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.

metadc5880_l_00010000

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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gathering swallows

Walking the same route everyday opens the eyes to the small changes, that in ‘new’ places go unnoticed. The changes at the start of September can’t be captured better than the overly-familiar Keats “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness … and gathering swallows twitter in the skies.”

Sep_Bales_DSCF7940

Here in the Vale of Pickering the swallows gather in very large numbers before they fly south of the Sahara (we like to imagine their twittering sound is them asking one another: “Have you been to Bamako? Have you been to Bamako?”).

Sep_Swallows

Richard Mabey recalls the fascination that Gilbert White (1720-1793) had with these birds (and the house martins, sand martins and swifts) and his attempts to understand  their migration. At the time White’s contemporaries believed they ‘disappeared’ in the winter as a result of their hibernation underground or within hedges. It is a great episode of ‘discovery’ from the development of natural history, and another example where close ‘local’ study enables a better understanding of much bigger issues.

And I suppose that as the skies fill with their twittering sounds another earth building ‘season’ starts to draw to a close. I just wish we count mount a camera to the swallows to get a birds-eye view of all those amazing earth buildings they are about to fly over!

This earlier post explores the connections between building with earth and swallows: http://lucooke.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/otherearthbuilders/

More information:

Richard Mabey, (2006), Gilbert White: A biography of the author of The Natural History of Selborne is a great read.

More on swallows on the RSPB website: http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/s/swallow/index.aspx

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Re-gifted heritage

About 5 years ago I was ‘re-gifted’ a plate. The plate commemorates the diamond jubilee of Oberlin, in Kansas for the years 1885-1960. The plate features images of heritage: The main street in the 1920s, Indian Raid Monument, Grade School, The High School, The Court House, Smick Memorial Field and The Soddie.

soddie_plate

Soddies (turf-built) dwellings were a feature of pioneer life on the North American Prairies. The thick root system of the prairie grass meant that blocks could be cut and stacked to build walls (grass-side down) – just as with other turf buildings (such as in Iceland or South America). Soddies were common through the 19th century, and continued to be built into the 20th century. Innovations were introduced to ease the process, such as horse-drawn ploughs that would cut the sod into strips, which could then be cut into smaller blocks. Most soddies were single storey but there is a famous 2-storey example built in Nebraska in the 1880s by Isadore Haumont. The building was demolished in the 1960s but you can see a photo of the family stood in front of their house through the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005693385/).

Soddie_detail

The web is alive with information and interest in soddies much with a slightly nostalgic air, and many exploring the process of construction, and the lives of the people who lived within. The Women of the West Museum “There are no renters here” website features the letters and biography of Mattie Oblinger alongside links to further resources: http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/sod/mattie.html

I’ve been fascinated with soddies since my childhood reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder ‘Life on the Banks on Plum Creek’ where the family live in an earth-built house and one of many exciting episodes is when the family cow falls through the roof. That fascination then was about ‘otherness’, and how a pioneer family adapted to new ways of doing things which were so alien to a 1980s childhood in the West Midlands.

But now I am more interested in the value and perception of earth buildings, and the Oberlin plate seems to be a case where earth buildings are valued just as highly as their stone or timber built equivalents. Here their heritage value is linked to nostalgia (to a ‘how they lived then’ mentality) which values the building material as a ‘last resort’ and therefore as symbolic of determination and adaptability of the settler population.

Perhaps they also represent a rather exclusionary view of the past in which national identity is created through values placed on particular types of tangible heritage, for example Oberlin was the site of the last Indian Raid in Kansas and the monument to that event is also commemorated on the plate. Whilst the other ‘sites’ (the Grade School, The High School, The Court House, and Smick Memorial Field) are also symbols of one particular identity. Given the plates commemorative origin in 1960 it is unsurprising, but it would be interesting to see how (and if) heritage value was created by subsequent (and future) plates. But for now I won’t put it in the dishwasher!

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