Natural Building with Barbara Da Nova Leite
I’ve been back at Keela Yoga Farm for almost a month and life is good! I was here back in 2017 too at around the same time of year for six weeks and I’m very happy to be back in this beautiful, fun place. Both times, I’ve been lucky to be a volunteer at Keela while they had natural building courses running. The course back in 2017 was run while working on their new straw bale house. This time around the course was run while building a fairly massive community building. I’ve spent a decent amount of time at Keela over the past couple of years and I’ll write later about this wonderful spot but, in the meantime, here’s my take on the courses.
The building courses at Keela Yoga Farm are run by builder extraordinaire, Barbara Da Nova Leite. She lives nearby at the Mount of Oaks eco community where she’s designed and built a lot of awesome structures in the 11 years since the community started. She’s rolled all of her personal experience with natural building into a great course that I’ve been lucky to go on… twice!
The first time I volunteered at Keela back in September 2017, I really put a lot of thought into their online volunteer application form. Turns out, me listing my basic building experience was probably overkill as far as being invited to volunteer on their farm, but it did help me later when Laurence and Kimberly offered me a spot on the natural building course for free. The idea was that I would learn as much as possible and then stay on for another month to help incoming volunteers finish the project. Plus I had a little additional job on the course to make sure Barbara had the things she’d need, keep the clay mixes going and supplies topped up, and to generally be nearby to help keep things running as smoothly as possible.
It was an absolutely awesome experience all around – from Barbara as a teacher, to the other volunteers at Keela at the time, to the course participants both times, to being trusted to attempt to teach others. It really was a dream scenario since I didn’t have the money budgeted to spend on the course, but I managed to participate, learn, and then attempt to pass on my basic (but growing… slowly) knowledge onto others.
The second course Barbara ran at Keela just finished a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t on this course officially, but I had a similar role as last time as the helper chick, so I was always lurking nearby. I learned lots of natural building techniques on the first course and I was able to have a crack at using them on this build. It was great to be able to put things I’ve learned into action and as the course people moved onto their next lessons, I was often left to continue on with the work with the other Keela volunteers which was fun. Plus I was always making sure mixes were ready, drinking water was topped up, and tools were on hand. It was fun being around the course and listening and being able to do my own thing in between tasks and helping people with what I could. I ended up showing a few students learn how to make cob mixes, too, which was good practice for me.
New Things I Did
- I did a cob building course in 2013 in Oregon but I hadn’t worked with straw bales until now. On Barbara’s courses we learned everything you’d ever want to know about building with bales – cutting, stacking, pinning, whacking, stuffing, trimming, plastering… the works. I really love the idea of building with straw bales because of the insulation and how relatively easy it is to get a wall up and I feel confident working with them now.
- I didn’t realise how much carpentry is involved when building with straw bales. Because the buildings we worked on weren’t designed to be load-bearing, we basically had to create the entire structure and then infill the walls with the bales as giant bricks. This meant that there were lots of woodworking-type jobs to do and I got lessons on a bunch of new tools and techniques.
- Previous to this course, the only type of natural walls I’d made were from cob. It’s an awesome technique but the walls are slow to go up and super thick and not always a good choice depending on the climate. Barbara taught us about wattle and daub and we had a chance to make some internal walls that are a lot thinner and more versatile than cob or straw bale, especially when you don’t need insulation or for them to be load bearing.
- On the first course we spent a good amount of time faffing around with the foundation since we were attempting to build on a slight slope. We ended up stacking up lots of earth bags to make things level and it was the first time I’ve worked with them. After filling and stacking a seemingly endless line of earth bags, though, I was very happy to be moving on to the next technique.
- When I did my cob building course back in 2013 we did our mixing of the clay, sand, water, and straw by human power with our feet. For this course we busted out the cement mixer and I learned how to use that bad boy to make a whole bunch of different mixes.
- Barbara taught the students on the most recent course how to cut a glass bottle using string, ethanol, and fire. I haven’t tried it myself yet but I got to see it in action. It’s amazing how simple the process is and I’m looking forward to having a crack at it.
- My nemesis the earth bag was back again on the second course but this time around for something more fun than a foundation. Barbara and the folks on the course came up with a design for an outside bench that used the tube-y earth bags rolled up to create a spiral on each side. I’m not a massive fan of the ol’ earth bag but it was cool to see what’s possible and I was super impressed with the surprisingly comfortable finished product.
Things I Want to Copy
- There are lots of design elements and ways of doing things that I’ve taken away from Barbara’s courses that I hope to use one day on my own build. Lots of little tips and tricks and fixes that learned by doing them on the job.
- Barbara has a great way of working that I’d like to move towards. I can a bit obsessive about measuring and having things line up perfectly which really isn’t possible with straw bales and many natural techniques. I love how Barbara is able to create beautiful things while teaching and working with a laid back, experimental style.
- Keela Yoga Farm have so many amazing things going on and ideas I want to steal, but I’ll write about all of that goodness later in a post specifically about Keela.
- I find that natural building and permaculture courses tend to attract a fun selection of interesting people and the two courses I did with Barbara were no exception. It’s great being around folks who are as interested as I am in this stuff and who don’t mind talking about the ins and outs of mud and straw on a regular basis because we’re weird like that. The diversity of the groups was great as well and everyone seemed to have an interesting story to tell.
- It’s been great to see Barbara and everyone at Mount of Oaks and Laurence and Kimberly at Keela again. I love what they’re all doing and getting to see and work with them again has been awesome.
- I love mud! It’s been fun to get dirty.
- On the course I took with Barbara in 2017 people seemed to come at me with building questions or for help using some of the tools. I have a small amount of conventional building experience from my years of volunteering with All Hands and I found that I enjoyed sharing that knowledge. On the more recent course I already knew how to do a lot of the natural techniques and I really liked being able to answer people’s questions or showing them how to do mixes, etc. I’m not massively confident in my knowledge and experience yet, but I look forward to getting to a point where I feel comfortable helping other people learn. I think I like informal teaching and maybe whenever I get land I could take on a small number of volunteers with the promise of attempting to teach natural building on the job in exchange for their help.
- One of the things I love most about natural building is how empowering it is. I always come away from any course or building experience feeling a little bit more capable and a lot more inspired to make my own designs.
- Both the 2017 and 2018 courses were held at the same time as Portugal decided to be hot as balls. We’re talking 40+ degrees which I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced anywhere in my life. It was hot. Really hot. We arranged our days so we were all up early and then we took a long break during the hottest part of the day. It was tough but somehow we all survived and now a forecast of 40+ degrees doesn’t completely terrify me in quite the same way.
- Straw is itchy and stabby and working with the bales can be tough with straw going everywhere. Bra straw isn’t fun and breathing in floaty straw isn’t great, either. I still love straw bales, though! But they seem to be out to hurt me.
Even though I wasn’t a regular participant on either of the courses, I learned so much. Barbara did a bit of theory on the first day and more short lessons on the building site as new techniques and questions popped up. Her courses are designed to teach you as many natural building techniques as possible in a short amount of time while being able to apply them straight away to a building-in-progress.
It’s a practical, real-world way to learn the techniques while seeing a structure rise up before your eyes. The building itself might not be 100% natural (Keela’s community building, for example, has a concrete foundation and a metal roof) but her courses are a great way to learn natural building while also seeing how these techniques can fit with conventional building, if need be. Students will go away from the course with a lot of information on different natural building techniques and, more importantly I think, experience applying everything learned to an actual build. Plus, Barbara is an excellent teacher and makes everything super fun!
I’m pretty sure Barbara will be running courses in 2019 so if you want to get in on the action, check out the Mount of Oaks website. Highly recommended!