Interview with Peggy Reents and Thana Uthaipattrakoon (nickname Joe).
Peggy Reents is from Colorado, USA and has been living in Thailand since 2001. She initially worked with NGOs on earthen building, alternative agriculture, and grassroots development projects before co-founding Pun Pun with Jo Jandai in 2003.
Joe Uthaipattrakoon worked as an architect in Bangkok before joining the natural building project in Wongsanit Ashram, where he became a project manager.He is the author of Building a House With Clay, published by Suan Nguen Mee Ma (Garden of Fruition in English), a best seller for the publisher for five years with 10,500 books published. (Note: This number is from several years and ago and no doubt much higher.)
Owen: I first heard about earth building in Thailand from Janell Kapoor of Kleiwerks Internationalfame who said there are thousands of new earthen houses in Thailand. That really amazed me, and so I’ve set out to learn the details about the modern earth building movement in Thailand. Are there really that many new earthen houses in Thailand?
Peggy: Yes, the movement has grown so quickly that we don’t know a good estimate of the total earthen buildings in Thailand, but we estimate more than a thousand. So many of the people who have been trained in building techniques have gone on to build that it is almost impossible to estimate. We frequently get calls from people either telling us what they have built or asking us to build for them. What is most impressive is to keep in mind that Thailand is the approximate size of Texas, and earth building has only become popular since 2001.
Owen: Are the earthen houses in Thailand made of cob, adobe, wattle and daub, compressed earth block, earthbag or a combination?
Peggy: The most popular building technique is by far adobe. Next popular is wattle and daub which is most popular for people who are wanting to build during the rainy season and therefore cannot wait for adobe bricks to dry. “Wattle-and-cob” is a technique which has been adapted to speed up the process by using a widely woven bamboo wall. Straw dipped in mud is wrapped around and through this weave. It becomes strong when dry. Compressed earth block (CEB) is also getting more popular, yet it is quite expensive for average Thais. There are few (if any) completely cob buildings due to the labor-intensity of the building method, but cob is often used for smaller projects, such asbenches. Earthbag is very rarely seen.
Adobe is most popular because it is easy, fast, stron, and provides thick walls with high thermal mass. It is also the cheapest method. Any farmer has mud, rice hulls and labor at hand. Villagers see this as a simple method they can easily do themselves, and they can determine the cost of the house by choice of windows, doors, flooring and roofing themselves. Wattle and daub, in general, provides thinner walls and requires post and beam construction, whereas adobe is load-bearing, reducing cost. People tend to not believe in the durability of wattle and daub because it looks thin. Compressed earth block is not so popular because the block press is quite pricey and people feel like it’s an investment they will only use once.
Owen: How did the modern earth building movement get started? Who have been the main people involved in this movement?
Peggy: Originally Jon (Jo) Jandai, a Thai farmer, traveled to the States in 1999. While there, he took a bicycle trip to the Four Corner’s area and visited Taos Pueblo. His immediate reaction was surprise at how cool it could be on such a hot, dry summer day. It reminded him of the weather in his home village, and he felt like it could be a useful technique to bring home. After that 15-minute tour and $5 entrance fee, he headed back to Oregon where he was living for a short while and checked out a book from the library on adobe building. He copied the pictures and when he headed home to Thailand began experimenting with adobe construction in his village. He built a house, a village co-operative shop, and another house for another villager. It worked well, was easy to build, and he was very happy with it.
A couple years later Janell Kapoor and Michel Spaan were invited by the Wongsanit Ashram outside Bangkok to teach a cob building workshop. Due to Jo’s past experience in villager organizing with the ashram, he was also asked to attend. This workshop brought international and Thai participants to build a small cob meditation hut. Participants were starting to feel like cob was a bit too difficult of a technique and were getting tired. Jo demonstrated how he had been building with adobe brick, and participants were very interested. They planned for a second workshop to take place at Jo’s farm in Northeastern Thailand.
This workshop was attended by participants who later became the leaders of what turned into the modern earth building movement in Thailand. Participants built a two-story adobe structure (21-feet-by-12-feet) in 10 days. Everyone who attended this workshop became very enthusiastic about earth building and went on to plan more and more workshops throughout Thailand.
At this point a coalition of builders was created called Baan Din Team (‘baan din’ meaning earthen building) who were dedicated to volunteering their time and expertise to teaching and spreading the knowledge of earthen building to Thais nationwide. This core group consisted of Jo Jandai, Pairin Pongsurat, Ratchabodin Boonchaiyo, Thana Uthaipattrakoon. This group dedicated two years of full-time volunteer work teaching earthen building workshops — at least three workshops per month per person — in different parts of the country. They mainly received only the cost of transportation in return. Some workshops had up to 300 people in attendance. The number of workshops held and the incredible number of people who attended throughout the whole country propelled the movement drastically as hundreds of people continued on to build after these workshops.
After two years, this group split into three different projects continuing with earthen building. Jo Jandai and Ratchabodin Boonchaiyo, along with Peggy Reents and Michel Spaan went on to create Pun Pun organic farm, sustainable living learning center and seed center. Their mission was to settle in one space and create it as a learning space for people to learn about earthen building and sustainable living instead of continuing to travel. Their other objective was to create a seed center for propagating and conserving food biodiversity and displaying organic forms of agriculture. They host internships, workshops, study tours and training sessions for international and Thai participants every year. Right now, they have about ten earthen buildings and they experiment with various techniques. You can find more about their projects on www.punpunthailand.org.
Pairin Pongsurat along with a building team, went on to found Siam Baan Din, which is a commercial enterprise building earthen homes as a business. Their idea is to show earthen building as an option for middle-upper class Thais and its aesthetic and durable nature. Their profits go toward supporting other NGO work in Thailand. Their website is www.siambaandin.com. (The home page of this site is not in English yet, but many of the links are translated. Click the British flag icon on other pages for the English version of that page.)
Thana Uthaipattrakoon (Joe) went on to continue in educational outreach on earthen building, including books, publications, websites and study tours on earthen building. He organizes national earthen builders meetings and conferences annually. Their website is www.baandin.org.
One other group that has been involved in propelling the earthen building movement in Thailand is called Baan Siroong (Rainbow House). They host workshops every month at different places around the country. Mainly they build monk huts in temples and donate them to temples while teaching participants techniques. Their website is www.budpage.com
There are other small groups that occasionally host building workshops including Whispering Seeds, a sustainable living school and orphanage. Now they continue to grow and build their school with natural materials. They have recently organized an earthen building tour in Thailand, mainly for Thai people. It was a success, because participants were able to see various new building techniques, exchange ideas with owners and other builders and also see some traditional wattle-and-daub and adobe immigrant housing still used today.
Joe: Also, Mud houses started to be popular because one of the famous nuns in Thailand visited our first training and sent someone to learn in the second training. They had their own television program (at that time) and invited Jon Jandai to be interviewed for two weeks. Then one of the famous documentary magazines wrote about mud houses as a main topic.
In November 2002, we organized one month training in a community that had a problem from a government dam project. We built the whole village with mud houses, 15 houses and one big meeting hall. We had almost 300 people come and go throughout that month.
Owen: Describe some of the nicest buildings in Thailand.
Peggy: A resort built by the Siam Baandin team in Eastern Thailand, including three large domes and a 2 kilometer long fence, was awarded a national environmental award. There are various well-built beautiful earthen resorts in Thailand now.
I was recently working with the Women’s International Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP) on a two-story women’s guesthouse with an internal herb courtyard, second-story meditation room with views of the rice fields and yoga space. A couple years ago we did a meditation hall at their center in Mae Rim, outside Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
Owen: Which building methods are most popular and why?
For mud house (not including CEB), the most popular method is adobe, because you can make brick when you have time, and when the brick is ready you can build very fast.
Owen: What is the typical per-square-foot cost of adobe houses in Thailand?
Peggy: For a simple house, the cost is around $1 to $2 per square foot. For a nicer fancier house, around $29 per square foot.
Joe: It depends. When I teach, I ask them to find available materials in their area. The cheapest one that I know is $10 for a 15-square-meter house. They used materials they found around the area and bought roof thatch. If you hire someone to build for you, the cost will be around 60 to 80 percent of the price of a conventional house.
Owen: Where are most of these buildings located?
Joe: Chiangmai and Chaiyaphum.
Peggy: Now, earthen building has spread everywhere — all over the country — but initially, it was more popular in the more rural areas of Northern and Northeastern Thailand. The Northeast is the most rural and poor region of Thailand and earthen building became popular there due to ease and economic feasibility. Most people have land, mud, rice hulls, straw and labor, so it was not a big commitment, and was fun and easy to do without money. It also easily made sense to them because they are accustomed to living close to the land. The popularity in the North came from a general heightened consciousness of environmental issues with middle-class Thais who wanted to experiment with this new medium.
Owen: Are most of the buildings owner built or contractor built?
Peggy: Nearly all are owner built. Many villagers see earthen building and feel confident enough to build without any formal instruction as it just seems to make sense to them. There is a need for more contractors to build for middle and upper-class Thais who want an earthen building but do not want to build it themselves.
Owen: Any problems with building codes or building officials?
Peggy: Nope! Building codes are flexible and people in general do not have to worry about codes for basic residential and small business/co-operative building. What has come as a difficulty is working with Thai architects in drawing up plans because they were not trained in working with natural materials and do not have the wisdom in knowing the properties or characteristics of them. They often add unnecessary cost with extra pillars or buttresses, which are not necessary to the integrity of the strength of the building and make it less feasible for more people to build.
Joe: It’s hard to build in the city but still possible to build with adobe in rural areas.
Owen: What are some of the main differences between earthen buildings in Thailand and those in drier climates like New Mexico?
Peggy: The most important things to focus on when building in the tropics are the roof and prevention of termite damage. We use quite long overhangs (3 feet on average) which prevent monsoon rain hitting the walls from the side. This also helps to shade the house and thermal mass, keeping them cool. Our biggest obstacle is working with termites in an environmentally friendly way. Without a barrier, they will travel through the earthen wall to eat roof beams. We try to make more of a barrier around the house to keep them away from it, and the building should always be built in a dry, well-drained location.
Joe: We have more rain so we should have a long roof and build in non-flooding areas.
Owen: I see lots of small businesses in Thailand making and selling compressed earth blocks.
Joe: There’s a government organization that promotes CEBs. It is spreading very fast. They have been developed for such a long time (almost 40 years). I think Thailand has one of the most developed CEB techniques in the world.
Peggy: It is becoming more popular as a conventional technique (because conventional builders can just buy them and use them without any other training), but it is still quite expensive. [Note: CEBs are currently around 25 cents each in Thailand.]
Owen: What’s your opinion of building with earthbags, especially in areas susceptible to flooding and hurricanes?
Peggy: The leaders of the earthen building movement in Thailand have not introduced earthbag construction due to the high cost of polypropylene bags in Thailand and the option of adobe where they are not necessary. Adobe seemed just as easy and cheaper, so this is what was mostly introduced. [Note: Used polypropylene bags (rice bags, feed bags, etc.) are readily available in Thailand at 10 cents each; new bags are 15 cents each.]
Owen: Looking forward 5 to 10 years, give us your predictions for earthen building in Thailand.
Peggy: The earthen building movement in Thailand began with farmers, villagers, NGOs, artists and village co-operatives. In the future we see earthen building expanding to include more middle-class and upper-class Thais because there is a growing interest with these groups now.
There will continue to be more development with techniques such as finishing, protection of walls, earthen floors, dome walls in tropics, and more conventional looking housing out of earthen materials. Many people are working to look for sustainable alternatives to dealing with termites, insulation which animals cannot nest in, and flooring. It has been proven that earthen building works in the tropics, but other materials used with earthen buildings are still being adapted. Some people claim thermal mass should not be used in the tropics, yet adobe buildings have proven to be the coolest, naturally moderated buildings available. With no additional cooling mechanisms, adobe homes can be quite cool and comfortable during very hot weather.
Traditionally in Thailand hardwood or bamboo was used for all construction. Due to the vast deforestation that has taken place (mostly through past exportation), new wood homes have become only feasible for upper-class people. Bamboo continues to be a sustainable option but requires treatment and maintenance becuase it is susceptible to insects. Concrete block (which is uncomfortable, expensive, and not long-lasting) is the only economically feasilbe option for villagers and average Thais who are building new homes. We feel earthen building will only continue to grow in popularity due to these factors and a growing environmental awareness and awareness of this technique.
Joe: What I dream of is that poor people will have a choice to build their own house even if they don’t have money.
I dream that people in the city want to work as volunteers to help poor people and monks to build houses.
I dream that teachers and students in the universities will think more about poor people as one of their clients and will do more research to find appropriate materials for housing.
I dream that people will learn to help each other not just to build mud houses but building mud houses will create a network of good friends.
I dream that we could create an international alternative material network in Southeast Asia.
I dream that we will have a lot of local instructors all over Thailand to teach how to be self-reliant and mud houses could be part of that.
Most of my dream is starting to happen, although sometimes it’s very slow and we still lack money and people to work.
I believe that if this is what the world needs, the universe will help in some way.
Photo by Meemee Kanyarath