By Karen Spiak
„You carry Mother Earth within you“
Thich Nhat Hanh
The grounds of New Life are always transitioning and changing. We experience a constant cycle of new flowers blooming, fruits and vegetables ripening, trees growing and new earth building projects being
The practice of building adobe structures at New Life has been evolving over the years and has become a pillar in our growth. The forms of earth blend beautifully and naturally within our landscape and help to support our mission of sustainability. Joey, New Life’s earth building team leader, is drawn to the practice because „Adobe is eco-friendly and very sustainable, you can get earth anywhere. We use minimal cement, only about 10-15% per project. It is practically earthquake proof because earth is flexible. The irony is that concrete is hard but fragile. The largest resource we use is human labor.“
The newest building underway will house a community recreation center. “Currently the only place for people to gather and socialize is the dining hall. It is a busy, noisy place where the acoustics can be difficult for conversations or relaxing.” It also houses our Wi-Fi connection, so there is often people who need to work on their computers with music or singing in the background. Joey observed that “It became clear there was a need for a separate place where people could relax, read, play music, and bond. We wanted to create a more intimate space without Wi-Fi and distractions.” The new hall is set off from the center of the foundation and accessible via a cobblestone footpath so there is a physical separation as well.
Recreation Hall: The process from start to finish
So how does an observed need turn into a fully functioning structure? “First, the design has to be approved by Julien, our director. Once the design is set, we can choose the site and lay the grounds, which is the most important step in any building process.” For this project, we were lucky to have community volunteers Chris and Tracy, who are architects, draw up the plans. “Then we can start to make the bricks, which can take up to six months. For example, the new recreation hall required 2000 handmade bricks!” The bricks are made from a mixture of water and clay from our land and mixed with rice husks from our organic, harvested rice. Joey adds “the husks act as a binding agent to make the bricks even stronger.” They are then placed in molds to form and set in the sun to bake.
All this work creates a product well worth the effort. “It lasts a lifetime, similar Pueblo buildings made by Native Americans have survived over 500 years with people continuously living in them. The interior remains warm in the winter, cool in the summer and resists termites and ants. After a building is complete, all you have to do is reapply the adobe mixture, as needed, to maintain it.”
Some organic challenges
Using materials from nature can present their own unique challenges. “We used to use timber and leaves to create traditional thatched roofs. The wood needed to be cured to protect it from termites and ants and then large, dry leaves collected for thatching. Every three years we had to invite local Thai professional thatchers, which is a dying skill, to come and patch the roof.” Seasonal insect infestations, hailstorms and monsoons continued to make it difficult to maintain the natural roofs. “We now construct them from timber and metal” which is painted in muted, natural colors.
Painting on Nature’s canvas
Creativity can thrive when designing an earth building and inspiration can appear in the truest forms. Joey, already working on the next earth project, shares his design vision with us. “It will be a tiny house based on the five Chinese elements of wood, earth, water, fire and air. The main frame and structural pillars will be teak, mud will be used for the bricks and walls, there will be a small pond surrounding the structure, a fire-pit and fresh air will be everywhere.” He also found inspiration in the Fibonacci numbers, commonly referred to as Nature’s numbering system. “Almost everything in nature reflects these sacred numbers.” They appear in the leaf arrangement in plants, the patterns in flowers, the bracts of a pine cone, or the scales of a pineapple. Joey will incorporate the first digits of this classic sequence of 1, 3, 5, and 8 into the length, depth and width and height of the new structure.
Perhaps the best part of an earth building project is the community building it creates. Volunteers and residents enjoy being a part of the growth of New Life and learning new skills. It is an opportunity to come together and work toward a common goal. Though the work is hard, seeing daily progress and contributing to a lasting part of New Life can often be reward enough. It is a chance to engage in something unique to most people’s experiences. Plus, playing in the mud is always fun too!
Read more about earth building at New Life: