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What Is Earth Building & Why I Love It From An Earth Building Teacher

Did you know that still today around 60% of the Earth's population lives in earthbuildings worked from local, renewable resources? These buildings breathe and can provide thermal mass to use passive solar heating meaning the sun heats them for you. Some such buildings are over a thousand years old as in Yemen.

Mudbrick architecture in the Yemen
Mudbrick architecture in the Yemen

Thankfully the western world has rediscovered earth building in the past 4 decades and many contemporary building styles are there to be admired. We have some great examples to showcase to SLC students here in Golden Bay, New Zealand!

Hi, I’m Rita Scholten and I teach Natural Building and Personal Sustainability twice a year in Spring and Autumn on the 11 week Golden Bay Sustainable Living Course.

Building with earth has fascinated me since travelling through India and Asia in the early nineties. Evenso, when I emigrated to New Zealand from The Netherlands, I had no idea that my partner and I would build a straw bale house on a mountain near Abel Tasman Park. Yet that is what happened, in the midst of neighbours who all got inspired to build with mud and straw from Light Earth & cob to 3 types of strawbale buildings.

It still amazes me how a combo of mud, sand and straw can create such wholesome buildings. My family and I went super creative with sculpting, pillars, alcoves and mosaics. It brings out the artist in everyone including and especially in my students on the Golden Bay Sustainable Living Course as you can see below.

"Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest, but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another." John Muir

Earthbuilding is great fun and such a steep learning curve.

Students Building Autumn 2021

Anyone can learn the techniques. We managed to build our house amongst homeschooling children, using alternative energy systems and growing our own food. Soon a pizza oven, outdoor benches and mosaic garden paths were added. The possibilities for naturally built structures really are endless.


Once I researched about the toxicity of standard materials required in building codes, I realised how important natural buildings are for health and sustainability on all levels and for humans and the planet.

Here are some examples of toxicity through off gas formaldehyde and other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). The above toxic leakage happens through:

· glues in MDF, chipboard and plywood sheets

· the outdoor paint on wooden houses

· carpets

· indoor paint

· stains on wooden floors

· pink bats insulation

· tanalised framing timber

The list is endless; modern houses are non breathable, have condensation and toxins in indoor air.


There are great resources available to replace these with natural materials like:

· natural paints/oils for indoor and outdoor

· 100% sheep wool insulation

· vernacular architecture based on local traditions and materials

· untreated Cypress heartwood/boron treated Douglas Fir for framing timber

These materials can be more expensive and most often are not locally sourced, and yet are so worthwhile for health benefits.

The good news is that the basic materials for earth building are generally very affordable and readily available. Every property has subsoil, the layer underneath your topsoil. Some subsoils have already the right ratio of sand and clay to use immediately depending on your choice of building. Others need more clay or sand added. To obtain straw locally is often very feasible. Your building technique determines the different mixes of your straw, sand and clay.


You may be wondering what the best earth building technique is for your project. Earth building techniques range from:

  • wattle and daub

  • rammed earth

  • adobe bricks

  • cob

  • Earth bag

  • light earth

  • strawbale and

  • cob plastering over e.g. wood panels or pallets.

Wattle and daub which is cob plaster of panels with sticks of wood, is a great choice for garden sheds and walls.

Students learning wattle & daub on the Spring course 2019

Adobe Bricks, aka, Earth bricks allow you to build a conventional house with great thermal mass to soak up the sun rays and release this inside your house in the eve/night. This is one of the most earthquake proof building styles.

Rammed earth and cob both give thick earth walls, great for thermal mass/ passive solar heating.

Light Earth together with strawbale walls results in high wall insulation vector for snug, warm and breathable walls.

For creative and inexpensive buildings, the cobplastering over secondhand materials like pallets offers possibilities for e.g. tiny houses and sleepouts that anyone can build without much previous building experience.

Endless possibilities!!!

An invitation to you to get your hands in the mud and become creative and confident in creating wholesome buildings.

Earth building is my personal favourite & I am very excited to share my knowledge with our course students and give you a hands-on experience. 🌹 So hop over here to find out more about this one of a kind course. ;)

About the author: Rita Scholten has lived in Golden Bay since 1998 of which 17 years were on a remote hill, 600 meters high, near the Abel Tasman Park.

Together with her partner, they built a strawbale house, their own waste system, had a bubbling spring for water in the native forest, growing food and milking goats and lived as an unintentional community with Anahata Yoga Retreat and 3 other families.

On that hill all kinds of earthbuilding projects happened from round load bearing strawbale to cobb and light earth. Their house was an infill straw house with wooden frames on high posts.

She is now in town and grows food more efficiently due to better climate and loves the smaller plot which makes her to come up with efficient and effective ways to use her land.

Says Rita, "I love the Sustainable Living Course and am thrilled to be part of it. A welcome from heart and soul to All of you."

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