvest bamboo from the surrounding forest, one has to get the permission of the village chief. The mountain people who harvest and sells them as part of their livelihood, is also motivated to maintain the regenerative growth of the bamboo so that they can continue their livelihood.
With bamboo, we have built some trellises for climbing plants, and a few simple platforms to camp on. The firm yet pliable bamboo platform make for a comfortable base for a tent as it elevates from the ground which can be moist, and provides a flat and flexible surface.
Another shelter we built with bamboo is this resting pavilion, following a design from the Bamboo Center at Auroville in Tamil Nadu, India, where I’d attended a 5-day bamboo construction workshop. With all the materials prepared, it took 3 of us about 8 to 9 days to complete the structure. It was a really nice structure to experience the tensile strength and flexibility of the bamboo.
When my cousin moved out of their little old house into their big new concrete house, they left the old house abandoned. It was a small house with a concrete base, old wood post, a roof made of a combination of cement and zinc (?), and walls made of wood planks and flattened bamboo slabs that seems to have been hastily put on. When it rains heavily during the rainy season, water splashes in and they have a plastic sheet hanging overhead in their bedroom. It is the custom here, that if a man wants to take a wife, he needs to have a house. At the age of 18, Tom built this house on a family plot of Dai in the village so that they can get married. For the first 9 years, it was just the two of them. Then came baby Chik-Chak (his nickname). The small family of 3 lived here for another 9 years, while they worked hard with Tom on a full-time job and Tom and Dai farming their plot of land. Finally, they saved up to have their big concrete house built on the edge of their farmland in the same village.
As many in the village are striving towards modernity, those of us who has experienced modernity and see it’s failings are harking back to a simple and more natural way of living.
Back to 2017, I’d just attended a 10-day Women-only Natural Building Workshop and am eager to put into practice what I’d learnt. Seeing the house abandoned for more than half a year, I asked if I could tear down the walls and build a mud house with the existing structure. They had no plans for the house and gladly let me make good of the space.For the mud house, since we already have an existing structure, it was a good opportunity to try out different techniques. We started with making mud bricks, then used wattle-and-cob for the upper part of the walls for the most part. We are also making eco-bricks with plastic bottles stuffed with plastic trash as a way to manage our plastic waste. This process takes a long time as we consciously try to minimise using any plastics. We have however collected some plastic trash from the village, wash and dry them, to kick-start this part of the experiment.
Text by Vivian Lee, initiator & activator of the Garden of L.E.A.H..