A General Explanation of my House Construction

Hello all! This is the first post on this blog. The goal is to document the process of building my house. Most of the pictures from this post were taken from my facebook account. I made a couple of albums to show it to my friends. In case that you are interested in seeing more pictures and the associated comments you can take a look at the public album called my super adobe fortress. I also made an album to document the reciprocal roof construction that I made to cover the living room.

A few videos were posted on youtube, they give an idea of how the house started :

I have taken very few pictures and documented little about the building process. Probably because I pass most of my time having fun doing it or reading about things I need to learn. Documenting is time consuming and not as much fun, so I gave it little priority. Nonetheless now that I have a little bit of time I think it is worth while talking a bit about it and showing it to the rest of the world.

Most of the pictures were taken by my wife. Without her support and good will I would have not been able to do any of this. She fed me and patiently took care of our kids while I was on the building site.

To have an idea about how all of this looks like lets go straight to the point by showing a first picture of me working, back in the beginning of the year:

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I live in the Chapada diamantina, in Bahia, Brazil. On the border of a national park, very near a colonial city that was built and grew out of diamond seekers. The house was made over the ground of a diamond open pit mine. That sounds complicated but the bottom line is that it was just basically a big hole that men dug in order to find diamonds. Since the ground was in such a condition I could buy it cheap. I knew the place well because it was owned by a friend who lived there and that I visited often. That gave me the time to feel the place and visit it during a whole year before deciding to buy it. Nobody seemed to like a place with a big whole in the middle and surrounded by hills. It did not bother me, the price was right and I was buying it to a friend who would become my neighbour.

So I bought it and I rented a place next to it to be close to the construction. I begun the house by preparing the foundations and filling part of the mining whole. I digged a trench and filled it with river stones to support the future walls. I used the earth from the borders of the ground to make mud and fill bags. Like that I did not have to transport cement from outside and I could get all the material I needed from the same place. I used earth from the surrounding hills. The walls of the house were being built while I was landscaping: flattening the place and gaining space for the garden.

The house is made of polypropylene bags filled with adobe. That is in other words bags filled with mud. The bags were bought used, at the local bakeries, little by little, as I needed them. Originally the bags were used to store wheat to make bread. Once the mud inside the bags dries they get hard and form gigantic bricks weighting around 70 Kgs. Some call them super adobe bricks. Once they dry you can cut the bag out and plaster it with the same mud or other type of plasters that you may prefer, even cement. I personally do not want to use cement as a plaster because what I like about mud is that it stabilises the humidity and temperature inside of the house. It is deliciously fresh inside, even when it is very hot outside. And when its cold it stays quite warm inside. The same happens with the humidity levels. No mater how dry or humid it is outside, inside it stays at basically in the same humidity range. That is the magic of earth ! Besides that it has other characteristics as being bullet proof, sound proof and very very durable. It lasts long and is not affected by the environment because it is by itself the environment and integrates with it perfectly. The interior of mud bricks is very dry, making it impossible for insects to live or damage them and perfectly preserving wood inside of.

The mud is made from earth taken on site. The amount of clay found on the local earth generates good super adobe bricks that stay hard when wet and are strong under compression. Below you can see me making the mud. It is done by hand, a very good exercise. That is the other reason I decided to build the house: exercise. I was not feeling good by passing too much time reading in front of a computer, I needed to do something physical. I reasoned that better than going to a gym or to do some sport I could spend my energy by doing exercise and at the same time obtaining a liveable house as a result.

Anyways, back to the mud… : it is important to mix it well, like that when it dries it stays quite hard:

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Between each row of super adobe bricks two rows of barbed wire are placed. This gives some tensile strength to the construction and avoids the wet bags to slip but I still have my doubts if they are really necessary.

The foundations where the walls are placed are more or less 60 cm deep and filled with stones taken from a nearby river. Besides that the first row of bags is also filled with stones. The initial rows of bags with mud therefore lies over stones. The ground level outside is a bit below the first row of bags filled with stones. Like that if water reaches the bottom of the outside walls it is not much of a problem. In any case I deviated the water flows so that even in case of heavy rains as little water os possible gets close to the house.

After a certain level I started using big adobe bricks to continue, that is because the higher I went the hardest it was to fill the bags and it was easier instead to place bricks. You can see how they look like on the right side of the first picture above.

To avoid using cement or wood the doors and windows were made with arches. Several of them are also shown in the first picture just mentioned. Here next is a picture of one of my first arches. Note that the adobe bags over the arches are also forming by themselves another arch, a very exotic type of arch:

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You can see that the bag used to make the superadobe “brick” is no longer there. That is because once that the mud dries the brick is hard and the bag can be taken out and plaster can be used in between the jointures of the “bricks”. What remains is the form of the bag. After a bit of stucco with the same mud a white paint made of light coloured clay earth, found on site, was used to paint the bricks. Finally, above that it can also be painted with some type of natural oil to give it a nice finish.

Originally I wanted to make a green roof, that is  a roof covered with earth and some vegetation. In order to do that I made a reciprocal roof covering the living room:

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From inside it looks more or less like the pictures below. It is not yet with stucco so do not get disappointed because at the end it should look much better:

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The basic structure of the reciprocal roof over the living room looks more or less like this from outside:

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The house until now has 6 spaces, lets call them rooms, each room can have its independent roof. That gave me the opportunity to think about what kind of roof I could put over each space. I practiced making domes starting with the smaller rooms. Like that I could learn more roof techniques. I liked quite much the reciprocal roof but I loved the vaulted and domed roofs so I started learning by building them, initially starting by covering the smaller spaces and deepening the learning by making the roofs over the bigger rooms. Here are the first roofs I made using the Mexican vault technique:

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The material for the bricks for the vaulted roof are obtained and made on site, the dimensions are important, if they are too big they get heavy and can fall while being placed. If they are too small it takes too long to build the roof. The weather is usually hot so they can be made and are ready to be used fast. In the picture below the earth used to make the bricks is taken from the left side “hill”, like that garden space is gained around the house:

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If I get handy enough on building earth domes I will probably replace the reciprocal roof over the living room by a domed one. It will be similar to the ones shown above but much bigger and with a rounder base. The technique to build those kind of roofs is well explained in youtube in videos such as this one: Mexican vault.

My first vault using something similar to that technique is for the entrance corridor. Below is the house entrance from inside, it has a view into the living room at the end. On the left there is a window to one one room and on the right a door to another. It lies over four arches. I left an opening in the middle in order to get light. More light enters through roof openings than through windows or doors.

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Once you cross that corridor you reach the bigger space, the living room. It gives access to two more room. It has interior as well as exterior window openings. There is also an opening in the middle of the roof a chimney and a sofa made of adobe. It looks basically like this:

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Above you can see one of my sons, he comes often to help. My other smaller sons here below also come often to play with the mud:

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This panoramic picture of the living room shows the future chimney and how the first arches I built, they were much thinner than the ones I made later. You can also see a sofa also originally made of mud:

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As I got more experienced I started making bigger arches with different brick forms, even double arches. I made them bigger in order to support the roof and also because I found them beautiful. The entrance to the house has a one of those doubles arches. My son is sitting on it:

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Next below is a view from outside. The picture is old, the walls are much higher now but it gives and idea of how the super adobe walls were made, as well as showing the structure of the reciprocal roof (in the back, right):

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Before I knew about Mexican domes I learned about african domes. The picture below shows me working on my first dome, more of the african type, it was done using the Nubian dome technique. Nubia is in the south of Egypt, they developed, more than 3000 years ago, a technique to make vaults. I practiced with the Nubian technique in a room that could become a bathroom or a sauna:

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It was an interesting experience doing it but it was hard work because of the big dimension of the bricks. I therefore investigated more into vaulted roofs and found out about the Mexican vaulted roofs. A refined technique with lighter bricks and a much flatter type of dome, I loved how it looked like. It was easy to decide that it would be the next choice to make the other roofs. The one below is the second space I covered using the Mexican technique (the first was for the corridor, just next to this one, on the right).

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Each corner is used to start the roof, either by laying over the corner as shown above or lying against the wall as shown below:

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Once the arches advance by piling one over the other, they merge together as the roof gets closed. The great thing about this technique is that no support form is needed to make the roof. These Mexican vaults are much lighter roofs and faster to build than the ones using the older Nubian vault technique. Note that Mexicain vaults are not really vaults, they are domes, I do not know why the wrong name is used to describe them. In any case both vaults or domes are made by the union of arches. Mexicain vaults come from Nubian vaults. Those techniques were invented in Africa, on dry places who had no trees, it was natural to invent something that would only use earth and water to cover spaces. They had no other options. The following conditions should be satisfied to build Mexicain vaults:

  1. The bricks dimensions are more or less 20x10x5 cm (instead of 20x20x5 cm in he Nubian case). Bricks are not too small nor big and the area used to glue them is big in relation with their width.
  2. Arches are formed that lie over the previous arch. If the arched shape is lost the roof can become unstable and fall.
  3. Little mud is used to glue the bricks. They must be glued dry, like that they stick. If the bricks are wet or too much mud is used they can fall.
  4. Each corner starts with a 45 degree angle with respect to the horizontal plane. That is important like that every brick in the roof is under compression. If the angle is bigger the roof could have parts that are not under compression and could break.

If all those conditions are satisfied the roof will not fall :). Finally cement made with water proof additives covers the roof so that no water damages it. Cement over the roof is not a problem, the house will still have a big place to breathe through the walls.

Here below I keep on working on that same roof. It is by now finished. I will maybe show pictures of how it looks later.

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I hope I will write more about the rest of the house. This was meant as a first post to get you fast acquainted with what I am doing. Do not hesitate to leave comments and share your experiences ! Building with this basic techniques has been enormously rewarding.

Ahh and if you are interested to come and help me you are very welcome, just let me know to see how we can arrange it I have a lot of space and like to teach, but be aware that the work is hard !

No, joking aside, it is not hard, it is healthy and will provide you with the knowledge and a set of tools which will make you very happy and independent.

Best wishes !

Jrv

7 thoughts on “A General Explanation of my House Construction”

  1. Entre por el portfolio y termine viendote como has trabajado duro en esa casa. Muy buena! Soy de mar del plata, si pasaste por buenos aires sabras que no es muy lejos. Podria hacerte una pregunta de inversiones? Dime si por aqui o algun email. Gracias

  2. I was wondering if you could help me. I am a television producer working on series 2 of Channel 4’s Escape To The Wild about British people who have quit the rat race and moved to live in remote locations around the world. Our show is primarily about living off the land and going to a back to basics existence.

    The research team is currently looking for British couples and families to feature in the series and we’re keen to contact people who may be interested in taking part. The idea is that the presenter will spend around 5 days living with the contributors experiencing their unique lifestyle. Our ideal scenario is one where the individual/couple/family are living off-grid. A large element of the show is about living in the wilderness, so the larger the element of living off the land, the better.

    I was wondering if you perhaps know of any British people living in wilderness locations in Brazil that may be suitable?

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Many Thanks and Kind Regards,

    Cheryl Jackson
    Producer

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