By Alex Gibbons
I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about my favourite thing…mud! Last week SPAB ran the first ‘Glorious Mud’ courses in Slawston, Leics. The East Midlands has a rich cultural heritage of building with earth, which unfortunately goes relatively unnoticed compared with other clay-rich subsoil regions such as the South West and East Anglia. One reason for this, suggested by Anthony Goode who hosted the event, could be that the residents of the East Midlands continue to proudly refer to their earth building tradition as ‘mud’. Some might say that this is a less appealing name than ‘cob’ or ‘clay lump’, but I think it reflects the beautiful simplicity of the material and technique perfectly. The aim of the week was to get people interested, excited and educated in the mud building tradition of the East Midlands in the hope of bringing sexy back to mud. And I think we did a pretty good job!
After a couple of days setting up with Anthony, we were ahead of the game when the course delegates arrived on the Wednesday. There were about 25 of us in total, including local self builders, architects, conservation officers, Scholars, Fellows and a good group from the SPAB HQ in London.
We opened the bidding with tea (the only way to start any day of mud building) and several very interesting lectures on building with earth regionally and internationally by Jason Mordan and Stafford Holmes, as well as an introduction in the mud building tradition of technique of the East Midlands by Anthony.
After another quick cup of tea, it was time for course delegates to get their hands dirty! Guided by time-served mudman Derek, myself and Anthony, we began to make repairs to the bee damaged wall at Slawston. The wall had been a victim of masonry bees who had made their home in it – an all too common sight in earth buildings across the world. Mud has a great ability to store heat overnight in its thermal mass and is very easy to burrow in to, making it a perfect place for the bees to make their home.
Although the wall looks in a pretty sad state of repair, it is built so wide that really the bee damage is only superficial. Given enough time the bees will eventually burrow far enough to cause structural damage but with good maintenance this is unlikely to happen. Everyone got stuck in, mixing by foot and applying by hand. Mud building is a very labour intensive process but working together makes it great fun as well!
Course delegates also had the opportunity to make mud bricks and blocks, as well as a small rammed earth wall. Local school visits were run along side the main course, where participants had the chance to get their hands dirty and take their knowledge of making mud pies to the next level!
In the evening we were joined by building archaeologist, David Smith who gave an extremely interesting presentation on local mud buildings, rafterless thatch and much more.
The following day the weather was looking a little threatening so we ‘made hay while the sun shone’ and began by finishing the repair of the wall and wrapping up the practical element of the ‘Glorious Mud’ course.
When the rain started coming down again, we retreated inside for more lectures (and tea!), this time from architect Chris Granger, who had built a community centre in Bolivia with his wife, architect Scholar Chloe, using adobe blocks last year. After this, we handed over to Earth Building UK. I gave a presentation on modern buildings using earth as the main structural element and Dr. Paul Jaquin spoke about rammed earth buildings and the structural performance of earth. Earth Building UK is a not-for-profit organisation that fosters the conservation, understanding and development of building with earth in the UK.
After this it was back to architect Stafford Holmes, who gave presentation on a project he has lead in Pakistan, using lime to stabilise earth blocks in flood zones, so people can re-house themselves relatively cheaply in buildings that won’t wash away when the next floods come.
All in all, an extremely enjoyable and informative week, and I hope the first of many more to come! I think it really gave everyone a respect for the physical work that’s involved in building with earth, and how much easier they are to repair than to re-build.
I’d like to say a massive thank you to Anthony Goode for inspiring and arranging the course, to everyone at SPAB for organising, to all the speakers and to Derek for the practical sessions. May the East Midland mud buildings enjoy a resurgence of interest and sympathetic repair!
If you would like to find out more about building with earth, please visit www.ebuk.uk.com