Making The Space (written in collaboration with Iain North)

This is the story of The Space: The beautiful natural earth building that we built on The Rest.  The building of The Space is a huge step towards realising our dream of creating a space for healing on The Rest.

It all started in September 2014.  Originally we (Iain and I) had thought we would need to get the core business of the cattle well established before we started any new projects.  However, 4 years into our farming journey we understood that diversifying is the key to survival when farming in the Karoo. So instead of reintroducing sheep (which is common practice here) we decided to start to build our healing centre.  As a qualified and experienced dramatherapist it seemed to make more sense to do what I can already do and what I am passionate about instead of introducing a new agribusiness that we would have to learn from scratch.

At the outset I knew the following: The space had to be round, it had to have a lot of windows and a skylight, it needed a sprung floor for dancing,  it needed to be built from natural materials and it had to have easy access to a kitchen and bathroom which were not actually attached to the space.

Iain is a fabulously talented and experienced maker of things.  However, he did not feel confident that he would be able to build the space on his own so we invited Neil Smith, who specialises natural building, to get us started.  Lisa Foale did the architectural design and Gavin Lutge gave input on the structural engineering side.

The Bricks

After our first meeting in September Neil began experimenting with the soils to find the perfect combination that would make the most solid adobe brick.

He took samples of mud from various locations and combined it with gravel, sand, straw and the magic ingredient: cow poo.  In November he returned and dropped these samples from a height to discover which stood the test and did not crack.

Once the perfect combination was identified, the recipe was set and it was time to start making bricks.  This job would continue for the next 9 months to produce the thousands of bricks that were needed for the three buildings.

Here is our recipe for making bricks:

  1.  Turn on the music (reggae seems particularily well suited).
  2.  Put on your gumboots.
  3. Lay out a plastic groundsheet.
  4. Collect 2 buckets of twice sifted gravel, 2 of earth,  1 of river sand and a bucket cow manure and get the hose ready.
  5. Find a friend.
  6. Start by mixing with a spade as if you are making a cake while adding water.

7. Lets dance! Mix it up with your gumboots and work those thigh muscles!

8. Add straw.

9. Using the groundsheet roll into into a long cigar.

Cedric and Robert

10. Stomp and roll. Stomp and roll. Stomp and roll. Repeat.

11. Get your brick mold and pack it in.

12.  Now for perfect timing: bend your knees, make eye contact and slide the brick mold up so there are no cracks or strange shapes.

13.Let the sun do the rest.

The result are bricks filled with music, dance, team work and sunshine!

Foundations

By November it was the moment for making a commitment for life (a bit like deciding to get pregnant!)… It was time to dig the foundations.

The three circles had to be perfectly measured as they would guide us into the final structure. The large circle is for The Space, behind and to the right the Kitchen and to the left the Bathroom.

The foundations were filled with small rocks gathered from the farm and then a cement and mud mix  for permanence.

The Wooden Skeleton

The next step was to plant the wooden poles around which the stones and mud bricks would form the building.

The upright poles are the only treated poles in the building because they are inside the wall and we cannot replace them (due to rot or insects).  The poles are for holding up the ring beam for the roof and they provide structure for the walls.

With the space marked out and the poles planted the ghost of the building began to emerge.

Zia and Mica Kingwill Cloete giving us a taste of things to come

Rock Walls

Three months from the start date it was time to start building the actual structure.

Our vision was to utilize as much local material as possible in the building.  The first 600 mm of the walls would be made from stone and the rest from mud brick.  The stones would keep the building safe in the event of flood (a surprisingly common occurrence in our Karoo) and add a sense of permanence to the building.    Many hours were spent by staff and volunteers in the hot summer sun lifting the ancient (heavy) rocks that are scattered over the veld.  By the time we had collected all we needed it came to 40 Tractor loads!  As each load arrives they were carefully selected for shape and size to fit together to make the stone walls.

Adobe brick building

After the slow start of experimenting and laying the ground work, collecting rocks and carefully building the stone structure, the adobe brick laying is satisfyingly fast.

Thanks to help from volunteers from around the world and a fabulous team of guys from Nieu Bethesda the walls rose steadily higher and higher.  The kitchen first and then the main space.  The large heavy bricks are laid in a similar way to regular bricks.  Instead of cement we used the same ingredients as the adobe bricks before they set.  So lots of mud dancing for this as well!

The shower

The shower wall is made from rock and is entirely Iain’s creation.  With little windows and ledges to rest your soap and shampoo its a sight to behold and took a significant amount of sweat, a little blood and even a few tears!  We used recycled glass in the windows found on the farm dating back a good few decades.

Doors and Windows

Every door and window frame needed to be pounded full of thousands of nails so that they would hold into the adobe brick.

All the windows in The Space were made by Iain out of old meranti, that he found in an abandoned shed in Graaff-Reinet. After much detective work, he found the owner and bought them for incredibly good price.

The window sills are from yellow wood beams discovered in the old barn at Highlands. Bent and more than 100 years old, they were murder to plank and finish.

For the front and back doors of the space, Iain used the yellow wood beams. Using just a skill saw, a drill and a grinder, he planked, sanded and constructed the doors. They are inlaid with oregon pine that we salvaged from a burnt out ruin at highlands.

The Reciprocal Roof

Lisa Foal discovered the reciprocal roof which we loved first for its beauty and second for the principle that it demonstrates: the strength that results from reciprocal support.  However, no one we knew had ever built one.  And so we asked the internet (as one does).  We found a 15 minute video (link) and figured out the rest from there (by the time we had put up the actual roof we learned that the video is in fact a promotional video for a workshop where you get to learn how to put the actual roofs up so some key elements are left out!!).

The Model

First we practised on match sticks.  Iain, Jarid, Sean Wilson and Bood Carver spent a number of hours (and bottles of beer) getting it right.  Then on to the model made from fence droppers.  This held the weight of a full grown man jumping on it like a trampoline.  It would have to work.

Sourcing the poles from the poplar forest

Iain tells the story of making the roof and ceiling…

The bluegums for the exterior and poplars for the interior were all harvested and de-barked with sharpened spades at full moon/low tide (when the sap is at its lowest).

The Stihl chainsaw decided that it was not up to the task, so all of the woodwork was completed with a 1979 homelite chainsaw with a 30cm blade.

The poles were air dried in the forest for the next 4 months, then selected for least cracking and beauty.

The Kitchen

The kitchen, with only 9 poles of 3 meter, this was much easier to practice on. And light enough to lift with the hand.

To make the reciprocal roof, the first pole is supported by a long forked tree trunk. pole 2 rests on pole 1, and each pole is notched to ensure that they don’t slip too far out of line. This carries on, and then the final pole is slipped under pole 1. All the poles are loosely bound with parachute cord.

The fun part was taking a 20 pound hammer and bashing the support pole out. The whole structure then dropped and fell into position, each pole resting on another. A thing of beauty.

The Main Space

And finally using all that we had learned to build the roof on the main space.

The same principle was used, but now with 19 x 6-7m poles.,each taking 4-5 men to move into position. The scaffolding was at 5.2meters. Again, we were so lucky to have our helpers from Nieu Bethesda, as well as some very strong and keen German volunteers.

Knocking out the support pole (or charlie stick as it is called), was a lot more nerve-racking. On the first fall we landed with an egg shaped centre hole. But using 2 hydraulic jacks and other charlie stick (re-named The Martin Stick after one of our more committed volunteers), we were able to do some reshuffling, and get the round opening for the skylight.

The Ceiling

A round building with a roof made from organically shaped poles takes making a ceiling to a whole new level.  The combination of patience and skill were critical for completing this project (safely).

Each piece had to measured and cut to fit the organic shape. There were no set squares and no levels and no pattern.

Once the timber was in, we had the brain-teazer of how to fit the skylight. After having re-made the top half of the roof in the kitchen, we were better equipped. But many hours were spent trying different options, that would be strong, and pretty.

The final result was worth all the trouble (for Paula!)

Plastering

This proved to be a source of much frustration as the plaster constantly cracked no matter what we tried.  After beating the entire walls with hammers to create an uneven surface, we tried mix after mix after mix. Eventually we found the recipe that worked.  We were lucky to have Justin Malgas – the grandson of Koos Malgas from the owl house, who took time off from making owls to help shape our windows and alcoves.

Here we said good bye to Neil Smith, and many thanks for helping us get this far.

Ventilation and drainage

Under floor airvents had been planned and built into the original foundations. As well as moisture drainage furrows under the wooden floor, that exited and the water is taken to a pit 20 meters away. Instead of having windows that open we have vent holes in the walls that have beautiful yellow wood covers that can manage temperature and air flow.

Sprung Floor

Iain tells about the floor:

After sinking and concreting in the support poles, we used treated timber for the joists. We then laid high density rubber and overlaid that with Saligna tongue and groove planks. Saligna is a type of Eucalyptus, with a beautiful pink shade,  that ate drill bits and circular saw blades – very very hard.

Once the floor was laid, we sanded it and then I applied 4 coats of the best sealer we could find. For the skirting, we used off-cuts from the floor planks to seal the edges. 147 small pieces in total. All cut to fit with the organic curve of the circular wall.

(Iain and Richard Harrington spent many hours on this floor solving the problem of straight planks and round spaces.  Thanks Richard!!)

The veranda

Once again we needed some foundations for the outer wall. Into this we planted bluegum poles to support the roof of the veranda. (For your interest, to drill 1 hole in one of these poles, would take 9-14 minutes per hole. This dry bluegum is the hardest.) All of these had to cross braced until the foundation set, and then we could start building up.

Rocks, rocks and more rocks. We did daily trips into the veld to collect more. Not just for the floor of the veranda, but also for the 18m long wall around the veranda. Here our khaki (almost green) cement and mud mix was used again.

Glass and Hinges

We opted to have the glass delivered to us, at no extra cost (gotta love small towns) A very wide eyed Buks from Glassfit in Graaff Reinet arrived 3 hours late, pale and shaking. He didn’t realized that our roads were not designed for glass transport. He delivered the glass and ran for civilization. Nervously we installed the 6 windows in the Space, and the 6 in the kitchen, ourselves, with no mishap.

What we didn’t realize was that our space had been a stopover for glossy starlings. On the first night a starling dive bombed a window reminding us about those nasty masking tape window crosses.

The hinges for the front door were a trade with a brilliant traditional blacksmith, Paul Mikula from Haartebeespoort.  The hinges are hand forged on his fires from the only solar powered forge in the southern hemisphere ( www.mikulaforge.co.za). They are truly beautiful. When the space has eroded and decomposed and returned to dust, these hinges will still be around to tell the tale.

The hinges arrived at 7pm on the evening of the first workshop, in the boot of a car belonging to co-facilitator.  The doors were hanging by 9am the following morning for the start of the workshop!

The finished product

The first workshop, Reconnect Purpose, took place on the 15th of September 2015.  The work continued until minutes before the participants walked into the space.

The scaffolding packed away, the left over bricks and rocks carefully stacked, the mud washed off my hands, I was ready to step into my other role: dramatherapist. Facilitating a dramatherapy workshop in a custom built space is one of my most cherished experiences.  Everything about the space from the light to the floors to the curved walls supported the participants and I on our journey through dark and light and into a new commitment to live fully as ourselves.

P.S.  The building of The Space was possible because of the involvement of many hands, many love and much connection.

Here are a few of the people that made it possible

Making The Space (written in collaboration with Iain North)

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We are half way between Cape Town and Johannesberg (about 8 hours in either direction) half an hour off the N9 highway. We are an hour from Graaff-Reinet and 25 minutes from Nieu Bethesda.

To Drive: Email us for directions and check on the current state of the road and how your car will fare on the dirt roads.

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Fly: Catch a flight to Port Elizabeth and hire car to drive to the farm (this is a four hour drive).
Co-ordinate with other workshop participants who want to do the same. Email us for directions.

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