All about the weather

One of the best things about the weather is that it provides an instant talking point. Sunshine, breezes, wind, fog, rain, mud, warm and cold there is always something to talk about (and I don’t think it is just me who thinks in this way).

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The last few days in the Vale of Pickering have been really foggy, and as a result silent and enclosed, and its setting (the North York Moors and Yorkshire Wolds) invisible. As a result we look inward rather than outward – and don’t even see other people to talk about the weather.

I’m trying to work out how weather and climate (an areas long-term weather patterns) impact our perceptions of landscape.  In the Spring, Summer and Autumn places can be warm and inviting – open and connected to the outside world, but when seasons change places can soon become unconnected and bleak. I suppose the most dramatic circumstances of this in the 21st century are the ways in which transport connections are impacted in bad weather (ferry services disrupted, bridges closed and roads made impassable).

But it does mean that places ‘mean’ different things at different times of the year – rather than a ‘fixed’ set of values or meanings a place changes – and that goes alongside our perception of heritage as a process rather than a fixed product.

And it also means that I might need to do a bit of proper library research to find out more.

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Bricks, stones and industrial heritage

Last year was all about very, very old structures in Turkey, and slightly less older structures in Peru.  Since April I’ve been much closer to home looking at conservation and management of  Industrial Archaeology on the North York Moors.

I couldn’t resist this pile of bricks, stones and other things on Institute Row in Grosmont.

Grosmont

Institute Row, Grosmont

You can find out more about the development of the project on the North York Moors Conservation Blog (and some more of the great work across the National Park by my splendid colleagues).

http://northyorkmoorsnationalpark.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/this-exploited-land-under-development/

There will be much more to follow, including (I hope) research into the Navvy Camps (which were soddies – turf built buildings) associated with the builders of the Victorian railway systems that were crucial for the extraction of Ironstone from the North York Moors.

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earthworks and dog walks

Not very spring-like but I managed to re-visit Chris Drury’s modern earthworks Waves and Times in Thixendale.

doglandscape

The modern earthworks have been in place for 2 1/2 years (I did the watching brief in mistly-rain in August 2012) (and you can see more of the before and after snaps here: http://chrisdrury.co.uk/time-and-flow/)

After just a few winters I’m amazed by how stable the spiralling banks are, they were dug and shaped by mini-digger and then re-seeded. The whole valley is grazed by sheep and rather than looking ‘temporary’ have rooted and ‘looks’ part of the landscape. And visiting it does make me think about the banks and ditches that characterise so much of the UK’s earthen landscape archaeology – both how small interventions must have made a big impression and how they soon became more permanent features within the landscape.

More information:

http://www.thixendale.org.uk/info/ChrisDrury/

http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/yorkshire-wolds-way

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Getting started in earth building?

mmm mud

Finding some images for a short article on architecture in Turkmenistan prompted me to look through a very ancient and creaky hard-drive, and I am wondering about what guidance I would give to my much younger self on the subject of ‘getting started’ in earth building?

Well when I started the UK had a number of small, regional earth building groups (which seemed quite hard to find out about), and unlike Germany or the USA the UK didn’t have an earth building organisation. It was the frustration at not finding some of that information that encouraged my involvement in EBUK – and the organisation has just had its 5th birthday.

Luckily for those now starting out Earth Building UK exists and  provides an ‘entry’ point to finding out more about conservation and new building in earth, alongside information  on training and other interests of its members.

So I suppose my first piece of advice would be to find out more about Earth Building UK and get myself along to its 2014 annual conference!

Find out more here: http://www.ebuk.uk.com/

And I suppose I had better get cake, balloons and party bags ready for the Norwich Conference on 14th February!

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mud on the road again 2014 Earth Building UK Conference

It is the time of year again when (as a volunteer director of Earth Building UK) it is all hands on deck for the annual conference. 

Appropriately as we take our ‘mud on the road’ (the EBUK conference has been held in Bath, London, York and Totnes). I appeared on North Cotswold Community Radio (NCCR) last Friday talking about mud – though coming on air after Flanders and Swann may have been the height of all my mud work so far – you can listen again to the ‘Open Spirit’ online: http://www.nccr.co.uk/.     

mud on the road

Earth Building in the UK is developing, with a number of new build projects and the conservation of our rich heritage of earthen construction. Practitioners are developing skills and methods for the design of earth buildings, the construction of new earth buildings, and the conservation of historic earth buildings.

Earth building UK are hosting their 2014 conference in Norwich Cathedral on 14th February. The theme is “Training in Earth Building: from design to construction” – this will showcase design, construction, conservation and research in the UK. We have a great list of speakers lined up for the day.

EBUK aims to develop earth building in the UK, to do this we require education and training in earth building. This requires training in the structural and thermal design of earth buildings, in safe and reliable construction methods and in the appropriate use of earth as a building material.

The conference will be followed by tours to earth buildings in East Anglia on Saturday 15th February.

Full details of the conference including booking, programme and post conference information is online via the Earth Building UK website.

http://www.ebuk.uk.com

/http://www.ebuk.uk.com/2014-programme/

And for future posts on Norwich and the heritage of Alan Partridge … watch this space.

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House of Earth

‘House of Earth’ is Woody Guthrie’s novel finished in 1947 recently discovered and published earlier this year edited and introduced by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp.

Guthrie

This is a tale of depression-era Dust Bowl America and the lives of Tike and Ella Hamlin, their struggles, hopes, dreams and desire to build their own home from the land which they live and work upon.

The reviews of House of Earth have focussed on the erotic nature of the Hamlin’s love making (which would have been un-publishable in 1947), their unfinished stories, and the lyrical ordinariness of their lives.

‘House of Earth’ was inspired by Guthrie’s purchase of a ‘nickel pamphlet’, ‘The Use of Adobe or Sun Dried Brick for Farm Building’. As such ‘House of Earth’ is also a significant ‘moment’ in the cultural history of earth building.

Guthrie’s reflections on the materials for construction of the Hamlin’s home, when compared to their neighbours and landowners (in the past and present) (from their own wall papered shack to timber to stone to their dream adobe home) and what those different materials ‘mean’ is fascinating. For Guthrie (and the Hamlin’s) building with earth was not of the past, but provided an autonomous and cheap way to achieve self-sufficiency.  (Here this also links to the earlier post about ‘values’ and meanings of Soddies in the US Midwest: http://lucooke.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/re-gifted-heritage/).

The US Department of Agriculture Farmers Bulletin no. 1720 ‘The Use of Adobe or Sun Dried Brick for Farm Building’ was written by T A H (Thomas Arrington Huntington) Miller and published in 1934. It is a typical how-to guide (of which there were many produced around the world in the interwar years), and details the kinds of soil, how to make and lay adobe bricks, foundations, windows and doors, inside and outside wall ‘treatments’, and chimneys.

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Farmers Bulletin no. 1720 ‘The Use of Adobe or Sun Dried Brick for Farm Building’ (1949) (http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc5880/. )

The guidance on wall treatment is of its time, and favours modification of the earth with the addition of harder cements. For example recommending the use of Portland cement for render (here described as Cunningham Coal-tar paint –  1 part Portland cement, 1 part kerosene and 4 parts coal tar), and Portland-cement stucco (1 part Portland cement, 3-4 parts sand, and hydrated lime), in addition to recommending the use of Portland cement mortar on corner-sections.

The earth building community has long debated modification of earth versus raw earth construction, and now the majority of earth builders opt for a softer, more breathable, and less carbon-heavy approach to the materials of construction. Moreover the conservation of historic earth houses with cement renders and stuccoes has proved problematic as deterioration of the earth materials is associated with water damage and occurs beneath the rendered surface. When repaired this damaged material has to be removed and so substantial change can occur, and it has proved controversial.

The final section of House of Earth has Ella in labour (giving birth to the child conceived in the haystack, dreaming over the earth building pamphlet). In her long, long hours of labour she deliriously dreams of their new safe adobe home for their baby. It is a powerful scene (and one with skin-crawling eeriness to it), and fits with the other preoccupation of earth buildings as alternative and symbolic of Gaia as Mother Earth.

In the end the reader of ‘House of Earth’ is left guessing, did the Hamlin’s build their home? We know that Guthrie dreamt of his own adobe home but that was never built and perhaps that is a whole ‘other’ world of conservation of un-built homes and the values and significances that they would hold.

further reading:

The full text of the revised (1949) Farmers Bulletin no. 1720 ‘The Use of Adobe or Sun Dried Brick for Farm Building’ is available on the University of North Texas Digital Library: http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc5880/.

The NPS Preservation Brief on Preservation of Historic Adobe Buildings (published in 1978 which details the problem of repairs to cement renders is online):  http://www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/5-adobe-buildings.htm

And more information on ‘House of Earth’:

The New York Times ‘announcement’ of the publication of House of Earth http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/books/review/woody-guthries-dust-bowl-novel.html?_r=0

Michael Faber Review 14th Feb 2013 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/14/house-earth-woody-guthrie-review

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Negative press and earth buildings

Whilst we wait for further news about the damage caused by Tuesday’s earthquake in Balochistan in Pakistan the press reports give a valuable insight into the negative perceptions associated with earth structures.

The BBC report (posted 25/09/2013) summarised the details of the 7.7 magnitude earthquake, and soon went on under the sub-heading “mud houses” to note that in some towns and villages in the region some 90% of houses had been destroyed.

Adding:

“Most of the homes in the area are made from mud brick and easily collapsed when the tremors struck on Tuesday”

And further:

“Most people live in easily-collapsible mud homes, and many are feared to be trapped under the rubble.”

Seismic damage on historic earth structures, Huaca Centinela, Peru.

Seismic damage on historic earth structures, Huaca Centinela, Peru.

Whilst there are practical and physical limits to the use of earth as a building material, and its resistance to seismic damage these ‘practicalities’ are often overwhelmed by the negative perception of the materials fragility. This is shown by the negative reporting of earth buildings and earthquake damage. For example the December 2003 earthquake in Kerman province in Iran (which was a 6.6 magnitude earthquake) killed more than 26,000 and injured more than 30,000 and caused substantial damage to the modern and historic city of Bam. The outcry against earth building here was aided by the dramatic ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of destruction to the historic town. In reality much of the damage in Bam was to ‘new’ conservation materials, and to the modern structures built from materials of the contemporary construction industry (concrete and fired brick), but not necessarily built with skilled and expert knowledge, or that didn’t follow building regulations and standards.

In which case the issue isn’t the ‘mud houses’ but the ‘houses’ in general and the global pattern in which local building knowledge has been eroded by the commodification and industrialisation of construction.  There are countless archaeological and historical examples of local knowledge of seismic resistance for earth structures from around the world, and these include the use of timber ring-beams, or incorporation of textiles to add tensile strength, and (perhaps most significantly) repair after previous seismic events. 

The subject of seismic damage to earth buildings has been the focus of almost 40 years of research particularly in Peru, USA, New Zealand, Iran and others. Solutions are now widely known – but translating research into practical applications for new builds (and national, regional and local guidance and regulation) still seems an issue.

Perhaps those interconnected issues of erosion of local knowledge, commodification of building materials, and the introduction of ‘best practice’ for seismic resistance might have been a more interesting perspective on the reasons for the destruction on Tuesday rather than just blaming the ‘mud houses’.

Link to BBC report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-24222760

and lots more on perceptions of earth buildings here:

Cooke, L, 2010. Conservation Approaches to Earthen Architecture in Archaeological Contexts. British Archaeological Reports International Series S2147. Oxford: Archaeopress.

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