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A down to earth building approach

Raglan has a reputation for a more eco-friendly approach to life. Here’s a fantastic example of a sustainable building project that’s currently taking place in the town – up on Cornwall Road a handmade mudbrick building is, quite literally, emerging from the earth.

Six and a half years ago Katarina Mataira and Tuihana Bosch established Te Mauri Tau. Their aim was to provide a place of education within the community and today their vision has grown to incorporate many different branches — Katarina and Tuihana run workshops and courses that promote health, the Maori language, sustainability and bio-dynamic gardening. They have also developed a strong association with Enviroschools, a national organisation that is helping to develop a network of schools committed to environmental learning.
But as the organisation has grown so too has the need for more space. And while both Katarina and Tuihana recognised the need for new buildings neither were comfortable with the levels of toxicity and waste that the construction industry traditionally generates. Instead they have spent three years researching more sustainable building techniques. The result is the building that is emerging today — a post and beam and mud brick construction that combines both ancient and modern building techniques. “Our criteria is to attempt to reduce the carbon footprint of this building,” says Katarina. “Both by using as much material from the land we are on and by removing as much toxicity over the building’s entire lifespan.”
Designed by eco-architect Graeme North the building, which will be used primarily as a workshop space, incorporates many sustainable features. Much of the material used in its construction has come from the local area and, once the building has come to the end of its lifecycle, many of these materials will rot back down into the earth where they came from.
Sited facing true north it will use the position of the sun to help heat and cool the interior. Solar panels sitting on the roof will power the lights and water, since the building will remain off the grid. The concrete slab that forms the floor was poured over a layer of compacted pumice, which will act as a natural insulator and the windows will be double glazed to minimise heat loss. Double-studded exterior timber walls have been designed to allow for an extra layer of wool insulation and cypress Lawson timber has been used throughout. This particular wood is untreated and therefore toxic-free and has been sourced from around the North Island. Construction of the actual building began just before Christmas and two carpenters — Sarah Murray from Auckland and Adam Brooks from Raglan have been overseeing the build.
It is the mud bricks, though, that provide the perfect example of a 100% recyclable building material. Consisting of clay and woodchip sourced from the Te Mauri Tau site and mixed in with paper mache they are an incredibly simple and affordable construction material. In fact earth building is one of the world’s most ancient construction techniques and examples have been found in the Middle East dating back to 8000BC. Building with mud is advantageous for a number of reasons; earth walls store and then slowly release heat providing a stable and comfortable interior climate, they stabilise humidity and provide a lower fire risk.
The first Te Mauri Tau bricks were made back in 2008 by a group of young people from Chile, who came to the centre to learn about sustainable building. Since then other workshops have taken place and many hands (and feet since you use your feet to mix the mud) have helped shape the bricks. It’s a fairly straightforward process – the mixed mud is poured into wooden moulds and then the bricks are left out to dry. “You need to be reasonably fit,” says Katarina. But your skin feels great afterwards.” The simplicity of this building material also has another advantage — the walls can easily be fixed by stopping up with the same clay mix should cracking occur. “I like the idea of a wall I can fix myself,” says Katarina.
The actual building of the walls has also involved workshop groups and has been supervised by experienced earth brick builder and Raglan local David Cooper. Importantly the mortar used to bind the bricks together has avoided the use of cement, instead staying true to the recyclable aims of this project by using a mix of pumice, clay, woodchip and paper mache.
“There’s a toe ring hidden in one of these walls,” Katarina tells me, as I’m inspecting the bricks. Lost during one of the mixing sessions it’s a personal story that fits in perfectly with the ethos of this building.


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