Focus on Natural Building Techniques and Opportunities

Happy New Year to all in the Workaway world! The first article of 2013 is courtesy of Jo Crowson who also wrote the Permaculture ones late last year. For this blog she is looking at the options and possibilities to get involved with ‘natural building’ projects through Workaway, and also examining what sort of work is involved in these enterprises. Thanks to Jo for writing this informative blog.

straw bale house

Straw bale house being built. Photo by C P Dunn

Natural building is a broad term that covers any building technique that is sustainable and healthy, for people and for the environment. Natural builders use low impact materials available close at hand, or materials reclaimed from older structures, and integrate waste management into their designs: recycling grey water, collecting rainwater from the roof or incorporating a composting loo etc.

Workaway hosts may not even think of themselves as natural builders because they simply use traditional techniques that have stood the test of time (adobe, thatch, bamboo). Other hosts working in urban areas will be retrofitting and adapting existing structures rather than tearing down and starting anew, valuing the carbon footprint of what’s already there.

To find a full list of hosts I suggest searching the Workaway database with keywords related to the specific techniques you are interested in, as well as entering more generic eco-build terms. I spent a bit of time browsing and found an enormous variety of opportunity for the volunteer interested in learning about natural building: Here are 10 hosts, selected from the much longer list my searches threw up.

Getting your hands – and feet – dirty…

The natural builder uses what is nearby and abundant – and what could be closer than the earth beneath your feet? The sunny parts of the world are often identified with adobe structures, but even rainy old England has cob houses that have lasted for hundreds of years with the help of good boots (foundations) and a good bonnet (roof.)

Cob and adobe are both mixtures of clay, sand and straw, in differing proportions; cob is used wet, whereas adobe is usually formed into bricks and dried before being used to build. Personally I love working with earth, and cob is especially fun because it is well adapted to moulding into decorative internal or external features or for making benches and other smaller structures – a great skill to learn even if you have no plans to build your own house! (See our earlier article about cob houses)

The USA has a long tradition of self-building, and there are many opportunities to learn cob techniques there. Here’s a host in Virginia who needs help building a cottage using mixed techniques (cob/stone/straw bale) in a rural wooded area.

Rain, rain, go away…

Weather is always important in natural building projects. Often hosts will have an urgent need for help to get projects finished before the rains come, so check out the climate in the area you plan to visit to find a time when help will be most needed.

straw hen house

Building a straw hen house in Sweden

This host in Sweden works with clay and wood, and is trying to finish a lovely chapel using basket weaving techniques dating to the Bronze Age – it’s amazing how often building with earth becomes art!

Places like California and Mexico have long periods without rain: great for projects building with earth and great news for volunteers too, because on building projects you will often have to make do with improvised sleeping, cooking and showering arrangements! This host based in a village in Mexico is immersed in the process of learning and exploring the natural building techniques they are using, offering volunteers a shared, hands-on exploratory experience.

The house built of straw…

Making plaster

Making plaster in Slovenia

Straw is used in cob and adobe mixtures as well as in innovative techniques, such as slipstraw, but perhaps the best known method for building with straw was developed in the American Midwest using straw bales and is now popular anywhere where you want your house to be well insulated against the winter cold or the summer heat – and where straw is abundant and cheap. The house goes up quick too, with each bale acting like a giant brick! Here is a host in Slovenia building a straw bale structure.

Getting plastered…

Whether you build out of clay, straw or cordwood you will need to do a lot of plastering. In rainy season the focus will be on indoor plastering, at least two coats of plaster in beautiful natural shades. If the mixture is inside it needn’t contain lime and you can have a lot of fun shaping with your bare hands.

However for outdoor plaster lime is a necessary ingredient for waterproofing, in which case good gloves are essential to save your hands from cracking. This host in Arkansas was looking for volunteers to help with earth plaster on their 24 by 80 foot straw bale home. That’s a lot of plastering! While their project may be finished by now, plastering is often an on-going process and essential as maintenance.

A question of scale…

Workaway hosts and projects come in all shapes and sizes. This community in Taiwan are restoring a traditional courtyard house with natural building technology using low carbon features and energy saving inventions. Their land is cultivated based on Permaculture principals. (For more information about Permaculture, see this earlier article)

On the other end of the scale, Ben, based in semi-rural France, wants help with the construction of a little modular eco-house using as many natural and scavenged materials possible.

It’s not all about the new build…

Canada log cabin in the snow

Log cabin in Canada in November

Restoration projects abound. This small family in Canada is renovating a log cabin in a very rural setting.

And this host offers the chance to volunteer in a stunning location bordering the Sierra Nevada National Park in Spain, restoring an ancient stone cortijo which has been deserted for more than 45 years.

…or about rural self-sufficiency

Fancy some experience retro-fitting in an urban environment? These guys in Buffalo, NY are working in their neighbourhood with projects related to home repair and green retrofit, focusing on reclaimed materials as well as teaching green building techniques for the urban environment.

Finally, in case you have any doubts about whether getting covered with mud can be fun, I invite you to watch this short video filmed on one of our courses:

1 reply
  1. Narayan Mourya
    Narayan Mourya says:


    Thanks for giving me chance to know about the Natural Building. We are running Natural Resource Conservation and Management program in Nepal. We will now add this Natural Building awareness too . In country like Nepal this seems pretty essential.



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