The building of shelter for humans can be a wonderfully natural experience, full of texture, natural curves, and tints of earthen colours. 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 thus we seek to inspire others to build with these earthen materials when appropriate. A balance between thermal mass and insulation should always be recognised when building shelters while an aim for a new aesthetic is encouraged.
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 an 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.
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 utilises an internal framework to help create structure and make thinner walls than cob. The project also utilised 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.
In the second PDC of 2011 a month later, we mixed more cob and had the sand dome ready so it was just 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.
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 finalising. We used straw-bales to fill space quickly as the bench just made of cob would have been a much bigger endeavour. 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.
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 tomato sauce 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 straw bales 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.
We have more structures and more building materials on display at the site which we prefer to show you and explain the pros and cons of each type in person. They are lovely and evolving and as we type this it becomes outdated so come for one of our courses or guided tours to see more.