Living in the Environment, The Idea

The Idea

Author: Alistair Knox

... little bouncing hills half obscured by mists '... little bouncing hills half obscured by mists.'

The modem earth building movement could be said to have actually started in Eitham, Victoria, at the Artists' Colony under the direction of Justus Jorgensen in the early 1930s. Australia, in common with practically every other country, was then in the depths of the great depression. The Artists' Colony at Eltham was a break-away from dreary suburban living standards. It set up an 'adventurous' life style where socially acceptable standards gave way to a continental-style freedom that caused flutters of delight in suburban drawing rooms, as interminable tales of mistresses and orgies were discussed by those who had access to the Colony.

The facts were rather different. The early days were spent in building in earth in pise de terre, a method that Jorgensen had gained some experience with in France. Two romantic cottages with high pitched slate roofs complete with dormer windows soon reared their structures on the hill that had been named Montsalvat by Jorgensen, as he and his pupils rejoiced in the blow they were striking for liberty and life in a world where nearly everyone was poor and a large proportion out of work and living on a dole of a few shillings per week.

When purchased, the land had been put in Jorgensen's name making him the despotic ruler of his little kingdom with unlimited powers, despite the theory that in some way all were equal underneath.

The Colony drew an interesting group of people together, and under the master's expert leadership they began work on a series of buildings which is still going on in a modified form today.

Jorgensen's engaging personality, with his painting and philosophising, had the capacity to extract both allegiance and an inexhaustible supply of money to keep the building going. One of his followers was a solicitor who came up for a weekend and is still there forty years later. The strongest associations however, were between Jorgensen and his wife, and the Skipper family. The latter consisted of Mervyn and Lena and their three children, Helen, Sonia and Matcham. Jorgensen spent many years with his wife Lily and his mistress Helen Skipper under the one roof, or rather one of many roofs that continued to be erected, trying to keep peace between them as well as justifying himself. Mervyn Skipper, the father, was for half a life time the Editor of the Red Page of the Bulletin. He en joyed a reputation as a writer. Helen, Sonia and Matcham, the children, were all remarkably talented and the freedom of the life they enjoyed caused their talents to blossom in a wide number of directions. The girls painted, carved, grew vegetables, ran stables, did farm work and erected buildings. Matcham was a superb craftsman and artist in any activity he undertook. Together with some thirty students and an able carpenter or two, they provided a perpetual human reservoir of skills and labour for the intense activity of earth wall constructions.

Pise de terre is a method of earth walling where slightly dampened earth of a sandy, loamy nature is tamped with rammers between framework to make walls fifteen inches or even thicker. It is a comparatively static or monolithic building method particularly suitable to the medieval-type buildings Jorgensen designed. It produces beautiful walls that bear the hint of horizontal lines, where the forms between which they are rammed remain after the process is completed and the shutters removed. It responds to cottage design with small and asymmetrically placed windows and high pitched nostalgic slate roofs. '1 'he great thickness of the walls casts shadows along the reveals, heads and sills and emphasises the sense of strength and security outside, which is also inherent from within.

There are two main factors to watch in pise de terre walling. The first is the constituents of the earth being used, the second the quality of the ramming process.

The feeling of humanity of earth-walling is one of its greatest ingredients. It has the same character as the back of one's hand, full of slight inflections and hollows that give it a strange flesh-like appearance. It also has marvellous insulation qualities. Even in an Australian summer climate it is almost impossible for an earth house to get really heated as the best brick building can during a heat wave. It is always cool in summer and warm in winter. But perhaps the greatest single quality of earth walls is found in the sense of serenity one feels within them. They are almost completely sound absorbent and insulating between one room and another. They neither echo nor creak hut just remain as silent and immutable as the distant Australian landscape itself.

No one who has lived in a well designed earth house is ever really comfortable in any other sort of building again, due to the response he experiences when he finds a balanced spatial relationship between himself and nature. We were created to live close to the natural environment and it is really only in the twentieth century with its technological frenzy that we have been deprived of this essential ingredient to a fully orbed life style.

The early Jorgensen buildings of pise de terre were most successful when built, and still stand today as they will continue to do for centuries to come. There are certain techniques that require care in this building method that calls for proper supervision. The walls are built up in three inch laminations. If any one of these is improperly rammed, the walls will always fret at that level. It is very difficult to cure later on. Today, however, pise is generally rammed with pneumatic rammers which should give an entirely satisfactory job. The ramming heads are small, specially shaped steel pieces fitted to a normal pneumatic ram, working at an even pressure. It enables the earth to be precisely and totally consolidated at every point to approximately the same compression.

When I first saw pise de terre walls being constructed, it seemed a mystery that they did not crumble or fall down when the shutters were removed. I found, however, that the amount of water added to the dry earth needed to be fairly precise and evenly distributed. In effect, it worked when a handful of the ramming material would just compress into a lump when squeezed with the hand.

The great width of the walls helps their strength as well as their character.

An observant person will remember often having seen the side of a road cut to expose an almost perpendicular face of earth that stands up through summer and winter conditions for years. It is not a phenomenon but a part of life. In some ways a pise de terre wall is not unlike such a narrow bank cut down on both sides. Some soils obviously stand up better than others. Sand dunes, for example, have a low angle of repose and will not stand up straight at all.

Clay has a high angle of repose. Time causes some types of clay banks to erode fairly quickly due to the expansion and contraction of alternating heat and cold, dryness and wetness, which produces cracks in which water can run and form eroding crevices and channels. These clays lose their angle of repose much quicker than others because they are not so stable under exposure. In fact, clay is one of those mysterious substances and wonders of the world which, because of its abundance, we take for granted. In reality it is as varied as the types of grass and foliage which grow in it. Perhaps the greatest wonder of nature in the end is its infinite variety which produces overall simple answers. Earth is earth, sky is sky, and sea is sea, yet they are all compiled by an infinite number of ecological processes that boggle the imagination - a great justification for the argument that they are the handiwork of a single infinite creator who in the immediate post creative days is said to have: 'seen everything He had made and behold it was very good'.

The lesson the intending earth builder should learn hefore he embarks on the great adventure of beating the system by producing huilding walls from material that costs nothing except labour, is an understanding of the nature and character of the earth he intends to use. Earth walls are different from other materials. Their stability should be considered in terms of sufficiency rather than efficiency. Decisions need to be made as to whether thicker walls are more economical or preferable to the hidden costs and decreased aesthetics of thinner· ones.

The medium is very free in application because choice, personal preference, and structural alteration generally cost the home builder a great deal less than if it is done professionally, where extras become an almost insupportahle burden that kills the joy of the wonderful experience good home building can be.

The tools of the mudbrick maker The tools of the mudbrick maker

With earth the greater the experience the greater the ahility to decide the proper course of design and action for each individual job. This condition is directly opposed to the generality of habit that causes normal residential building to become repetitive ad nauseum. Most systems of building which originated 100 years ago are still dominating an entirely different set of possibilities in today's structures.

Earth building if properly handled may prove the most flexible and interesting medium there is, for any time or place, provided common sense limitations are applied when considering its vertical tensile and compressive strengths.

The traditional form work used in pise de terre is a pair of oregon or other suitable timber planks of two inch thickness and at least twelve inch depth of any convenient length. Bolts pass' through these forms about two inches from the bottom at, say, two foot intervals, which will keep the form work vertical when it is placed on the existing wall that is to be built up. The bolts holding the forms rest on the work already done.

Pise work consists of spreading the soil to about two to three inches depth within the forming and ramming rhythmically and evenly, so that a maximum consolidation occurs. The emphasis is even, steady ramming and not a steam piling method. The process is continued until the formwork is filled and the bolts are then removed and the forms reset on the walling just completed. Care must be taken, of course, to keep the walls plumb and corners vertical. Window and door frames are set into the work as the plan requires and the process is then repeated.

The production line <Above top: The production line. Above bottom: The ingredients: soil water and hard work

The late John Harcourt was an Eltham resident in the 1930s and 1940s. He was stimulated by what he saw at Jorgensen's and started building in both pise de terre and adobe (or mud brick). He continued to build in pise professionally in Eltham and various other places until about 1950.

He developed an automatic ramming technique which obviated much of the labour intensivity that ordinary pise required. It also reduced the risk of uneven ramming. He constructed a system of formwork held within a frame that could be raised automatically as the work proceeded. As the ramming was done the speed of construction was greatly increased. Material was loaded into the form by one man and rammed by another. The limitations of the method were that only straight panel walls could be built. The design became a series of panel walls separated by spaces that would be filled by floor to ceiling windows. Where the windows were not required to the floor, the space beneath the sill had to be filled in with timber framing and some sort of weather boarding. The solid appearance and character of earth walls was seriously affected. The resulting structures had a somewhat project-house character rather than looking like a true earth building.

When the ramming was completed the panels themselves were held in position by pouring a reinforced concrete lintel along their entire length, including the spanning of the spaces left for windows. This concrete lintel over earth walls is a good construction principle but it is fairly expensive and exacting to do properly.

Mud bricks stacked ready for use Mud bricks stacked ready for use

There is a close knit group of these houses in an area of Eltham today. They have done something for the tradition of the district, but some are unimaginatively designed. There is a sense of technique before quality about them, to warn that true earth wall building is not just a method of building but a positive way of life.

The limitation of pise construction makes it harder to break out of the traditional 'look and put' system.

I first saw the Jorgensen Art Colony buildings in 1940 when I rode up to Eltham from Eaglemont by the back road with an architect neighbour and friend. We passed through Banyule and Lower Plenty, which were very much in their original condition of savannah type undulating countryside, dotted with enormous river red gums, some of which would be up to 1000 years old. They were the heart of the country that inspired the pleinaire painters of the nineties; men bearing such familiar names as Condor, Streeton, McCubbin and Roberts.

When we finally arrived at the Colony, the path led directly to the front door of an enormous stone building of three stories. We had to push past two or three young eucalypts growing immediately outside. The first impression on looking in and gazing up into the attics was one of wonder at its immensity. There were no intermediate floors, only two great square timber columns supporting some immense bearers. The whole vertical dimension of the building soared darkly upwards to be relieved by light from windows in the roof.

We were then taken into one of the original pise buildings where we sat at a great hand-carved table to hear a dissertation from Justus Jorgensen on a wide variety of subjects. He kept clarifying points by gesticulating with his pudgy hands, and from where we were sitting the sun glinted on his glasses, obscuring his eyes to make him the enigmatic presence I had expected him to be. The most interesting recollections I retained were of his intentions to bring his old father's bones over from Geraldton in Western Australia where he had been a ship's pilot. He intended to re-inter them in a mausoleum he would build on the boundary between his property and the local cemetery next door. The mausoleum would be connected, he explained, to the existing buildings by an uneventful stone wall.

Time has proved his tenacity to his intentions. The uneventful stone wall went in about ten years ago and the mausoleum became a chapel instead. His old father's bones do not reside there but his own now do. He died aged 82 in 1975. Matcham Skipper and others worked furiously to complete the lead light windows before he was interred a few feet away on the cemetery boundary. As I stood watching the work proceed in cheerful enthusiasm on the night of his death, I meditated on his forecast of thirty-five years earlier.

The structure itself is in stone and largely built by one man, Horrie Judd, who is now in his 60s, and evidences at stone work the enormous capacities he demonstrated in early times as a mud brick maker and layer, where he holds an undisputed record.

By 1940 the Artists Colony had produced a mud brick-or adobe building for a studio, two dairies and other buildings further up the hill. The studio was a large building that also had wattle and daub construction on the upper floor. It stands today as solid as when it was erected in 1935. On the northern side the upper floor level is of adobe. It is not protected by an overhang which is generally accepted as essential for earth walling. There has not in my time ever been a gutter there, so that the walls have been directly exposed to the elements for nearly forty years. There is indeed some frctting, pcrhaps half an inch or so, but the walls are as completely structural as when erected, and the weathering has only given them an added sense of timelessness.

Shortly after a few visits we made at this time I joined the navy and did not return to the Artists Colony until 1946. I became friendly with Matcham Skipper because we were both attending thc Royal 1felbourne Institute of Technology doing a course of Building Practice and Theory. We only went to one year's night classes. I passed all the subjects in years two and three, which comprised the whole building side of the architecture course. I was in a hurry and making up for lost time as I was thirty-four years old and desperate to get out of the bank that I had been misguided into just as the great depression started. I had to stay there through a weary twelve years before 1 went to sea for three years. Like nearly everyone else, however, I had no intention of rotting away in some inside job after tasting the spirit of being outside in the elements.

Deciding that building and design was the best way to achieve this aim, I commenced my first structure - a timber house in Heidelberg - when half way through the year of studies. The year of 1947 was a period of building famine. The war that had just finished had created an enormous demand for building and few materials were yet available as the economy started to re-adjust its wartime emphasis to peace time needs. Added to this was the fact that the materials which did become available were mostly at black market prices. It was because of this that I determined to build in earth at Eltham. A returned soldier with sufficient military deferred pay approached me to design and erect a small building in Lower Plenty. He had fallen in love with mud brick building when he was in the Middle East.

The Periwinkle built by Sonia Skipper and Horrie Judd The Periwinkle built by Sonia Skipper and Horrie Judd, 1947

I had no hesitation in approaching Sonia Skipper who had over the previous years built a series of mud brick buildings at Montsalvat. She had worked with Matcham and the other people at the Colony. Her approach to earth building, and her ability to produce spiritual quality in it,. was never surpassed by anyone I ever saw involved in this artistic and personal medium. She was undoubtedly the first forewoman of a mud brick building in Australia. But she would not be the last. She also had special capacity, from her community experiences, to handle the men we knew would present themselves for work.

It was in the midst of a wonderful golden age in Eltham. There was lots of laughing and little work as men stretched at their psychological post-war ease, convinced the world owed them a living. The last thing they wanted to do was to return to normal work. Mud bricks looked a pleasant way of doing nearly nothing for a little money. It was harder than they realised, because they were paid a shilling for every brick they produced, and there was more to it than met the eye. We set to work making the excavations to get some material for the bricks.

Certain soils in France are noted for their wine-producing capacities. We soon discovered that the clay soils of Eltham would enjoy an eternal reputation for mud bricks. There are suitable soils in most places, but the whole of the Eltham silurian soil was ideal. Then there was the matter of a building permit for which I had to write the first specification for a local council in Australia. The local council in Eltham in those days was very local indeed. The man who had acted as building inspector and engineer had recently retired and for a time there was no one. Neither Harcourt nor Jorgensen had really submitted a proper plan for a permit. The whole thing seemed to have been done on trust. The retired shire officer's replacement was a temporary engineer who would call each Thursday. I would approach him regularly only to receive a vague reply. He would murmur something about looking at them next week. One day John Harcourt tipped me off that he thought they wouldn't give me a permit at all.

A little before this, a man named Middleton appeared in Eltham to study the mud brick and other earth building techniques. He was commissioned to compile facts on earth wall possibilities for the Commonwealth Experimental Building Station at North Ryde, New South Wales. He discussed techniques with Jorgensen, Harcourt and myself, and also received a lot of information on pise de terre from an architect named McKnight who operated in the Riverina, as well as from others around the country.

The result of his enquiries produced a pamphlet, Building in Earth. This was enlarged into a book in 1952 and reprinted in 1975, to become every Australian mud brick builder's bible. His work was sincere rather than imaginative. A few rather sad looking walls were photographed, and 'heavy' type techniques were explained, as though his major purpose was to try and justify the impossible fact that earth walls do not dissolve in the first rains. It was a factual, pedestrian treatise containing little of the inspiration necessary to touch off the enthusiast who saw it as a way of beating the system in those difficult building days. The sense of authority that it has gained in 1975 is in some ways a threat to mud brick building, and may persuade enthusiastic amateurs that being dull is the same as being good.

As soon as I knew the pamphlets would become available I caught one of the only three morning trains possible to the city. When I arrived at the store, they were still being unpacked. I purchased about 10 copies and returned to Eltham at about 2 p.m. As I walked past the Shire Office, several councillors were standing on the steps, looking relaxed after lunch at the hotel, prior to returning to discuss the balance of the Agenda of their monthly council meeting. I had more than a good idea that my plan was about to be discussed hy them, as I heard one of them say: 'Pise is alright - my daughter lives in one of them, but I wouldn't have anything to do with mud brick.'

'Gentlemen,' I remarked, walking up the steps, 'I realise you are discussing an earth building for which I have applied for a permit. Perhaps these books from the Experimental Building Station will assist you in your deliberations.'

They all grabbed a copy, and the Shire President, who had retired into the building, hurried out and snatched his up too. The result was that they approved the building and, in doing so, opened the door to the concepts and possibilities of environmental building in Australia. I have been occupied with it ever since.

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