Sunday, 29 June 2014


The 1956 film “The Ten Commandments”starred Charlton Heston as Moses from the Bible. At one time, as a Jewish slave in Egypt, he was shown building with mud. This was a very Hollywood version of such work, as what was shown was the use of a very wet, sloppy mix, and so the conditions portrayed were very messy. Such a mix could have been used for mud mortar, but not for the mud bricks which were the subject of the work in hand. The mix for bricks needs to be wet enough to be malleable, but not so wet that its splashes about. The mix for mortar does need to be wetter, however, in order for it to fit around the bricks to make a homogeneous whole.

The 2005 film “The New World” starred Christian Bale as Captain John Smith who married Princess Pocahontas on the east coast of the USA when Europeans first settled in that country. Once the village was established, there are scenes in the film showing the cottages in which people lived, which look like correct portrayals of mud-and-stud cottages. It is known that some of the earliest immigrants were from Lincolnshire, and it is being established that they brought their own building technique with them – namely mud-and-stud ! In the film it was quite striking to see people going for a stroll around the village, in the Puritan dress of the time, with these cottages around them.


In the last episode of the Ray Mears series “How the Wild West was Won” on BBC 4, he featured the homes of the Navajo Indians in the Sanoran Desert in the south-west of the USA. Their houses were called hogoms, and they consisted of earth piled up on a pyramid-like timber frame to provide one large simple volume. Because of the heat, the earth became baked hard and dry. However, there was also occasional torrential rain and if any earth was washed off, it could be repaired using the material which was all around – more earth. The timber itself was a scarce resource, and so it was re-used if homes had to be re-built. Again the structures were warm in the winter but cool in the summer.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014


At the University of Lincoln on 26 February 2014

Attended by students of architecture, guests, members of Greenpeace and the Abundant Earth Community, and EMESS members.

On behalf of the School of Architecture, Marcin Kolakowski welcomed everyone.  He mentioned that 15 student projects were on the subject of sustainable architecture - but what was this subject really ?  It was not about CO2 emissions or U-values, but about low technology and going more widely and more slowly, rather than narrowly and quickly.  There is a crisis of meaning, of consumerism, etc in modern times.

The Abundant Earth Community is trying to improve physical, mental and economic health.  They are an intentional community which might take the form of a workers' co-operative or a housing co-operative.  In practice they would work off the grid to produce food through many collaborators, and they have become a client figure for an architecture project.  See them at :

Mamoud was the first student speaker on natural materials, taking the subject of light clay in a mixture of 1:1 of clay:straw.  It would be laid between shutters, and within timber studs.  The shutters could be removed after two hours, and the wall could be plastered after further drying of two weeks.  The mass was in the range of 600 - 800 kg/m3.  Blocks could be made with the same mixture; and the proportions of the mixture could be varied to improve the standard of thermal insulation.

Adam then spoke on the subject of rammed earth, which would be clay with sand or gravel, without any straw, and so could have a relatively high thermal mass.  The technique is being used in contemporary building, especially in hot countries, where it has the benefit of providing coolth.  Although it is an ancient technique, it has been used at the Eden Centre in Cornwall, at CAT in Wales, in the Chapel of Reconciliation, Berlin, etc.

Jack talked about super adobe bags of earth or any other as-found material..  They could be long or short for bonding in walls; they can be used to form curved walls and domes; and they could have civil engineering uses.  The mortar can be barbed wire and then the surfaces can be rendered.  Walls have some flexibility and so the technique can be resistant to earthquakes and hurricanes. 

Kieran had Walter Segal self-built housing as his subject.  In 1963 Segal built a house in his garden using only standard-sized materials.  In the 1970's Lewisham Council provided four (awkward) sites for self-builders to develop, using timber frames, light-weight panels, paving slabs for foundations, etc.  The principles of co-operative working, self-help, and self-reliance were all in evidence.

Surnan spoke about a possible eco-village on the site of Liquorice Park on Yarborough Road in Lincoln.  30 possible site plans had been merged into one, with a large circular green towards the north-west, buildings containing houses and workshops towards the south-east, and a shop and nursery at the southern tip.  Re-used materials would form the construction.

Emily talked on the subject of vernacular architecture as an answer to the GB housing crisis.  There are 1.7 million people on the social housing list; modern houses are very small; and people have mortgage problems.  Tall housing blocks have been shown not to be the answer to the housing slums which they replaced. There are many types of traditional buildings in the UK which were built by the people for the people, such as the timber-framed Wealden houses, cottages, etc; and these were also set in traditional patterns of settlement.  Whilst there is the modern technical problem of the Code for Sustainable Homes, it should be possible to revive the traditional construction of cob in all its forms, and timber-frame such as Segal self-build.

Diane had the subject of the Code for Sustainable Homes, where level 5 has the target of zero CO2.  This is economically too expensive to build using insulated panels.  Mechanical ventilation is required, but this is difficult to manage.  In the monitored houses, energy consumption was low to start with, but increased over time.  Photo-voltaics were easy to install, and were successful.  Rainwater harvesting was successful, but loud in use (as the houses were otherwise quiet inside).

From the university estates office, Jane said that the students would be able to build on the campus using low technologies, following the success of pop-up temporary structures in London, at the AA and the Serpentine Gallery.  The estates department would work with the students to find suitable sites and functions.

For EMESS, Rodney mentioned that he and Marcin had been to the EBUK meeting the previous week in Norfolk, which had been fascinating.  He gave a brief history of EMESS, starting with the removal of the mud-and-stud cottage from the village of Withern to the museum in Skegness now called The Village.  It was found that the cottage had been pre-fabricated and so it was relatively easy to take it apart, move it, and re-erect it.  He mentioned that the next international meeting on earthen construction would be in Lyon, France in 2016.  Finally he mentioned that although EMESS is a traditional society which has dealt with historic building, the members see earth as a modern material.

In the following discussion, James referred to a coming-together of interests at this time, namely, ecological principles, natural materials, the commitment of people, etc.

Trevor suggested setting up demonstration workshops at the university, in a location such as beneath the bridge or in any temporary storage units.

The AEC is looking for any possible sites which could become the focal points of their proposals,  They could be in the city or in the county.  They have 100 people interested in their project.

The time, date, and location of the next EMESS meeting will be notified in due course.

Monday, 2 June 2014


This survey shows the building which EMESS has been repairing from time to time over the last 20 years.  It is a listed building grade II and the Society has the permission of the owner to carry out the repairs.  In addition, because these repairs to a listed building are being carried out on a like-for-like basis, the Society has been given the agreement of the local authority to carry them out.  If the repairs did not match the original construction, then listed building consent would have been required.  

The building has become the focus of the hands-on training days which EMESS organises, usually twice a year.  One of these days is specifically for architecture students from the University of Lincoln who are interested in the use of sustainable materials.  The other day is for anyone in EMESS to attend.

The building’s survey was carried out by Arjun Chopra and Kritika Golchha, two students from the University, following a consultation with two retired architect members of EMESS.  The building has been recorded by Arjun Chopra to this excellent level overall, which will allow for even more detailed surveying to be done in the future for various other purposes.  For instance, the various timber joints could be surveyed individually, and their locations keyed into the present overall drawings.  In addition, any carpenter’s marks could be sought and recorded in the same way.  The degree by which the building’s structure has moved away from the vertical could be recorded.  The areas and dates of the various modern repairs could be included, in order to show that the repairs are being carried out in accordance with the best conservation practice.  Thoughts about further repairs, and possibly the stabilising of the structure, could be assessed on the basis of this survey.

(Drawing by Arjun Chopra, 2013)


Saturday, 31 May 2014


On BBC 4 recently, Ray Mears has been describing “How the Wild West was Won” in a three part documentary. Episode two was about the Great Plains, which included a section on how people built houses there without trees (or stone, for that matter). So what did they use ? They used earth, of course, and in particular, sods of turf from the very tough grass which did grow there. It was recognised that the sods gave very good insulation properties through their thermal mass, namely cool in the summer but warm in the winter. This was essential as much of the USA has a continental climate of extremes except along the coasts. It is estimated that there were a million such houses by 1900. Watch the programme on i-player or wait to see if it will be repeated (as many of BBC 4's programmes are).