A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. – Confucius
If you live your life solely for the destination, you are not living. Life is the process in between the start and the finish, so enjoy the journey, because that is all you get. I could say my journey is just beginning because everyday I wake up is a new opportunity. On the other hand, I have been on this journey for a while because I am the sum of my past accumulated experiences. Just as any voyage begins with 1 step, the building of a Green City begins with 1 brick. In January, I traveled to Thailand to get my hands dirty and attain the knowledge from which to build the foundation for a sustainable city.
My research project on Sustainable Community Design & Natural Building consists of 2 phases. The 1st phase of my internship focuses primarily on the natural building aspect while the 2nd phase is geared more towards eco-village design and sustainable land development and management.
My project’s focus on buildings for sustainable community design is twofold:
(1) In the US, buildings account for 72% of the nation’s energy consumption, 38% of CO2 emissions, and 40% of raw materials use and
(2) I love design
If we are to ever even dream about living sustainably, we need to learn and improve upon natural building techniques.
In January 2015 I was in Thailand interning at Gaia Ashram, a start-up sustainability education and youth center promoting permaculture, natural building and deep ecology. We were 14 interns that collectively designed and constructed the walls for their main sala and outdoor toilet structure. The collective leadership and group cohesion was impeccable and I am very proud of the smooth teamwork that made it possible to produce such successful results.
We learned to make and build with adobe bricks, bamboo and cob.
For the adobe mud bricks, we dug up the earth from the bottom of a dried up pond (January is dry season in Thailand). We extracted anaerobic clay, which had a very sticky consistency – the perfect ingredient for the “glue” of our adobe recipe.
Next, we dug a hole on-site, from which we excavated silt and sand. These 3 different types of earth – clay, silt and sand – are necessary for making adobe bricks because of the difference in their sizes. During the drying process, the mud shrinks. So if it were not for the size difference (in addition to fiber), we would end up with cracked bricks. The size comparison is as follows:
- Clay = penny
- Silt = Frisbee
- Sand = basketball
We mixed the three types of earth in our brand new “mud pit” along with readily available natural fiber: rice husks and chopped straw. Although the ratio of ingredients does not require extremely precise measurements, the mixture should contain approximately 30% clay. With experience, one can naturally feel the consistency of the mixture to verify if it is suitable for making adobe bricks.
The reason for this particular mixture can be summed up with an analogy of the human body: the clay is the muscle tissue, the sand is the ligament/tendon and the fiber is the skeleton that provides structure and keeps things together. The below image is a perfect representation of this reality:
The carpentry team made a frame out of bamboo that supported the bricks in places as the mortar dried. We chose quite a challenging design for the construction of our first wall but the outcome was well worth it. Future interns will continue our work by applying plaster and making the finishing touches.
The next building technique we used was wattle and cob. The wattle refers to the frame of the wall, which can be of any sturdy material suitable for a frame. In this case, we used split bamboo and interweaved it in order to hold it together.
The cob is mostly straw that has been soaked in the adobe mixture. It is tied around the bamboo frame and left to harden. This technique is much quicker and easier than adobe bricks, however may not provide sufficient thermal mass or insulation for areas with extreme variations in temperature.
Besides physical building, we participated in many group-building activities, which really emphasized the significance of human relations in order to have a sustainable community. We gathered around a circle for most of the activities and shared our thoughts, emotions, concerns or simply played games geared towards building trust and a more relaxed environment.
I was surprised how the simplicity of such activities had created such a deep impact on me and by the end of 2 weeks, we had all created a strong bond between each other. I was sad to leave them but was thankful for having experienced such a beautiful social cohesion that is important for a healthy life and indispensable for a sustainable community.
After having been in a classroom for a year and a half, it was refreshing and rewarding to live what I have been learning. The statistics of our unsustainable ways are available in books and it’s obvious that the inclusion of natural buildings is crucial for sustainable community development. However, going beyond the theoretical and experiencing being in an aspiring sustainable community was empowering and inspirational. The quest for building the Green City continues…