Letters from Chile – the Adobe House and Potty Training

Editor’s Note: This is Part IV of a series. Be sure to catch Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The ‘Adobe House’, El Manzano’s ecological demonstration house.
All photos © copyright Craig Mackintosh


In the middle of the little El Manzano village, on display to all in the community, is the ‘Adobe House’. This demonstration house is a project by Eco Escuela El Manzano to demonstrate to the community several low-tech but effective techniques for improving quality of life whilst reducing a home’s impact on the environment.

Houses made from adobe bricks are common in Chile, although, increasingly, like many ‘developing’ countries, people are turning towards energy disastrous concrete instead. The Adobe House was not purpose built – rather, it is actually a very old house that was retrofitted in 2008. It is thus a good example of what many villagers could do if they had a mind to.

I’ll share a few of its features.

Against one wall they built a simple conservatory. The earth brick wall absorbs heat during the day, warming the home, and radiates it back out during the night – to ensure an extended frost-free period for vegetables. Well positioned terracotta tiles or other high thermal mass elements can increase this energy buffering as well (even just barrels of water can do the trick). Though not incorporated here, another addition can be to add vents between the conservatory and the home to allow excess heat to pass into the house.

During the hotter parts of the year the ends of the conservatory are easily opened up.

Outside the house and conservatory there’s a trellis hung heavy in grape. It creates an excellent, and edible, shade area under which sits an outdoor table and benches for summer breakfasts and lunches. The foliage dies back during the winter months to let more sunshine through.

Next to this sits a fantastic earth oven. And yes, the bread was as good as it looks:

Other elements include the all-important manual pump for water – without which this community would have suffered dearly during the recent earthquake (see Part I) – and a greywater system for biologically cleaning household waste water, returning it, slowly, to the water table after several stages of natural cleaning.

Potty Training

The ‘centrepiece’ of this demonstration site, however, is this:

A composting toilet (or ‘dry toilet’ as they’re called here)

This elevated, dual-chamber throne room (similar to the one at Zaytuna Farm) serves as the home’s fertiliser collection station. When enconsed therein, or thereon, as the case may be, the room is notable for its lack of odor. Any odor.

Although composting humanure should be regarded as an urgent… um… call of nature everywhere (the world is running out of potable water, and yet we’re crapping in it, and we still haven’t come to terms with the significance of phosphorus recycling yet either), it is arguably even more important here in El Manzano.

I say this for two connected reasons: 1) most of the community here rely on ‘long drop’ toilets (simple holes dug into the ground), and 2) the water table in El Manzano is incredibly close to the surface – in many places barely a metre below ground.

In case the obvious eludes you – this means that these smelly, bacteria-filled repositories will be seeping into the water table…. Yes, this is the same water table they’re pumping water from so as to quench their thirsty lips. If it weren’t for the very low population density here I think we could be looking at some serious health issues.

The Eco Escuela El Manzano team are therefore turning the problem into the solution, by demonstrating how a potentially disastrous waste stream can instead become a resource. The Abobe House has a constant stream of students and interns residing in it – all of whom are building site fertility rather than contributing to water contamination.

Continue on to read Part V: The Design Stage

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12 thoughts on “Letters from Chile – the Adobe House and Potty Training

  1. Surely everything here is generated, and hence deeply beautiful! Sad to hear people are turning toward concrete, that is much too hard to make a wall comfortable, and concrete production creates 5 % of all CO2 emissions in the world. But luckily “the times they are a changing”, and is now changing toward adobe and earth houses, especially in the US (and as we know what they do in the USA, the rest of the world will follow). See the film FIRST EARTH here:


  2. Moisture uptake of building materials within 3 hours while ambient air humidity increased from 40% to 80%: Lime plaster (13 g/m2), clay plaster (30 g/m2), lime plaster with standard latexpaint (below 9 g/m2).

    Schneider W, Schneider A: Baubiologische Baustofflehre + Bauphysik. Course Module 7 of IBN. Building Biology Correspondence Course 1998, p. 37.

    As you can see, clay is the superior material when it comes to moisture buffering! If you like you can read the whole document here: http://www.baubiologie.de/downloads/english/breathing_wall.pdf

  3. Øyvind,

    concerning cement and CO2, what I actually wonder is how much of that CO2 gets re-absorbed by the cement when it cures. If I remember right, this was a surprising issue with the Biosphere II experiment…

    Does anyone have data on that?

  4. As I understand this depends upon the quality of the concrete, if the quality is poor up to 70 % of the CO2 can be carbonised or reabsorbed in 100 years, if the quality is very good I think only 5 % of CO2 can be reabsorbed within 100 years. Of course, when the building some day is teared down and if you crushes the concrete to small pieces or dust, also the high quality concrete will carbonise much faster. But to do this requires a lot of energy too.

    A bad side effect of the carbonising process is that the pH drops, because when the pH is 12,5 there is created an pretecting oxide film around the arming iron, when the pH drops to 9 this pretection is all gone, in addition to that clorids will then not be absorbed by the concrete and might buffer up around the iron.

    Also the arming iron you need in concrete uses 20 times more energy to produce per kg than for cement.

    Concrete has no moistere buffering or odour/toxin absorbing benefits at all. The walls are to hard to feel pleasent for the human hand and it creates hollow eccoes in the room.

  5. There is an endless list of chemicals and other stuff you can put in the concrete to give it different properties, which of many of them will help to slow down the carbonizing process. It is only in marketing the concretes opportunity to carbonize is used, in practice they will try to slow down this process to keep the pH all time high, to protect the arming iron from corrugating when protected by the oxide film. Because if the iron corrugates it will expand, then it will be tensions in the concrete and after a while micro cracks will appear. When these appear moisture and air will more easily be transported into the concrete and the process will exaggerate.

    Also aluminum is protected with an oxide film, but aluminum doesn’t need this high pH as iron to create this film, and if you make a scratch in the aluminum there will instantly be created a new oxide film, if not the aluminum should corrugate equal as easily as iron.

    To protect the arming iron from corrugating by the help of a high pH in the concrete, which means to slow down the carbonizing process as much as possible, is very important in constructions like bridges, oil platforms and water power plant dams. Also the wall from a hydro power plant dam is very thick, and as the carbonizing process starts from outside and slowly moves its way inward the concrete, I think it will last thousands of years before the cement in this wall reaches its full carbonizing potential. Hence the carbonizing process is of little value according to reabsorbing CO2, because we are already on overtime when it comes to reduce the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    Another benefit with cob and adobe is that you reduce or eliminate transportation. Of course I understand that you cannot make a huge hydro power plant dam from adobe, but in construction of houses cob is superior to concrete. Unfortunately there are no big businesses marketing the use of cob as the superior construction material for housing, because there is no way they can earn money from it. So we, the Permaculture People, here have a big job to do!

    See this link about the use of cob in Chile: http://www.gaiaoslo.no/Earth%20in%20Chile%20P%20Serrano%20f.pdf

  6. Brilliant! Go Eco Escuela El Manzano! Has anyone??????? ever told the entire population of the USA that they don’t need a toilet bowl full of clean water – well 3/4 full to the top!??????
    OMG – 350 million flushes x 6 Daily!
    How much clean, drinkable water is getting flushed away with the ‘P & ‘C every single day?? And thats just in US North America??
    HELP!!! SOMEONE!!!! PLEASE!!!!!! DO the MATHS for me!!!!! I have been pondering this one question for many years now. Its TIME for an ANSWER!!

  7. “This strange conclusion corresponds, also, to the thoughts which have been expressed by mystics throughout history. In another form, this is the teaching of the Tao, which tells us to be like water. It is the teaching of Hua Yen Buddhism, one of the antecedents of Zen, which tells us to that everything is empty. It is the teaching of the Sufis who dance to become one with nothing.

    There is no greater vision of what it is that we are doing when we make a thing. We try to reach a structure which, in all its possible complexity, is ultimately so simple that it shares the structure of emptiness and is derived from it.

    In the chapters of book 4, we shall see that beneath the field of centers there is a Ground which is personal, potentially full of feeling, perhaps animate or being-like. The Ground appears not like a material substance, but more like self-stuff or self-substance.

    Here, in anticipation, we see something almost equally mysterious. That Ground, in some fashion, is nothing-like. It is the original emptiness. A thing which is truly whole, respects that nothingness. The nothingness is still visible in it. Only a wrongly made thing which is too complicated, too filled with ego, disturbs the nothingness, and lets itself be seen and felt.

    True simplicity – the thing which is truly whole – leaves the nothing undisturbed, quiet, like a lake.”

    The Process of Creating Life, by Christopher Alexander, page 494.

    I think this is what we see here, in this adobe house and its garden, true simplicity, quiet, like a lake.

  8. To Pamela H.W.

    Yes, your own Christopher Alexander told you this already back in 1977, this is pattern 178 in A Pattern Language: http://downlode.org/Etext/Patterns/ptn178.html

    I tried to find the whole description of this pattern here, http://books.google.no/books?id=hwAHmktpk5IC&printsec=frontcover&dq=christopher+alexander&cd=4#v=onepage&q&f=false but for some reason they didn’t show pattern 178-179, while they showed both 177 and 180, so you better buy the book, it’s not so expencive: http://www.amazon.com/Pattern-Language-Buildings-Construction-Environmental/dp/0195019199

    Here you can learn more about Christopher, a man of eternal importance: http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/20090831/christopher-alexander-wins-vincent-scully-prize

  9. What is the connection between ”A Pattern Language” and ”The Nature of Order”? Why did Alexander have to write “The Nature of Order”-series after the fantastic book “The Timeless Way of Building”?

    Now I see the answer. It was because the arise of the pseudo-traditional architecture that arouse after the release of “A Pattern Language”, which has NOTHING to do with the timeless way of building:

    “Anything that does not have this drive toward simplicity cannot, really, be taken seriously as a living process. And this is a very though criterion, a hard-task master. Consider, for example, the buildings and furnishings that are rich with “patterns.” What I mean, here, are the growing number of objects, rooms, houses, buildings, where architects have tried to overcome the stark and deathly character of the 20th century. Now, too often, they replace the starkness with something too lush, too fruity, too rich, too much like a wedding cake, or sickly cream-filled dessert. Although many architects who seek living structure most genuinely do their best to reach it, the multilayered pattern-filled environments which people make in their desire to do better, often do not have enough cold stark simplicity to have been generated by living process – and end up merely sentimental, not something which can ennoble, or deepen, a quiet and examined life.

    Economy, simplicity, drive the formation of ice on a pond. They drive the formation of flames in the fire. And they drive the formation and simplicity of what is most valuable in the sparseness of a simple room that contains hundreds of complex relationships boiled away almost to nothing, leaving only a quiet which approximates the void.”

    “The Process of Creating Life” by Christopher Alexander, page 491.

    This is why Alexander had to make “The Nature of Order”-series. Because a successful pattern language must REFLECT nature, it must include the PROPERTIES which we find in nature, and it must be GENERATED, just like everything in nature is generated.

    This is why you must read “The Nature of Order”-series, to make sure the pattern languages you create for yourself reflects nature, and is made like nature. If not the language will not be healthy, it will just be like a sickly cream-filled dessert, not like a salad of fresh vegetables from your garden.

    The same for our communities, if they do not REFLECT NATURE and are not GENERATED, like nature, then our communities will be DEAD, and the same will the lives of the people living in these communities be.

    Learn more about Alexander’s books here:

    -The Timeless way of Building: http://books.google.no/books?id=H6CE9hlbO8sC&printsec=frontcover&dq=christopher+alexander&lr=&cd=2#v=onepage&q&f=false

    -A Pattern Language: http://books.google.no/books?id=hwAHmktpk5IC&printsec=frontcover&dq=christopher+alexander&cd=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

    -The Phenomenon of Life: http://books.google.no/books?id=kZtZ57_nz-UC&printsec=frontcover&dq=bibliogroup:%22The+Nature+of+Order:+An+Essay+on+the+Art+of+Building+and+the+Nature+of+the+Universe%22&lr=&cd=3#v=onepage&q&f=false

    -The Process of Creating Life: http://books.google.no/books?id=ZEidwVHi3EIC&printsec=frontcover&dq=christopher+alexander+flower+%2Bpictures&source=gbs_similarbooks_s&cad=1#v=onepage&q&f=false

    -A Vision of a Living World: http://books.google.no/books?id=rVv9ylH5YHUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=bibliogroup:%22The+Nature+of+Order:+An+Essay+on+the+Art+of+Building+and+the+Nature+of+the+Universe%22&lr=&cd=5#v=onepage&q&f=false

    -The Luminous Ground: http://books.google.no/books?id=6CIHB3_1tLMC&pg=PP1&dq=%22luminous+ground%22&lr=&cd=1#v=onepage&q=%22luminous%20ground%22&f=false

  10. I think we have a lot to learn from this adobe house:

    1. It is simple! That something is simple, that it reflects simplicity, is the true proof of quality. That something is simple means that it just includes what is necessary, nothing more, nothing less. This means that a simple house is a good house, a simple life is a rich life, and a simple community is a happy community.

    I can give an example for why a complex community like Norway is not a happy one. When my father started working with his father, all what was needed for accounting was a green paper accounting book and a pen. From this they paid their taxes etc. Today, even hiring fewer people, he needs to hire an accountant and an accountant company, if not he should need to spend 24 hours a day for paperwork. But still it should not work, because the rules are so complicated that you need to be an expert with 7 years at university to understand them. To pay for this cost about 50000 USD a year, even for a small company with 5 workers.

    The consequence of this complex system is that very few people find it possible to start their own business. The result is that the chain stores take over everything. For example in food stores, as when I was I child 30 years ago all were small family businesses with local merchants, now for 99 % are run by huge chain stores, two Norwegian (Rema 1000 and Kiwi) and two international (Spar and Rimi). But actually they could have been just one, because all four sell for 99 % exactly the same products.

    This way a highly complex system creates a highly “simple” community in a negative way. While I’m sure that a very simple system (in a good way) should create a highly rich community with a huge diversity.

    2. It is made from an old, local, pattern language. Only a good, locally adapted pattern language can release and solve the inner tensions and conflicts in human beings. This is true for a house; this is true for a community. The only purpose for a pattern language is to set human beings in harmony with its environments. This is true for a house; this is true for a community.

    3. The house is generated. Everything in nature is GENERATDE, not fabricated. Why our western communities (like Norway) have failed, is BECAUSE we live in FABRICATED houses, in FABRICATED communities. And these fabricated constructions are thread down over people’s heads against their will from our modern authorities, the bureaucracy and the developers (industrial structures). This means a totalitarian democracy. (See my 10th comment here: http://permaculturenews.org/2010/02/04/letters-from-sri-lanka-sarvodaya-builds-sri-lankas-first-eco-village/#comments )

    4. It is built from natural materials. Because humans are nature, the human being can only feel at peace in something which is made from nature, and made like nature.

    Surely we have a lot to learn from this ecological demonstration site, and most of all we have to learn from the adobe house.

  11. We must too remember that it is only the CO2 released through the calcination process which will be reabsorbed through the carbonizing process, up to 70 % maximum. The CO2 released through the energy used in the cement production can never be reabsorbed this way.

    Also, in the example above with the hydro power dam, the carbonizing process will only take place from one side. Because concrete submerged in water cannot reabsorb CO2 from the air.

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