While natural building has been practiced around the world for as long as people have made shelter, its recent revival has taken on at different paces in different places. This article describes the beginnings of a revival in Turkey, where a small group seeks to expand alternative building practices.
Kolûba started in October of 2018 as we were working on a project called Sihirli Tohumlar Permaculture Farm near Istanbul, which is our biggest project so far. Derived from “kulübe” in Turkish, the word kolûba means a small hut built in the woods with organic materials found on the spot. It is a word we heard from the local dialect while we were building in the Thrace region, the European part of the country.
glass bottles embedded in the cob walls of Sihirli Tohumlar bathroom building
Some of us had been working together several seasons already, volunteering on previous projects. The team since then has changed quite a lot but the spirit is the same: building unique structures with unconventional, local, and less processed materials in Turkey. We are still looking for a permanent model of organization that would suit our ideals. At the moment we are an informal group of six people with each our specialties. We usually have two types of projects: long term ones where we build full structures from foundations to finishes, and short term ones – usually plastering on existing buildings. The team often divides depending on technical needs, some being more into plastering, others into woodwork. We also work with volunteers very often since there is a high demand, both from Turkish and foreigners. We all started building this way for different reasons. For some it was out of disillusionment towards the conventional building industry and a need to find more sensible approaches. For others it was an interest in craftsmanship, self-building, and a quest for independence. Ecological aspects played a part too, although when looking at things honestly what we do is still far too marginal to have any impact beyond the online and purely virtual publicity our buildings might create. More importantly, most of the demand we get comes from a wealthy urban population in search of fantasised rural lifestyles who end up consuming more than they would if they went for a frugal lifestyle in the city. The last IPCC report that came out recently makes it clear once again: the only way forward is degrowth. The first step in our field is to avoid building structures that are not absolutely necessary.
The natural building scene – or at least alternative building – is practically nonexistent in Turkey. Our team is the only group operating on a regular basis with a variety of techniques and materials. There are companies building with prefabricated straw panels or doing rammed earth for example, but they do so within the standards of conventional building. There have been a handful of successful self-built housing projects and the interest is growing but still extremely marginal. A lot more people are involved on the academic level, researching materials, producing papers, teaching, etc. Yet practically no architect in the country has enough knowledge in the materials, techniques, thermal principals, carpentry, earthquake resistance, etc. to be able to design at the level we need. From the start we’ve been working mostly with Matthieu Pedergnana, a French architect based in Turkey who has both an architectural background and a vast building experience. Without being an experienced builder, someone trained in conventional architecture simply can’t design these structures beyond concerns of space organisation and aesthetics.
So basically in Turkey when it comes to alternative building, the interest (academics) is small, the demand (clients) smaller, and the offer (builders) even smaller. There is a lack of craftsmen willing to train in these techniques. Each member of the Kolûba team came with a background other than building and learned by doing. We come from fields such as engineering, architecture, graphic design, photography, or sports. None of us trained for a building profession and yet here we are.
The first step is to avoid building structures that aren’t absolutely necessary.
Regarding traditional building in Turkey, this region actually has a very rich vernacular building history and was still a vast display of fine craftsmanship until the mid 20th century. Since then most of it disappeared, both the buildings and the builders. Depending on the region you can find elaborate timber framing, stonework, adobe structures, troglodyte [carved cave] dwelling, green roofing, earth and lime based plasters, etc. With many of those materials in common, we feel a connection to past builders and may borrow from lost techniques from time to time, but it would be pretentious to claim a legacy since our achievements can’t compare. Besides, many techniques we use are new to the region such as strawbale, earthbag, slip-straw or gravel foundations. The materials are not as local and unprocessed, nor the tools as simple as they were back in the days. This is why the phrase “natural building” can be seen as overused and we prefer that of “alternative building”. Although we essentially use natural materials, these are usually more processed and transported than their equivalents before the industrial revolution. So what defines what we do is not so much the natural character of our materials but the incompatibility with conventional building codes and standards. If 18th century builders could come back and see what we do, they certainly wouldn’t be impressed by materials or skills, but by the availability of those materials and by the power tools we use. They wouldn’t see our projects as handmade, but instead widely machined and hi-tech work. True natural building is something closer to what they were doing, with no materials or tools produced by large scale industries and no energy consumed beyond human or animal power.
The challenges we face are numerous and these are not specific to Turkey, but certainly shared by most teams doing similar work anywhere on the planet. The first challenge is to find the right client. On long term projects we want the client to be part of the process and collaborate with us as closely as possible. Usually our projects are in remote locations in mountains and forests, on properties in the deep countryside where we are going to set up camp and live for months. We need the basics there: toilets, showers, and a kitchen at least. If these conditions are met it means the client already has a homestead and perhaps lives on site. Therefore we are going to live together and it won’t be a strictly commercial relationship. So ideally the client is expected to deal with accommodation, food supply, and logistics. If not, we can organise these ourselves but it comes as an extra cost for the landowner who usually prefers to take part.
Tree house at Dogali Ida project in Karaoke, Turkey
The next challenge is building with volunteers. It isn’t something we do systematically but if the client wants it (usually for budget-related reasons), we take in volunteers – both local and foreign – to give us a hand. Over the years we started having enough demand to be able to select the most experienced or motivated people. We ask for six hours a day, six days a week, and minimum three weeks of stay which is above most standards and should hopefully bring us highly motivated individuals. Yet working with volunteers is still a challenge for us. Despite claiming experience a lot of people can hardly hammer a nail properly, and you can’t blame them since they are coming to learn. But what comes as a benefit for the client in the shape of free labour is only extra work for us through training, supervising, and sometimes redoing the work of volunteers. Still, these troubles relate to a minority and we are usually happy to have new people coming along. It brings a bit of extra life to the worksite. Another challenge is the weather. Fortunately we live in a country with a variety of climates and we can build in summer in the north, then move to the south for winter, provided we have projects well located. But we still have to face the problem every “natural” builder faces eventually: the rain. We have to constantly check the weather forecast, cover and uncover the site, and sometimes wake up in the middle of the night under a surprise downpour to rush to the building. This is a serious downside to using clay, straw, or even wood as materials, and one might see the point of conventional materials at least for that reason.
There is still a certain freedom to building here.
We don’t have issues that are specific to Turkey, apart from economical instability which makes costs unpredictable beyond a month or two. Other than that, we have the same problems other builders like us face worldwide which have to do with the unusual nature of our work, the way locals respond to it with scepticism, materials providers being reluctant to answer requests outside of their standards, or local workers unwilling to part from their building habits when we have to work together. On the other hand here we have a choice of wood to work with, straw is available anywhere, prices are relatively low, vacant land is plentiful, and nature is beautiful throughout the country. Also, it’s not all about complying with building regulations like in the West. With a bit of diplomacy and connections most legal issues can get solved. There is still a certain freedom to building here. We’ve done some strawbale, cob, adobe, rammed earth, but most often we deal with timber framing, slip-straw insulation, earthbag, plasters, etc. Our largest project was Sihirli Tohumlar which I mentioned earlier, located in the country outside Istanbul, where we built four buildings with a total of 300 square meters over a total of 20 months spread over four years.
The most interesting of these buildings was certainly the guesthouse: an 80 square meter hybrid structure with an earthbag semi-dome enclosed inside a slip-straw insulated wooden structure topped with a reciprocal-frame green roof. It was a very complex build based on a seven beam roof that creates a heptagon over the oculus of the dome, something unexpected from the exterior that would stun visitors entering. It went pretty well the first month, then we built the earthbag dome. Despite being a semi-dome, it was way too flat and had five openings, so a lot of weight pushed out. We started noticing movements after the completion and decided to buttress it. Yet, how could we add seven buttresses without radically changing the plan of the building? We embedded most of them in interior walls, eventually dealing with these protruding oddities by turning them into shelves. But two buttresses were sitting right in the middle of the rooms and the clients weren’t too happy about that. We found them a purpose by using them as support for stairs leading to bunk beds. We completed this building, which could have been a disaster but turned out to be our best work so far. Talking about catastrophes, a housing project we are currently working on was delayed over half a year before we could even set foot on the land. We were supposed to work on the timber frame structure of a large house, after the client had completed the foundations. But she was going through so much trouble with unreliable contractors, very steep and unstable land, even materials being stolen from the site. It seemed like the project was cursed. We decided to step in and supervise the work ourselves to rescue this project and start our woodwork. Everything was ready, we had packed our bags and were about to leave for the site when heavy rains suddenly caused a landslide which brought tons of mud over the unfinished foundations. We cancelled everything and were able to resume this build only eight months later. Fortunately this project has been running neatly since then. Another difficult episode had to do with mud bricks. It was our first large project with three small houses to build with different materials, one of them being adobe bricks. We had limited experience in the fabrication of those, all we knew was that we needed 4000 of them. Their production lasted three months, painfully mixing, moulding, and drying this mountain of 25 kg bricks. It was the most exhausting job ever, and since then we’ve only used adobe occasionally for interior walls.
Sihirli Tohumlar guest house in Kucukyoncali, Turkey, designed by Matthieu Pedergnana