Friday, October 21, 2011

Another Season comes to a close

Felix with Nye, Xavi, Sophie,Pauliina, Shawn, Sonya, Karen, Therese, Christo, Leila, Paul (Also Martin & Ben)

A sincere thank you to everyone who passed through and helped to make 2011 a great building season. Especially to our 7 interns - Felix, Pauliina, Shawn, Karen, Leila, Martin & Ben. We wish you all the best in the future and do please stay in touch.
Happy Building!!
Lots of love
Paul & Therese

Friday, October 7, 2011

The end of a season...

This entry is written by a visitor and not by an apprentice-proper. I offer you my perspective as a traveler who accepted a gracious invitation into the natural building world for two weeks, before returning to a full-time job in Brussels. If more city-bound workers could experience the joy of natural building, who knows how many paths would eventually veer away from what we imagine to be the future?

Greetings to the followers of the mud bandits. In the photo above you see some of us enjoying a picnic. Only a few minutes after we had doffed our clothes down to underwear and swimsuits and swum the frigid waters of Lough Derg, we watched the eponymous sub-aqua club arrive and don extra-thick drysuits, pulling on gloves and booties for good measure.

This was the last swim of the season, and during our two-week stay in Nenagh with Therese and Paul, Leila, Martin, Ben, Karen, Paulina, Ken, and Johnny we saw many stages of this ambitious project approach completion.

The base coat, for instance, had been applied over nearly the entirety of outdoor wall by the time of our September 30 departure. The mixing of this grey pre-plaster is quite labor intensive, and since the decision had been made to work without cow manure, one stage of mixing was the simulation of manure by adding chopped straw and cut grass, plus a liquid ferment to the clay, sand, and sawdust base. This was the first task I was given.

The artistic properties of tool-mediated physical labor become immediately apparent
when the 'tool' is replaced by its most basic ancestor, the hand.

One mix of base coat applied by three people has three different surfaces. A beautiful echo of each workers' personality. These hand movements must be deeply ingrained in our character, for even with deliberate care I
found I could not impressively mimic another style, nor could the others swipe my style. The same principle held for all of the earthen handiwork: cob walls bespeak their sculptors. Authorship at the price of hard labor: a compelling bargain both for the apprentices and the master.

Plastering occupied some of us at all times, as small delegations were sent to Cloughjordan daily to help a humble but well read and quite Irish stonemason finish weatherproofing his home before the cold of winter.

Plastering is difficult. Very frustrating if one has never before worked with hawks, floats, and trowels. There's a trick to getting the moisture of the float, the wall, and the plaster mix just right; and when you think you've got it, the professional shows up to admire what a poor job you've done and finishes the equivalent of a day's surface area, albeit sloppily, in the blink of an eye.

Some of us were decidedly better than others at plastering: Martin earned the stonemason's compliments, while I got a pat on the back and a 'I'll leave you and the plaster alone for a little while.' Through the combined efforts of ten people, however, we were able to finish a scratch coat and two float coats. One more float coat, and perhaps a skim coat, and the pretty little house will be bundled up nice and dry for winter.

Back on site the roof had threatened to blow off once or twice, and anyways the time was nigh for finishing off the roof with a couple dozen digger-loads of soil. Spreading a 2" layer over both levels of roof took almost two whole days to finish. Even in Timmy's expert hands, soil dug by a digger is full of roots and stones, and we might have had a beautiful little Zen garden on the rooftop except for Paul's interest in a living roof.

Those of us who were not raking soil above on the roof were raising walls below to the height of the timber
frame. Our bale-splitting and straw-stuffing may have been rude and quick, but with enough cob packed in between and a full covering of base coat atop we soon had a dirty roof keeping us clean and muddy walls keeping us dry.

There is vertical slit between the roofs where the level changes that is just visible in the above photo. Into this space were placed a long rectangular window on the top side
(the roof slants down toward the north) and an insulating pack of light straw-clay the remainder of the length.

Another large step in this home's completion was shaving the empty door frame, checking level and plumb, and adding (as well as cobbing over) the lintel. Quite feels like a door now!

Inside the house we approached the more sculptural elements of natural building. After finally reaching a decent level of cob wall around the hearth, we began the curvaceous design. The plan is to have an upward-curving inset that narrows as it follows the flue to the ceiling. Near the entrance to the hearth will be a rounded bench with just enough room to warm feet in front of the fireplace.
The approaching end of the apprenticeship lent a fervor to our activities and we had to force ourselves to slow down after a wall collapsing for the third time found us approaching cliché: 'Haste makes waste.' The rounded bench presented another opportunity to rush a beautiful design into reality before ensuring its structural integrity. On Paul's advice we knocked down our first attempt, cut a diagonal into the adjacent dry wall, cut teeth into that diagonal, and built what you see above. Not as fast, much more structurally sound, much better bound to the adjoining mass, and an absolutely beautiful completion to the curved wall. The joy of cobbing...

Soon, too soon, time had come to say our farewells and return to Brussels. We shared amazing conversations, saxophone duets, book recommendations, jokes, no small amount of sarcasm, and a deep connection born from the womb of that cob 'cottage', nursed by our hands, and enjoyed as the fruit of our collective labor.