As Clear As Mud

Isn’t it true that at times we like to run away and hide in our caves just like ancient man? Today our need for shelter and security, remain vital elements in our bid to survive in this tenuous world and during our time on planet earth we should stop every now and then to reflect. Our reality is that we are living on the edge. Well…on the crust really. Subject to the fierce elements of nature as well as the terrifying prospect of facing each other in conflict, no wonder we want to bunker down, to dodge as many of the known threats as we possibly can.

High in the hills behind Cabarita, one couple have created such a getaway. A safe harbour, suckered next to soothing rainforest, and tinkling waterfalls – these two would never budge from their own particular slice of heaven in Northern NSW.
In the late nineties, Barb and Dave were living in the confines of semi-suburban Cabarita. They began to feel restless, and made the decision to head for the hills of nearby Murwillumbah. There began the dream of two earth signs to build a Mud Brick house.

This clever couple have managed to avoid the usual “traps of our capitalist society” by pursuing an extraordinary pathway to success. Having a sustainable lifestyle can give you additional control over your destiny, and some measure of power over your immediate environment. No big mortgage to pay off here, this story is all about patience and process growing in unison until food and shelter, our two most basic of needs, are there to grasp and savour.

Admitting to loads of ignorance prior to researching these muddy dwellings the only thing I knew about Mud Brick houses growing up was from watching Monty Python movies where the Holy Grail had scenes of peasants collecting wet sods for their humble shelter. I have always used the phrase “rotten sod” never quite knowing that sod refers to the most primitive of grassy, earth squares, cut directly out of the land and used in England to create cheap and warm shelter.

Earth houses have traditionally been a cost effective housing method. Rammed Earth, Straw Bail and Mud Brick came into its own in Australia with the rise of alternate housing methods in the 70’s. Many of us middle aged hippies will remember growing up reading Grass Roots magazines. It’s so wonder, therefore, that we would want to develop closer ties to a lifestyle of self-sufficiency.

The property developed by Dave and Barb has become certified organic, to produce loads of vegetables, farm fresh eggs, as well as, organic bananas and exotic fruits. They live in a home built literally from years of their own blood sweat and tears. The structure stands as a testament to the owner builder process.

Following the principles in the “Permaculture” method of farming they looked for the perfect north facing aspect for the block, to position the house so the angle of the sun as it travels over the block and the house, gives maximum light exposure. This works to heat up the house during the morning and cool overnight.

The position of the house on the block was vital to the success of this eco-friendly home. It ticks several design boxes such as being far enough away from threat of bush fires but close enough to the established vegetable patch and chook dome. Not to discount either, the angle of the home taking advantage of splendid valley views, of undulating green hills with its glimpses of the intertwining creek. Apart from the dams on the 10 acre block, it also has a supply of water with a creek and “fire-fly” filled gully. The back edge of the property is framed by remanent rainforest that has been cared for by the local landcare group.

The process of constructing a mud-brick house requires loads of decision-making and conversations about the “next step”. Starting with the bricks self-created with the help of friends, over 3000 bricks were made over 3 days from mud/clay brought-in from Crabbes Creek. Apparently the mud had to be imported due to the fact it needs to have a high clay content, otherwise the bricks can deteriorate in our weather.

Inside the unique abode there is a rustic feel, complimented by carefully restored recycled doors and windows frames, each one hand-selected. This home is the epitome of contrasts, of warmth and cool, of earth and light, moving with nature and not against it.

The couple engaged an architect for the original design; however, after the first set of plans proved to be somewhat impractical with curved walls etc, they drew up their own design and re-engaged the green-friendly architect to oversee the design. The split roof, also called skillion or shed style serves a number of purposes. Firstly it lets in light and the addition of windows along the top edge, creates its own natural light and ventilation system for the hot weather by recycling air and dispersing fresh cool around the home.

It also encourages sunny spots that move around the walls and floors, heating the bricks – keeping the temperature inside very consistent and warm in winter. This alleviates the need for additional heating and cooling, thus saving money. The steepness of the roof helps with run-off and water collection.

Dave and Barb had to surrender to the process of house building over a 7 year period and take some breaks. The couple bought a motorbike for weekend getaways, had several trips away etc. “We built as we could afford it, alongside the building process there was the farm work to attend to, planting, planning and developing their organic lifestyle”.

The mud bricks were made on site and left to dry for roughly seven years even although they can be used after a 6 week period if need be. The bricks stayed wrapped in plastic over that time and only a few didn’t survive the wait. By chance, with the change of design, there were enough surplus bricks to do a mud-brick floor. Like women in Kenya who use cow dung to seal their muddy huts the rendering process was painstaking and required patience and commitment. Cutting the bricks to curve around poles was also fiddly work. The finishing off process included rendering inside and out, sanding doors and rubbing linseed into the floors.

Dave comments that during the construction process you had to be organised and it was overwhelming at times. After living in the adjacent shack for so long there were times of questioning… “Do we really want this house”? Some implications of moving into the solid mud dwelling is missing the sounds of the bush, it is a whole lot quieter than the shack, and a lot less wildlife moving around inside.

Interview by Yvonne Rose

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