Can you learn foundations of building in less than a week?

See what our writer discovered when he signed up for a six-day course that promises to teach sustainable construction
Can you learn foundations of building in less than a week?
The group hard at work on the greenhouse in Bombora, Co Clare.

Plenty of people are good at tinkering about in their house. They know what tools are needed to fix or make things, and often have them stored in a shed. They take them out of the shed when needed and put them in a special belt. They have no need to seek out recommendations for a handyman. They don’t use a screwdriver as a chisel.

I am not one of these people. I got a battery-powered drill for Christmas 2017. I tightened some screws on a side-gate a few weeks later (since re-loosened) but apart from that the drill went back in its box. I couldn’t fit it back in the box correctly so it doesn’t shut and now rests peacefully ajar in the attic.

My wife works in a hardware store so easy access to tools and materials has never been a good excuse not to do odd jobs. A father-in-law who enthusiastically tackles DIY and is known to jackknife Ohm’s Law into conversations can be handy when something breaks in our house.

Things had to change. And the first step was signing up for a six-day course called How to Build Anything out of Everything.

Fifteen students saddled with goggles, dust masks, pencils, and various levels of DIY expertise gathered at a remote cottage a few miles outside Ennistymon in West Clare last autumn. Some had detailed plans to build sheds and extensions, others had never suffered a splinter.

Our mentor was Harrison Gardner, an Australian eco-builder and sustainability designer, and we sat down that first morning in an old farmhouse he has renovated into a wonderful home.

The course is divided into lectures in the morning and practical work from 11am into the evening.

We would be finishing off a greenhouse extension to Harrison’s shed, learning how to handle power tools, and using unconventional materials like old tyres and aluminium cans in its construction. Sustainability would be the main thrust of the course. Harrison has 12 years’ experience as a builder. He moved to Kenya at 18 to work on projects with an NGO and began using normal construction materials like lumber, concrete, brick, and steel, before drifting towards natural building techniques, mastering cob, adobe plaster, straw bale, earthen brick, and lime, to build structures in locations as far-flung as the Himalayas to Patagonia. He is now a lead foreman for Earthship Biotecture, an international sustainable building and education organisation based in New Mexico.

His hope for the course is to teach people about rethink their relationship with building.

“I want to empower people to take on their own projects and not be intimidated to pick up a tool and have a go yourself,” says Harrison.

“I try to create an environment that encourages and enables people to build. I don’t believe building should be reserved for professional contractual builders, any more than food should be restricted to trained chefs.

“Creating structures and making shelter for ourselves is in our DNA. But it has become specialised, where people become good at one part of it like carpentry or plumbing and then they let someone else do the rest. It’s important for me that people learn all the parts and try to solve problems themselves.”

What the course usefully explains is everything that goes into building a house. All those things you probably never think about. The magic behind flushing a toilet and the poo disappearing. The dark mysteries of the septic tank and how plant material can work wonders with human waste.

Of course, heading outside, getting our hands dirty and nonchalantly swinging a hammer by our side, with a pencil over one ear, is what we most want to be doing

During our morning seminars, we learn the principles of thermal mass and insulation and the difference between tensile and compressive stress. We get a refresher on conduction, convection, and radiation and find out how double glazing works (the space between the two panes of glass that does not allow heat transfer).

We scribble notes on capillary force and rising damp and nod our heads as Harrison explains how using gravity effectively reduces the need for pumps. The mathematics of building a roof are discussed, calculating rise and run and rafter length and we also weigh upload distribution.

Why are R-values more important than U-values when it comes to keeping a home snug? We discuss different materials you can use to insulate something, from shredded newspaper to mushrooms, which both could be a better idea than expensive rigid fibreglass or hiring someone to spray foam into gaps. Indeed, once outside at the greenhouse, we stuff a wall full of straw and muddy clay (which is in abundance around our location) to create insulation known as slipstraw.

The position of a structure, never mind the materials used, can have a huge say in the non-mechanical heating and cooling systems it employs, allowing for passive temperature control and huge savings on energy bills. All good for our damaged planet too.

Another thing we learn is that sustainable building can be a lot cheaper. Renovation of his farmhouse was jaw-droppingly cost-effective for Harrison. And even if you are not an experienced builder, you could save thousands on a small project like an outside shed if you trusted yourself to do it.

Harrison’s friend Greg, an electrician from the south of France, is our other teacher. One morning he shows us how to construct a simple circuit board which ends literally with a lightbulb moment and gasps of delight from the class. Greg also helps us calculate how much energy we really need to consume individually to have a comfortable life and explains ways we could generate it ourselves. He tells us all to clean the radiator at the back of our fridge and opens new vistas for me in conversations with my father-in-law.

Of course, heading outside, getting our hands dirty and nonchalantly swinging a hammer by our side, with a pencil over one ear, is what we most want to be doing. A tripod device is set up, the one you often see people peering into at someone holding up a stick on the side of the road. Their reasons for doing this had long remained elusive to me, but soon I’m eyeing up a bubble on spirit level so we can ensure everything is straight before we begin. Stakes are driven into the ground and twine tied around them so we aren’t off-kilter before we even start.

Where else to begin but with foundations. Typically, builders might just pour concrete, but we use galvanised gabion cages filled with stones. Half of us begin digging while the rest go hunting for rocks.

A sunny day gives way to rain and soon those not doing spadework are wobbling a heavy wheelbarrow with childlike glee over planks surrounded by muck that threatens to swallow your wellies should you tilt off course.

The trench dug, the gabion cages are lowered in and filled with the rubble sourced within metres of the site. We now know how the caged stone fits. Next up the tyres roll into view. We place them above the gabion cages and begin to fill them with gravel and use a mallet to ensure there are no air pockets inside. You’d be surprised how many pebbles you can fit into a car tyre and it’s the most strenuous workout we face. After filling a couple, one workman claims to be “too tired” to do anymore and narrowly avoids being voted off the course for such a lame pun.

The cement mixer is turned on next. I stare at it as the others work around me, somewhat mesmerised by its slow spin. I’m still a bit confused about the difference between cement and concrete (making me relive the nightmare of when I once asked a farmer what the difference was between hay and straw). Someone explains cement is to concrete as milk is to ice cream. “Ice cream has milk in it, but it isn’t milk. It’s actually much better.” No more enlightened, I pick up a shovel and spoon in some wet sand, but am soon put back in charge of the wheelbarrow.

Earlier, Harrison went to the recycling centre for cans. The cans have no function in holding up the wall we are going to build but are a great way to fill up space. We begin to slather our mortar around them. We pour concrete into the centre of the wall around some rebar because our windows are going on top of this. A lot of our “bricks” are cider cans and although it’s great to reuse them like this it has the unfortunate side effect of seeing me return home from day one of my course smelling of booze.

Over the next few days, we build wooden window frames, cut glass, and even make a shed wall on wheels. A lot of building is measuring, sawing, swearing, and making sure everything is level, we discover.

Those with a head for heights and agility scramble up on the roof we have built and nail-gun on felt during a downpour.

One morning, we are divided into teams to build arches with bricks and mortar. It gets quite competitive (someone proposes we are arch-rivals) and ends with moans and hooting celebration as only one arch survives the test of removing their wooden supports.

By day six we feel like real builders. People have become protective of their pencils and measuring tape. I feel like I am an expert on cladding. Safety has been first and foremost on the course and nobody has nailed a palm to a beam and the circular saw has not been splattered with blood. A shoe lost to the mud is the only casualty.

Harrison tells us he plans to grow plants he will source Down Under in our nearly finished greenhouse, promising us he won’t tear it down and build it again himself.

“It’s not only possible for complete beginners to build things themselves, it’s potentially very enjoyable,” he told us on day one, and he is certainly right.

  • How to Build Anything out of Everything, which costs €660 (breakfast and two vegetarian meals each day keep the workers fuelled) runs from July 27-August 1/August 3-August 8 this summer but both courses are now fully booked. Visit https://www.harrisongardner.net/courses for other courses (such as welding)

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