Natural Building – Making An Earth Bench

A few weeks ago, I was offered the opportunity to take a Natural Building course in exchange for assisting Lola and May with the course preparation. Being a building intern at the Panya Project, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about some of the materials and techniques that are used in natural building.

The first day was primarily in the classroom learning Natural Building Theory, including the advantages of building your own home out of earthen materials. In addition to being very low cost, being able to design your own home in a way that exists harmoniously with the surrounding ecosystem can be a fun and empowering experience!

After discussing reasons why a person might want to use natural building methods, we started talking about the logistics of building an earthen structure; starting with a recipe for mud building. The two most common forms of mud building are cob and adobe bricks. Cob is a mixture of mud and long fibers, like straw, that you wind around a structure to build and strengthen. It is used while wet. Adobe bricks are made of mud mixed with short fibers, such as rice husks or chopped straw, that you form into a brick shape. Once the bricks are dry, you use mud as a mortar to build structures with them. The mud mixture for both cob and adobe needs about 70% sand and 30% clay. As a practice, we walked around Panya taking samples of the subsoil from different areas to test how much clay is in different parts of the farm. This is especially important if you are trying to build your own house on a plot of land, because some parts of the land may have better soil for building than others.

That afternoon, we hopped in the mud pit. To create the mud mixture, we stomped in the mud to smooth out any lumps and made sure we had the correct mixture of sand, clay and water. Once we had it right, we added the rice husks and continued stomping to mix it all up. When it was finally ready, we filled up several wheel barrows full of mud and poured them into our brick molds, which look like ladders. You drench the ladder in water so that the mud doesn’t stick, then lay it on the ground. You then pour the mud into the spaces, make sure they are nice and even, then lift the ladder up. If the consistency is right, the mud stays on the ground in a perfect brick shape and can be left out in the sun for a few days to dry. Our mud bricks were successful and we made about 70!

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Stomping in the mud pit, mixing up our brick recipe.
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The bricks we made using just earth, water, and rice husks!

The next day, we started our design for an earth bench. We started off in the morning by discussing how to lay a foundation before heading out to the site to start the project. First, we laid out where the bench was going to go, sprinkling flour to ‘draw’ out the shape. We had to take into consideration that the foundation needs to be an extra 12 inches wider than the bench will be, on each side. This is so any water around the bench can drain into the ground instead of wicking up into the bench.

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This is the site where we built our bench. It’s at a crossroads in front of the dorms, so it’s a good place for a place to sit and hang out.

Once we had our design marked out, we started digging. The foundation for a house would need to be deeper, but for the bench, we dug down about 10 inches. Once we had the entire shape dug out, we tamped the earth down using our feet and homemade tampers, to make it stable and even out the surface.

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Digging the foundation.
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You can see where we marked out the shape with flour
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Using our feet and homemade tampers to make the foundation nice and solid.

The next step was filling the hole all the way up with gravel. After filling up several wheel barrows of gravel and pouring them into the foundation, we tamped the gravel down using the same technique as before. At this point, we realized that our bench was being built on a part of the land that was going to collect water, so we had to figure out a solution to avoid the bench getting flooded and risk water wicking up into the bench (which could cause mold, crumbling, and other issues.) Our solution was to dig a trench that lead from the bench foundation to a nearby tree. We dug the trench at a downward angle away from the bench so that the water would be redirected to the tree and plants growing around it. We then filled the trench with gravel and tamped it the same as the foundation. After it was tamped, we covered the trench in burlap sacks to keep dirt from clogging it up, then covered the sacks in dirt to conceal it.

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Digging out the trench to redirect any water collecting around the bench

While one group was digging the trench, the other group was starting to build the bench structure. The first layer was made of gravel bags-literally bags stuffed with gravel, then tamped down to make them flat. We put them down as close together as possible to create the first layer of our bench. Once the gravel bags were in place, we added two layers of earth bags, which are the same as gravel bags, but they are filled with soil. We also put a layer of barbed wire between each layer of bags to hold them together. We tamped down each layer to make them nice and flat before calling it a day.

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Laying out the shape of our bench with one layer of gravel bags and two layers of earth bags
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Celebrating after a hard day’s work on the beginnings of our earth bench

The next day we pretty much just jumped right back into working. We were almost ready to start laying bricks, but we first had to cover the earth bags with chicken wire, which gives the mud something to hold onto. Then we had to jump back in the mud pit to make mortar for our bricks. The mortar we used was the exact same mixture as the bricks we had made, we were just using it wet instead of making bricks out of it.

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Covering the earth bags in chicken wire to give the mud something to stick to
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A closeup of the chicken wire covering the earth bags
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Lola showing the class how to make cob

Once we had the backs wired and the mortar made, we started laying bricks. One of the great things about adobe bricks is that you can easily shape them. So in areas of the bench that we wanted rounded or cut in an unusual way, we could easily shave off parts of the bricks with a machete.

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The first layer of bricks!

We also had to start building the back rest of the bench, for which we decided to use cob. We built a frame in the shape we wanted out of bamboo and wired it to the chicken wire on the earth bags, then used cob to wind around the bamboo and build up into the back of our bench.

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More brick laying and beginning to build the back of the bench using bamboo
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Starting to clean up the shape of the bench

On day four, we were back in the classroom discussing Ecological Home Design, which consisted of a discussion about how to create a home that is part of the ecological system it exists in, using local and renewable resources, making it practical and functional, and the least damaging to the natural environment. We talked about the issues surrounding modern building techniques and how natural building techniques are a preferable solution. We also discussed methods of using the natural environment to your advantage by positioning your home in a way that makes use of the sun, using natural insulators, and taking advantage of prevailing winds, depending on what type of climate you are living in.

We then got back to work on the bench, finishing up any sculpting and shaping that needed to be done, and covering it with the first coat of plaster, which is known as the scratch coat. The scratch coat was the made of the exact same mixture as the mortar. Just sand, clay, water, and rice husks. We then watched a slideshow presentation of different types of earth homes all around the world, and took a tour of a neighboring farm called Pun Pun-another permaculture farm that is pretty famous around Thailand and a great example of functioning permaculture system.

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Finishing the scratch coat – the first layer of the plastering process
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More scratch coat – making sure all of the gaps are filled and the shape is really solid
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We even included some fancy cup holders with PVC pipes at the bottom to drain out any rainwater that collects
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The bench shape finished and ready to be plastered

The next day was all about plastering, and we actually had another plastering project to do in addition to the bench. One of the Panya houses was in need of re-plastering, and we decided that it would be great experience for the natural building students to try out.

For the house, we decided to use a lime plaster, which is just clay, sand, lime, and water. Lime is more water resistant than just earth plasters, but you have to use gloves when working with it because of the alkalinity. To create a nice smooth plaster, we sifted all of the ingredients before mixing them together and then adding water. The result was a beautiful, creamy plaster ready to be slapped on the walls. We put a tarp down on the floor and taped the edges of the windows to try to keep everything clean, though it’s fairly easy to scrape the plaster off of anything that it shouldn’t be on. We then wet down the wall before putting the plaster on to help it stick better. Once we had the walls coated, we used a wet sponge to smooth it out. We got all of the inside and some of the outside done in less than a day.

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Sifting the lime for the plaster – we needed to use face masks to avoid breathing it in
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Sifting the sand for the plaster
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Plastering the house

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The next day, we finished up the outside of the house and we also experimented with some different plasters to use for the bench. Each student got to make up their own recipe, then we voted on the one we liked best. We ended up picking a black plaster, and got to work making a whole bunch of it. This was an earth plaster (no lime) so we didn’t have to wear gloves while using it. Once we had it mixed up, we put the plaster on and had the whole bench covered in a matter of minutes!

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We tested out some different plaster recipes that we wanted to use on the bench.
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We ended up picking this nice black plaster
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Smoothing on the plaster

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And finished! (We did not have time to seal the bench during the course, but we ended up using a mixture of melted beeswax and linseed oil to seal the bench. It makes it very water resistant and fit for being outdoors.)

In celebration of the end of the course and all of our hard work, we ended the night with a huge dinner of roasted veggies in the earth oven (complete with our own homemade cheese!) and some beers around the fire.

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Joe getting excited about the feast
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Everyone cooking together in the kitchen for the last night of the course

The course was really inspiring for me. Not only did we create an earth bench and plaster an entire house in only a few days time, but all of the techniques we learned about in the classroom got me really excited to try new methods of building as well. It was really empowering to see a small group of people work together to create something so beautiful and helped me realize what I am capable of accomplishing. We’ve got some more exciting projects coming up at Panya that I can’t wait to share!

Until next time!

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Living at the Panya Project – What’s What?

We’ve been living at Panya for about a month now, so we figured it was past time for an update!  When we first got here, we set up camp in the dorms.  There are two housing buildings right next to each other when you first arrive at Panya.  They each have rows of dorm beds on the top floor and private rooms on the ground level.  For the most part, people that are staying for Panya for a short time stay in the dorms, and long-termers stay in the private rooms.  Since all of the private rooms were taken when we arrived, we were temporarily put in the dorms.

The dorm buildings
The dorm buildings
The upper level of one of the housing buildings.  There are about 8 mattresses in each, with a mosquito net.
The upper level of one of the housing buildings. There are about 8 mattresses in each, with a mosquito net.
We pushed two of the mattresses together to make this luxurious set up when we first arrived.
We pushed two of the mattresses together to make this luxurious set up when we first arrived.

The first few days were mostly spent getting to know our surroundings and the people we were going to be living in the community with.  Right now, there are 3 people that are currently sort of ‘running things’ that have been living at Panya for several years.  Their names are Ben, Kyle, and Lola and they have been living here for several years teaching courses and maintaining the farm.  Kyle and Lola also have a 4 month old baby girl and have just finished building a new house for the 3 of them! We happened to arrive at a time where a bunch of long term volunteers were leaving so it was a little chaotic with all of the comings and goings.  We have now gotten used to the routine of things and it’s feeling a lot more like ‘home.’ Currently, there are 4 interns (Joe and I, included) in addition to the course instructors.  Sometimes there are more and sometimes less, it just depends on when volunteers come.

We got our own room about a week after we arrived.  It's on the bottom level of one of the housing buildings and the biggest private room.  (We got dibs because there's two of us.)  Again, we pushed two mattresses together to make a bigger bed - and they're not even on the floor!
We got our own room about a week after we arrived. It’s on the bottom level of one of the housing buildings and the biggest private room. (We got dibs because there’s two of us.) Again, we pushed two mattresses together to make a bigger bed – and they’re not even on the floor!
More of our room.  There's some shelving, art on the walls, and colorful plaster work
More of our room. There’s some shelving, art on the walls, and colorful plaster work
The other side of our room.  The orange sheet on the right serves as our door.  The one on the left is a window.
The other side of our room. The orange sheet on the right serves as our door. The one on the left is a window.
This is what our room looks like from the outside.
This is what our room looks like from the outside.

Two and a half weeks ago marked the beginning of a Permaculture Design Course, the first course that we have been present for.  For the most part, the interns and volunteers continue going about their projects during the course, but we are also allowed to sit in on some of the lectures.  There are around 10 students that have come for the course, so we have had to adjust our routine to having all the extra bodies around!

This is the main structure on the farm, the Sala.
This is the main structure on the farm, the Sala.
It contains the classroom, the kitchen, the dining room, and the library
It contains the classroom, the kitchen, the dining room, and the library
Here is the Sala, coming from the dorms.
Here is the Sala, coming from the dorms.
This is the classroom, which is really only used when a course is in session
This is the classroom, which is really only used when a course is in session
This is the library, which is on the second floor above the dining area.  There are a ton of books up there and some old couches.
This is the library, which is on the second floor above the dining area. There are a ton of books up there and some old couches.
This is a little balcony that sits over the classroom.  It's a good spot to sit during classes (to watch without disrupting.)
This is a little balcony that sits over the classroom. It’s a good spot to sit during classes (to watch without disrupting) or just to hang out.

When a course is not in session, the residents of Panya are divided into four groups: Dinner, Lunch, Potwash, and Tidy.  The chores rotate each day so that everyone is either cooking for the group or cleaning up.  We try to use a lot of food from our garden and supplement it with foods from the market.  It is always a vegetarian diet and usually vegan.  We eat a lot of rice, as well.  During a course though, a local woman and friend of the farm cooks lunch and dinner for all of the students and residents.  That has been fantastic because not only do we not have to cook, she makes amazing food!

This is the kitchen, equipped with a refrigerator, a sink, and three gas stoves.
This is the kitchen, equipped with a refrigerator, a sink, and three gas stoves.
Work Team chores.  We rotate the wheel each day so that everyone contributes.
Work Team chores. We rotate the wheel each day so that everyone contributes.
This is the dining area (with the kitchen behind it) where we eat pretty much every meal as a community.
This is the dining area (with the kitchen behind it) where we eat pretty much every meal as a community.
These are the wood fire ovens
These are the wood fire ovens
Here are all of the big pots and woks.  Beyond those is the washing station where we have large bowls of water to wash our dishes.  This cuts down on water waste.
Here are all of the big pots and woks. Beyond those is the washing station where we have large bowls of water to wash our dishes. This cuts down on water waste.
The fire pit, right outside the dining area
The fire pit, right outside the dining area

There are lots of creepy crawlies at Panya, including cobras, scorpions, and centipedes.  There are also lots of tiny flies that buzz around your ankles 24/7.  Oh, and mosquitoes as well.  It was a bit annoying at first, but we’ve come to ignore it.  We have seen 2 scorpions and a few snakes.  The red centipedes can supposedly get really large but we’ve only seen little ones.  Apparently the centipedes are the most painful out of everything you can get stung/bitten by, but the only thing you might need to seek medical attention for is a cobra bite.  Last week, a yellow jacket (or some kind of formidable-looking, yellow and black stinging insect) got inside our mosquito net and stung me on the wrist.  That’s been the only sting so far…but there have been lots of red ant bites.  We have a lot of those as well.  Oh, and termites.  One night, there were so many flying termites buzzing around the lights in the kitchen, you could barely see across the room.  There are also lots of beetles that fly around at night time.  Some of them are literally 3 inches long and really fat.  The geckos will hang out on the ceiling and catch them as they fly by, which can be quite entertaining.

Here is the biggest snake we have seen.  Nobody was sure what kind of snake it was or whether it was dangerous, but it has been seen a few times around the site.
Here is the biggest snake we have seen. Nobody was sure what kind of snake it was or whether it was dangerous, but it has been seen a few times around the site.
Here is one of the garden areas right next to the kitchen.  There's a lot of food growing there like carrots, New Zealand spinach, tomatoes, etc.  We harvest a lot of salads from this garden.
Here is one of the garden areas right next to the kitchen. There’s a lot of food growing there like carrots, New Zealand spinach, tomatoes, kale, etc. We harvest a lot of salads from this garden.
This is the nursery, a few yards away from the kitchen.
This is the nursery, a few yards away from the kitchen.
There are lots of young plants that have been propagated and are living here until they are strong enough to be planted elsewhere.
There are lots of young plants that have been propagated and are living here until they are strong enough to be planted elsewhere.
The plants on the floor there are seedlings from a Jamaican cherry tree.
The plants on the floor there are seedlings from a Jamaican cherry tree.
More nursery plants
More nursery plants
This is the workshop which houses all of the tools and materials used for all kinds of projects.
This is the workshop which houses all of the tools and materials, used for all kinds of projects.
We are working on organizing it...
We are working on organizing it…
This is a chicken tractor in the process of being built.
This is a chicken tractor in the process of being built.

There are two compost toilet facilities on site.  One behind the dorms, and a large one across the road from the workshop.  The one behind the dorms only has one toilet.  The one near the workshop has four, but only two are used at a time, to let the other two have time to compost.  There are also two male showers and two female showers next to the compost toilet.  All of the soaps we use (for dish washing, personal hygiene, etc.) are natural and organic so that the water can be used to hydrate the gardens.

The big compost toilet building near the workshop
The big compost toilet building near the workshop
The four 'stalls'
The four ‘stalls’
The inside of one of the stalls.  Rustic, you could say, but it should be noted that these are a lot nicer and cleaner than many, if not all, public restrooms in Southeast Asia that we have encountered.  There is very little to no odor, thanks to the use of rice husks.
The inside of one of the stalls. Rustic, you could say, but it should be noted that these are a lot nicer and cleaner than many, if not all, public restrooms in Southeast Asia that we have encountered. There is very little to no odor, thanks to the use of rice husks.
The women's showers.  We have solar heated water, but it's so sweltering that I don't think anyone uses it!
The women’s showers. We have solar heated water, but it’s so sweltering that I don’t think anyone uses it!

Although the farm can feel remote, we are only a 30 minute walk from the village where we can access wifi at a local internet cafe.  And Chiang Mai is only about an hour away.  There is a truck and a motorbike we can use to get to the market as well.  There are also two reservoirs near by, a waterfall, and a canal.  We go to the big reservoir to swim a lot, which is nice with it being so hot right now.  Mostly, we have really enjoyed being disconnected and spending our days surrounded by natural beauty.

The pig pen
The pig pen
Apparently a former resident was into raising his own livestock to eat, but when he left, no one else was interested in doing that, so they are just kept as members of the community and ecosystem.  They also eat a lot of our food waste, like watermelon rinds.
Apparently a former resident was into raising his own livestock to eat, but when he left, no one else was interested in doing that, so these are just kept as members of the community and ecosystem. They also eat a lot of our food waste, like watermelon rinds.
Here is one of the houses on the property, called the Elephant House.
Here is one of the houses on the property, called the Elephant House.  All of the structures are made using natural building techniques like cob and adobe bricks.
Another house
Another house, further along the road.
This is just one of the views from the farm.  It's really beautiful!
This is just one of the stunning views from the farm. It really is a beautiful spot.
Even though it's hot, we have a pretty good amount of shade from the jungle trees and plants.
Even though it’s hot, we have a pretty good amount of shade from the jungle trees and plants.

Now that we have spent a month helping out with other people’s projects and listening in on the Permaculture Design Course, it’s about time for us to decide what areas of the farm we want to focus on.  I will be focusing on natural building and Joe is thinking about working on the food forest.  We don’t have specific projects in mind, yet but we think those will be our areas of specialization for the remainder of our time at Panya.  We have some idea we’ve been kicking around…hopefully we’ll have some cool stuff to share in a month or so.

A layout of the property.
A layout of the property.

We’ve been having a blast at Panya.  The last month has absolutely flown by, and we’re looking forward to two more months of cracking down and starting some projects.  We’re only a third of the way through, but can already tell it’s going to be tough when it comes time to leave.  We are very grateful to be able to do what we are doing! Thanks for following, we’ll be in touch soon! 🙂