Learning how to build adobe

As a child I remember spending hours in the greenhouse, sifting dirt and sand to create layered mud pies, often complete with wriggling worm fillings. I remember proudly presenting them to my mum, who expressed joy at each one, although I’m sure she wasn’t quite so happy at the mud I was caked in. Some things never change – I’m as messy as ever and everyday on this Adobe build I had mud in my hair, my toes and everywhere in between! But this time the result is actually something quite impressive. It’s a real life, 6 by 6.5m house.

nat mud

Thanks to Gioia for the photo!! I love to create and make things, as is demonstrated by the number of crafts I’ve learned over the years, but I never for a second thought I would be able to help build an actual house!! I was truely amazed at how easy it is to do, you don’t need special skills or qualifications just enthusiasm and effort (and obviously someone to show you how to do it). This is a quick ramble through the steps, and at the end we had a house!

The basic ingredients are earth with clay in it (there are easy tests to find out if your soil is good to use) sand and rice husks (or other fibrous material, we used rice husks as they were local and perfect for the job)! Most of the materials are made in the mud pit by squishing mud, sand and husks with your feet until combined (it’s good to have lots of friends for this part). After a little while, you will both have wonderfully exfoliated feet as well as mud ready to make bricks, mortar and plaster with. 

To make bricks you use a simple form which looks like a wooden ladder and makes four bricks at a time. On (fairly) even ground scatter rice husks over to prevent sticking, place the form on and fill with mud. Scrape off the excess with a flat item and, with a friend, gently lift the form off. The bricks are then left to bake in the sun, turned every few days. The strength of the bricks it tested by hurling one at the ground – they are much, much stronger than you imagine! IWP and PunPun crew had made the bricks for our build prior to our arriving, they made 1600 in total although we didn’t use them all!!

adobe day 1

Termites are a big concern for Adobe buildings in Thailand. They don’t eat mud, but they can travel through it very very easily. So to protect against them, we laid concrete foundations. We mixed the concrete in big tubs, three women at a time, hoeing around and round like a washing machine. Concrete was the hardest work I think, but still not difficult at all. We had to wear rubber gloves to protect our hands as we poured the foundations, prodding and poking to get air bubbles out. The next day we plastered (not sure if that’s the correct term, er, but it will do) the foundation as it will show above ground on the outside. The foundation took 2 days – so the rest of the house went up in just 6 days – ridiculously quick! 

Now the fun begins….Back in the mud pit we mixed mortar, earth, sand and rice husks, but in a different ratio to the bricks. We learned how to lay bricks, and worked slowly at first whilst we got used to what we were doing. As we became familiar with the mud we worked faster and the walls grew quickly. At the end of the day we were 6 courses high! 

adobe day 3 4

The windows were second-hand teak and beautiful. We built up the walls around the windows one or two levels and made cob in the mud pit. Cob is made from straw and mud and used to bind wood to adobe, it can be shaped any way and is super strong once set! We braced the windows and cobbed them into place. It’s really surprising how strongly the cob held the frames in place right away, and the next day we continued the walls up until the lintels were needed.

Wooden lintels were cobbed onto the top of doors and windows, and the walls built up to 2.6 metres. That’s pretty tall and required scaffolds plus good shoulder muscles! We trimmed bricks as we went, merrily chopping them with machetes. Once we were laying bricks above the height of the lintels (ie without any obstacles) the walls were quickly finished. The next stage was roof beams… 

adobe day 5 6

The roof was to be completed by contractors, and in order for them to be able to attach the roof, they needed roof beams. These were measured, cut and put in place on top of the walls, ensuring they were square. We then secured the roof beams in place with cob. In the bathroom and the spaces above windows we cut and embedded bottles (into cob) as decoration and also to let light in. The house was really feeling like a building now!

Next we needed to plaster, so back to the mud pits to mix plaster. Testers had been made the day before using the same ingredients with a different ratio. The winning recipe was chosen and we applied this by hand, smudging it onto the walls in big upward strokes. We then towelled over the plaster, giving a smoother surface but retaining the undulating wave of the bricks underneath. This part really felt like icing a giant cake!

adobe lime carving

We got to try our hand at two different decorative effects, cob relief and lime carving. Cob was used to create a vine relief design on the front of the house (below), and I’ve seen other buildings where this has incorporated practical features like shelves and alcoves too. The lime carving creates a raised white plaster which is carved away to reveal the mud underneath, I was really excited to try this as I’d admired it at PunPun (above right). Our design was on the front two windows of the house (above left) and really effective against the rich red earth of our house.

natural building Chiang Mai

The last stage is paints, and whilst we wouldn’t have time to complete the lime plaster outside or the clay paints inside, we had a day playing with both materials. The lime is water-proof but breathable and used for bathrooms and outside, or anywhere water could be splashed. Lime is very caustic and we had to wear gloves to work with it, but it’s really easy to use. You can see paint testers on the outside of the house in the photo above. The clay paints for the interior were made from clay, sand and tapioca (and pigments if wanted) and again applied by hand. This felt like smoothing mousse over the mud walls, and can be burnished or polished for different effects. 

The building workshop was an amazing experience – everything I hoped it would be. What I didn’t expect though, is to still be thinking about the brilliant women who shared this 10 day odyssey. Someone said we built a house and in the process built a community. We came from very different parts of the world to find we had the same things in common – a desire to contribute to something bigger than ourselves; to help the women who will one day retreat to this house. To discover (or more accurately – rediscover the old) ways of mud building and in the process understand there are other more sustainable ways to live. 

To find like minded people and make new friends was the mud-icing on my mud-brick cake. At our closing circle we spoke about how we felt, and some of the words stuck with me – healed, not judged, grateful, supported, inspired, surprised and strong. I hope to keep on exploring and building on ideas started in a mud pit…


For more photos see Amanda’s or Tracey’s Flickr albums.

Read Of mind and mud for personal stories from the mud pit by Amanda. And read Rebekah’s blog post here, about how she’s been inspired to travel to Nepal and build some more!