Mud, Glorious Mud: Rendering the Tinyhouse

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Mud is the most amazing building material. It’s beautiful, it’s local, it’s completely non-toxic, and it’s free! And perhaps the best bit is that your house takes on the colors of the hills around you, as you wrap your home in the clay of that particular place.

As outlined previously, our experimental wattle-and-daub walls haven’t been all plain sailing, but now we’re up to the fun bit – rendering the wattles with the daub (i.e. the mud). So back came Frank Thomas, master strawbale builder, and we were off at a muddy trot.

Nick stirring one of the very many drums of mud needed for our house.
Wolrd's largest egg beater. Also good for stirring mud

We collected the mud for all the walls of our tinyhouse from a pile of clay up the hill, that had been left over from dam building. The process was heavy work but quite simple: collect clay in drums. Cover with water. Stir of a very long time until gorgeously liquid. Apply to walls.

Ok there’s a few steps in between but that’s the general gist until the last step.

The last bit involved a very large and noisy machine called Priscilla, Frank’s trusty mud rendering rig. You put your liquified clay in the top of Priscilla with some sand, and out the hose comes clay render, splattered on to the walls. Ta da!

Priscilla, ready to render
Nick sprays the first coat of mud on our internal walls, over the wattle structure

Our walls needed an unusual amount of render – about 80mm thick for each wall all up. That’s actually quite a lot of mud once you count up all our walls. Don’t ask why we needed it that thick – it’s yet another owner-builder ‘if we had our time again’ story. Another lesson learned!

Apart from the downsides that a very think render means in terms of time and cost to apply, it was all good. Everyone pitched in to make the rendering happen, including all our Spring interns (thanks guys). We all learned a lot about both the glory of natural building and hard work in the process.

Sand. The only additive necessary for the render for the internal walls
Interns Jurgen and Olivier, smiling slightly hysterically after a day of rendering.
Tom sponging the final coat down to give it a beautiful smooth finish
Semi final and final coats in the upstairs room.
Completely non-toxic building means everyone can have a go...

The internal walls are now entirely finished and they look extraordinarily beautiful. They’ll take quite a while to dry, but that’s ok with me. The clay will create a ‘breathing’ home that slowly absorbs and releases moisture from the inside air, modifying the humidity inside year round. Yay.

The external walls are a lime and sand render, to help make them weather proof. Initially we planned to use a natural paint on the outside walls to match the color of the inside clay render that didn’t have the addition of lime.

Now, however, I’m coming around to the color of the lime render and we’ve decided to leave it as is. There’s a couple of advantages to this: the lighter in color the building, the better that building can cope in a bushfire (as it reflects instead of absorbing heat). This seems a small point but it’s a big one for us, given where we live.

The other reason for going with a white(ish) outside is that: it is what it is. I’m really valuing the truth in this very small building – the wood, the clay, the simplicity and the effort gone into every detail. And the lime render is part of that simplicity. It is what is there. And so we will live with that, joyfully.

As you can probably tell from these images, we’re not in much danger of moving in anytime soon. But that is, mostly, ok with me.

Until further notice, we’re back into ‘open mode’ here at the farm – we’ve got 6 (really) amazing interns working with Nick and Trev to design and implement all sorts of projects. We’ve got on-farm education coming out our ears. And we’ve got a little one who needs his mum and his dad every day, right now, not just once the house is finished.

Once again, if I have a hair-tearing moment about living in limbo, I don’t need to think far outside our life to realize how insanely lucky we are here at Milkwood: good people around us, a clear purpose, a chance to share truly useful knowledge and more than enough food to eat.

Amen, and let the house rest. It’s walls will breathe quietly until the next flurry of building energy.

Thanks to our fabulous spring interns Sabina, Jurgen, Ashley, Adam, Claire and Olivier for lending a hand for a day (wasn’t it fun?). Thanks also to Frank Thomas + Tom from strawtec for all their efforts.

Thanks most of all to Nick for yet again holding it together on this ongoing owner-builder adventure, when I would have thrown up my hands and sat down in a puddle of mud. We’ll get there, my dear.

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18 responses to “Mud, Glorious Mud: Rendering the Tinyhouse

  1. Another advantage of plain lime render is that you don’t have to try to match colour when you’re repainting or patching up. We have lime washed sand-cement-sawdust walls, and whenever there’s a bit of new building or altering or even when a particular trafficked area just needs a spruce up, it is very easy to mix an ice-cream container of lime wash and paint it on.

  2. Looks good. I know the frustration of a slow going building project, but its all just part of the owner builder journey. It took us 9 months to put up our post and beam frame (obviously we did other stuff in that time not just building!!!). Its good to put things into perspective sometimes, and you do realise how lucky you are to have all the things you have. The house will get finished eventually, and when its done you will probably wish sometimes you could still be building it, as you will miss the excitement of seeing it come together (well, thats what I’m trying to convince myself!!!).

    1. Hmm. Not sure about that. I’ll be too busy drinking tea and having a lovely time sitting at my very own kitchen table while I design the integrated pasture cropping / dehesa / pig tractor systems to wish that, I hope! 😉

  3. What an adventure! I must admit to enjoying the fun of living vicariously through you (it comes with all the benefits of learning about living a healthier more satisfying life, without having to experience the hardships… until its our turn to do the same in real life).

    I love lime render for its beautiful aesthetic quality, it reflects heat, is flexible, allows the house to breathe and is also great as an insect and rodent repellent. I can’t wait to read the next installment and I’m hoping things are getting easier now that you’re on the home straight!

  4. Ha, you’re going to miss it when it’s gone! The building process that is. Don’t tell me you won’t, because I know better, LOL. Not that we’ve ever built our own house, but we have taken many years to erect our various retaining walls around the place.

    This is the first year we’re not building any. I thought I would celebrate and walk around our garden admiring all our hard work. Truth be told, I’m missing the physical labour and slow meditation that comes with a long term building project. It had become part of my daily ritual – thinking about the next step, then implimenting it.

    You’ll miss it, I know you will – but you’ll also love moving in too. 🙂

    1. hahahaha! Don’t think Nick was thinking much after 6 days of rendering at the point i took that photo – if you look closely, you can see the star picket i shoved down the back of his shirt to hold him upright – otherwise he’d just have been in a pile on the floor!

  5. One downside to the white lime render is it isn’t that good to retain heat in a naturally heated home.

    Apart from that, I like the idea that it may help in case of a bush fire. Though that will be tested IF a fire ever comes through. (Crosses fingers that it doesn’t)

    Hope you don’t mind copious amounts of emails in the new year asking how you did certain things 😉

    1. The lime render is on the outside of the building, and the insulated core of the walls mean that its thermal retention doesn’t have any bearing on the inside temp anyway – but good point on it not retaining as much heat! 🙂

  6. Hi Milkwood !, years ago at Windeyer at Dusky Esky Studio/residence I placed a tin bath near the dam,placed a coir mat in the bottom an mudded up a firebox and chimney made from stacked and tubed four gallon drums, filled it up with water and sat through moonlit nights with company enjoying the night sky, then bathrobes on an dash back to the open fireplace to dry off !, i never felt cleaner with the dam water, but caution using same after heavy rain as run off can contain organisms that take a week to stabilize !. I used to leave my washing in the bath and rinse it out in the morning for free !,

  7. I also bottled in this then derelict French Walled gold miners shack windows with ancient farm wheels as windows and used clay pug(a natural occuring mix of smallish stones edged in a wheel barrow with a shovel and rake to make it pliable and then built with recycled chook wire reinforcement a bottle kiln in my then living room.We are now using creek shingle /fine sand/dam clay mix for bedding the larger stones in a feature wall and using the rounded flat stones as pathways, steps etc, and sweeping creek sorted fines to quickly fill gaps which looks and feels great for free !,using the local tip also as a Cornucopia of resources ! and had 60 minutes TV through to do a five minute grab !. p.s. not long ago I helped an mate render a wall with a broom with a trench gutter for the mud to catch and apply a yellow hue volcanic ash/clay earth which appears resistant to rain, and does not fall off when applied to dampened existing French Walling. Call in any time to my home at 53 Gladstone St, to see use of freestone and junked resources. brookseeya ! peter.

      1. Hi Milkwood !, the creek has sorted out beautiful fine sand, flat smoothed cobbles which we have paved the activities area at the Studio (casting, pottery,blacksmithing) and we are using clay pug with creek shingle(the creek sorts it all out with marvelous flat and rounded larval stones which we have cobbled the activities area. Try edging the dam clay if buff colored as ours is magic when mixed with creek fines aggregate and fires up well in a rough raku kiln we built, started with a slow fire in and on with the old Electrolux and simple modified spray burner (works on enclosing the waste oil feed pipe with a closed down air tube allowing said oil to be vaporised into the fire box !, after a slow preheat of said clay vessels and Henry Lawson Head plaques.I have mixed quite heavy creek aggregate and fine also with the dam clay and it vitrifies up to a dense tough body which is marvelous to use, far better than any commercial stuff, also there is white high alumina clay in Home Rule gold diggers holes near the tip which if mixed with the rotten granite from the unsealed roads makes excellent throwing and modelling clay. The red terracotta also can be improved by adding ordinary blue metal fines as needed , fine for throwing etc and larger particle for large sculptures etc Temper the terracotta with the buff colored living water off the dam for amazing plasticity and store in water tight bags.You can tread up clay with an old towel by doubling it over the clay /aggreganate mix and then opening it up and folding to repeat process . (hope i’m not broadcasting information you do not already know!, Also hot wire ( I use an old electric bed transformer and a bow made from electrical conduit coupled up with insulators both end to the heater wire out of an old electric toaster which is amazingly tough and vibrates to the alternating current when not enough to sculpt the styrfoam which we encase in fine creek sand with drinking straw sprues and risers and pour our molten aluminium into our tamped styrofoam sculpture which burns out providing a reducing atmosphere for perfect replicas in aluminium . brookseeya around peter.

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