Alternative Housing, Bread and Mudbricks

Bread and Mudbricks

Author: Alistair Knox

Ingredients of the environmental lifestyle

Two of the most fundamental substances in the material world are earth and grain. Each is essential to the environmental lifestyle.


From time immemorial, bread has been the staff of life for one half of the world and rice the means of sustenance for the other. Grain supplies the basic food for the nourishment of the body. Clay, stone, earth and rock are the means by which the major percentage of those bodies are protected from the elements. It is only in highly developed countries that more sophisticated materials have been consistently used. Even their civilisations have a long heritage of structures built from natural materials up to as little as one hundred years ago.

Both earth and grain are such self-explanatory substances that it would appear unnecessary to elaborate on them. Nevertheless, I find that a large proportion of our occidental society is ignorant of their real meaning and value. It is still a mystery to most people in advanced societies how earth can be formed into walls that do not melt in the first rain. And to the average housewife, borne down with the suburban rituals of modern society, the need to bake her own bread is an indefensible tyranny.

Eating to live and building to survive are more than mere physical activities. They inspire and motivate the trilogy that makes up the whole man: the head, the heart and the hand. Modern society's capacity to provide affluent living with minimum effort robs us of the sense of achievement we experience when we know our daily welfare is related to our direct personal effort. The regular baking of bread requires a discipline which at first can appear to be too costly in time and of minimal value. It is only as we learn to distinguish the subtle variations of tastes of the whole grain that we start recapturing the marvellous quality of natural living. It begins to affect the values in all we see and do. Our own health improves simultaneously with the health of our children. It reduces our desire to eat great quantities of meat and expensive prepared foods with diverting tastes as a substitute for a natural diet. It soon extends into growing our own vegetables and eating them raw or cooking them very lightly. As our palates become attuned to unadulterated flavours, we rediscover the secret that the shortest distance from the ground to the table provides the best and most health-giving food. Daily living takes on a spiritual value that cannot be bought with' money as we partake of our daily bread.

My family's introduction into natural living has been a gradual process. It has coincided with the disturbing discovery over the past few years that so many products are carcinogenic and that the big manufacturers of foodstuffs that fill the shelves in the supermarkets provide very low food value at very high prices. I once heard Dr Hudson, who was at that time the President of the Natural Foods Association of America, state in regard to breakfast cereals that his country was the only one on earth that could make cardboard taste like food. The deceitful packaging and fictitious labelling is a daily assault on honesty. We are asked to remain law-abiding citizens when the means of producing our own food has been taken out of our hands, whilst those producing our substitute diet are permitted to lie like troopers about it. The enormous sums of money spent advertising their 'specials' in the daily papers are but investments in community credulity. In their usual insidious manner, the food moguls divide and rule. They keep us away from the farmer and the primary food producer by buying in large quantities, gradually squeezing him dry by allowing him no increase in the unit price of his products. Both producer and consumer are dependent on the food manufacturer and denied direct access to each other.

In our experience, the end result has been to doubt the claims of all branded foods. We have discovered that the Health Act itself is circumvented in some instances. The use of false colouring matter can make liars of our eyes and the additives can deceive our palates. Certain brands of soft drinks can become as addictive to our children as alcohol and in some ways nearly as destructive.

Affluence is a disease that feeds on itself. The more we have, the more we want and the less we are satisfied with it all. It is for this

reason that I am enclosing Margot's bread recipe and a brief description of how to go about making it. We, in our turn, obtained it from a Mrs Posavic, whose husband was Melbourne's pioneer grinder of whole wheat. (His motto was: 'The wheat, the whole wheat and nothing but the wheat'.)

I thought it might also be helpful to supply our Muesli recipe as well. It is comforting to have a large stoneware--jar, half full of the mixture, with a wide enough mouth to it to enable y~ scoop out an adequate helping with your plate for breakfast. Tne honeysweetened grain has a beautiful taste when you are able to pour proper cow's milk on it. It is most sustaining and tastes its best when you eat it standing or strolling around the garden observing the wonders of nature at close quarters.

Wholemeal bread recipe

4 large cups stone-ground
wholemeal flour
2 large cups plain white flour
1 oz. compressed yeast
2 dessertspoons honey or brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 pint of warm water
1 pint of warm water
2 x 2 pint bread tins

Warm bowl. Mix flour and salt, making a well in centre. Crumble yeast with honey; mix 1/4 pint warm water. Pour into well and leave five minutes. Add warm water, mixing well. Cover with wet cloth and leave in warm place to double in size. Punch down, shape two loaves and put in tins to rise again. Sprinkle with seeds. Bake one hour in very hot oven (450 degrees), reducing to 350 degrees after first fifteen minutes.

Muesli recipe

2 lb rolled oats
1/2 lb coconut
1 lb wheat germ
1 lb All Bran
1 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup cold pressed oil
1 cup honey


Combine all of these ingredients in a large baking dish and stir well. Bake at 3000 for fifteen minutes. Then add:

2 cups dry skim milk
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup currants
1/2 cup sultanas
1/2 cup dried apple
1/2 cup nuts (optional)

Some of Margot's home-made bread

Mud bricks

The making of bread is a relatively simple matter compared with the making of mud bricks and mud-brick houses. The factors involved do not vary much from place to place and from time to time. It is like learning to ride a bike: once you can do it, you can always do it. The whole mud-brick building process is a grand adventure that leads into a fuller and more interesting life. The actual making of the mud bricks is generally the first and most difficult step. Mud bricks are not a matter of high technology. They simply commit one to a period of hard work. But it is not work without a vision any more than a mud-brick building is a vision without work. I have seen people put off the whole idea of building because of the difficulty of making the bricks. They have gone ahead without a basic understanding of the processes involved.

It is essential at the outset to analyse the most efficient way of directing the high labour content of mud-brick making so that the whole project is attainable. The key in every case is to find the simplest and most effective method of digging up and mixing the soil and pugging it. (Pugging is the process of turning dry soil into a plastic state by the addition of water, so that the smallest granules of dry material are thoroughly surrounded by wetness.) The material is then prepared for placing in mud-brick moulds to form blocks. A moment's reflection makes it apparent that the less personal effort required for these processes, the cheaper and more practical the desired result.

There are many mechanical aids to make the life of the noviciate mud-brick maker more acceptable by eradicating mindless and unnecessary hard labour. The proper use of earth-moving equipment is the first step once the type of material to be used is understood. All mud-brick material is a combination of granular (or sandy) soil and clay (or colloidal soil), mixed in about equal proportions. This generalisation is subject to vast variations in individual conditions. The best way to make a decision on a particular site is to actually take some topsoil and sub-soil, mixing it with water, then forming it into an earth block and allowing it to dry. The mould should be the size proposed for use in the actual building. In most cases we have used fifteen-by-ten-by-five inch bricks for external walls and laid them as stretchers in walls up to ten feet. If the wall is structural and two storeys high, the first ten feet should be laid as headers and the remainder as stretchers. This system provides a wall fifteen inches thick downstairs and a ten inch wall above.

If the blocks when dry remain solid, with only a few cracks showing, they will give every evidence of being suitable. Many suburban councils now ask for compression tests on sample bricks. It should be done if there is any doubt about their capacity to hold up the weights to be placed on them. A kilopascal is equivalent to 146 lbs to the square inch. If the average bricks tested have a crushing strength of a kilopascal, they will be adequate for all practical domestic building purposes - provided the rule for thickening the walls as the height increases is followed.

If a few sample bricks are formed and dried using various proportions of clay and sandy soils, an assessment of the earth mixing can be made. Eltham soils generally are clay-loam, that is an integrated mixture of topsoil and sub-soil below the first four or five inches of surface soil. No special mixing is needed for this sort of material, but straw should be added to stabilise the drying out process. Clay contracts a fair bit as it dries, which can cause large, superficial surface cracks. These diminish as the interior of the brick subsequently dries out. The straw helps this intermediate period. Therefore, as the clay content increases, it is advisable to increase the straw content proportionately. The old books say that a whisk of straw (which is a handful) to a barrow load of earth is about the standard requirement. There is a tendency to put too little straw into reasonable materials because it makes the digging and forming more difficult. To obviate some of this frustration, the straw should be cut into lengths from six to eight inches long so that it does not tangle with the shovel.

The next step is to estimate the number of bricks required. One needs to calculate on a cubic yard of material yielding fifty bricks and each brick using about a gallon of water in the making. It is a practical necessity on all but absolutely flat land to have a bulldozer bring the site to a good working level. It should be remembered that earth moving equipment and chain saws wisely used are the builder's best friends. If, however, they are badly used they become tl).e greatest destroyers of the natural environment. All prospective mlll.d-brick builders should consult an experienced person before they start needlessly disembowelling the landscape, which has so often happened. My own observation is that the unfortunate cutting of trees and excavating of soil takes place when inexperienced people fail to take all contingencies into account. Summing up, it can be said that any mixture of soil, preferably soil taken straight from the site, that makes a viable brick is the best answer to the problem.

There are three main methods of forming mud bricks. They are:

(a) Mixing and forming by hand
This is done by placing the prepared ~iX in an individual mould, which is slipped off as soon as it is filled and the top smoothed down.

(b) Using machinery to mix the material
Here the soil is deposited on multiple grids of mud-brick moulds, which are carefully lifted up when filled and struck off similar to the individual moulds.

(c) Making mud bricks entirely by machine
This process usually consists of feeding the mixed earth into the hoppers, forcing it into the mould and compressing it mechanically, then pushing it out of the machine fOI: immediate stacking. There is a variety of techniques employing this principle, all of which have some advantages but more disadvantages.

To my mind, the best brick is that which is puddled and placed in the mould by hand, or on to a multiple mould by machine and then pressed into the individual moulds by hand. The difficulty of these methods is that they are labour intensive. To measure their efficiency, the general rule is that if the earth has to be lifted more than about eight inches from the ground in a shovel after it is pugged, it is becoming inefficient. It is always wet earth that is hard and heavy to work.

A member of Robert Bakes' mud-brick circus at work A member of Robert Bakes' mud-brick circus at work

Robert Bakes would disagree with me on this matter, and he is a really successful mud-brick maker. His method is to have the soil mixed and heaped into mounds by earth-moving equipment to about four feet in height by six feet across. He then attacks his heap with a modified rotary hoe, cutting it down to about eighteen inches in depth and making a circle of about ten feet diameter. Straw is mixed in with the soil, and hose water allowed to soak in for a period until the whole is one heap of earth, ready for making into bricks. He then begins making the actual bricks all around this circle of earth, starting from an anticipated outside perimeter and working inwards. The centre continually becomes smaller as the material is used up. He calls these heaps of wet soil 'turkeys' nests' in recollection of the manner in which the mallee fowls build their nests. The difficulty in having to carry the soil by hand is thus minimised. This method, provided the bricks do not have to be loaded into barrows then tipped out and put into the moulds, is about as good as one can get.

Mike Calder of Cottle's Bridge has a remarkably efficient system of producing bricks in quantity. He has been doing it consistently for many years. He used his flat site (more than a hundred yards in length) and a soil which is fairly friable clay/loam. He can keep cutting this soil out of his large holding and spreading it thinly over the broad, flat surface with a grader attached to the rear of his tractor. When he has the required quantity of material laid out, he wets it down, then scrapes it up into heaps of mud that lie on the solid ground in narrow rows about the length of the blade and six inches deep. The blade turns the material over and over, mixing the mud as it forms it up. The remainder of the process consists of placing the material into the moulds with shovels, pressing it down and leaving it to dry. This system does not require one to lift the soil more than eight inches above the ground at any time. Mike is fortunate in two things: first, a developed and almost perfect site and secondly, almost perfect soil.

Robert Bakes, keen to develop the 'ultimate' method of mudbrick making, is proposing to purchase a 'Bobcat', a small and very flexible tractor and bucket-lifter which he will combine with multiple mould grids. By mechanically mixing and lifting the mud on to the moulds, he removes practically all physical labour, but retains the quality of a hand-formed brick. I believe that these semimechanical processes rather than fully mechanised processes may prove the general method of production as professional mud-brick makers emerge to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for the product. From the photographs I peer at in a bi-monthly publication published in New Mexico, it seems that they tend to generally employ this system. It is diverting, but also a little sad to consider that they advertise with pride that they have been producing mud bricks since 1965, as though this was 'early days' in the mid-brick revival story. In Eltham we began in the 1940s1 There are two or three illustrations in the paper showing seas of bricks made and standing on edge on long, flat sites. I estimated one photograph had about 100,000 bricks laid out. They are advertised for sale at about half the average price of bricks in Eltham. We have a lot to learn from North America about production and work methods. They offer mud bricks natural, or stabilised with cement or asphalt, as you require. But be of good cheer. I am visited from time to time by American professors of architecture who have been generous enough to say that they think our methods of building in earth still the most effective. We have not been caught up in imitating Spanish haciendas which, though feasible to build when you had a thousand slaves, are now too complicated structurally and over-developed in style.

In my previous book I recounted the story of Charlie Stevenson and the most interesting juggernaut that Australia has seen since the days of the Mallee scrub-clearing steam tractor. Endearingly nicknamed 'McGuilicuddy and his wonderful machine', it is sad to state that it is now no more. I heard indirectly that it had been destroyed by fire, and that Charlie had sold up and left the country. He was a most interesting and colourful exponent of the tradition of mud-brick makers. We cannot afford to lose him in silence:

Bonnie Charlie's noo awa',
Safely owre the friendly main,
Mony a heart will break in twa,
Should he ne'er come back again.
Will ye no' come back again?
Will ye no' come back again?
Better lo'ed ye can na be,
Will ye no' come back again?

There have been a variety of machines designed to compress, mould and stack bricks immediately in their half-wet state. They can produce fairly quickly but, unlike Charlie's three-at-a-time machinery, are a one-off process. A second limitation is the quality of the basic material used. To mix it properly, it should still be thoroughly pugged. The temptation is to avoid the proper wetting of the material and rely on mechanical pressure to stick the brick together. After a time such bricks have a tendency to crack or crumble. In addition, they are obviously machine-made and lack the quality of the hand-formed product.

A 'plus' is that they can be immediately stacked on to wooden palettes, ready for loading on to trucks and delivered direct to the building site. This avoids the enormous clutter and extra labour that can occur when mud bricks are made on the building block itself. They are also easy to cover against rain damage. On restricted sites some method of packaged bricks is essential. Of course in open countrysides this is not a problem. There is a natural appeal in the hand-made process that cannot be equalled by any mechanical system. But the important thing is that whatever is done by hand be done efficiently. It is little short of insane to use impractical methods when more practical ones may be substituted.

Once the mystique is taken out of mud-brick making, it becomes a quite down-to-earth task. It is hard to maintain the inspiration experienced when one first sees an earth building in situ and not merely in the mind. This was one of several reasons that has made our mud-brick walls generally non-load bearing. The advantages of getting a roof over the house without erecting the earth walls is obvious. No mud-brick maker likes the rain and the damage it can cause to partly-completed earth structures. To see the general outline and character of the building early on in the piece, instead of just making mud bricks day after day then slowly building them up without protection against the elements, maintains the vision. It is also an easier way to build. The walls are less difficult to keep vertical and even, and the local authorities are more likely to be convinced about the building's structural stability. It leaves them without an argument. The only limitation is that the walls can shrink a little as the mortar between the bricks dries out. This may require some later pointing up between the wall and the ceiling.

I was first impressed by this principle when I went to visit Geoff Morrow, then in the throes of building a large courtyard complex in Murchison East between Nagambie and Rushworth. He has a most interesting and primitive site alongside the road that leads to Whroo, a gold-mining ghost town set in the ironbark forests of Central Victoria. Geoff was just covering the roof of the first wing with corrugated iron, although he had up to that time only made a few test bricks. He houses his Kombi-van under the wide roof of the skeletal building. His tent is also pitched beneath the wide verandah and he has developed a functional way of living in his house at this early stage. One is vaguely reminded of the occasional Bedouin tent that is to be seen as one travels along the West Bank in Israel. The wonderful climate to be enjoyed in the Central Victorian bushland area for the whole year opens up countless possibilities for the endless house and landscape principles described in chapter 9. His corner posts and ridge supports are all of ten-by-ten inch new, red ironbark supplied by the timber mill at Rushworth, which claims to be the only timber supplier specialising in red ironbark in the whole of the State. Geoff's window frames have also been made from new ironbark from the same source. Everything is standing up very well, with few cracks opening up in the big posts and little warping in the frames.

Every true appreciator of the unique qualities of ironbark timber, as well as those who have a sense of history, should visit this lovely bush mill in Rushworth. The machinery used for cutting the timber is driven by ancient steam tractors originally designed for farming. They run almost silently in the soft, steamy atmosphere as they drive the large circular saws. There is the inevitable anguished cry of the log as the blade passes through it, but even that seems less savage than usual. It is quite hair-raising to watch the proprietor, who is also the sawyer, crosscutting the leftover strips of timber for fuel in the boiler fire. His hands often seem to pass less than an inch from the great whirring blade, but he has no fingers missing and no blemishes on his hands.

There is a prehistoric calm about the old country town of Rushworth, located on the northern edge of the ironbark belt. This may be the reason why there have not been the usual accidents that often occur at old sawmills. Passing through the forest reserves between Rushworth and Whroo, now slowly regenerating after the devastation they have suffered from the gold-mining days, is to experience an immutable calm and peace. This is especially so when one reaches Whroo itself to find that a picket fence, some open landscape and a few peppercorn trees set among the prevailing ironbarks are all that remain of a population of the 6000 people who once lived there to work the open cut gold-mine. The once sizeable town of substantial buildings has been removed brick by brick and house by house. It is still possible to see from the topography where it was situated. A panoramic view of the four quarters of the surrounding countryside is gained from the nearby hill of rock, which was divided in two by the open cut mine. Hardly a roof or an old barn is visible in the rolling pasture-land that extends into the distant haze. The straight black trunks of ironbarks, with their brown-mauve tinged foliage, dominate the whole scene. Only the Aboriginal waterhole on the nearby stony hillside and the fenced and carefully tended cemetery close by bear any evidence of the interpolation of man into that eternal and indestructible landscape.

Geoff Morrow needs do practically nothing to preserve the earth walls he will erect to close in his house against the elements. The verandahs extend ten feet around it and the natural capacities of the mud, once it is dry, will do the rest. One of the greatest satisfactions of the whole earth wall concept resides in the finishing and rendering. The methods of finishing vary widely. The simplest of all is to point up the mud mortar in which the bricks are laid, to provide a natural, even-textured surface. This can be done by lightly wetting down the walls with a hose or a fire-fighting knapsack. The bricks need to be sufficiently saturated to allow the external mud to become pliable when vigorously rubbed with hands protected with rubber gloves. The finished character of walls treated in this manner will vary from building to building and reflect the character of those who have built it. It becomes a concrete expression of how they think and feel. Some prefer to leave the walls with the mortar raked out, but I think this makes it all too much of a feature, as an end in itself. From long experience I am convinced that the sense of timelessness in earth building is one of its most important factors. In modern times it represents an alternative medium to the heavily-featured manufacturing bricks and expensive, dressed timbers of minimum dimensions that prevail in the suburban scene. It is essential that such buildings retain the natural elements that were current when the world was wider and life proceeded on a simpler and more generous scale.

Modern selling techniques rejoice in 'features'. Feature bricks, walls, timbers, plastics - you name it, they have it. They appeal to the unthinking individual who wants to be one step ahead of the Jones'. It all makes for an ego trip that divides us from each other and develops excruciating bad taste in architecture. It is encouraging to see what inroads earth buildings are having on our society.

In our own house we used the wetting and rubbing method, but there are several other methods equally good. Some are perhaps even better. Sonia Skipper, who was the first forelady I ever employed as a building overseer, had a real genius for finding the right solutions for finishing earth buildings. The materials she used covered a wide spectrum, from lime to cow dung. She would make a judgment about a particular building and then proceed to produce the desired overall result in its finish. She was articulate and able to express just why it was this way rather than that. She worked quickly, always maintaining her inspiration to the finish. I believe that every mud-brick maker should strive for this sense of judgment in staining and rendering so that the final result is of 'one' character. Chopping and changing is a sign that featurism is rising to the top. If it does, it will be regretted sooner or later - generally much sooner. If you are doubtful, it is often helpful to try your concepts out on someone with whose values you find agreement. Otherwise one should seek the advice of a person who has successfully dealt with his own problems. Mud-brick buildings have strong community elements in them. They respond to people, and embrace widely varying personalities with ease and grace when they remain unaffected and natural.

It is conceivable that we would always have used a cow dung/earth mixture to render mud-brick walls in Eltham if the supply of fresh dung had been more regular. In the very early days I remember getting furious when I saw two meagrely-paid labourers wandering across a paddock following a cow with a bucket in hand waiting for it to oblige. I may have been a rustic idyll to an outsider, but it seemed too easy a way to earn even their slender wage. The years have produced several rendering systems which become popular for a season, then give way to others. The latest of these is to use Acropol, a proprietary line of the Boncrete variety, and mix it into fine top soil at the rate of about one part Acropol to three-to-five parts of soil and water. When the mixture is formed into a mouldable state, it will adhere to the wall with ease and tenacity provided it is not applied too thickly. It is very waterproof and provides a hard, lasting finish. It has the one essential for all good, earth wall renders. It forms a tight, close-fitting skin of a like material to the earth. Its disadvantage is the final colour. Whiting or a clay wash may have to go over it to make it feel right. Cement rendered walls are, in my opinion, the worst possible finish to use. Cement is an alien material that expands and contracts differently to earth, and will often crack in time and allow water to seep in behind it. Eventually, the wall can become drummy and large pieces peel off.

We have used boiled linseed oil, simply painted over the wall, with some sand rubbed into it. Boiled oil dries with a very hard skin and sticks closely to the soil, but the material itself has now become so highly priced and is a much less attractive proposition than it once was. My son Macgregor has produced a new possibility, which is more than a mere internal finish. It is a whole new idea. He has reversed the method I have always used of placing the windows on the inside line of external walls, so that they have deep, external reveals. His reveals are expressed within and they are often deepened to give a sculptured character. This is heightened by using a mixture of lime and sand as a render. The white walls interspersed with strong shadow give a pure, almost virginal spirit that provides an exciting background for Persian rugs and the light-timbered, enormous furniture he makes so beautifully. It has a Mediterranean feeling about it and really comes off.

Matcham Skipper at work in his jewellery studio at Montsalvat Matcham Skipper at work in his jewellery studio at Montsalvat

Finally, we should consider the methods used at Montsalvat, where the earth wall revival started in Australia back in 1934. It was there under the patriarchal eye of Justus Jorgensen that Sonia and Matcham Skipper first learnt their trades and became natural artist-craftsmen. I often take interstate and overseas visitors to Montsalvat. As we move from Matcham and Myra's kitchen towards the Great Hall, we pass Matcham and Paul's jewellery studios. We then look into intervening buildings which could easily have been lifted straight out of the Middle Ages. If we are fortunate we will find Marcus Skipper, the ironworker, among old castings and steel work and ancient machines for working in iron and wood. The inspiration kindled so long ago still continues. The bond between the artist colony and our own family continues into the second generation. It will only be a few years before there is a third. Without entering into the criticism that is aimed at it by some who feel it is an anachronism and escape from reality, there is no doubt that it presaged by thirty years the world movement away from middle-class capitalism and suburban living.

We are now in an era where the average Australian, despite the decreasing horizons that surround him, still has money running out of his ears. We have become a nation of restaurant-goers, eating our way through the boredom 9f sedentary living. It is important that we guard and keep alive those traditions around us and make them truly live. Merely looking back on the old way nostalgically is an admission of defeat. We need to seize its inspiration, its improvisations and its achievements and mould them into an ongoing lifestyle that fully exploits the trilogy of the head, the heart and the hand.

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