For most people there is a large, soggy question mark lurking above the idea of mud homes and water. What happens in a flood? Does the mud plaster fall off in a downpour? Will an adobe house suck up the rain, wobble alarmingly and then collapse into a mud slick?
I’m in a reasonable position to comment. People often assume the Turkish Mediterranean to be a dry, barren place. In fact the winters are quite wet. My region sees on average 42 inches of rainfall annually, most of which descends between December and March. That’s respectable flooding potential by any standards. Every year, random portions of the asphalt road through my village disappear in landslides. Concrete walls routinely collapse. Bridges vanish overnight.
So why doesn’t my house melt? To tell the truth, when I was building it nearly every local in the vicinity said it would. Yet my little mud home has defied the doubters. It’s even been known to squat in a small lake without damage. What’s the trick?(Photo 1 The Turkish Mediterranean can be very wet)
There are some ground rules to follow with earthen buildings. Here’s how to prevent your mud home from becoming mud pie.
Find the highest, driest spot on your land and build on it. It also pays to spend a season on or near your property before building to observe where the excess rainwater flows.
2. The roof
Your home needs a wide-brimmed hat. Large eaves (at least a metre long) will go a long way to protecting your earth plaster from heavy rain. Make sure you install decent guttering to carry the excess rainwater away. A living roof will also slow down the rate at which rainwater runs off, preventing sudden lakes from collecting about your house.
3. Stem wall
If the roof is the hat of your home, then the stem wall is the gum boots. The first half metre or so of your walls should be constructed from a water resistant material. Earthships often use recycled tyres filled with gravel for this purpose. In my area, traditional mud homes are built upon a raised stone base. I used two layers of gravel-filled sacks. Some people pour concrete here, but I don’t recommend it with mud homes. Aside from the environmental impact, Portland cement has a habit of wicking up water. Your home might not disintegrate, but it could suffer from rising damp.
Just as with the stem wall, the foundations of a mud home need to be constructed from a material that rids itself of water fast. Again concrete isn’t the best solution as it holds water. Digging a rubble trench about half a metre below grade is probably the best method (and the one I used). It creates a type of sieve beneath the house which allows the rain to drain quickly away. Even when my home was encircled by a moat of water, I could put my hand under the floorboards and feel the dirt next to the wall was bone dry.
5. Dig a moat or create a step around your home
Give the rainwater somewhere to go by creating some sort of channel for it. You want to keep the water flowing away from your walls. I made a simple 20-cm step around the base of the house out of rocks and earth. The rainwater runs off the roof and round the house without touching the house.
6. The earthbag technique
Even after the above precautions, most natural builders don’t recommend building cob or adobe homes on a floodplain. If the water level does for some reason breach your stem wall, you are doomed. This is where earthbag building comes into its own. The bags hold the earth in place, wet or dry. If you want to know more about the earthbag technique, please look at www.themudhome.com.
Top photo credit: Martyn Bayley; photo captions: Top: the Turkish Mediterranean can be very wet; bottom: Gravel-filled sacks create a great stem wall.
Atulya K Bingham is an author and sustainable building addict. She lives semi off-grid in Turkey in her beloved earthbag house. Her days are spent growing her own food, experimenting with natural building techniques, and writing. She is author of The Mud website which offers plenty of earthbag building information, a window into Atulya’s off-grid life, sustainable living tips, and much more.
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Read about Mud Ball, Atulya’s popular memoir of building her earthbag home.
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