So often when reading about the history of invention or about technological evolution from the perspective of eco-consciousness, I feel that, while things appear successful on the surface, there has been an enormous failure. The most obvious example would be food and the modern drive to make it quicker, easier, prettier. Alhamdulillah someone realised that all the wasteful packaging and toxic additives were a move in the wrong direction and the slow food and other back-to-basics movements were born. House building is another important area of human activity that has been speeding down the wrong track. The statistics on the impact of the production of modern building materials, such as concrete and asbestos, are appalling. The solution to sustainable, economical and comfortable living lies in traditional methods which have been tried, approved and then forgotten along the way. New eco-friendly designs in architecture, which are being constantly developed, are often too costly to ever be practical, but it is the old methods that are worth closer consideration and reintroduction to the mainstream construction industry.
For centuries, people have used materials readily available locally to construct houses for themselves: stone, earth, clay, wood, straw, leaves, etc. They still do in many parts of the world, building what is commonly referred to as ‘natural houses’. The most common types of natural houses are the earth constructions, such as cob cottages, adobe and rammed earth buildings. They are not only the most sustainable, eco-friendly and economical constructions, they also proved to provide the best protection against the elements and comfort to the inhabitants. And they are durable, too. The most famous example is the ‘Desert Manhattan’ in Yemen, where nine-storey mud-brick tower houses have been housing people for some five centuries. There has recently been a quiet resurgence in earthen construction, even though the building industry would like us believe that there’s nothing better than concrete to live in. I’ve spoken to two women who were not convinced by these claims and while searching for alternatives found the traditional ways, deciding these ways are best for the planet and best for them too.
Itto studied interior architecture in her native Germany and became interested in earthen constructions. She travelled to Morocco to study and pursue her interest in the old mud houses and she stayed for good. “I felt in love with the country and also with this building style,” says Itto. She has designed and built a rammed earth house for her family in the traditional style of the High Atlas Mountain village where she settled. She is now in the process of constructing another one, as her home is going to become a school building insha Allah, as Itto and her husband are also running a school – ‘Ecole Vivante’.
Itto points out the many advantages of living in the mud house: “It is very comfortable, because the heat in summer and the cold in winter are kept out by the thick walls; the clay/earth/mud is breathing, so humidity can always circulate and is never imprisoned inside the wall or the house, making it impossible for fungus to grow, creating a very healthy atmosphere inside. What I especially like about the earthen walls is the possibility to always be able to cut in new windows and shelves. It is easy to break in holes and to create new openings in an earthen wall.”
As if building with earth was not green enough for Itto, masha Allah, she’s also planning some extra eco-friendly features for her new home: ”The floor plan is designed with the focus on using passive solar energy as efficiently as possible. The orientation of the rooms is planned in consideration with their use and the sunlight position during the different times of the day. We are also building a two floor sunroom that will, Insha Allah, heat the house with the circulation of warm air. We want to use simple compost toilets as well to reduce water-usage (as we have already installed for the school and which work really well, alhamdulillah).”
Itto believes that natural houses and eco-lifestyle, in general, are appreciating what Allah (SWT) has blessed us with: “Allah created everything so perfect. There are now so many wonderful solutions to go natural in every part of our living and it is necessary for us to do so: in food, clothing, health, building, living, etc. Living close to Allah’s creation has rejuvenated my senses, rebalanced my fitra, Alhamdulillah, and fed my soul.”
While Itto has found her perfect house design in a roundabout way, for Ruby and Lutfi Radwan living at Willowbrook Organic Farm in Oxfordshire, UK, deciding that it is a cob cottage that they want to live in was the result of thorough research. When Ruby and Lutfi had partially fulfilled their dreams by buying a farm some ten years ago, it was just a piece of empty land with no construction on it. For the first year, they camped in a caravan parked in the middle of a muddy field, but when the building permission from the local council arrived they still didn’t want to hurry and build just any house for themselves. “We had the great opportunity to build a house for ourselves from scratch, so we wanted to make it good,” says Ruby. As they were running an organic farm they also wanted their house to be as green as possible, so after plenty of research they have settled on building a cob house. “We decided on cob because our soil is full of clay, which is very good for building and once dry becomes as hard as concrete,” explains Ruby. But unlike concrete, building from cob – which is a composite of clay, earth stones and straw – is extremely sustainable and good for the planet.
Ruby believes that their house which is due to be finished by the end of this year, Insha Allah, will be as comfortable as anyone might expect from a modern house, but it would be even better for thermal protection. Not only are the walls some fifty centimetres thick to keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer, but also the Radwans are going to insulate the walls with breathable wool sheared from their own flock of sheep.
They designed their home themselves and then had an architect make the drawing for them to fulfil the conditions of building permission. Lutfi is building the house with his own hands, even though he’s no builder by profession – he used to be a university lecturer before becoming a farmer. He also gets some help from volunteers who visit the farm to learn about eco-solutions. And that points to another great feature of cob building – with some minimum training anyone can build a house for themselves.
Natural building has great advantages, but could it really become a solution to the housing crisis in this congested, urbanised world? Or is it only an eco-solution for those privileged to own acres of land? I believe earthen building could be a solution for all for several reasons. First of all, whatever materials are used at the moment to construct houses in ever-growing cities are unsustainable for the large part, damaging to the environment and sometimes even toxic, so if we don’t stop using them the planet’s ecosystem could be damaged beyond repair. Secondly, there is proof that natural construction can be a solution on a large-scale because there are millions of people in Asia, Africa and South America living in such houses.
Top reasons to build a house from mud (or other natural materials):
• Health: natural materials, such as earth, clay, stone, wood, etc., won’t have any negative impact on your health and many claim that they will actually have a positive impact as opposed to modern building materials, some of which are toxic and may cause problems.
• Psychological wellbeing: there is some research suggesting that people are more at ease living in natural houses and closer contact with nature is certainly important for psychological well-being. Also, building from natural materials guarantees clear conscience.
• Financial empowerment: mud is cheap and you can build a cob cottage yourself – no need to hire a contractor to build a house or get yourself entangled in the mortgage!
• Comfort: it might come as a surprise, but houses built from natural materials, such as mud or cob offer more comfort, in terms of thermal protection, humidity control and acoustic privacy, than modern houses.
• Durability: mud houses won’t go down with the rain and houses built from natural materials often prove more resistant to the elements than those built with prefabricated materials. Mud houses are fireproof and often stand a better chance of surviving an earthquake than the modern ones.
• Environmental impact: it’s green to build a natural house because you only use local and natural materials; it’s green to live in a natural house because it’s very energy efficient; and if you ever moved and left your house it’s 100% biodegradable!
Klaudia Khan is a freelance writer interested in all things good and green.