When I was a child, I watched a documentary about how some people in Africa would make houses out of mud, ashes and camel dung. That day I was visiting my grandparent’s farm, and as they had just burnt a large pile of straw I was inspired to make mortar with mud and ashes. My cousin, sister and I then started building a small wall of this mortar and field stones. It was very hard work, and of course, being western children in the 90’s we didn’t have a clue about manual labour or workmanship and the wall never grew very tall. But that did not matter. What sticks in my mind is that we only had to see it once to realise the creative potential of the mud. We were only children but it was completely natural to us.
What we did not think about was, that what makes mud work so well for building is the clay that it contains. Clay consists of very fine particles (smaller than 0.004 mm) that due to their charge and plate like structure in their unsaturated state, like to stick together. Clay is mainly an eroded material of rock called feldspar which through weathering accumulates in pockets in our landscape. Depending on other type of minerals, salts and metals present and how oxidised the clay is (e.g. how much water has traveled through it) we get different colours of clay. Some clays are very plastic and others swell more than others – making them suitable for different things such as china (kaolinite clay which swells only little) or for land fill sealing caps (bentonite which swells tremendously).
Clay is being mined all over the world for industrial uses. For example, clay is being used for bricks and additives in cement products, stabilisers in engineering works and for ceramics and coating of paper. More interestingly, 30% percent of houses around the world are made of earth. Adobe mud bricks in Mexico, rammed earth in France, cob in New Zealand, mud coats on straw huts in Kenya – the list is endless. Earth is also used traditionally for plasters and decorative features for such as Japanese tea rooms and on earth dwellings in Burkina faso. Some earth buildings are traditional relics from the past, some traditional earth techniques are being used for contemporary buildings still, and then there is the revival of earth building for eco-construction where earth has been discovered as a benign and sculptural material with moisture control qualities.
In this resurgence a lot of innovation is taking place, e.g. in France an interesting institute called CRATerre investigates how clay can be engineered to be suitable for use in modern construction as a substitute to not-so-green cement.
Clay is beautiful. Its mat dense finish is attractive to look at and to touch. As a plaster it can make a house breathe and make us feel an instant connection to the natural world. It makes us remember that we don’t have to separate ourselves from nature but that we can dwell with this primitive material comfortably in our 21st century shelters.
If you are interested in learning about the various techniques used when working with clay we are running a 3-day course at Coed Talylan, Wales from 27th to 29th July. The Working with Clay Course will literally submerge your hands in clay and show how to turn this medium into adobes, plasters, washes, cob and pottery. We will fire, carve, build, paint, stump, mould, smear, trowel and shake this material until our senses will be tuned to its nature, to emerge with an intuitive feeling of how clay can work for us as a building but also a fun and healing material.