Six days in the Pryenees, building houses from straw, earth, sand and flour

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I think Matthew and I were both a bit shell-shocked for our first twenty-four hours or so in the Pyrenees. After being spoilt rotten at ECOlonie, and it being far better than we ever thought it would or could be, I think our expectations were a little high for this place. We’ve settled into things a bit now, though are still missing ECOlonie a hell of a lot – the food, the people, the showers…

BUT things are pretty good here really. Pierlo, Sandrine and their children Marion and Jule have been here for around seven years and have been building their house for around four. They “live in the workplace” of their, full of potential beauty, unfinished straw-bale house as they work on the upstairs first and then plan to move downstairs to do the living area, kitchen and bathroom. There’s a temporary kitchen area at the moment, which also includes a temporary shower behind a curtain which doesn’t have a shower head – instead you heat up water on the hob in a big saucepan and take in a smaller saucepan to tip over you. Matthew and I exchanged a definite ‘look’ when we were told this, but in reality it was really absolutely fine. I had my first shower on Tuesday night (I got into the habit of just two showers a week at ECOlonie and I think my hair, and my skin are really appreciating it) and actually quite enjoyed it. I was also skeptical that I would only need one big saucepan of water, but sure enough, it was plenty… which sure makes me think about how many saucepans worth of water I must get through with a conventional shower. Anyway, the shower situation is just a temporary solution because they need to acquire a few more bits and bobs – including building the tank to hold the rainwater in specifically for the shower and connecting it to solar panels – and it’s not a high priority at the moment. In fact, now that the house is done enough to live in, it’s not the priority at all. As Pierlo said “We have a house, but it is important to eat, so the garden is the priority.” So, usually just one person helps Sandrine in the garden each day, but as she follows the lunar calendar to determine when she does certain things in the garden (I’m not entirely sure how this works because the explanation got very lost in translation…) it meant that we were all in the garden on Monday because Monday was a particularly good day to plant ‘fruit vegetables’ (fruit & veg that grow above soil… so including things like peppers & courgettes) according to the lunar system that Sandrine is following. Likewise, Wednesday was a particularly good day to plant root vegetables so Matthew, Pierlo and I spent the first part of Tuesday morning builing a makeshift box out of old pallets, nails and string, in preparation for Sandrine to plant potatoes on Wednesday.

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Pierlo and Sandrine have a brilliant sharing-the-workload-and-resources agreement with a lady that lives nearby called Dominique. Her and her family are also building a straw-bale house (and temporarily living in a beautiful yurt whilst the house is being built) and they both get regular WWOOFers and HelpXers to come and help them. The two families share the working week between them. So this week on Monday and Tuesday we stayed at Pierlos and Dominique and her current WWOOFer Olivier came to help with the work, and then Wednesday – Friday we spent at Dominique’s and the next week it will swap over. This makes things doubley interesting because we get to see the two different organic gardens that are managed similarly but with slight differences and growing some different things… and we also get to work on both houses. Pierlo’s house is pretty much finished on the exterior (as far as I can gather) and we’re mainly working on the interior… whereas, Dominique’s house still has many exterior walls to finish.

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On Monday evening, Pierlo took us to another friend’s house –  also currently being built and who  is temporarily living in another beautiful yurt (“We’re only friends with people who live in yurts,” Pierlo joked on the way there) and who also has WWOOFers. Monday was some kind of religious holiday in France which meant nobody had to work and the children didn’t have to go to school so there was a big group of children and adults there and we played games, ate a lot of cake and tried to string sentences together in French (“La gateux est tres bon!”). We helped Sandrine make a couple of cakes before we left – they eat mainly raw vegan and we helped her decorate a raw vegan cake with sliced apple and banana and oh wow, it was yummy. They’re not strict raw-vegans as it’s mainly for health reasons because Sandrine has Lymes disease and wants to keep her immune system as strong as possible… lunchtime is strictly raw and then at dinner there’s generally a mixture and the other day we even had fried eggs! (No milk in sight though, which Matthew is coping surprisingly well with.)

So the food is one thing that we’re still getting used to. I feel surprisingly full after each meal, but hungry again a couple of hours later. I think by the time we leave our bodies will have adjusted, it’s just that we’ve been treated to huge buffets, the kind vegetarians dream about, for every single meal at ECOlonie… and although it was also mainly veg and salad there, there was also freshly baked bread, and a whole lot of fresh goats cheese and delicious fresh goats milk (I was even drinking glasses of milk on its own by the time we left, which I never usually do). But to be honest it’s probably the detox we need as I definitely put on weight at ECOlonie, and I’m not even missing cheese that much. Although, two lunchtimes at Dominique’s, she has brought out a bit of cheese and I’ve really appreciated it. I have been feeling a little weak and tired but that could also be down to the intense heat and the early mornings. The main thing I’ve got to say about being semi-raw, semi-vegan for almost a week is that when you eat like an animal, you shit like an animal. Perhaps that’s the way it should be, I don’t know… and I won’t go in to any more detail in this blog incase there’s some people out there who don’t enjoy reading about other people’s bowel movements… but for those of you that know Matthew and I, you’ll know that we’ve discussed this at great length.

So the general work day is 7.30 – 10.30, then a tea/fruit break… then work again until 1 ish, then have lunch and then finish. Although Pierlo carries on working into the afternoon so it’s up to us if we want to carry on helping or not, on Wednesday we ended up working til gone 7pm because we got really into the job we were doing. After completing the finishing touches of Marion’s room on Tuesday (as a surprise for when she came home from school – she was very excited, although she still has to share with Jule for a bit so his room can be finished… but she’s one step closer to having her own room!), we moved onto Jule’s room. The straw-bales that form the walls in the room were still visible, through the hessian sacks secured with “flour glue”. This mysterious “flour glue” is mentioned around fifty times a day, as it is a very important ingredient in all parts of the house – interior and exterior. And it’s just flour and water! I’m not sure of the exact proportions, but I know that for every final “recipe” Pierlo has for the different concoctions he makes to use on the house, he made several test products first. Including for the earth-based plaster he’s made that we began to smear on to the walls. The plaster is made up of earth, sand, flour glue (of course) and a small bit of finely cut straw. We used various tools (which had also been through many test runs, Pierlo informed us), some bought and some hand-made. In fact, often as we were plastering Pierlo would go “Ah!”, jump up, and leave the room for around five to ten minutes before returning with some freshly made piece of equipment that would make it easier for us to hold or spread the plaster. A real handy man. So, after a morning of weeding, planting and picking strawberries at Dominique’s place, in what was technically our ‘free time’, we got pretty in to this job and carried on until dinner. We bonded with Pierlo over music – he’s a CocoRosie and Devendra Banhart fan so we decided to play him some Edward Sharpe and he approved – and teaching him new English phrases, he particularly enjoyed “kick your ass” and we particularly enjoyed him saying it over and over in his French accent. The plastering technique (which I assume is at least similar to conventional plastering) took a bit of time for us to get the hang of, but Pierlo said that within a week we would be professionals, so we’ll see.

There’s one other helper here at the moment who I almost forgot to mention. Lourent has been here many times before, from what I can gather. At a guess, I’d say he’s late thirties and he lives in Toulouse but wants to live in the countryside (I’m not sure why he can’t exactly, he doesn’t really speak English at all and my French vocabulary sucks.) so he comes here every now and again for a few weeks or more. He seems really nice, but due to the language barrier we haven’t exactly had any in depth conversations.

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Yesterday and this morning, we’ve had great fun working on an exterior wall at Dominique’s. Each morning, I began with helping Lourent to make the mixture. He had a little recipe book and a big ol’ cement mixture and I had a shovel and a whole load of buckets. Into the mixture went three buckets of sand, seven and a half of earth, 3.75 of freshly cut grass from the day before, 3.75 of straw and 2.5 buckets of “special water”. As far as I could gather, the “special water” (which absolutely stank by the way) was made by soaking finely cut maize in the water for some time and then draining just the water out of it. There may well have been something else in there, but Pierlo was struggling to communicate it and I was struggling to understand. Anyway, we mixed all that in the cement mixture and it made this wonderfully gooey mud-pie like substance which was great fun to slap and smooth on to the house with our hands, and also great fun to throw at people (Matthew) on the ground from the scaffolding.

I freakin’ love all this ecological building malarky. Pierlo’s rustled up a few books in English for us to read about it all and the more I read and hear from him and Dominique, and the more I do, the more I freakin’ love it. It’s like a mixture between cooking a sculpture – two fun things already – and you end up with a house at the end of it! I can’t wait to build my own house some day, from straw and flour and mud and whatever other weird things I come up with for my own recipes. I’d like to incorporate some of the ideas from ‘what the bleep do we know’ and see what affect imprinting positive words in to the walls could have on the energy in the house.

We have the weekend off and tomorrow Pierlo is going to take us to a big market in a local town. If it seems appropriate (or even if it doesn’t, let’s be honest), I plan on stuffing my face with bread, cheese and olives, until I am full to the brim.

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1 thought on “Six days in the Pryenees, building houses from straw, earth, sand and flour”

  1. […] alternative building techniques. In 2012, I had a fantastic time helping a family in France with building their straw-bale home. As time passed, living as part of an intentional community continued to interest me and I found […]

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