Posts tagged: Comuna de Rhiannon
The finished work of Rob Ormerod’s earth bag house built on the Rhiannon Community property outside Malchingui, Ecuador.
When I arrived at Rhiannon, I hoped to get a chance to stay in one of the two teepees that punctuate the view south towards Cotopaxi. Unfortunately, the numbers worked out best to house the three Texan boys and the three single ladies in the two cone shaped tents. My spirits were lifted, thankfully, when Helen announced that we would be building a third teepee on the property while I was staying there.
The design consists of 12 eucalyptus poles about 25’ tall sheathed with a synthetic tarp stitched and grommeted. Julieta was tasked with cutting and stitching the pattern for the skin and I was given the opportunity to shave the pole tips. Leó and Vincent, two very amusing men from France who sailed for three months crossing the Atlantic from Greece to Venezuela, helped level and round the teepee floor.
After the French boys cleared the land, I spent about three long hours, and a few blisters, shaving all 12 poles with an axe that wanted to fly sky high every fourth swing. Now, we were ready to do the pole lift and everyone came to help, or mostly watched and offered their advice.
Starting the structure requires three poles at 120° and then tied to form the base support for which the remaining poles are laid atop of. We managed to raise, tie and load the poles but realized at the end that the tips needed more shaving. So, we deconstructed the frame and I had at poles for another hour until they were thinner and more tapered.
The next day we set about raising the frame again, this time managing a fairly even conical shape. Leó was our monkey and shimmied up the poles to secure the rope. Getting down was an amusing slide down the poles.
Our next task was placing the heavy tarp on the frame, lifting it to the top and then securing it. Again, Leó was sent to the top, I stood on the ladder below and the crew helped heave the skin up until we got it attached securely. While that action was going on, Vincent and Jessica struggled with some shoddy tools to shave the tarp stakes down. I think I heard a few French curses from that experience.
We then had to weave the door grommets together about half-way down the tarp with the remaining distance being open for the door installation. The poles didn’t make a perfect conical shape and created a gap between the pole and the skin so that any wind would cause a violent ‘flap-flap-flap’. We spent about an hour+ re-digging and moving the poles to try and create more tension on the tarp but with little effect. Finally, we got it to an acceptable place and quit for the day.
My next responsibility, laid down on me by Kenna, a Canuck from BC, was to paint the teepee exterior. I had a few days before hand to think of various themes or items to paint. One idea I had was to paint the 12, or 13, Indians a shaman had seen in a vision that were sitting on the roof of the commune and protecting it. That got scrapped because a) I didn’t want to end up offending anyone and b) Julieta reminded me that spirit animals were usually painted on teepees. That’s when we thought, “Why not put all the farm animals on the teepee?!” Perfect idea.
I traipsed about the farm sketching the various pigs, chickens, donkey, dogs and cats we had on the farm. At first I was imaging them all sitting around a fire, with their backs to you and on the inside paint their faces. But, that didn’t seem lively enough, so I decided to paint them facing out, being themselves with a little more activity. I had also wanted to stack them on top of each other, but the height of the teepee and reaching it would be way too hard, so I kept them at my arm’s reach, about 8’ off the ground.
The tarp material wasn’t the easiest to pencil on due to its slick surface. I used charcoal from the fire pit to sketch the base drawing, and followed it with the black enamel paint for the outlines which everyone helped fill in. I wanted to paint each animal their distinctive color/coat, but my timeframe was limited so I opted for four giant, bright swirls of colors to symbolize the winds we experience on the farm and to add a shot of lively color to the southernly horizon. Thankfully, more able bodies pitched in and helped complete that before my departure. I hope the teepee is all dialed in now and is providing its inhabitants with wonderful dreams and visions of beauty and happiness.
One of my two personal projects at Comuna de Rhiannon was creating a test sheet mulched plant bed with a dead wood swale layer underneath (the other project was installing supports for the pee buckets to harvest the human urine for use in the compost piles).
Sheet mulching, for those new to it, is the process of composting in place and using a biodegradable layer for weed suppression combined with other organic matter to build healthy soil. You can use most any type of natural or organic material to form the sheet but most often it’s cardboard (carton in Spanish). I wanted to use carton because it’s what I’ve used in the past and lots of things sold in towns are shipped there in boxes and this provided a great way to send that useful carbon back into the Earth in a responsible manner.
Since we lacked any significant amounts of carton on the farm I had to venture into Malchingui, the closest town to us to track down the corrugated carbon treasure.
After munching on a delicious lunch down from Cuatras Esquinas I began walking up the hill and asking every tienda if they had carton that I could have. I had little luck with the first stores, but hit the jackpot at one shop when I ran into the local reseller/middle man who’s minivan was filled with boxes of sugary snacks destined for the towns tiendas. He was more than happy to give me his collapsed and empty cartones to use for my project. On a side note, I had forgotten my sketchbook in the store I left and the man’s son found it and ran to return it to me; another testament to the quality nature of the people of Ecuador.
Now, with arms cumbersomely filled with boxes I spotted some local kids and figured I’d employ some child labor to help me cart them to the camioneta stand. Getting the kids to help was easier than I imagined; they excitedly grabbed all the boxes they could and followed me down the street. I even stopped to get some salchipapas to enjoy for the ride back to the farm. It must’ve been a funny site to see a 2 meter gringo followed by a cadre of youth carrying cardboard. I paid the helpful kids a decent sum for the two block walk, thanked them for their help and zipped off to the farm.
The boxes lingered, untouched for some days before I tackled the task of removing all the plastic tape, labels and other non-biodegradable items on them.
With that task complete, I needed to pilfer the wood scrap bin which had a layer of rotting wood at the bottom, perfect for the first layer of my sheet mulching exercise. In the bin I saw some spectacular millipedes and large, flat slugs that I’ve never seen before.
In addition to the scrap wood for the dead wood layer, I wanted to use as much scrap wood for building the box as I could. Ideally, the whole thing should slowly return to the earth, providing a perfect base for mycelium to take hold and hopefully help recharge the Earth around it.
With most of my initial supplies ready, I went to my site to start digging. A rough outline of the box was made in the ground with my shovel and I dug about 8 inches into the soil. Here I laid the wood unfit for building and then covered it all with backfill followed by a hearty soaking of water. This layer will act as a sponge for water in this dry land, and home for beneficial fungi to help bring life to the soil.
Constructing the box was a little difficult due to the odd-sized nature of my roundwood. I used wooden stakes hammered into the ground as support to keep the logs from rolling way.
After some frustration, the planter box was finished. I laid down fresh organic matter and clippings from around the farm plus some cow pies I had turned to a slurry by soaking in a bucket with water the day before. This provided a nice nitrogen-rich layer for the box. Water was added to saturate this layer, and all layers following. I also added some worms to jump start the decomposer community.
On top of the clippings and poo I laid out my cardboard in one layer, careful to ensure no gaps existed to ensure that any seedlings that did sprout underneath would not survive.
Another poo layer of slurry went on top of the cardboard followed by the as much organic, seedless material I could find. Usually the best material is straw because it’s seedless, is easy to maneuver, fairly uniform and provides little foothold for any weed seeds that do make it into the box allowing for easy removal when they sprout. Since I’d have to pay for straw and the grass we used for the chicken coop had seeds in it, I opted for dry corn husks from our corn field to make up the bulk of the organic matter layers. After three trips to the field, I had enough to fill up the planter box.
The day I left the farm, about a week after building my box, the material inside it was already starting to create perfect conditions for great soil. The peak fertility of the soil will be reached in 1-2 years, depending on conditions. Around the box I planted sunflower seeds to the north and west to act as windbreaks and provide a little heat catch to foster a slightly warmer microclimate for the box. Hopefully the people at the farm appreciate it and take care of it. It’s location, right next to the hammocks, is ideal for a snacking variety of berry or fruit.
Check out all the photos of the exercise on my Flickr sheet mulching exercise set.
Some people visit and work at Rhiannon expecting to stay for a few weeks, maybe a few months and then stroll on. But then there are exceptional persons like Rob Ormerod, a recent grad from the UK, who found Helen and Nicky’s openness to new projects too enticing. Now, Rob’s on his 7th (or is it 8th? :) ) month of living and working on the farm. His project: The Dungalow*.
When I first arrived on the farm, people asked the usual, “Why are you here?” I responded with my usual, “Permaculture studies and ecological architecture,” which prompted from most everyone, “Oh! Rob is building an underground house! You should talk to him.”
Perfect, I thought, because I had actually read The $50 & Up Underground House Book before coming down here. I finally found Rob amidst the party atmosphere that we had arrived to and relayed my interests. Rob’s a funny guy and at first encounter I thought he didn’t like me, but I later realized that he’s English and therefore can be snarky in that very English manner that produces confusion in people like me.
A few days went by on the farm without my being assigned the task to plaster with Rob. One day, Kenna came up from the Dungalow and said that Rob needed help with a new batch of plaster. Seizing my chance to get my hands dirty, I scampered down (yes, scampered) to the abode-in-progress and asked Rob where I could lend a hand.
Rob pointed me to the pile of mixed sand, clay and donkey poo slurry, handed me a bucket and said I could use gloves or just go nude (hand’s that is) to start filling in the gaps between the earth bags (earth from the excavated cavity packed into poly-weave rice bags purchased from Canada). I shoveled my bucket to the brim, found a bare section of wall inside and started grabbing handfuls of the cool, mellow-odored mix and began packing the gaps to bring the wall closer to level.
There is something therapeutic about working with your hands. A human touch is left with the finished product, the atmosphere isn’t clogged with loud noises from power tools and you feel as though you’re sculpting a home rather than just building it. That being said, after my first day of packing plaster my knuckles were aching from some excessive force and improper technique, not to mention the small bits of sand that wedged themselves under my fingernails.
A few days later, Rob shared his sketchbook with me and we talked about the process of designing his house. I was expecting numerous pages of thoughts and possibilities, but when he was done flipping the 4 or 6 pages, I realized that much of his process was about flow and being on the site and designing in-situ. He did have some calculations for the sod roof beam lengths and some other sketches for positioning the living spaces, but for the most part his construction has evolved while working on site.
The house is nestled into the ground on the south western section of the property. I asked how Rob chose his placement and, like Nicky and Helen, he selected it for the view which looks out over the valley carved by the Guayllabamba River. The only window with the view, though, is Rob’s bedroom which is also the only part of his house that is above ground. It has a small, dwarf door that you must crawl through to access the room. It’s small with space enough for a bed and the trap door that leads down into his dark study. From there you walk into the kitchen which has water from a nearby cistern and built in table tops for food prep. There is a fireplace just to the left as you walk to the seating area, and at your right is the front door. Rob got the old freezer door for free from a local supply shop. Outside the front door is his outdoor shower which will drain to a pond down the hill. He’s carved a semi-circle that will serve as a patio/seating/hammock area with steps leading up to ground level. He hopes to have some native climbing vines cover the walls to provide a little greenery.
Rob’s parents came to visit for about 10 days and I was given the go to continue plastering. The mix we were using was 3 parts sand, 1.5 parts earth (usually you’d use 1 part, but the earth around the property is fairly sandy so we bumped it up a bit) and 1 part donkey poo slurry. We mixed the dry goods first after sifting them through a 1/4” mesh screen, added the slurry and then added additional water slowly until we achieved a workable consistency. The sand acts as fine aggregate which is encased in clay that shrink wraps the sand particles when dry. The donkey poo enzymes help with hardening the mix and the chewed up grass in the poo acts as a bonding matrix to help add tensile strength to the plaster. (You can see a walkthrough of the process here.)
One of the coolest parts about building with natural materials is that you’re creating very little waste, both in regard to input creation and finished product. Also, when years pass, the building has a better chance at degrading gracefully back to earth (minus the poly rice bags and metals). Both Rob and I also delighted at the fact that small plants and mushrooms were growing out of his earthen walls and plaster.
In my time at the commune we managed to finish the base plaster layer and began work on the top coat plaster that covers the earth bags to achieve a semi-level finish. Due to the slick surface of the rice bags we added 1 part concrete to the above plaster mix to increase the hardness of the plaster coating. Getting it on was a bit tough. Some portions of the walls lean out which makes it very tough to get wet, slippery plaster to stick. I found that by adhering plaster to the base plaster sections first, both top and bottom, and then connecting the two over the bags with plaster seemed to hold well without much fall off. It was very satisfying to see the wall become covered in its earthen hue and with an analog appearance that we rarely see in today’s conventional homes.
I’m thankful I got a chance to help just a little bit on Rob’s Dungalow. If he does decide to build another one, I suggest he go with a less rectilinear shape and incorporate a bit more curvilinear lines to increase strength and free ourselves from the boxes that rule most of our lives. Looking forward to all your future endeavors, Rob, and hope your home can be the teenage home for Nicky and Helen’s soon-to-be-born child.
Browse all my Dungalow photos on flickr and enjoy a walkthrough of The Dungalow below:
* Or ‘Mi Caca, Su Caca’, ‘Home Shite Home’ and a couple others I’ve since forgotten that Rob’s amusing and creative father came up with when visiting.