Broadcast August 12, 2022
Featuring: Mollie Curry and Sara Carter
Mollie Curry moved to Earthaven in 1996, becoming one of the first village residents and getting involved in natural building. She’s taught natural building workshops since 1998, covering cob, plastering, straw bale, straw-clay, earthen paint, earthbag, and carpentry, as well as permaculture. Mollie has been involved in many of the natural building projects at Earthaven, as well as teaching and doing projects in other locations, which has informed her building experience.
Mollie Curry shares what she learned in her nearly three decades of experience designing and building natural buildings at Earthaven and around the country.
Working together, doing something physical that’s not too hard and not too dangerous, is actually a really great way to make and deepen connections. It is the heart and soul of natural building. It really is. And I just got chills, so you know.
Welcome to the Earthaven Ecovillage podcast, where we meet people and hear ideas contributing to Earthaven Ecovillage Village’s living laboratory for a sustainable human future. In this episode, our host Sara Carter talks with Mollie Curry about natural building.
I think it was about 28 years ago that I first came to Earthaven. I was working with the Permaculture Activist magazine, and the guy who was doing that magazine was a founding member of Earthaven living with another member. So that’s how I found out about Earthaven.
I thought, hey, I could go and learn to build my own house because they’re starting to build things out there. I went to some meetings and stuff. I was way into permaculture, obviously, but I never built anything.
There was the open air pavilion. There was an old cabin that was here when they bought the land and the mud hut had been started. Some of the founding members had gone to a natural building class and they started building this with different building methods: cob, straw clay, waddle and dab with an earthbag foundation. They were putting the knowledge they had just gained into action. It wasn’t anywhere near finished, but it was begun. Yeah, it had a roof.
I was really attracted to building a natural building, which I don’t even know if I’d heard that term before. I’d never even heard the term intentional community before, but I just kind of fell in love with the people and the whole culture going on here and with this project and what was happening here. It was pretty awesome and pretty primitive beginnings living in a tent. But pretty quickly we built the composting toilet. One of the other first things that got built. There was a couple that built a little house called the Zen hut. And then we were starting on the kitchen. So, the composting toilet, they were building their little house, composting toilet and the hut hamlet kitchen were getting built that first summer that I was here.
I picked up natural building pretty quickly because I was a wilderness ranger before I came here, and I did a lot of trail work, and so I had a lot of knowledge about just how physical things work, my body with tools, that kind of thing. So even though I didn’t necessarily have the exact skills, I had kind of a precursor of that kind of skill set.
It was a pretty male dominated thing, and there weren’t very many other women here living on the land. Patricia was probably the only other one that I can think of at the very beginning, more came. But, yeah, I was involved in conversations about design and understanding what was going to happen and doing it, but not all of it. There were some personality things that caused me to focus more on the garden at times. I was just like, I can’t handle that dude. But that worked out.
I focused on working on the mud hut, which was being built, and it was my project to finish that. That was my assigned project, but I was helping with other stuff, but my focus was on the mud hut. And so other people would walk by. There were lots of visitors coming, even at that early time, and I would be like, hey, you want to do some cob with me? They would hang out for an hour or two, and we would make cob and pile cob on the wall, and I would teach them how to do it in a very simple manner. And that was fun.
There were definitely times where I stood around in a group of men, wonderful men, and I remember one time in particular, I’m sure this has happened to many people, where I came up with some idea and I said it out loud. We were all standing around, and then no one said anything, and the conversation went on. And then, a minute later, some guy said the same thing, and everyone was like, oh, that’s a great idea. I was like, these are Earthaven dudes, and it’s still happening. Just because we have the really great intentions doesn’t mean we can actually put them into practice immediately. But I was just kind of slack jawed when that happened. Turns out it’s a lot of work to change culture. But that’s why to be here, we got to change ourselves to change the culture.
There are different reasons I was attracted to doing natural building. One was the DIY nature, especially back then. There weren’t very many people anywhere that you could just hire to do something like that. But I thought, I’m going to build my own house and I want to know how to do it myself and that way it’ll be cheaper and all that.
I was already an environmentalist and it made so much sense to not build a building out of toxic waste, basically like vinyl siding. I worked for the Forest Service when I was a wilderness ranger, so I saw the commercial logging in the Pacific Northwest. And what was happening here is conscious management of the forest for different things. One, we were making clearings so that we could live in it, but trying to use those trees to build out of. There is just such an ecological bent to people that are into natural building. And that is the main reason. Use renewable resources: straw bales, for instance, soil from where you are or close by. You can use things from the earth that then if you neglect the building, will go back to earth without causing a toxic waste dump in the site of the former house. That really was attractive to me.
And the creativity aspect… I really didn’t know about at first, but then I found out about cob and sculptural stuff and being able to shape mud and build just about anything you want. Even if you build a conventional house, you can do cob details on the inside, like curved corners on the inside of the walls or a sculptural kitty cat or whatever you want, like shelves up near the top of the ceiling. There’s so many things that you can do with it. I’ve definitely built functional bas relief. And I’ve built sculptural bas relief. Bas relief. It’s just sculpture that is stuck to the wall, basically. I fell in love with the mud and then I fell in love with the straw also, eventually, but my first love is definitely cob and plaster and earthen paint and the clay-y stuff.
It’s very feminine as well. Working with cob. There are traditions all over the world of not only women, but men also, but a lot of women plastering and basically doing mud work. And sometimes I’ve called myself Messy Mollie because I tend to wipe mud all over myself. Not on purpose. But I’ve seen some amazing pictures of women in the southwest and in Mexico who are wearing full dresses, what I would consider fancy clothes, and not getting mud on themselves while they are plastering with their hands.
It blows my mind. Home building can be a very feminine thing to do. And I think it’s great to have both genders come together and it’s heavy work.
One of the things I really learned early on is that a five gallon bucket of mud is really heavy. No reason to fill a five gallon bucket up with mud. I’m not macho. I don’t need to carry that. I can fill a smaller bucket or two people can carry a five gallon bucket full of mud. A two person bucket carry is awesome. So it’s like I might not have as much upper body strength, but I have a brain, so I can figure out how to do things that are too heavy for me, even if sometimes that’s asking somebody to help.
I’ve learned a lot about building because a lot of natural building is just building: foundations, roofs, frames, post and beam, that kind of thing. One of the things I think is most important that I’ve learned by my experience at Earthaven is to insulate your foundations or any part that’s buried. We’re building a lot of times on hills where part of the building is dug in to the hill and there’s concrete block or some other form of water resistant material. It’s not going to rot. Insulate that or you will get condensation on the inside because of our humid climate. And that can create mold. So condensation.
I’ve learned a lot about moisture when it comes down to it. Dealing with liquid water and humidity are huge learning curves. There’s still lots of debate even in building science about how to deal with humidity in houses, how to deal with liquid water.
But, you know, having a breathable house, they even have recognized it in conventional building by Tyvek and all those house wraps are breathable. They’re like Gortex. They’ll let humidity out and not let liquid water in. Well, that also is done by lime plaster and earthen plaster. So you don’t want condensation happening in the middle of your wall and you don’t want it happening in the inside of your building because that part that’s underground is ground temperature. And then liquid water happens there.
And drainage is so important. Drainage, roof overhangs. I’m a real big fan of gutters bringing water down to the ground instead of water flowing off the roof and then just blowing onto the wall or even just close to the house, making moisture around your house. You can get away with less need for dehumidification, air conditioning or whatever. If you have good drainage and there’s not a bunch of vegetation holding moisture around your house, airflow, those are some big ones. And in a place like this where we’re using solar and microhydro power. A lot of those times those systems are shared with multiple people, multiple families, or in my case, the power is shared with a whole neighborhood. We really can’t support people running dehumidifiers and air conditioners. I lived here for eleven years like that and I definitely saw mold be a problem in some cases and not in others.
How do you prevent mold without having to use dehumidifiers and air conditioning? How do you prevent it from the ground up in the building itself? In the building itself and in your stuff. And air flow is big, light is big, and blocking out the humid air by closing windows at the right time, that’s one thing. And what I really saw was having easily cleanable surfaces and not having too much stuff makes a huge difference. It’s just like mold grows on dust. It will. And if you can’t clean the dust very easily because you have rough cut lumber. I lived in places with rough cut lumber. They were really hard to clean and so it was easy for mold to get a foothold, places like that.
In the tiny little eleven by eleven hut that I lived in, the only things that molded were leather. Leather attracts moisture somehow, and mold can grow on it and otherwise I think there was just so much airflow and light in that building that nothing else really molded that I can remember. And it was totally in the shade and surrounded by vegetation. Well, there’s south facing windows that got lots of sun, even in summer.
Mold is definitely an issue, and I will say, unfortunately, in my 100-year old conventionally built house in town that I live in, we’ve resorted to a summer air conditioner. There was just mold growing on the walls in that house. So I guess my point there is it’s not unique to natural buildings. Mold will grow on paint, latex paint, mold will grow on whatever the finishes are on our wooden walls, in our house, the wooden paneling in our house, especially in this kind of climate.
Well, this is an interesting one that I think that all the builder people at Earthaven learned by trial by fire or trial and error or whatever you want to call it, which is the height to width ratio of a building. So there’s a couple buildings here that have big outdoor bracing because we were like, oh, well, smaller footprint, build high. That way you don’t have to build as big of a foundation. That really makes a lot of sense to do that. But these buildings and then we wanted solar access, so they weren’t very wide. So they were tall and narrow. So three stories tall, but only basically one story deep, a little bit more than that. And that did not work structurally. So it ended up feeling like those post and beam structures were too wiggly, both for mental comfort and like, oh, is this thing going to fall down? And also because plaster’s going to break if you have a lot of movement in the building. So those braces were added after the fact of the frame going up.
And then we did more research. Someone did the research, it wasn’t me. I was like, oh, that exceeded the height to width ratio that we should have paid attention to. And then after that I was like, oh, well, we won’t do that again. Unfortunately, both of those buildings were being built at the same time, so it was like only discovered when they were both already built. But yeah, that was a really great lesson. I love the build high thing. Take up less space, have a smaller roof, have a smaller footprint, and you have to consider that structural parameter when you’re building.
That makes me think about a quote that I attribute to Paul Caron. I don’t know if he got it from somewhere else, but the sort of Earthaven motto of “we build the road as we travel.” And sometimes if we did a little more research into how to build the road, it would have served us better.
I would say, though, that it is all a big experiment. This is kind of my motto, life is a big experiment. Natural building is a big experiment. This community is definitely a big experiment. No matter what we’re doing, we build the road as we travel. And there was tons of research. I’m not sure if I could say it was actually pre-Internet, but it was not like it is now.
We were looking at books and getting calculations. There’s books that have calculations about spans of beams and with different species of wood and all that. So much stuff to research. So somehow that one got missed. Or maybe it was because it was on a really steep hill, it seemed like it was only two story, but then it was almost a story below it. Sure, it might not have clicked mentally, but yeah, I feel like it’s all the experiment. We do build the road as we travel.
And also another little motto, which is what I thought you were going to say, is the wonky hut, which is a straw bale, is a great example of this one. We used to talk about making a little plaque that would say “how to do everything wrong and still have it come out right,” because mistakes were made in the building. That was the first straw bale that was built here. Well, actually, maybe the council hall was the first straw bale. I don’t know if they were. I can’t remember. But yeah, the roof overhang didn’t end up being long enough.
They added some roof on. The straw bales up near the top are kind of wonkily stacked, and it actually gives it a lot of charm and character. So it’s still a good house. It looks pretty funky and it’s still a great little house. So I’m sure it has its issues.
“Oh, God, it’s so pokey, itchy and scratchy.” No, I don’t think it was that hard to get into. It was just that I loved mud, and that was the first thing that I was doing. So I really got into building a straw when I got together with my husband, Steve, and he and his wife deceased, were some of some straw building pioneers of what we like to call the straw bale revival, because straw bale building actually started over 100 years ago back in Nebraska, the sandhills of Nebraska, because white settlers, who were moving west, were building sod houses, but the grass was not holding that sandy soil together. And that was right about the time of the invention of the straw baling machine. So a baler. So they suddenly had all these bales that were laying around and they were like, those look like great building blocks to protect us this winter, and we’re going to build a real house eventually. But then some people, I’m sure did, but others were like, this is a great house. Why do something different? And they plastered them and made them last.
Steve and I met at this event called Build Here Now, which does relate to Be Here Now. It was at Lama Foundation in New Mexico. That was one of the places I went and got some early training. I really wanted to learn how to do earthen paint. There was a woman that was going to teach it there, another friend. And I had already been teaching natural building before I ever took a class. I was like, I maybe should take some classes. I know enough to do this, but maybe not some other things to teach what I was teaching.
We met there and ended up teaching apprenticeships there. We built a straw bale sauna and a bigger building. We didn’t design these. We just were the teachers of the apprenticeship doing the wall systems. So the roofs were already… Actually the roof was not up on the sauna. We did the whole sauna.
You have morning circle and everyone comes together who’s at this event. It’s like a volunteer event where people are learning and teaching natural building. It’s a really cool event. The leaders of each project will say, okay, over here today, we’re going to be doing this. And it might be a straw oriented or straw bale oriented thing, or it might be putting the roofing on or something. And other people are like, we’re replastering the dew drop, which was a little office building that they had. And so there’d be a little competition between the mud people and the straw people. And they would be, “you don’t want to do straw bale. It’s itchy and pokey. Come with us and do the smooth, sensuous, mud job.” And the straw people will be like, “you’re going to get so dirty.” It was just fun and games.
But yeah, I fell in love with straw because of its insulation properties. It’s a renewable-resource carbon sink that’s going to moderate the temperature of your building. We’re about to build a straw bale house in West Asheville, and I’m very excited about doing it for ourselves.
We met before that workshop, but we got together several years after we met. He had a natural building company that was straw bale focused. And he had written some books and did a video, the first straw bale video. And I had my own little natural building company. And when we got together and fell in love, we decided to join our companies. We have really focused a lot on education, like teaching apprenticeships and classes and stuff, and also doing jobs. Sometimes we will teach a crew to do it, do whatever the step is. Like, a couple of times we’ve gone and just taught each step as it is occurring, like how to stack the straw bales, how to make cob, how to make plaster and apply it for each project. So we’ll go and basically consult like that. And we also do a bunch of consulting just on people’s designs. Sometimes people want to know, they’re trying to figure out what they want to do and just having a conversation with them about the different methods, kind of the pros and cons, what might be appropriate to their situation. And then my favorite thing is doing, like, sculptural cob and plaster and earthen paint.
Partly I love doing it because it’s fun for me, but also creative. But partly I like doing it because you can do it in a conventionally built, latex-painted house, basically renovate a quote normal house. So it’s a way of incorporating the earth into a quote normal house. And you don’t have to build a whole straw bale or straw clay or waddle and dob or whatever house. You can actually bring the mud inside in a beautiful way. And it has a great feeling. Clay actually gives off negative ions and so negative ions are positive vibes. So you can really bring that into your space and transform it just by doing pretty thin plasters and paints. And if you really want to go for it, like cob details. I love the curving corners. I love just the sculptural fun stuff, like around windows or mantle pieces or that kind of stuff. You can also bring in a lot of personality into the space in that way.
We’ve been designing it for what seems like a long time. It’s going to be a post and beam, straw bale insulated, so straw bale walls, house in the middle of town in West Asheville on an infill lot. And we have gone back and forth about how big it is. It seems big, and then we’re like, but it’s not too big. But is it too big? All the design details. We’re going to have a little earthen floor in the bedroom and the upstairs, which is like a south facing thing. So it’s passive solar as much as we can make it. The narrow end, because of the lot, has to face south. So I’d rather have it 90 degrees. But that can’t happen. There’s natural building purists, and we are not that. For instance, we’re going to have a concrete basement. Some people will be like, you need to build that out of stone. It’s like, no, we’re not actually. I’m really excited about building something for ourselves and having classes and apprenticeships that are going to help do that. And friend and family volunteer work days.
Part of what’s really cool about natural building is it can be a community building experience. And I think that is another thing that really attracts me to it. My dad makes the joke about Tom Sawyer. Ho ho ho, you’re going to get people to wash your fence, paint your fence, or whatever. But people actually really want to connect in that way. And working together, doing something physical that’s not too hard and not too dangerous, is actually a really great way to make and deepen connections. It is the heart and soul of natural building. It really is. And I just got chills saying that.
Mollie’s website is mudstrawlove.com.