Farm News | September 2, 2023
Lisa – our own natural building expert – shares some information on our earthen building project, and the history of earth buildings in Scotland…
Often people think of mud walls, or natural building, as a way of constructing houses in Asia or Africa rather than here in Scotland. In fact, Scotland has a long history of using earth in our buildings. It’s been used as a mortar to bind layers of stone together to make walls. It has been used for floors. Turf was cut and laid in herring bone patterns to build walls. There were buildings of monolithic walls made from layering up mud and straw sculpted into houses (called cob in the south of England and mudwall in Scotland).
A technique similar to what’s known in England as wattle and daub was more commonly called stake and rice in Scotland. Up until the 18th century, mud wall houses would have been ubiquitous.
Sustainable Building Methods
People also often think that earthen buildings don’t last, but there are many cob/mudwall buildings throughout the UK that are hundreds of years old. Yemen is famous for its ancient cob skyscrapers that are up to 14 stories high.
Building with mud is one of the most sustainable ways of creating a building. With the construction industry currently responsible for 40% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, and cement alone causing 8% of those emissions, it’s important that we look for more natural ways of making homes, as well as stopping our demolition tendencies.
Community Kitchen at Lauriston Farm
We have begun work on a simple wooden frame – we are doing this together with Edinburgh Tool Library and their volunteers, alongside volunteers from our allotment holders.
Once the walls and roof are finished, we will be filling in the frames using mud that we have taken out of the pond – which is just 15 metres away from the site, and was moved in wheelbarrows by volunteers. The earth will be mixed with straw, some of which has been harvested from our plots of wheat (also within 10 metres of our building site). The rest has been donated by a construction company who are using straw as a sustainable form of insulation, and had off-cuts that we are using as mulch in the market garden, as well as for the building. The mud and straw are going to be mixed together and wrapped round, or pressed, into lattices or weaves of hazel and willow. Light will come through arrangements of recycled glass bottles.
When the life of our building is over, it will simply return to the earth with little impact, much like the ancient homes of our ancestors.
But maybe the best thing is that the work in making this kitchen is a community effort with people getting involved in the construction, having fun with mud, learning the joy of building with earth and getting to be a part of it.
My History With Earthen Building
I have over 10 years experience in building with mud, most of which happened in Thailand when I lived at Pun Pun Centre for Self-Reliance. There we mostly built with adobe bricks which were made on the spot, as well as cob, earthbag building and strawbale. Together with friends, I was involved in running a series of women’s building workshops in Burma, Thailand and the Philippines. In Scotland, so far I have helped out on a friend’s cob house in Musselburgh and I’m looking forward to doing more of this at the farm.
If you are interested to learn more, I recommend…
This episode of the Building Sustainability podcast, which interviews Becky Little, one of the pioneers in today’s earth building in Scotland:
This article on earthen building in Scotland:
Earth Structures and Construction in Scotland
by Bruce Walker, Christopher McGregor and Rebecca Little, published by Historic Scotland