Natural Building Workshops

-Hosted by Travel to Learn and Life Energy Awakenings

Come learn through hands-on workshops how to build a cob structure from foundation to living roof. Cob is a combination of clay soil, sand, straw, and water. It’s basically adobe, but applied right after mixing, so it has a lot of moisture and is very pliable. Cob can bear the load of walls in homes, can be used to build beautiful courtyard walls and benches, as well as ovens. Cob has thermal mass properties which allows a building’s inside temperature to stay cool during the summer and warm during the winter. Using the earth to build is not new at all; it has been used for tens of thousands of years and something anyone can do with a little guidance. Natural building is typically less expensive than traditional building. Many people build homes without ever having to take out a mortgage. It will save you money through lower utilities and most importantly, earthen buildings are less toxic for you and for the environment.
All workshops will be hands-on and will include lunch. The workshops are at a lovely desert property where Leanne runsLife Energy Awakenings.

Sign up for a workshop here
Follow as we build the cob cottage here

Hands-on Group or Private Workshops Date/Lunch Included
FOUNDATION: Site selection/solar passive design/rubble trench/stem wall
Learn about site selection and passive solar design as well as the features of a rubble trench foundation and why it is used. We will be building a rubble trench and installing a french drain so there will be physical labor. In our second workshop, we will build a stem wall that will hold our cob walls. This is also a lot of physical work and for those who have a lot of patience as we will be building a wall by stacking rocks.
recommended: work gloves, boots, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen
Building cob walls/benches
*To get familiar with cob we recommend working with it for at least two days. We will have options for those who want extended experience working with cob during the weekday.
You will learn how to mix and apply cob as you build a wall structure for the building. This hands on workshop will not only be fun but informative as you’ll learn about soil testing, which materials to use for cob, various techniques for mixing and applying and ideas for cob projects you can do on your property.
recommended: boots and clothes that can get muddy and stained, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen 
March 10, 11
March 24,25
March 29
April 7, 8
April 14, 15
10am – 4:30pm
Earthen plasters (rough coat)
In this workshop you will learn how to mix ingredients to make a rough plaster finish. We will be applying a rough coat to the entire building.
recommended: clothes that can get muddy, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen
TBD (2 days)
Earthen plasters (final coat)
In this workshop you will learn how to mix ingredients to make a final plaster finish. We will be applying a final coat to the entire building.
recommended: clothes that can get muddy, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen 
TBD (2 days)
Living Roof
In this workshop you will learn how a living roof functions. We will be actually working on the ‘living’ portion of the roof installing the liner, soil, plants, and irrigation.
recommended: hat, sunglasses, sunscreen
(1-2 days)
Earthen floor 
You will learn how to mix all the ingredients and actually pour an adobe floor.
recommended: clothes that can get muddy, knee pads, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen 
TBD (1 day)
Natural Paints
In this workshop we will teach you how to mix materials and how to apply clay-based paints. We will be painting the inside of our structure.
recommended: clothes that can get dirty although clay-based paints wash right out, they might leave light stains.
TBD (1 day)

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Against the Grain

It seems to be a common occurrence that when we find ourselves in difficult situations, the learning curve is dramatically increased. When things are going well, we don’t have much reason to contemplate life. I can think of times when I’ve found myself in situations that are emotionally or physically painful or that may have brought on a higher sense of fear. After my experience, I feel I have emerged a better person. By my terms, ‘better’ simply means that I’ve learned a valuable lesson that will now allow me deal with life more gracefully.

I remember my first backpacking experience. I had amateur gear, hadn’t read topo maps before, wasn’t familiar with the Arizona temperature swings from day to night, and certainly had no idea how much water to carry. I did have a good amount of determination and a twelve string guitar bungee corded to my pack so I figured I was good to go. After I cooked a sad meal in an aluminum cooking pot and after my fingers could no longer strum the guitar because they were so cold, I went to bed. My tent collapsed twice during a wind storm and I finally buried my head in my sleeping bag with a tent on top of me and decided I wasn’t coming out until I saw light. I had dreams of a storm coming through and people running by telling me to get out while I still could. I spent most of the night listening to the wind blow through the canyon and let’s just say I wasn’t too warm. At first light, I decided to head out but I had run out of water and at least 5 miles to hike in the AZ sun. Although I had a bit of a traumatic first experience, I felt empowered and the adrenaline I got from the entire experience left me with a desire for more.

I have had many experiences where I felt out of my element and in the end, I always come out with a lesson learned. Once again, maybe we can look to nature for answers. Things that happen in nature are perfect and happen for a reason. There is a specific situation that occurs where a parasite or shell gets accidentally lodged in an oyster. In an attempt to protect itself from the foreign object the oyster secretes nacre, a smooth, hard crystalline substance. From this natural ‘irritation’ or uncomfortable situation eventually emerges a lustrous gem called a pearl. It’s easy for us to look at the story of the pearl and realize that amazing things come out of difficult situations. It’s more difficult to be aware of what’s happening while we are experiencing discomfort in life.

I can’t speak for everyone but I find myself judging situations, people, and myself quite often. Although answers aren’t always immediate and could possibly take years to present themselves, I know they are coming so having acceptance is key. I could learn from the pearl and realize that an uncomfortable situation could have a beautiful ending. I’m sure we can all relate to being ‘irritated’ and maybe we could see ourselves as well, maybe not parasites, but as simply being (be-in) in a situation. Instead of judging it as a negative one, we could look at our situation as a perfect one, accept it, and know that there’s a reason and a lesson in it all. We can move through life’s issues (big or small) knowing that all situations are transformative and maybe that idea itself is enough to change our thoughts from worry to acceptance. Ultimately, this seems a healthier way to approach life.

Posted in Health/Healing | 4 Comments

Earthen Lessons

Natural/Earthen building uses products that are not processed, are found locally, and can go back into the earth when the structure is no longer standing. Some common materials include wood, rocks, clay, sand, dirt, and lime. During my natural building apprenticeship I made a few observations. Earthen materials are much like people, while the building process is similar to life.

• In both natural building and life there are countless lessons to learn and countless ways to go about reaching one’s goals.

•Earthen materials come from the ground and can return to the ground. It’s a perfect process with no waste.

•Clay is shaped and molded to get a specific result.

•If you make a mistake, you can go back and make improvements.

•There are many variables to getting the right mix of clay, straw, sand, and water.

•Getting to the finished product is a learning process at almost every step of the way.

•Never are two mixes exactly alike. It all depends on something else!

•Every so many years you have to touch up the outside of the building.

•Earthen homes allow air in and out just like a breath.

•Perfection is not necessary. Earthen walls don’t have to be perfectly straight.

•Earthen buildings come in many shapes and sizes.

•Earthen buildings mimic nature and lend themselves to structures other than rectangles and squares; there are a lot of curves, rounded corners and round buildings entirely, and the level of creativity is endless. I have no building background and maybe that was a good thing because I wasn’t too concerned with plum walls. Curves are sexy in many aspects of life, and as Darryl Berlin says, “If curves bother you, go to therapy.”

Building an earthen home is also a lesson in building community. In an era where many of us don’t even bother to meet our neighbors, it’s refreshing to know that this type of construction also lends itself to building a social network. Building with the earth requires time. You are basically creating the materials to build your home instead of buying them. Most of the earthen homes I have seen and read about don’t require a thirty year mortgage. The advantage is not only monetary, but also lessens the impact on the environment. Instead of mining the earth, processing materials, and shipping them all over the world, one actually goes through these steps to create the building materials. Obviously, this takes time and in order to speed things up, you make friends who share your beliefs. Work parties are very common in natural building in order to get jobs done and this really isn’t a new concept. Many communities around the world come together to help each other build structures. This community building practice begins to form the basis for economic reliance. Communities rely on each other for various resources that can’t be made or grown on one’s own property. Although Emerald Earth has fresh milk, cheese, fresh vegetables, fruits, and generates their own electrical power, they still rely on some outside resources simply because it’s too time consuming to do it all. Having community nearby that can provide some of the missing pieces is essential to living off the grid and lowering our impact on the earth.

There is something that is difficult to explain when I went through the process of digging up clay, slaking it, mixing it with sand and straw, and using it to build. Maybe it’s just empowering but it goes beyond the knowledge that it simply makes sense. There seems to be something primordial about it. Earth is the oldest building material and three quarters of the world’s population lives in earthen structures. It’s everywhere, non-toxic, doesn’t cost much, durable, and it doesn’t require a college degree to use it. In Egypt the grain stores of Ramasseum built using adobe in 1300BC still exist. The Great Wall of China has sections built with rammed earth over 2000 years ago. Iran, India, Nepal, and Yemen all have examples of ancient cities and large buildings built by using various forms of earthen construction.* Yemen has cob apartment buildings over 10 stories high. Most of us rarely think about the structures in which we live and we assume that someone is looking out for us and making decisions based on what is best for people and the earth. However, modern homes use toxic and highly processed materials that take a toll on the earth and our health. When you spend time in an earthen home, you feel the difference because an earthen home will actually move air and moisture though it’s wall structures.

We are now, in many parts of the world, re-learning what used to be mainstream building techniques. Unfortunately, current buildings codes are set in place and don’t necessarily take into account what is best for the people and the earth. There is testing being done to prove that earthen materials can be safe, even though they have been used safely for thousands of years. But, with many things in life, what makes sense is sometimes difficult to achieve without jumping through some hoops. It’s currently not easy to get approved to build a purely earthen home but it is becoming more common.

I suppose there is a final lesson in natural building, and that is one of patience. It takes time to build with natural materials and it’s going to take time to learn to look outside of our own society for answers. New technologies aren’t necessarily better. We have to accept that maybe we aren’t the experts in this area and that we have a lot to learn from other cultures. Unfortunately, this isn’t a strong point in our country. As with any change though, it all begins with education, and it is happening in many places. Slowly, we can hopefully re-evolve and learn the lessons that the earth has been offering for so many years.

I want to thank Darryl Berlin, Michael G. Smith and Brent Levin for sharing their knowledge and their personal experiences with building. I learned a great deal about natural building at Emerald Earth, but not nearly as much as I learned about myself.


Posted in Life Lessons, Sustainable Housing | 2 Comments

Re-Evolution > Revolution

Visit the Emerald Earth photo blog

A revolution attempts to change a system that seems flawed in a relatively short amount of time, many times resulting in violence, while a re-evolution is a peaceful solution to finding change through education, even if it’s only one person at a time. To re-evolve is to accept our shortcomings and give ourselves a second chance to learn where we previously failed.

Emerald Earth, an intentional community where I’ve been living since early July learning how to build earthen homes, consists of residents intentionally re-evolving. They have chosen to leave what some might call a normal lifestyle for an alternative one because mainstream society is not palatable anymore. They take from the land only what they need in an eternal battle to lower their footprint, locally and globally. They are dedicated to experimenting with options that aren’t accessible to many of those in current living situations. This includes building earthen homes with local materials, raising animals for dairy and meat, using solar and hydro power, recycling grey water, and turning human waste into food for trees.

Days can seem fast-paced with endless amount of work and stress (similar to mainstream society) yet there are also layers of a complex lifestyle that suggests a higher level of consciousness; this layer observes, listens, reflects, evaluates, and makes ethical decisions based on what’s best for the people and the land. Although everyone is constantly busy milking, gardening, building, cooking, cleaning, fixing, you can always find adults spending quality time with children. There is a commitment to educate others about natural building through work parties, week intensives, and an apprenticeship program. A common fiber is shared by everyone; they have chosen to be here because they want to to live differently. This choice, I would argue, results in a higher level of happiness. It’s not that things are perfect or that there is no conflict, but at the end of the day the residents seem to move through stress with a greater sense of peace and higher level of tolerance and acceptance than our mainstream counterparts.

Intentional communities are thrown into categories as easily as fast food. Most people would probably use the words dirty, hippy, or free love to describe  intentional communities. I confess that I have little experience, but I do know that these communities can vary tremendously; some are small and some have thousands of residents. Emerald Earth, even with only thirteen full-time residents (9 adults and 4 children) and some seasonal work traders, have timelines, endless chores, weekly business and sharing meetings, discussions, and appointments to keep. Most residents are professionals, body workers, builders, educators, have master degrees, have worked in mainstream society, and some still put in hours (in their professions) during the week. They eat extremely well; almost everything is local and mainly organic but they do rely on food not on the property. The residents share one kitchen, one refrigerator and a freezer, an incredible task, but imagine the amount of energy saved by not having a refrigerator for each family! Obviously, by sharing this space, it means that meals are communal, which is quite nice. There is social time with music, pizza nights (in the wood-fired cob oven) sauna time (in an earthen structure with a wood stove) guests that visit, celebrations, a trampoline, ping-pong table, a pond for swimming, and an occasional movie night. The residents rely on the land to provide and it seems each person here is an expert in a variety of areas. Whether traveling or living in similar communities, they have learned useful life-skills that some might categorize as homesteading skills. They make clothes, soap, yogurt, cheese, kefir, buttermilk, bread, process acorns, practice animal husbandry, process animals, pick wild mushrooms, garden, etc. They also build earthen homes and structures. In the end, Emerald is simply a group of people conscious individuals living harmoniously with the land, and as far as I can see, their lifestyles are healthier and more prosperous than city folk. They are people trying to do something about the finite resources that we, in mainstream society, take for granted and so easily waste. They are the ones making the decisions that many of us don’t have the guts to make and so, if all these things equate to dirty, hippy, and free love, I’d say most of us better start taking notes.

Visit the Emerald Earth photo blog

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Will Work for Food

We’ve almost all experienced being at a stoplight and seeing someone with a sign that says, “Will work for food.” Some of us extend a financial hand, while some feel that uncomfortable moment during which we try to avoid eye contact. Many of us have compassion while simultaneously judging. We judge because we can’t imagine why someone would resort to ‘handouts’ in life when this is the land of ‘freedom and opportunity.’ How can someone possibly be so down that they resort to ‘working for food’? Others may judge because they’ve heard statistics that ‘these people’ asking for money actually make a decent chunk of change. Even others judge because they don’t like the idea that someone is going to take their money and use it to buy booze. No matter the response, the fact is that we don’t know that person’s story and so we are forced to accept the situation. Although I’m not free from judgment, I try to take a neutral approach. After traveling abroad for so many years in less-than-fortunate countries, I realize it’s good to have a healthy balance of compassion and willingness to help, even if it’s not the person at the stoplight. Traveling has given me that sense of willingness to help when I can, and not feel guilty when I don’t.

I spent six months WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunity for Organic Farming) last year, which was actually not much different from working for food, except that I also got housing and knowledge about growing food. When I told people what I was doing, I was confronted with amazement, jealousy and enthusiasm. “You are stepping out of the box to do what you love. I wish I could do that but I’m stuck at my job.” Is what I did that different from what those at stoplights are doing? We both will work for food. I wonder though, is someone with a work for food sign actually willing to do work? I wonder how many of us would take them up on their offer. Are we willing to pick someone up, take them home, give them a task, feed them, and then take them back? I’d be willing to bet that if confronted with the option, most of us would choose to hand out $20 rather than take someone in and actually give them food for work. And if we give them money, how many times do we hear people say that they’ll probably just buy booze. We want to know that the money will be used for something important, as if we know what’s best for them. I mean, maybe they just had a Grand Slam at Denny’s; who knows. I always crack up at this because if we give money as a gift for a birthday or wedding, we don’t wonder if they are going to buy a forty-ouncer with it. We assume the person has enough sense (because we know them) to use it for something important, but how do we know we really know, and more importantly, why do we care? It’s a gift and a gift is no longer ours once it is given. So I wonder if we knew the person working for food if we would act differently.

What if you saw me at a stoplight with a sign that said, “Will work for food”? Would you think it odd that I was soliciting at a stop sign instead of getting a job? If you gave me $20 would you expect me to use it for food? Those that didn’t know me would go through the same judgment as when we see a stranger. They don’t know my story. They don’t know where I’m from or why I’m there but I have one and I have reasons that make sense to me. But if you knew me, you might not jump to judge. You know that I would do the work, but what if I kept soliciting at the stoplight year after year? Would you then start to judge me? I guess it ultimately becomes a matter of what our society tells us is acceptable, appropriate, right, or wrong instead of letting us decide for ourselves. If I was making a documentary, hanging out with a will work for food sign it might be cool, but if I did it to make a living, I might get judged. We can’t know everyone’s story but we can certainly write our own. Next time you decide to hand out money, detach yourself from it. Feel compassion without being uncomfortable; realize that if you can’t help now, you can help later. Be thankful for where you are in life and maybe next time you see a work for food sign, you will examine your judgments because, after all, aren’t we all ‘working for food?”

Posted in Life Lessons | 5 Comments

After a Year

Earthen Home

It’s now been a full year since I left my job as a teacher to learn more about sustainable living. Six months were spent working on organic farms – 4 months in northern New Mexico and 2 in Kauai. A common question I am asked these days is, “What did you learn?” I think people expect me to say that I now know how to farm. If anything I realized that I could work on farms the rest of my life and never learn all there is about growing food. I can tell you that working on organic farms is as much about being creative, problem solving, learning how to communicate, and working hard, as it is about composting, planting seeds and weeding; actually working the soil and in the field was not where I spent the majority of my time. I learned that no matter what problems arise, there are always solutions. It’s life; there are always answers. We may not like the answers, but inevitably issues get solved one way or another and this is called learning. Very rarely were answers handed out and apparently that’s how I learn; I enjoy finding out for myself how things work. Sometimes I watch, sometimes I ask, sometimes I try…and try…and try again.

After farming, I spent 3 months in Chicago with my mom and I went to Venezuela to

Sandbag Rammed Earth Home

visit family for a month. So, the second half of my year was really about reconnecting with family. Moving in with my mom at my age was…let me just say, interesting. I learned more about myself this past year than I have in a lifetime. The conversations I’m having these days sound very different from when I began my journey. Mainly, it’s what’s coming out of my mouth that has changed though. Something amazing happens when one is not confronted by the daily stress of work to pay bills. It’s similar to fasting; when something that has been there for so long is taken away (food), the mind fills the void with some curious thoughts. A few things that I have learned… My life has meaning only to myself. This doesn’t mean that others can’t be involved or I can’t share my life experiences with others, it’s simply that I have to honor my passions. People may not understand my actions, my passions, or me but I have to accept that. I cannot make anyone believe what I believe. Everyone comes to learn their lessons in their own time so I have to be OK with where they are. Many times it’s more effective to simply listen than to speak, even when I really want to share my thoughts.

Superadobe Domes

So what’s next? I am off to an apprenticeship program in which I will learn about various styles of building sustainable earthen homes from the ground up. Why? The largest part of our income is spent on housing. Not only that, but the housing we are used to in this country is wasteful, toxic, and does not take into account the environment. It’s really like any other part of our economy, we build the way we build simply because it keeps people in business. It does not take into account the land or the people. By building a sustainable home I can reduce my debt, the levels of toxins that surround me, fossil fuel consumption and toxins produced in the building process as well as in the maintenance of a typical home.  With a mortgage 50-70% less than normal I wouldn’t need a full-time job so I would have time to grow food, which again, would save more money. In the end, I would find myself more connected to nature, happier, healthier, and I would conclude…wealthier.

With that said, I don’t imagine being able to build a home after 5 weeks of training but I do expect to have a good understanding of the process and from there I can only guess as to what my future holds. In the end it’s a game of finding that balance. Instead of telling everyone what I think will happen, I will apply one of the lessons I learned this past year. I can only deal with what is happening at this moment; the rest is speculation.

Posted in Energy, Food Production, organic farming, Sustainable Housing | 3 Comments

Back to Normal

Outside of the only open bar in town
A bright blue night sky hides behind the white clouds.
An old car engine turns over in the distance
While headlights beam their way across the road.
I step into the moonlit shade to not be seen
While I drain bottles of Polar Negra onto the dirt walk.

Inside the music gets louder and louder.
The bartender sings karaoke to her favorite Mexican Rancheras.
She´s got a good voice but why so loud?
The music doesn´t match the mood.
I can´t even hear my tocayo sitting in front of me
Telling me the horrible story of how his mother died.
All I hear is something about not having enough money to admit her to the hospital,
And then about how they dropped her body accidentally in front of the funeral home.
I just see tears well up in his eyes. Dam music is so loud.
It doesn´t matter; she´s gone, he has moved on and learned from it.
There´s little time to get depressed down here.
One has to keep moving to stay alive.

The lights go out so we order another round before the beer gets warm.
We crack open a door to let in the warm, humid, desert air.
Buena Vista is once again without power.
At least no more ear-bleeding karaoke.
Only crickets and noisy exhausts from dilapidated cars now.
The constant low hum of the street lamps are napping.
No air moving through the windows of my room.
Dogs barking at a lonely burro clicking his hooves across the broken pavement out in front of the house.
Mosquitos buzzing around my ear while I try to fall into a dream state.
And everything is back to normal.

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