Hunting and gathering for our mud-brick home

Polly and James feel there’s a bit of magic involved in their hunt for building materials
Issue#61 May/June 2015

One of the best things about building our home in slow motion is the extra time it’s given James and me to incorporate ideas and inspiration into our homesteading life. Had our budget been bigger, we’d have rushed our city-slicker mentalities towards the comfort zone of a completed house within our first year of arriving on the land. Not only would this have deprived us of all the stiff-upper-lip, character-building opportunities that come from an amenity-poor, largely outdoor existence, but it also means we’d now be ruefully occupying a rather more standard dwelling, having missed the chance to be influenced by some of the more far-out aspects of the Far North.
Settling into the smorgasbord of personalities that forms our new community, we’ve discovered there’s an engaging disregard for convention displayed by many of its residents. Folk tend to do what they want – not in a harmful, antisocial way, but in an exploratory, avant-garde and sometimes outlandishly creative one. This is particularly demonstrated in the construction of some people’s houses which, like their owners, are full of quirks, idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. Being invited into people’s dwellings has sometimes felt like embarking on Alice in Wonderland journeys down long, bush-burrowed driveways into fantastical worlds.

One neighbour has built half his house around an ancient rata tree and constructed an eye catching circus-tent roof; another has fashioned his place in the style of a giant pineapple. There are bus homes, hobbit holes, bush huts, rustic, rambling houses built with salvaged native timber, a house that sits like a ship above a rolling ocean of forest canopy and mud-brick homes sculpted into Moroccan arches and Hundertwasser curves.
One home that James and I love to visit isn’t actually a house at all. In order to skirt building regulations, its creator laid her friend’s ashes to rest in the floor and, technically speaking, she lives in a tomb. An ingenious inventor with a passion for ferro-cement, she’s used the form of a large water tank for her basic house shape, popped a giant bath tub under the spiralling staircase, grown potplants beneath occasional leaks and laid a visual symphony of mosaics around her curving walls. Describing her place as a “house of wonk”, she builds on whim and is currently creating a large hillside cellar, complete with a waterfall curtain, in which to store her home-made cheeses and wine.
Taking a leaf out of their books, James and I have learned to construct with what’s around us, to recycle materials and to use our limited finances as an opportunity for thinking outside the square. In practising this, lately we’ve been feeling like master magicians. Now that we’re building again we’ve needed to gather resources, including doors, windows, wood and mud for the next addition to our hybrid/mud-brick home. To our delight, goods have manifested almost under our noses. After months spent scouring the nation via Trade Me for bifold doors, we found the perfect one just 50 kilometres from home. A timely sale in a lumber yard gave us exactly what we needed for framing, while an early-morning deviation to a farm auction netted us a trailer-load of tongue-and-groove rimu for $20 as well as a substantial pile of dry kauri boarding that had sat in a shed for the past 40 years.
Meanwhile, the mud practically slid down a bank towards us on a road close to home, a friend with a penchant for doors unexpectedly gifted us two century-old native beauties rescued from demolition and our inventor friend solved our toilet conundrum, replacing the $5000 composting toilet we couldn’t afford with the design for a worm one that will feed a future banana plantation. To top off the manifestation wizardry, Maxime, the French Guild carpenter who wwoofed with us for eight months two years ago, has suddenly turned up again on the doorstep of our rumpty caravan, brandishing his infectious grin and his builder’s belt.

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In the next post Polly and James go on a wild chook chase and Polly says goodbye to her fear of oven mitts.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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