Traditional Transylvania – Scholars and Fellows in Romania

Ulrike Wahl, SPAB Fellow 2006, joined this year’s Scholars and Fellows in Transylvania, Romania for a workshop on sustainable building: ‘Building sustainably by learning from the traditional architecture’. The workshop was organised by Romanian architect, Silvia Demeter-Lowe (SPAB Scholar 2004)

The aim of the workshop was to give participants an understanding of the local identity and culture. Through hands-on work the group contributed to the rehabilitation of a 200 hundred year old farmstead, using traditional techniques and materials.

Funding came from the European Commission’s Youth in Action programme, which brings together young people from different backgrounds from across Romania and Europe, giving them an appreciation of the harmonious relationship that can be created between the built and natural environment. So in addition to the SPAB contingent there was a group from Évora in Portugal as well as architecture students, engineers and people with a general interest in traditional building from Romania.

Traditional Saxon houses in need of repair in Meşendorf

Traditional Saxon houses in need of repair in Meşendorf

The workshop took place at Nr 53, a building that has needed serious structural work in the past. Silvia described how the earthquake of 1977 and subsequent minor landslides had caused the building to move down the hill. She encouraged the group to discuss different solutions to this problem and to consider their practical and financial implications. As Silvia said, to function properly a traditional house needs ‘a good hat and good boots’ – solid foundations and a sturdy roof – and she wanted to make sure this house had both.

DSC_0097The majority of our work took place around a new extension to the house. The original timber from a recently demolished annex in the village had been saved and provided the framework to support the roof. Our cob and straw teacher for the week was János Németh, a builder who works with natural materials. He told us about the different methods of straw bale construction he had come across and the circumstances in which each would be used appropriately. For this project the straw bales were held in place by a timber structure and ‘stitched’ together using hazelnut stakes.

János explained that the south-facing wall was built of cob to absorb and store the warmth of the sun. By contrast, the other two walls were made of strawbales covered with a clay plaster to provide insulation. To protect the straw from rising moisture a rubble wall was built from the local sandstone. Even the stonemasons in the team learned something new here as we didn’t have the range of tools available that we were used to. We had to get back to basics and make do with what we could find – which included anything from a plastic knife to a teapot handle. To enlarge the entrance to the house, Emily (2012 Fellow) spent most of the week extending a brick wall and teaching the group bricklaying.


In Meşendorf itself we managed to visit the fortified church, which is currently undergoing works and not open to the public. The caretaker, Mrs Scoica, explained some of the architecture and traditions to us and we were even allowed to go up the tower. From there we could really appreciate the defensive layout of the village.

Meşendorf, showing the defensive line of houses at the front and barns at the back

Meşendorf, showing the defensive line of houses at the front and barns at the back

The week came to an end with a party in the yard – with a bonfire, music and dancing (from some), food and drink. And to thank Silvia for her hard work all the workshop attendees presented her with a good hat and good boots. It was a lovely end to a fantastic week. Here is hoping there will be plenty more in the future!

Scholars&Fellows_Romania4_Mesendorf teamphoto


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