An earthen floor in Hararit

Earth from Amiad Quarry
Earth from Amiad Quarry

Rotem De Mayo, a ‘natural’ builder from Hararit, is putting the finishing touches to the home that he has been building for himself and his family for the past three years. With the additional help of friends, volunteers, patience and dedication to details, not a single corner or finish is without consideration to the materials and methods used. The intention, although not without inevitable compromises, is to connect his home and handiwork to tradition and to the ground it is built upon. The underlying desire being to dwell in a home that is most suited to the wellbeing and flourishing of his family.

Spruce timber frame

Traditional Details and Materials

Designed together with architect Kinga Kudor, timber, earth, cob, expanded clay, stone with natural plaster and cork finishes are the preferred materials for this 170 square meter house. Concrete and cement are kept to the bare minimum. The main structure is a two-storey spruce timber frame built by Ringwood, carpenters of Yodfat, according to traditional English framing details, with trusses and wooden pegs in place of metal screws and bolts. Exterior walls are filled with expanded clay and others with cob, a mix of earth and straw.  Half of the footprint of the house, the south-facing communal, family space is double height up the gabled, clay-tiled roof and the other half is split over two floors. An earthen stairwell, as if a small hill has been organized into tidy steps connects the two.

The item nearing the end of the to do list is the floor for the ground level; a reddish, pinkish, orangey, compacted, earthen floor, using leftover materials from a quarry in nearby Amiad.  Dirt is not the quarry’s moneymaker; nevertheless there is no short supply, and the quarry is happy to part with it for a nominal fee. They even threw in a bit more quarry sand (not to be confused with sea sand) to make the consistency and properties just right for Rotem’s floor.  To test that the dirt has the right proportions of gravel, different sand sizes, clay and silt, a mason jar test is done. One third filled with water and three quarters filled with soil, the jar is shaken and then let to settle. Just like oil rising to the top of your salad dressing the materials here too separate into their different identities giving a good overview of the properties of the soil. Each element has its own purpose in the play between strength and binding abilities and from the jar test it can be determined of what you need a little more and of what a little less. It is an endless science and although the research is being done and the books are being written, the answers are usually given by direct experience and touch. Only by squeezing a ball of wet dirt in your hands and dropping to see how it reacts can you really judge the earth with which you are interacting. Patience and dedication to getting your hands dirty build this haptic expertise.

Leveling out the moistened Earth before compacting

Connected to the Groundrock

The soil is sprayed with water and tossed with the shovel of a mini front-loader and carried with buckets to be piled upon an already compacted gravel surface. There are several rounds of leveling, hand compacting and machine compacting by ‘jabka’ (plate compactor). A day of quick work is followed by a slow day of fixing the edges. The concrete foundations comprise of a minimum belt under only the exterior walls, and not far below the floor is the original ground-rock. Nothing synthetic separates between the two except for the gradual gradation from rough rock to ever-finer grains of earth before being sealed with slip and linseed oil to give a smooth impervious finish.

Rotem using the Jabka to mechanically compress the Earth after manual compacting

Embodied Mass

Compacted earth has the benefit of having a high thermal mass. When it is hot outside the building will heat up slowly and the inverse is also true. It will also cool down slowly. In a climate such as Israel (especially in the desert) this diurnal fluctuation is ideal. The thermal mass in combination with the south-facing orientation maximizes the energy efficiency of the house without effort. The proof is in the fact that there is no air conditioner and yet it is a pleasant and comfortable temperature inside despite the scalding heat outside.

Taking a break together under the shade of a tree

Building Together

Most of the volunteers have crossed paths on different building sites from the north to the south of Israel over the years and are dedicated to the use of natural building materials. Several are builders and friends who work in this field for a living and have come to lend a helping hand. A few are also trained in architecture or are building their own homes and communities and have come either to share or to gain more knowledge in the field of earth-building. Others have found their way by word of mouth or by facebook, seeking kindred spirits to shift, sift, mix and compact earth of various colors and textures together.   Some coming from city life, others from the peripheries, this expanding group of quite thoughtful and serious individuals, rather than free roaming spirit hippies (no disrespect intended) searches for rootedness and connection to land and people. Sharing coffee, watermelon and stories under the shade of a tree is equally part of the experience of working together.

A Different Way

What makes this way of building more rare than not, is that inevitably it is slow, time and labor intensive and therefore also more expensive. However, with energy bills being reduced and the undeniable benefits to wellbeing, the expense soon pays off. Most people want a quick fix; time is money and therefore only appropriate for a small niche of people who will have the patience for this process.  The dream of bringing natural materials to the city lingers. Although technically completely feasible, it will take a major switch in attitude and focus to make it a daily reality.

Rotem says he won’t be building another house with this level of attention again anytime soon. Nevertheless, stepping into the home I feel as if I have stepped into a cave next to a spring without seeing either. The air is cooling and moisturizing my body, my skin is realizing that it too has the ability to breathe, and with the soft acoustics, a sense of simultaneous lightness and secure heaviness settles over me. I can’t help thinking that it certainly seems worth it.

About the Author
Miriam Waltz made aliyah via London, Basel and New York. She is an architect that has worked in world renowned firms on various continents. Currently she resides in Tel Aviv and is principal founder of Studio Itouf. The studio designs spaces, environments and habitats that promote wellbeing, belonging, authenticity, autonomy and collaboration between mineral, vegetable, animal and human. Photo by Yelena Kvetny
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