Laying the 1st Bricks: Natural Building in Thailand

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.

In January 2015 I was in Thailand interning at a natural building and organic farming site called Gaia Ashram. I also visited a few intentional communities advocating permaculture principles and alternative sustainable lifestyles. My 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 designing things

The need for further development of natural building techniques and human-nature integration is crucial if we are to ever even dream about living sustainably.

For more than 2 weeks I was in Nong Khai, situated in Northeastern Thailand, close to the border of Laos. I worked at the Gaia Ashram, a start-up sustainable community with long-term goals of being an international education center for natural building and permaculture, as well as a holistic school for the local children. Me and 13 other interns were trained on theoretical knowledge of natural building and we also gained practical building skills by helping construct walls for their main sala and outdoor toilet structure.

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). What we dug up is anaerobic clay with a very sticky consistency – the perfect ingredient for the “glue” of our adobe recipe.

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Next, we dug a hole on-site, from which we extracted 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. 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.

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We used this mixture to shape our bricks and then left them outside to sun dry.

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After the bricks dried we used the same wet mixture as the mortar to connect the bricks together.

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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 apply the plaster to the wall and make the finishing touches.

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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.

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Besides physical building, we participated in many group-building activities, which really put the “community” into 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.

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After having been in a classroom for a year and a half, it was refreshing and rewarding to live what I have been learning. In the literature, the statistics are available 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…

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