I recently had the fortunate opportunity to check out Mud, Hands, A House (or El Barro, Las Manos, La Casa, its original Spanish title), a great natural building documentary provided to me by the kind Max of Firespeaking.com.
It’s an educational, how-to focused natural building documentary with a wealth of instructional segments, led by Jorge Belanko, an engaging master natural builder based in Patagonia, Argentina.
The video starts off with an introduction to building with natural materials, with questions about the viability, performance, cost, ease, and benefits of working with clay and straw all answered succinctly by Jorge. Beyond the introduction, the video gets into specific techniques, of which many are demonstrated, including some refreshing ones that I have never heard of or seen demonstrated before. The usual suspects, including cob, light clay straw, wattle and daub, and adobe are all there, and possibly a half dozen more that are less common in this country.
The demonstrations take place in the context of Jorge’s natural building classes, where he instructs a small troupe of students in making test walls using the various materials, discussing the pros and cons to each method as they go. This is a great part of the video — it’s extremely clear, well-shot, and Jorge is an excellent teacher and host — he is succinct, well-paced, and obviously very knowledgeable. There is enough information provided in these segments to actually do these things on your own without more.
I was excited to see techniques such as the ‘straw bale cinder blocks’, little clay straw blocks made in a form slightly largely than a cinder block, which are then used like bricks with an earth mortar. Or the straw rolls, with wood dowels that are wrapped and rolled in heavy clay straw, then slipped between the grooves of two framing members to erect a wall quickly. The how-to materials is very comprehensive. Keep in mind the coverage is mostly earth-focused — straw bales are noticeably absent. (Not sure why — is it because of a lack of availability or prohibitive cost, or because the Argentina climate is fairly mild?) Some of the translations may be a bit confusing at first — they often translate “earth” (I think) as “loam”, which is rarely if ever used as a word here in the context of building.
Beyond the techniques section is an actual building demonstration, where Jorge leads us through several different unique projects, putting the materials to test and getting more into the ground-up details of building a house. The projects include a historic home restoration, in which materials are scraped free of the original lathe, and then recycled into a new mix. Another is a small wood hut upgrade — a tiny home belonging to an older fellow gets a more aesthetic exterior finish and a bump in insulation and durability.
The grandest of the projects is an excitingly curvaceous adobe brick school house, with a phenomenal living roof. We see everything from the building of the earthbag foundation, to the setting of the adobe, to the installing of glass bottle windows, and making of shelves and other finish features.
This natural building documentary is a real gem. It’s an excellent primer and provides useful information to even the more seasoned of natural builders. The production team has done an excellent job of weaving together many different facets and types of earth-based building styles into a single film. The production quality is quite high, too — the camera work and music are both very good. Some of the translations seem a little weird at times, but not overwhelmingly so.
I highly recommend Mud, Hands, A House!
Check out the trailer below: