The Building Blocks of Life

Forty-four years before the Belgians colonized the Congo in 1908, Folliot Sandford Pierpoint wrote the lyrics for what became the song “For the Beauty of the Earth.” I thought of this hymn when I saw the houses made with earth blocks in the Congo. I love earth buildings.

I was first introduced to earth block construction when a group of volunteers built a soil block dormitory for The Mountain Institute’s campus on Spruce Knob Mountain in Pendleton County, West Virgina. Using this method, we built a few houses in Pendleton County and I was hooked on the technology. Various block press machines were designed. One model designed by Jim Underwood, my late friend and mentor, is being produced in a small machine shop in China and has been used for the construction of many houses in Nepal. Craig Martindale, who serves on the Americus- Sumter Fuller Center for Housing board, journeyed to China to observe the machine in hopes of starting a micro-enterprise program that would build machines for The Fuller Center for Housing’s international partners. I also participated in research on the earth block walls at Oak Ridge National Labs in Tennessee.

But my exposure and love of compressed earth buildings is not a new concept. The oldest known earth buildings, discovered near the Yellow River in China, are from 5,000 BCE during the Neolithic period. Also, most Americans would be surprised at architect Diebedo Francis Kere’s observation that “one half of the world’s population, approximately 3 billion people on six continents, lives or works in buildings constructed of earth.”

In the Congo we witnessed a progression of wall construction. The more primitive houses were made of poll-supported thatched walls, which were filled in by mud. We could see many houses that started out with thatch walls were being filled in with earth blocks. Each village we passed on our journey from 247 Kilometer drive from Mbandaka to Bolomba had a block maker who supervised the digging of the clay subsoil, compressing the soil in wooden forms and curing them before being placed into a wall. The quality of the block laying varied some from village to village. Some of it was very impressive with crosses and diamond patterned openings for light and ventilation. In the US, it is common to brick just the street front of our houses and to use more affordable vinyl siding for the remaining walls.

In the Congolese villages we saw many houses that had a stuccoed front while the remaining walls were unfinished. The Congo houses have long thatch roof or metal overhangs, which serve to protect the walls from erosion caused by rains. Windows go unfinished until the owners can find cut lumber. Until then, they are often filled with loose soil bricks, stacked to give a sense of security from humans, monkeys and other curious critters. This is why we wanted to fund a sawmill for our Fuller Center project in Bolomba. Other technical support the Bolomba Fuller Center offers is a pneumatic press that improved the compression consistency of the block, along with stabilizers such as Portland cement, which improves the endurance of the blocks. For all of the concern for deforestation of the jungle, it is good that we are building walls with a local resource – earth, which is termite resistant, fireproof and ultimately biodegradable.

My interest in earth houses is more than just architectural or anthropological. It is theological. Enshrined in a sidewalk in Washington, D.C. is a plaque honoring Millard and Linda Fuller and it has the following quote:

We have the know-how in the world to house everyone.
We have the resources in the world to house everyone.
All that’s missing is the will to do it.

Earth houses are a gift from the Creator who so loves this world and who called it “Good.” In my work I often hear people discouraged about recession. They fear they don’t have the resources to advance our mission. But compressed earth buildings serve as a reminder and a symbol that God’s resources continue to be available to help people achieve decent housing no matter how bad the economy gets. The Fuller Center can build a house in the Congo for $2,500-$3,500. If you ever have the opportunity to visit a village in the Congo, I promise you will find both the desire and the will to help us house everyone.

I’ve asked my fellow Congo pilgrim Leslie O’Tool to pen another poem for me on the subject of earth houses. Enjoy her beautiful work weaving the relationship between God, the creation and housing.

Please pray for the Congolese people and their houses.

Divine Mother,
of all that is,
I am upheld by you alone,
unceasing is my prayer to you,
for you are my home.

Cradled in your arms,
in the formless Reality,
One, to be formed yet again,
in thy cosmic womb.

This body, this temple,
you have formed from earth,
housing Spirit,
a return,
a birth.

All is provided here,
in this Garden,
I see you everywhere,
you are Nature Herself,
in your countless forms,
always near.

Your body, the Earth,
is in the bread I eat,
the wine I drink,
your sacrifice, complete.

And so too shall be mine.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo

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