Learning Natural Construction Techniques the Hard Way

Hard work but rewarding results

I became skilled in natural construction techniques because I was bored. I could make up something more dramatic, but that was really all there was too it. At the time, I was living in a hippie community in Argentina for two months while my son healed from an accident. We had just moved to Argentina from the US, and instead of staying in hostels while he recovered, we took up some friends on their offer to live with them.

I guess I had not quite adopted the rural Argentine mentality of my hosts. The days consisted of sleeping in late, maybe working in the garden for a little bit, then enjoying three hour lunches, followed by siesta for another couple of hours, followed by reading, painting, or some other leisure time activity. In the states I had been a real estate investor. My cell phone was constantly ringing off the hook as I was trying frantically to get huge deals to close, always busy managing fifty different things at once morning until night. I think that I have a little too much energy and drive to relax by a stream and read a book. I am just not wired that way, and I was starting to drive myself and everyone around me crazy with my excess energy.

I wanted to find a way to thank our hosts for their incredible hospitality. With much graciousness and without a second thought, they had taken our family in at a time when we needed help, eight of us total living in their one room house. So when I heard Ana, our host, say that she dreamed of having an indoor bathroom someday, I immediately knew what I could offer her. (I also mentally calculated how long my own wife would have gone without an indoor bathroom, and decided it would have been more in terms of hours than in the years that Ana had waited).

The rest of their house was built out of clay, so for continuity I knew that I could not run right out to the hardware store, get some lumber, bricks, and power tools and start building. There was a video that I found on the topic of natural construction, and even though I understood none of the language, the visuals were enough to get me pointed in the right direction. Once I got some momentum, some other people living in the community stepped up to share their knowledge from past experience, and I was on my way.

It was so new to me to have to rely on only the materials that were found on the land. In the states, if I needed anything, I would get in my pick-up truck and go buy it, or better yet, have it delivered. Here, if I needed rocks, I needed to find them and drag them back to the work site. If I needed sand, I needed to sift gravel through a screen until all that was left was fine sand. If I needed grass for the clay mixture, I would have to go cut some from the fields and let it dry. This process was actually very therapeutic for me. I was managing to stay ridiculously busy, while having to adapt to the reality that nothing would happen quickly.

I also got used to getting dirty…really, really dirty. This was definitely not suit and tie work. One of the best, and of course the most fun, ways to mix up the clay, sand, grass and water is to mix it with your feet, almost like you are smashing grapes. So between mixing with my feet and applying the adobe with my hands, I was pretty much covered in clay from head to toe at all times. If only my old business partners could have seen me, they never would have believed their eyes. I looked more like a swamp creature at times than the cutthroat investor that they knew.

I was also the subject of a lot of jokes. I once asked if anyone had a level. No one had any idea what I was talking about. I explained that a level was a tool that told you if something was straight or not. I told them that in the states you could get a standard one with the water and the bubble, or there were even such things as laser levels. They all had a good laugh telling me that that was actually the reason the bathroom never got completed – no one could manage to get their hands on any ‘laser beams’. They then handed me some clear plastic tubing and a bucket of water – I guess there is a method if you are crafty enough using these two things to see if something is level, but I instead I embraced the Argentine spirit of mas o menos and decided to call it close enough. There was hope for me yet to adapt to the more forgiving Argentine building standards. Through a lot of trial and error, and many days of working up a sweat in desert heat, Ana did get her indoor bathroom.

I have since studied quite a bit on more techniques of natural construction, learning both through experimentation and also from some of the best masters in the world. I have learned how to make natural plaster and paint, and as well as learning how to adapt the techniques to different climates. I love the fact that it is a trade, yes, but it is also like art to me. There are no right angles, and the more free-form and organic something becomes, it only gets more beautiful and unique. I feel like a big kid who gets to play with play dough and finger paint all day long.

I also love it that I can share my knowledge with others who may not think that they have the money to build a house, and show them that they can build one with materials that the land provides. If someone is willing to work hard, a house can be built practically for free using materials of the land and recycled glass for windows. This is very empowering for people to realize that owning a house really is within their reach.

Of course not everyone has the time or the desire to put in so much work. So I have been offering my skills to those who want a natural construction house, and have been able to make quite a good living at it. It is something that I can do anywhere in the world, as long as I have access to some sort of stones, clay, grass or other fiber, and water. There will always be a need for affordable housing no matter which country my family decides to live in, and the number of people interested in green building and eco-living is exploding every year.

For me, this is an enjoyable way to make decent money doing something that I have become passionate about. But more importantly, after a long day of hauling rocks and working with heavy clay, I have learned that nothing sounds better to me than relaxing by a stream and reading a book.

About the author: Shaun Brown lives with his wife and 3 children in Argentina. He works the real estate scene in Mendoza, Argentina now, so if you have any questions or are interested in properties in Argentina, email him at vistagroup1@hotmail.comHis wife Cathy, is the editor of Expat Daily News South America and Expat Daily News Central America

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1 Comment

  1. Tim Rudisill July 22, 2010 at 8:52 am

    Local building materials and techniques vary so much from place to place and they are fascinating in and of themselves. The adobe you mention – I’d love to try it out . As you say: “Art”. I would love to build an “art-form house”…myself.
    While I was living in Southern India I found that , as wood was so rare and rock so cheap and readily available, stone was used. But not “stacked” or “mortared” stone. Nope, they used vertical members of stone ( due to natural exfoliation) and the “stick construction techniques” we associate with wood. Truly remakable and something I had never before seen done.
    Thanks for the article and the info. I’m going to your wifes web-site and I’ll be getting in touch with you , about realestate possibilities in Argentina.

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