The Home Builder's Manual of Mud Brick Design and Construction, The Rural House

The Rural House

Author: Alistair Knox

There is no better type of building in the wide rural landscape than a sensible mud brick construction for several reasons. It lends itself to being entirely compatible with its environment in a manner no other type of dwelling can emulate. By using natural material throughout it may not only be cheaper but it is also more flexible and more beautiful. There is no end to the varies surroundings. Its sculptural potential is virtually limitless. Each builder may, within the bounds of good design criteria, interpolate personal preferences and ideas into his work. Properly conceived, it will allow extentions and alteration with little structural difficulty, because of the healing qualities of joining earth wall to other materials. By contrast, there is nothing more static than the traditional solid brick house that was so admired 50 years ago, both because of its cost and its intractability. The latter half of the 20th Century has observed the conservative bricks and mortar values.

We met in Anakie township and drove a mile to the site, situated on the southern edge of the Brisbane Ranges, a line of hills that runs north towards the townshipip of Bacchus Marsh.

The Brisbane Ranges were the south-west extremity of the fabulously rich goldfield surrounding Ballarat and Bendigo in the 19th Century and Anakie was near the southern tip of them. A few miles further on than Donald's land, the deserted gold town of Steiglitz stands in ghostly decay, a mute Witness to vanished hope. so characteristic of mining districts. But Donald's site had been wisely chosen. It was elevated and sloping down from south to north. Through the bush in the valley below it was possible to see the supreme quality of water glistening from a dam he had formed, which is the most satisfying contribution that can be made to a water-hungry landscape. We discussed the plan as we looked back towards the You Yang pryamids and thought bow close we still were to the dateless past.

Donald handed me a plan which contained his requirements with the explanation that neither be nor his Wife, Mollie, knew how to set down what they wanted. And the sketch he gave me certainly bore out that fact. It was stiff, suburban, and unsuitable in every way. My imagination had become involved in a vision of dry bush and antideluvian shapes that spoke about a building totally indigenous to the site. Some weeks later, Donald and Mollie had lunch in my roundish-shaped blues stone office building. As soon as Mollie saw the old electric light pole. and the square central post that held up the roof she said: "That's what I would like".

It was quite inappropriate to plant that building on their site, but the germ of her idea was good. A few days later I forwarded them a Sketch Plan that attempted to draw together their ideas, their requirements and their budget in a building that would relate to the landscape. When their answer came back to proceed, I felt the problem really began. How could I press a button in Eltham and produce a true earth building in Anakie, 100 kilometres to the south-west? Normal contractors would destroy the feeling of the house before they got it a foot above ground level, even if the owners could have afforded in such a remote area the enormous costs of a traditional builder tackling an unorthodox job where, "the letter kills and the spirit gives life".

It was a true mud brick problem where the answer lies in developing the abilities of those who know little or nothing of other methods of building - people unprejudiced by secondhand knowledge and whose hands are in tune with their hearts and their minds. Among those from whom I had designed in the Anakie area were Graham Bird and his wife Heather. When they first came to me, he appeared as a tall, strong man and she seemed smallish and rather fragile. They spoke of making the bricks Within a certain time and I felt privately very dubious about their ability to meet their time-table. I was soon to be disabused of my fears. The work was done very quickly and Heather was to reveal herself as a tenacious female mud brick worker which is the finest gift possible to the special art of earth wall building. They went from strength to strength and when the house was finished, the local Shire officials inspected it and sent them a glowing letter of appreciation for the fine job the fine job they had done.

Graham is a train driver and I soon noticed how his mud brick building took up a systematic approach. Materials arrived at the stations of development on time. He recalled recollections of Victoria's once famous railway's motto under the late Harold Clapp "On time all the time".

I realised he would be an ideal person to give some general oversight to the Longfleld House, especially as he was close to, commencing a second and larger farmhouse for himself on a new property he bad purchased nearby. It was to be no small project. Including the beautiful barn we had designed, in addition to the residence, it would be about 35 squares of building, or, it you are under 35 years old, 334 sq. metres.

Graham is one of those superb men who have caught the mud brick building disease and appear destined to produce a flow of mud structures throughout the term of their natural lives. May their numbers ever increase. He has a keen nose for reclaimed materials and a zest tor erecting large structures with minimum effort. Whilst he would be a great credit to any district, he is the life blood of the earth building movement that is developing.

Designing more than a thousand buildings and taking part in the construction of at least half of them cannot but develop a sense of experience that produces simple easy to build structures. Fussy design is the consequence of fussy thinking. Buildings are solid, enduring objects in the landscape and odd quirks and fashions can date the result in a very short time. It is essential to realise that the one unchanging element in all architecturally conceived buildings, irrespective of cost of material, is the quality of Timelessness.

Timeless buildings may be large or small; castles or cottages, churches or chapels, but they all have good proportions, are properly related to their site and employ the use of either indigenous or appropriate materials. They do not have to strive. They are justified by the verdict of the passing centuries. As you look at them you find it impossible to think of them being any other way. They have become history. Even the 20th Century with all its new technical possibilities has to conform to these ingredients. Many modern buildings will not stand the all important test of Timelessness. We should remember that the sound of the Wrecker can always be heard in the land.

Earth buildings should be designed to stand forever. There is indeed a record of earth walls still standing in Mesopotamia after four thousand years. It is important to get away from the sneaking suspicion that they have a limited life or that they are a poor substitute for the best. Properly designed and executed, they are The Best. They transcend stone, brick, concrete or timber buildings because of the sculptural quality of mud and they can also employ the added use of those other materials where and when required.

In the Longfield house we avoided using standard brick construction in the fireplace. It would have been considerably more expensive than mud walling and appeared less indigenous. By simply erecting a 10" x 5" redgum vertical timbers against the mud brick nibs and fitting a similar sized lintel across the opening 6' above floor level, we formed a shallow alcove. The fireplace flue was constructed separately of wrought iron backed With baked bricks. It occupies a central position in the house so that it also functions as a form of internal heating at the same time as it warms the heart and eye with its radiant glow.

Most mudbrick houses generally have a sufficient number of heavy poles or timbers to require some mechanical assistance in their erection and Anakie proved no exception. We were privileged to be able to call on a local Contractor, named Lyle, and his tracavator in this instance to improvise an answer. Lyle had done the original excavation and he returned with a zest that is a hallmark of country men when they get caught up in a challenge. The vertical posts were manhandled into position but the transverse pairs of poles that spanned the ceiling from north to south and rested on them were another matter. Lyle made a steel strop with which to grip the timbers and manipulate them into position.. In a few hours the building had taken up its overall shape so that as you looked down at it from above you could catch the gist of it all. Its general form was as inevitable as the Anakie landscape itself. It had the spirit of another great granite boulder. Within four weeks of starting the vision had become a basic reality. The filling in of the walls, paving the floors, fitting the rafters and laying the timber ceilings would now have that essential purpose and direction that would cause every nail driven home to have purpose and satisfaction.

It had been possible to keep a good relationship between the vision of the mind and the work of the hand. This is more essential in earth building than in other types of construction because the natural materials used may be so easily influenced in the handling of them. Nearly forty years ago the building of mud brick houses was either an exciting dream or an act of post-war hilarity or madness. Today such buildings often become fashionable enclaves for the rich.

Good earth buildings in Victoria, where the movement first took root, now command their own special prices because of their design potential, their individuality and their relationship to their sites. They are unique in experience and excellent to live in.

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