Spring and Summer 2016 Course Dates Released!

clay plastering at art cabin, sherborneOur spring and summer 2016 course dates are now available!  Check out the training page for course dates and bookings.

We start off with our 'May of Clay'.  On each of the two bank holiday weekends we'll be holding a 3-day course in clay plastering for beginners, all food and camping included.

Then again, all-inclusive, from June to September we'll be holding monthly, 3-day straw bale building courses.

We've had excellent feedback from course participants to date and we're constantly trying to maximise what you get from our courses and make them a really enjoyable experience.

All the courses are currently scheduled to be held at the very lovely Bittles Brook Farm in Motcombe, near Shaftesbury, Dorset.

And - drum roll - booking and payment can now be made online!  It's all only a click away!


Shaftesbury Build and Training Course

I've been busy this month working with all the wonderful folk at Bittles Brook Farm in Motcombe, Shaftesbury, in preparation for the building and training course we are running there in a couple of weeks.

I've come to know the farm through Jonathan Davies, who is a recently graduated Master of Architecture, educated in Australia, Sweden and the UK.  It's refreshing to work with an architect that fully understands how to work with straw and has a passion for designing truly sustainable buildings.  We've been working together on Huff and Puff projects since the Sherborne Art Cabin, and our connections have brought me to meeting the wonderful Bourchier family at Bittles Brook Farm.

Horses at Bittles Brook FarmClive takes care of the sheep rearing on the farm, whilst Carolyn runs 'The New Horse' - a place where people of all ages can learn to interact with their horses as equals, understand the therapeutic qualities of horses, and where horses themselves can get some therapy and rehabilitation.  I've never had much to do with horses, although I've always wanted to, and it's magical to see these wonderful animals being treated with such love and respect.

This farm itself is nestled in the rolling Dorset countryside just two miles from the historic town of Shaftesbury, famous for its Gold Hill (remember those Hovis bread adverts!), and surrounded by truly magnificent views.  It really is a very lovely place.

The farm is in need of more storage space for hay and equipment for all the animals, and this has given a great opportunity this summer to get everyone together to use their areas of expertise to design a load-bearing straw bale building to meet the need for storage and utility purposes, as well as as a new hay barn.

Jonathan digging foundationsThe new building is going to have a footprint of 7.5m x 5.5.m and will be built on car tyre pier foundations.  The last few weeks have involved getting materials on site and, most significantly, Jonathan digging out the holes for the car tyre piers.  The ground on the site is really heavy clay, and even a mini-digger had a bit of trouble getting through it.  The holes are all dug now though, thanks to Jonathan's perseverance, and the piers will now be built up, alongside all the carpentry work in preparing the bottom ring beam of the building.

Once all that is in place we'll be ready to get on with the straw, which is coming via a swap for some hay, I think, via a man with a very exciting sounding small baler (I really do get excited about such things!) that can make them accurately, super-square and even vary the size!

Hopefully more blog posts soon with further progress.  And in the meantime do check out the course page if you fancy coming along to learn about how it's done.  Camping and all food is included in the price - currently just £350 for five days for the next few bookings - and it will also be a great opportunity to ask questions about your own ideas and projects.

Building With Straw Bales Course - Shaftesbury, Dorset

Bittles Brook Farm field shelter
What the building will look like

Course: Building With Straw Bales

Date: Wednesday 16th - Sunday 20th September 2015

Cost: £350.00 (£280 for full time students and unwaged)

Bookings: Please email training@huffpuff.me to check availability and book your place
I am delighted to say we will be running a straw bale building course at Bittles Brook Farm, Motcombe, Shaftesbury, Dorset SP7 9NX.

This small farm is nestled in the rolling Dorset countryside only 2 miles from the historic town of Shaftesbury, famous for its Gold Hill, and surrounded by magnificent views. The mainline railway station at Gillingham is 10 minutes away.

We will be building a load-bearing straw bale building, measuring 7.5m x 5.5.m.

On this course you can learn:

- Straw bale building basics - presentation

- Selecting and preparing bales

- Building bale walls

- Framing doors and windows

- Fitting top beams

- Compressing the straw

The course fees also include:

- Accommodation: Camping in one of the fields on site (toilets and showers available)

- Meals: Breakfast, lunch and dinner

You are also very welcome to camp with your family, whilst you attend the course, so they can head off and explore the surrounding, stunning Dorset countryside and coastline.  (In this case please make sure they have food etc., as we will only be catering for attendees.  Any questions please ask.)

This will hopefully be an excellent course towards the end of a beautiful English summer, so book now to avoid disappointment!

If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch.



Building with rammed earth

Rammed earth formwork
Rammed earth formwork
Rammed earth is an age-old building technique used in many, many parts of the world. It is similar to cob and adobe insofar as the idea is to build using the materials available on site, however rammed earth is made using much less water in the mix, the initial shape being built in temporary shuttering or formwork, with layers of the mix rammed into place with hand or power tools. Rammed earth also uses no extra binding material such as straw. In many countries where rammed earth is used insects like termites mean any organic material in the mix could be an issue. Another environmental plus is that rammed earth absolutely does not need cement added (although some do). In fact cement can cause problems if used with clay.

Last weekend I did a rammed earth course run by the Brighton Permaculture Trust, hosted at the Brighton Earthship. Earthships are passive solar, off grid buildings. The Brighton Earthship was completed around 2006, and it showcases various natural and alternative building methods. It's a wonderful thing. Not everything that's been tried has worked out, and I think they are planning to make some improvements, but that is part of the joy of learning and experimentation that can also be shared with others. I rather foolishly forgot to take any photos of the outside, but there are plenty here.

The course tutor, Rowland Keable, has amassed a tremendous knowledge of rammed earth and he and his company - Rammed Earth Consulting - have done a lot of work to get rammed earth building standards drawn up and adopted - especially in Africa. The forecast was for a sunny Saturday and wet Sunday, so we did most of our building work on the Saturday, completing it in the rain on Sunday morning.

So, what earth can you use? The 'ideal' mix needs to be roughly 10% clay : 40% silt/sand : 50% graded gravel, but you can play with that a bit. This gives a mix of material that goes from say 20mm diameter right down to tiny clay particles, and as these all get rammed they lock together giving a tremendous density. Materials like chalk work too as long as you have this mix of sizes - this is what we used. To the mix you add just enough water so that you can make a ball of material in your hand that breaks into a few pieces when you drop it. If it completely shatters it's too dry and if it stays in one lump it's too wet. It really takes surprisingly little water. You layer about 100mm of the mix at a time into the formwork and then ram it down in to place. The formwork, as in the pictures below, can simply be timber boards - or much more expensive formwork used for commercial concrete work.

It really is an exciting way to build. Although you don't have all the freedom of cob, for example, because you use formwork, you have the advantage that you can keep going up, by moving the shuttering up, without waiting for what you've built to dry. It appeals to my sense of order and it's really very straightforward to do. I love the way a straw bale wall becomes solid when it gets locked down into place and rammed earth provides similar, if not more excitement, as you remove the formwork. It's somehow hard to believe it's going to work - but there it is - a solid wall made of stuff dug out of the ground! You get a lovely clean finish from the formwork too. Walls take a good while to properly dry out, but unlike other methods they can dry out as quickly or as slowly as conditions permit. Our example just needs a tarp on top, short-term, maybe some coping stones in future and it's good for the UK climate. Yes, there are some more complexities to consider for each job, but it's a great method to consider.

After unveiling our masterpiece, the rest of our wet Sunday was spent indoors with Rowland patiently answering our many, many questions about rammed earth construction. Rowland is a an inspiring speaker on this subject and clearly passionate about vastly reducing, if not totally eliminating, cement use from low-rise buildings. An excellent idea, seeing as cement is hugely environmentally damaging and structurally completely avoidable in such buildings. However, the barriers to this are many. I am sure I will delve into the world of building industry and government monopolies in a future post, but for the meantime it's lovely to meet people like Rowland who not only acknowledge and are keen to point out that such things exist, but who are actually, bit by bit, getting things changed.

I heartily recommend this course (in fact the Brighton Permaculture Trust do a wealth of interesting looking courses) and giving rammed earth a go. I will talk more about specific uses of rammed earth in future posts.