Memory Lane: the Spring Natural Building Practicum

The Fall Natural Building Practicum will start tomorrow! I am looking forward to participating in it and working on bringing the Boathouse and the yurts and whatever else closer to completion. I am also eager to see all of the independent projects that the students will complete. During the Spring NBP I was delighted by the variety and creativity of the projects and can only assume that the same enthusiasm will be displayed this autumn. It was a pleasure to be introduced to such a catalog of skills as well – from cob to dry stone walling to timber framing to plastering to working with light straw clay to pouring earthen floors…so much valuable information. Tomorrow for some a whole new world will be opened up to them, and for others the joy of playing with mud and building forts will continue. I’ll be sure to report here on what we all get up to!

For the moment, how about a quick tour through the spring practicum, to get the cob balls rolling?

Putting fresh cob on the wall, March

The dry stacked stone retaining wall that is the foundation for the next part of the cob garden wall, March

A little “Pride Rock” reenactment…! (All of the stone for the retaining wall came from the site of the Playhouse)

Interior base plaster in the Playhouse, April

Light straw clay “bricks” to be used as ceiling insulation in the Playhouse, April

Working on the yurt (which was started during the 2011 Shelter Series), May

Adding bamboo weaving to the reciprocal roof of the yurt, April/May

Fun and games during the exterior finish plaster at the Playhouse, May

Cob detail around the window, April/May

Laying the earthen floor in the Playhouse, finish pour, May

The yurt, looking like a cupcake, with the daub applied to it’s wattle and it’s canvas roof, April/May

Lime plaster detail on the Playhouse, May

The cob, frosted with earthen plaster and looking tasty!

The timber frame for the new loft in the workshop, April/May

Nurya working on her independent project, a cantilevered deck for the yurt

My independent project was a “waterfall” foot stool

The Playhouse (mostly finished by the end of the spring NBP, and more or less completed later in the summer)

I hope that wets your whistle. There will be plenty more to learn and build at Apro before 2012 bows out. It’s a good year for playing with mud!


Mud on the wall, mud on the floor – mud, mud everywhere!

Even though building the natural way can sometimes seem to take quite awhile, time still flies in many senses. The last two weeks of the Shelter Series certainly flew by!

We spent week 6 learning about natural plasters and finishes with Eva Edleson of Firespeaking. I fell in love with plastering when I first came to Aprovecho in the spring, and welcomed the chance to learn some new techniques and add to my muscle memory. Our first project was putting a skin onto the strawbale walls of the Boathouse.

These walls will receive several layers of base plaster, to flesh them out and make them smooth(er) and flat(ish) and more plumb.

Our second project was putting a (closer to) finish plaster on the cob wall, which was especially satisfying to me as it has been a project I have worked on here and there as long as I’ve been at Apro.


Pretty, isn’t it? It still awaits its bit of roof and its twin wall across the path, and then the new garden wall (rampart?) will be complete.

We then moved inside and repainted a wall in the meeting hall with a lovely aliz. This wall has been an ongoing experiment with using a natural paint over drywall. The first time round there were a couple of spots where the paint didn’t stick. After prepping those areas by sanding and then coating them with a glue mix, we went at it with the aliz and this time had fantastic results.



We also painted some sconces and window frames, playing with pigments in the aliz and generally having a fun time. It is so nice to work with natural paints, knowing that there are no nasty fumes to inhale or that if you drip it on yourself (as I inevitably do) it will wash off with more than relative ease!

Our last project that week were some repairs and a fresh coat of lime plaster on the interior of the yurt that was built last year during the Shelter Series. Lime plasters are a bit less natural than the plasters made out of simple clay and sand and straw, but the historical significance and practical applications of it pleases me, and I was really excited to learn how to use it.

Although your hands are really the only tools you need for plaster jobs, something about the floats and trowels and hawks and other tools that you can use delights me.

I’m looking forward to many more plastering and aliz projects – and there will be plenty more as we bring the Boathouse closer to completion!

During the 7th and final week of the Shelter Series we learned all about earthen floors. Led by Sukita Reay Crimmel of From These Hands, we put a floor in the Boathouse. We were working with a slab on grade, so we had a bit of work to do before we could pour the floor. First we filled the space with crushed gravel, then laid down a vapor barrier, then added insulative volcanic rock. Our base floor pour was more crushed gravel mixed with a clay slip. We compacted everything thoroughly.


Finally, we mixed up our finish floor mix, and bit by bit we smoothed and leveled and fussed with it until it was a thing of beauty.


After burnishing it, we left it to dry and moved to the finished and year old floor of the library, which was in need of a little love. We swept and mopped it, then went to work rubbing in a new coat of beeswax. The result was a lovely, shinny, like-new floor which will compliment the promised new bookshelves and make the library an even more enjoyable space.

After a final presentation on Friday followed by a tea party, the Shelter Series took it’s bows and left the Apro stage for this year. It was an excellent learning experience, and left me feeling confident and empowered, and even more excited about natural building than I had been before.

After all, who wouldn’t want to spend their time building forts and playing in the mud?

Circling the Yurt

We spent week 3 of the Shelter Series with Kiko Denzer making circles – forming them, tying them, raising them, and telling their stories.

Compression ring made from bamboo and baling twine

Kiko explored his yurt design with us, improving on a few elements and discovering new things over the course of the week. Top tip: long rafters become somewhat cantilevered due to their weight and make raising the reciprocal roof far easier. We experimented with attaching the bamboo lattice to the cob bond beam and foundation without using any hardware – and the bamboo compression ring we used worked brilliantly. We tied a copious number of clove hitch knots (you can see them above in the picture of the small compression ring that holds the roof together – and that’s a tiny circle in comparison to the 13 ft diameter tension ring we made!)

Our yurt as it looked at the end of the week

The bamboo for the yurt came from various nooks and crannies of Aprovecho’s land and the rafter poles came from the nearby forest. The baling twine came from local farmers. Aside from a lot of sweat (it was scorcher of a week…) and tears (of joy, of course!) that’s about all the materials that went into its construction. It awaits it’s wattle and daub and plaster finish for the walls, and it’s roof of bender boards or recycled billboard.

My favorite afternoon of the week was spent sitting in the shade beneath a plum tree in the garden, with the whole group tying clove hitch knots round and round that 13 ft diameter tension ring, while stories were told, jokes were cracked, and music was played.


Circles are a great tool for bringing people together, and making circles together is one of the most satisfying acts I know of. Although the maths and head-scratching aspects of building a yurt with walls that lean outward seemed hard at times, overall it was playful and fun week. At the end more than one of us said we had found our way back to the kid inside of us. I hope to keep that playful, singing, storytelling, circle-making spirit close by for the rest of this course – and the rest of everything too.

Phases…experimenting with how the rafters would join to the compression ring

Reciprocal roof on the ground

Reciprocal roof raised high above Kiko’s head

A friendly eye in the sky

Making music, making yurts – the act of creation draws us together