The primitive hut
This essay by Jillian Sullivan was highly commended in the open category of the 2018 Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing.
Jillian Sullivan, a writer and teacher who lives in the Central Otago village of Oturehua, wrote about her mudbrick writing studio.
In the present rethinking of why we build and what we build for, the primitive hut will, I suggest, retain its validity as a reminder of the original and therefore essential meaning of all building for people: that is, of architecture.
— Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s House in Paradise: The Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History (1989).
Maybe we all reach back in our hearts towards Vitruvius’s primitive hut. I know I do – whenever I pass the relics of a goldminer’s hut, a small tin hut or stone ruins, I turn my head. I’ve turned my head with longing for that type of simplicity ever since I was a teenager. But it is “not enough to have a liking for architecture,” as Marshal Maurice de Saxe wrote in the 18th century, “one must also know stone-cutting”. I knew I would eventually have to build a hut for myself, and so I have – a mudbrick writing studio, around 10 square metres, built without plan or consent or experience, and as lovely a dwelling as I could have ever imagined.
The hut sits north, facing the mountains, and in the sunlight is a tawny gold. Its red corrugated iron roof matches the farm buildings in the valley, and the houses in the village. It has white windows of small panes of glass on the north and east walls, a door in the north wall and walls built from 100-year-old bricks. The walls, though straight (we used string lines and level), bulge and curve with the rumpty, pitted shape of the old bricks. My son Rory and I had taken down a mudbrick cottage a farmer wanted removed. That cottage was built in 1962 (proclaimed over the doorway) but the bricks themselves were from a much older dwelling. We knew that, because inside the cottage, the bricks were rain pitted, uneven with age and weathering. The house beside that cottage was built in the late 1800s. Perhaps these bricks were from an earlier outhouse or storage room. The farmer didn’t know.
At 20 to 25 kilos each, made mostly of a grey-brown loam and short tussock, the flawed bricks sometimes collapsed as we carried them from wall to trailer, yet in the walls the bricks’ strength is unmistakable. Horizontal snow and rain, and wind so strong that branches of the willows come loose across the paddock and bikes blow over, makes no difference. Inside the hut it’s calm and still. There’s a queen bed with patchwork quilt under the window, a bed so warm and wide and sun-filled that it’s here I do my writing, propped against the mudbrick walls rather than sitting in the chair at the desk. In the first century BC, Vitruvius, in De architectura, required buildings to fulfil three qualities: firmitas, utilitas, venustas, that is, to be strong, useful and beautiful. My hut is all of these things. It has its back to the wind and its eyes to the sun, and to see it arising from its girdle of tussock is to remember again the meaning and beauty of shelter.
We made the concrete floor by hand, Rory and me, with two concrete mixers and two neighbours. Our first foundation turned out as pitted as the bricks; a rough, cement surface. And now it glows with earth. I simply trowelled an earth plaster over the concrete – three parts sand to one sifted clay and one sifted straw. With six coats of linseed oil, the earth floor has deepened to a rich brown flecked with straw. Its surface is slightly undulating, as if I have run the curve of the palm of my hand over the earth, resting it in places. It is a floor that can be swept or washed; useful, beautiful and strong. And as John and Gerry Archer, the authors of the book Dirt Cheap – The Mudbrick Book, wrote, “[built] for little or no cost”.
I bought Dirt Cheap in 1976, aged 18 and newly married. Reading it again now, I wonder what it was that set me off on a life believing in simple design and materials. Perhaps this quote: “We found many people were unaware of the exciting possibilities that exist when the limitations of conventional design and materials are removed.”
Vitruvius recommended “a thrifty balancing of cost and common sense in the construction of works … the architect does not demand things which cannot be found or made ready without great expense. For example: it is not everywhere that there is plenty of pit sand, rubble, fir, clear fir, and marble … Where there is no pit sand, we must use the kinds washed up by rivers or by the sea … and other problems we must solve in similar ways.” In other words, recycling – the door, the windows, the roofing iron, the bricks, and using what’s around – the clay, the straw, the cow manure from over the fence. What if all architects strove to make use of the vernacular, things “made ready without great expense”?
The north window beside the bed looks out to Mt St Bathans because a friend promised me if I built the hut, he would take down the cracked willow across the paddock and give me a view of the mountain. Today, under sun and blue sky, the mountain is burnished with snow. On a video made the day 11 people turned up to help with the bricking, is the sound of the chainsaw, beyond the sound of the concrete mixer turning. That day there’d be a chainsaw whine, then a crash, then silence. I’d stand listening till the chainsaw started up again, friend Graeme safe, before turning back to the mixer.
Eleven people helping and seven of those over 60, and five in their 70s, though Rory had said to me, “Mum, can you please find someone younger to help with the heavy lifting?”. But it was mostly older people, intrigued and intrepid, who turned up to help – strangers and friends, as inexperienced as me, but believing, as I did, and as our great-great-grandparents obviously did, that we can build our own shelter.
A woman, Margaret, visiting from Scotland, emailed asking if she and her husband could help. They were an artist and a retired helicopter pilot in their 70s. I asked her, “Why are older people the ones who turn up to help build?” “Because,” she said, “the older we get, the wiser we get, and we realise how right it is to build with earth.” They couldn’t lift the bricks up to the sixth and seventh courses, and worked on the time-consuming job of sifting clay for the mortar instead. They dug clay out of my pile, sifted it through an old wirewove bed frame onto a sheet of corrugated iron, then tipped it into buckets.
With that many people helping, the bricks were layered up fast. I spent most of my time on the mixer making the mortar: four parts sand to two parts sifted clay to one part fresh cow manure and half a part of slaked lime. I’d mixed the hydrated lime with water in a drum the night before and loved its creaminess and texture, like white mousse, measured and tipped into the mixer as if I was baking.
On the lower courses of the bricks, the mortar is in lumps and runs. I made the mix too soft and didn’t know enough to clean up as we went. By course four we had it figured out – a stiff mortar, and Brian making it his job to work with cloth and brush to keep the bricks tidy. And now they’re brushed all over with a clay, lime and manure paint that unifies them: the bricks that are straight with the bricks that are weathered; the courses where the mortar ran riot and where it is smooth. The walls, then, a record of our learning, our apprenticeship to earth.
What I set out to do was to prove it could be done – people building from the earth who didn’t know how to build, for wouldn’t this bring hope to others? I think of my son with wife and baby and a $400,000 mortgage. “The cost of a thing,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, “is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
Earth forgives – wet mortar or stiff, three parts sand or four, soil rich in clay or not. How did my bricks last 100 years with so little clay content? Someone dug and ploughed the earth where they lived and used that, and here the bricks are, in their third incarnation, a small beacon-of-hope house, a slightly skew-whiff hut like a child’s drawing: steep roof, window and door, and a person sitting outside in the sun, looking to the mountain.
Read this essay and nine others in 10 Stories: Writing About Architecture / 4 available for $15 + postage in the NZIA shop.