Natural Building: Creating human habitat and social space

The building of shelter for humans can be a wonderfully natural experience, full of texture, natural curves, and tints of earthen colors.  Walls aren’t so uniform and the feeling of a
nest rather than a box is invoked.  Buildings can be damaging to the environment and the future users in conventional settings and we seek to inspire others to build with these materials when appropriate.  A balance between thermal mass and insulation should always be recognized when building shelters while an aim for a new aesthetic is encouraged.

Social Spaces

Because we have seasonal fluxes of people for our courses and our dry season for camping, we have developed social spaces using natural building techniques.  The main one is a outdoor cooking/lounging space that has gone through several phases of implementation.  It all centers around the cob oven which was the first element to be added.  In 2011, with the direction of Pedro and Sara Wuerstle, a branch of TreeYo at the time, students helped to build the oven from the foundation up and helped to launch what has now become our infamous mud pit.

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The cob oven started in our first course in 2011 as Terra Alta was still being used as a remote site for camping and hands-on but not the full classroom.  Consequently, during that course the students helped to move the stones and stack them with no mortar to create the foundation.  On top of that a level base was created so that the fire bricks could be placed.  With the base and foundation secure, we moved upward once more to  the sand dome.  That was as far as we got on the oven but the students did get a chance to make some cob and apply the cob as well on the compost toilet project that was happening all the while.  This latter project used cob in combination with wattle and daub.  Wattle and Daub utilizes an internal framework to help create structure and make thinner walls than cob. The project also utilized cannas, a local grass, similar to bamboo in some respect, that grows to 5-8 meters tall and a great building resource.  This dual project aspect allowed students to see the beginning stages of the project and also the middle where lots of action occurs.

pedro leading the compost toilet project

pedro leading the compost toilet wattle and daub project

In the second PDC of 2011 a month later, we mixed more cob and had the sand dome ready so it was jsut the layering process of the earthen mix to form the vault.  We used the correct proportions of height based on the golden ratio to get the fires energy to cycle appropriately.  The door was a post course evolution but from there we began to cook in it.  It serves us for pizza’s and bread and is used quite frequently during the summer months with almost daily use during our courses.

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From there, in 2012 we radiated out to make the space more functional by creating a cob bench.  It was a big push during our PDC that summer as we had to lay the foundation, place the bales, and cob in just a few short hours.  With 30 people available between this project and the herb spiral project that was happening simultaneously, the process went fairly quickly and again needed post course finalizing.  We used strawbales to fill space quickly as the bench just made of cob would have been a much bigger endeavor.  It also gives a comfortable space for not just seating but also laying down.  Nestled under a grouping of cork oaks and lemonwood trees, it is a great spot to relax and hide from the summer sun.

rocket stove at terra alta

rocket stove at terra alta

From there, in 2013 we expanded the cooking portion of the area to also include a rocket stove cooker.  It uses the principle of high oxygen intake to create a high heat, clean burn fire.  This allows use to cook some things outside like water to for tea or tomatoes for the pizza.  It uses the idea of relative location to the cob oven and makes the space more multifunctional.  To increase the usability of the site we also created several more cob benches.  These don’t have a back on them so can be used to sit in varying directions.  We didn’t use strawbales this time as our team led more hands-on sessions to get it done.  Since then, the cob oven, the benches, and the compost toilet have all been rendered with a lime mix and colorful dyes to help bring the space alive.

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Also in 2012, we installed a feature that has helped to grow the place in many ways: the dome.  A geodesic dome made with local wood and fitted with old recycled materials, it created a portal for music, story, dancing, and a lot of sharing to take place.  Some of that sharing is class itself but is mainly for shedding energy and rebuilding energy for the next day in our courses from our nightly fires and music.  When courses aren’t happening it continues to serve as an important social space for gatherings, cooking on the fire, and parts of our shamanic journeys. To give the space a certain ambiance, we have also added pieces of cloth designed on a pattern to enhance the spaces atmosphere.  The feeling of being enclosed gives a secure feeling but a simple glance upward through the repeating triangles allows a pondering of the universe without stepping out of the structure.

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Another structure that we have made with wood is the sweat lodge.  Its a really simple, rustic structure but sturdy enough to old the woolen blankets that create the space for these ceremonies.  Inside we bring rocks that have been heated in a fire outside for hours and we cram inward to sweat out impurities and try and let go of limits, judgements, and control.  It’s a great space to have onsite and we are appreciative of the wood from the …. that gives the flexibility and strength for the structure.  These are good characteristics to bring inside yourself as well when you enter the half dome, wooden structure.

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We feel quite dedicated to this topic and have learned more through self study, trial and error, and inviting experts from around the world to contribute.


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