FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Janell Kapoor

I grew up on a river and played in the mud a lot, and built forts, and thought I wanted to be an architect, and was very turned off by the building industry, as a teenager, watching a lot of farmland being "developed." From there, I got into activism and housing rights work, and from there, I was looking more for solutions and started learning about permaculture. And that led me to doing a one-week workshop with Ianto Evans and Janine Bjorenson.

So I took a one-week workshop, and it was clear to me, very clear, that this was part of my path, and that this was going to be part of my work in the world. And that's how I got into natural building. And there were dreams that guided me along the way. A week in the mud, and there was no turning back.

So I was working with a group called Empty the Shelters in Philadelphia in the early 1990's, and a number of us who were working together, we were very much working against a lot of the housing laws. And there was a point when we were sitting at a table together, and I said, I asked, What's your vision? If things were in the world as you wanted them, or in Philadelphia, as you wanted them, what would it look like to you?

And no one said anything. No one had a vision beyond what we were working against. And in that moment, it was very clear to me, because I had a lot of vision of what I wanted to create. And part of that was more of a whole systems, or permaculture, vision, whether it be a city, or out in a rural area. So that was a catalyzing moment for me. It shifted me into looking more for solution-oriented work.

Later, when I got into natural building, it became very clear to me that natural building serves as a way of gelling community, and inspiring people, bringing people together. And within the natural building community, it's very much not just about building. In fact, [laughs] I would say, natural building is more about communities connecting with each other, with themselves, individuals going deeper into their connection with the earth. And it helps us as we ask questions about what we're doing, what each of us is doing with our lives.

There's something about working with the earth and building together in simplicity. I think the way it connects us through time and through our human memory, through many ages, it's tapping into something much deeper that helps to facilitate a much larger questioning and transformation for individuals, as well as for whole communities of people. So it's the transformative power of natural building that really drew me, for me, on a holistic level, what happens for people when they get in the mud.

I was in Thailand with a friend who does seed-saving, and was on a little fishing boat. And a man behind me, I thought was pretty interesting, I'd overheard him speaking with his friend. So we struck up a conversation, and within ten minutes, he shared with me he was the director of one of Southeast Asia's most established activist training centres, near Bangkok. And I shared what I was doing, and he invited me to come teach in Thailand.

So I met Percha, who was at the time the director of Wan Sengit Ashram, which does grassroots leadership trainings, and is networked with other NGO's throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia. So the invitation came to teach in Thailand, and we didn't know what the results would be, or who would be interested. About a year later we went back to teach, and we did a ten-day workshop, and there were hundreds of people that got turned on. Just for that workshop alone, there were about 125 people who wanted to come.

So then the media jumped on it, and got all over it, and there were some folks videotaping, and documenting the work. It went on from there, and it just took off, big time. So once we started doing international work, and people heard that this is what we were up to, we were getting invited to countries throughout Southeast Asia and elsewhere, and that took Kleiwerks into more an international direction.

Well, one thing to me that's beautiful about natural building is that you don't have to speak the same language as the people that you're working with, because the language is more about the body, and the mud, and the materials. When I first worked in Thailand, I was working with people with many of whom we did not speak the same language. And it was so much fun, and they were so into it, so energetic.

And I had never before worked with people who so smoothly just flowed together. Not much organization had to happen, not much talking and planning, it just happened. And I think working with people who are connected to a village-based culture, where there's a sense of cooperation, and doing things together regularly, that that just filtered through everything we did there. And I learned so much more, some about building, because they're very innovative and fast, very fast learners, very creative. But even more so about just the spirit of cooperation and having a really good time on a site, and how that lubricates the entire process.

My experience working in Thailand was really transformative for me, personally, and it took our work in a whole new direction, and recognizing the larger power of what we were working with. That people, farmers, and villagers who had always had within the villages the resources to take care of themselves and their families were beginning to depend on the dollar, or the bat [Thai currency], in this case. And this is fairly new for villages in Thailand. Thirty years ago, people didn't really use a cash-based economy, it was barter-based, and they had what they needed. And they were laughing, and playing music, and joking around, and had a lot of time to live and work and be together, and enjoy life.

So when we started working in Thailand, working with groups like the Assembly of the Poor, and other organizations that were helping villagers get out of debt, because they were working with cash, which was new to them, and getting way into debt -- so getting out of debt and learning again how to be self-reliant. When they had the option to build with earth and create long-standing homes that would serve them well, and not have to get in debt using concrete, knowing that that on a broad scale really meant something significant was really special.

It was interesting working in a country where earthen building was not a tradition. So the traditional building style of Thailand was light-weight housing, using bamboo, using other grasses, thatch for roofing, bamboo for structure. And they would build off the ground. It's a tropical climate, and so it makes sense. You have the cool breeze underneath, and so it worked really well.

They also used a lot of their hardwood. Ninety percent of the jungle in Thailand has been deforested, and so now hardwood is not only a scarce resource -- and trees, of course, would prefer them being trees, rather than posts in a house -- it's expensive on all fronts. It's about 30 years ago that the cement industry started spreading itself throughout the world, and certainly in Thailand is yet another example.

And the reality of housing oneself and housing one's family meant that people were going into lifetimes of debt. People are drawn to cement housing, concrete, because it's more permanent, and takes less maintenance and care than something like bamboo. Bamboo, over time, bugs will eat it, and you have to replace it. Which is perfectly renewable, and natural, and appropriate.

As villagers were looking for more permanent, long-term housing, they were using concrete and cement, and earthen building came in as a replacement for that. So building heavy earth, thicker-wall housing that will last longer and is designed well, so you've got it shaded, and it the tropics, that means you've got a really nice, cool house. And of course, you've got to design it so that in the monsoons, you've got proper drainage.

And most villagers in Thailand know how to build, so it's common sense to design in that way. So earthen housing now in Thailand is really an alternative to the environmentally and financially costly cement housing.

One thing more: In Thailand, people are very creative, and they're really open-minded. So that was fascinating, to work with people who were totally open to the material, earth, and really excited to work with something that they could get really creative with. And so the art and the sculpture and the niches and the decorative aspect, I think, was a big turn-on for a lot of people we worked with in Thailand.

Also, there's very little fear that's built into Thai culture. So people have an innate confidence to try something they've never done before, and just experiment. A lot of experimentation.

So after this 10-day training that we did in Thailand, at this activist training centre, with all these different NGO's, a really fascinating, diverse group of people, representatives of different social networks... There was a villager who had been invited to come to that first 10-day workshop. His name was Joe, Joe Jendai. Joe definitely stood out.

And part of our intention, one of our founding principles in our work is that we are there as a networking instrument, if you will, and supporting local networks, too. And so we were looking for who here could help carry this work forward, so that we can remove ourselves from this process, or become more of just support for work that continues on, that Thai people themselves take it and run with it.

So Joe was at this workshop, and stood out as being the one to keep working with. And Joe had been experimenting in Thailand. He was the only one who we knew of who was working with thick-wall earthen building. In Thailand, previously, the only earthen building that was happening was fairly minimal, it was in the North, and it was mainly wattle-and-daub, where they were rubbing mud on bamboo slats, for seed and grain storage. Not a very common building technique, and certainly not for housing.

But Joe had been to the Taos Pueblos, which is one of North America's longest, oldest continuously lived in structure. He was really excited to find that it was cool in the heat of the summer. So he went back home to his village in one of the poorest regions in Thailand, started experimenting with adobe building. No books, no workshops. And for five years, all his fellow villagers thought he was nuts, since he built these adobe structures that withstood high windstorms and monsoons!

So Joe came to our workshop, and we knew that we needed to keep working with him. And because the demand was so high, a lot of interest was being generated, and people were coming from Bangkok, etc., just such a turn-on, that we set up a second workshop, and we built a two-storey adobe. The first workshop was cob, and the second one was adobe, with Joe, and he co-instructed that.

And from there, we had people from a group called the Assembly of the Poor, who attended that second workshop, and they invited us to come back, to help them build the first earthen village in Thailand, which is called -- [smiles] and I can't pronounce it correctly, but -- Mung Yun, and it means Self-Reliant.

So this network, Assembly of the Poor, is a coalition of farmers and villagers in Thailand that some 200,000 - 300,000 people are part of this coalition. And it's local communities who are saying they don't want to be swept into the whole industrialization and modernization process. And they have a seat in the government. So we worked with the Assembly of the Poor, with a particular village that had been flooded off of their land, because of a dam project, about four years previously. And they got land and asked us to help them build their village, rebuild it.

So, after our first year in Thailand, and doing these two trainings, we were invited to go back the following year, in November 2003, and collaborate with several other now-Thai-based natural building pioneers, and with the Assembly of the Poor, and some monks, and professors, and architects, and students, and activists, both Thai-based, as well as international.

We had about 500 people through the month of November 2003 come help build Thailand's first earthen village. And that included a council hall, and thirteen houses, nine of which we started, and hour were fully complete. And now they're all finished, and the village is thriving.

The story in Thailand is fantastic, it's really an incredible success story of natural building and a larger natural building movement, and the way it can help transform on a deep social level. So really, now in Thailand, working across the board, from the very grass-roots, village-based ground work, they're something like I think seven groups now in Thailand, doing natural building, and several different educational centres that have sprung up.

We worked with networks that were teaching farmers how to get out of debt, become self-reliant, and they have now built natural building into their self-reliance curriculum. One of these organizations is called Sontiesok, which means Peace No Sadness. And Santiesok has regional centres, I think they're up to about 18 centres throughout different regions of Thailand. At each centre, they teach something like 600 people per month. So 600, times 18, per month, times 12 months! So they're teaching tens of thousands of people a year in Thailand. And part of that curriculum is natural building.

So, on the activist level, on the network and NGO level, natural building is happening. And then that filters through to reach many, many, many people. And so homes are being built by individuals for themselves, and educational, more public demonstration centres are being constructed. Some of the groups that have been formed in the last three years in Thailand have gone to do resorts, and what not. There's an orphanage, there's several schools, there's several meditation centres. So it's being utilized by cross-sections of society in Thailand.

It's wonderful to be involved with this work and so a program or a project and watch the exponential potential of what can happen, and learning from that process. I really gleaned a lot from how things worked in Thailand, and people's cooperation, and coalition-building, sharing knowledge and skills, supporting each other, very grass-roots.

Another piece that I learned from working in Thailand was working with representatives of established networks. Because you get someone who comes to a workshop who is connected to thousands more people, and you've already covered so much more ground than if someone comes who's just looking to build their own house. So we've really built that in to Kleiwerks, as an organization, and part of our strategy for being as effective as we can with our work.

There's a seed-saving operation / organic farm demonstration / education centre. Some of the pioneers of natural building in Thailand are the ones who founded that. So Kleiwerks and Pun Pun, we are affiliated with each other. There's another project which is an orphanage called the Whispering Seed, which is on the Tahi-Burmese border. And they hosted, and we coordinated together the first permaculture certification courses in Thailand, which were an international group and trained group, as well as participants. And it also helps to bring funds into their projects.

We've since been invited to work in over 30 countries. We've worked with people from 30 countries at our different trainings, people have come. And at this point, each project or training that we do has usually people from 6 to 8 countries. And now we're really just focussing on communities who they're projects serve as an ongoing epicentre of community and local activity, and serve as a regional model of sustainability.

So, building in permaculture principles, and having a long-term vision planned. We don't do private contract work. We're really focussed on the public, educational end of natural building. It's all really important, this is clearly our focus.

To me, there's sort of a human response to natural building. And at least so far, anywhere, with any age group, people once they get in the mud and once they start building something that they believe in with other people who care about this work and are passionate, it's magic. And the response is a basic, common, just turn-on. People just get really psyched, and have a lot of fun.

When people understand the possibilities of earth and straw building, and recognize that it's not going to fall apart, and that it's been around for ages, and it can be a stable and affordable and beautiful, healthy means of creating shelter, the rest is just natural, human. This sort of interaction with earth just takes care of itself, it just flows. So, working in Argentina, the response was similar, people just loved it. They get in the mud, and they get crazy, and have fun, and build something that they feel proud of. And it brings back, it returns human dignity and pride.

Certainly, when people get on a natural building site, and start working together, I think a lot of the lines that we often identify with, of who we are, just can easily melt away. And it doesn't matter what someone's story is, or what they do for "a living," or where they live. You're just building something together that you care about, and you're having a profound experience, and so inevitably, that brings people together. It builds community across social and economic lines.