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There’s gold in them thar walls!

There is a new housing crisis on the South Coast. People are illegally camping in caravans and tents in the ashes of their homes, while they save up to rebuild after the fires. And meanwhile, there are other housing risks: more extreme weather which brings heavy rain, hail, floods, wind and more extreme temperatures.  With all this, people are well-advised to ask, ‘are there alternative building types that are more disaster-proof, easier to temperature control, more ecologically appropriate and yet still affordable?’

Jan Golembiewski is an architect with an interest in Earth Architecture. He says people have used earth to build for centuries – because no building material is more abundant than the earth on which a house sits. Jan says "This earth (not the stuff you plant your garden in, but the non-organic material under it) has wonderful properties for housing. It can be very beautiful. It has a lot of thermal mass, which means it stabilises indoor temperatures between the extremes of night and day and even the seasons. If used properly, it’s also very fire-resistant and can hold back floods and wild winds. Importantly it’s also really cheap and has virtually no carbon-footprint because unlike other building materials, it doesn’t need to be lugged around Australia or imported from Europe or Asia.

"Carbon aside, Earth Architecture creates a special bond between your home and the ground it’s built on.  Especially if it’s the earth you love. The earth is the repository of so many stories – from the thousands of years of the Yuin nation, the gold rushes only 170 years back, it holds the bones and ashes of our ancestors and supports the agriculture and native forests that are so valued on the south coast today. Build from the right South Coast earth, and you’ll literally have all that history built into your walls. There’s something sacred about that, something beautiful that no other materials can match."

Golembiewski is keen to remind us not to get into earth building half-cocked. Like all technologies, if handled poorly, it has pitfalls. “I’ve seen an earth building collapse because it was erected hurriedly, without understanding. A common mistake is to use topsoil, which then decomposes. In some places, the problem is using earth technologies in earthquake zones. Finally, some people fail to plan for extreme weather and flooding, and if used wrongly, earth can absorb, rather than repel humidity.”   "Ultimately these are the very issues that pushed those who had relied on earth construction for millennia to turn and embrace concrete, brick and other modern alternatives. But we now have much better engineering and we can anticipate design risks far better than ever before. Contemporary earth-building technologies can be engineered to be virtually fire-proof, exceptionally wind-resistant and sand-bags (an earth technology) have been used to hold back floodwaters back forever.

"It’s a great time to add more variety and quality to the South Coast building types. Stud and brick veneer is thought of as the only way we build down here now, but it’s not standing the test of time. It also fails to differentiate the south coast from elsewhere. Golembiewski says you shouldn’t expect a generic solution like brick veneer to be a good fit in all circumstances. There are dozens of Earth technologies, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. There’s rammed-earth, mud-brick, modular contained earth, earth-ship technologies, cement-stabilised earth blocks, vaults and domes and wattle and daub. Sometimes these can work together, or with other technologies. And sometimes they don’t need them. Earth technologies are usually naturally so beautiful, they don’t even need painting.

Jan Golembiewski PhD is an associate professor and an architect with UNESCO certification in earth building. He comes from a local family that settled in Bodalla in the 1850s. He is trying to find locals who are curious about earth building and want to know more – either for their own homes or as builders. If you know someone who might be interested in meeting up or learning more (virtually or in-person), send him an email:

Jan offers these images that might be of interest:

Earthen architecture doesn’t always need painting. The earth itself is beautiful to behold.

Cob is a beautiful traditional English earth technology Most of the Alhambra in Grenada was made from Rammed Earth.

Above: Golembiewski and his pose with Golembiewski’s first earthen dome.

A ceremonial rammed earth wall with earth from 97 places and 27 countries - including Bodalla. 

A modular contained earth hut, constructed over 4 days by a team of earth architecture students - including Jan Golembiewski. 

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