A Happy Host

The Mudbrick Flats by Peter Kurz

The following article is reprinted from Earth Garden Magazine of December 1977.

Mallacoota is a sleepy fishing village most of the year, but from Christmas to February it is very busy with holiday-makers, mainly from Melbourne.

It is next to the beautiful Mallacoota Inlet and surrounded by National Park. The sea and the mountains frame the village of 300 people.

I came here about 12 years ago after roaming Australia for five years. The climate suits me fine. It is warm in summer and not too cold in winter (there are no frosts). The soil will grow almost anything.

After Germany’s greyness, to see parrots and cockatoos in the gardens like brilliant flashes of colour, was like arriving in a “Thousand And One Nights” fairytale. And such it has remained for me.

I dive for abalone (a shellfish found on the bottom of the ocean) and my main income comes from this.

When I had the chance to buy one acre of steep land, facing north, the Mallacoota Inlet and the ocean, I decided to build holiday flats as an income for future years – as I am determined to stay here.

Before that I had been a vocal critic of the local building industry. It has been virtually 100 per cent fibre-cement “throw ups”, without any feeling for the magnificent landscape and without much imagination.

So now I had to do something different. I started making mudbricks in 1969 without experience. Two years and 2,000 adobe bricks later the “experimental” shed was built. It is 40 ft. x 20 ft. with a section of 20 ft. x 10 ft. separated off (full of shelf space). It cost $400 in material.

Every wall in the shed is built in a slightly different way as I was experimenting all the time to find the best and worst methods of mudbrick laying. Believe me or not, all methods proved suitable and all walls are still standing.

Earth for the bricks came from bulldozing an area for the shed and leaving the loose earth (clay, shale, etc) in a heap in the middle of the future building. There was no water or electricity on the block, so I used only rainfall moisture to wet the clay and a 4 ft. x 4 ft. driftwood pole to ram the bricks. It was a hard, slow method, but it made very strong bricks.

Later, with the advent of water, and later still, with the use of a tandem trailer, mudbrick making became progressively more easy until, finally, a good day’s work amounted to 200 bricks.

With the help of a tandem trailer, I changed the method of making mudbricks completely, loading the trailer with mud, either from my own site, or from wherever the Council had dumped waste clay-shale. During filling, straw was added, so that there was finally a load of mudbrick soil with sandwiches of straw.

Next, I watered about two feet of clay down on the end of the trailer. While it was still wet and not soaked-up, the bricks were made. With this method the water hasn’t a chance to penetrate all clay-molecules and the mixture is slippery and actually much easier to use.

I assume that the process of clay saturation continues when the brick is already made and sitting there to dry. The bricks are as strong and “healthy” as with the ordinary method of mixing the water into the clay heap and waiting a day for full saturation. Maybe you could call it: How to trick a brick?

At any rate, it would be impossible to wet a whole trailer load down. It would be much too heavy. Of course, the first two feet are the hardest as the trailer is full of earth. It gets easier as the trailer empties. As each two feet are used up, the next two feet of soil is pulled to the end of the trailer and watered down.

There is also no need to walk the mud to the mould as the bricks are made right next to the trailer, which is moved forward as soon as there is no further room for stacked bricks. A 10 ft. x 5 ft. trailer holders enough soil for 100 bricks.

The “locals” laughed at the idea of mudbricks. Everybody was sure that the first rain would melt the lot. I wasn’t too sure about them myself -but again, mudbricks are tough and only after exceptionally heavy rains was there any loss of bricks.

The local council was very helpful and considerate, even though this was the first venture in mudbrick as a building material in the district. The local building inspector from Orbost had worked in another district which had some excellent mudbrick buildings (one used by a Prime Minister).

For uprights, I used discarded State Electricity Commission poles. Luckily, the local private power company had just been taken over by the State Electrical Commission and all the poles were condemned to be chain-sawn or discarded.

By that time I heard the locals calling me “Scavenger” behind my back. At first it hurt, but now of course, I am glad and proud to be able to successfully recycle materials discarded by the community at large.

The buildings are all of the post, beam, fill-in construction, best described by my friends, John and Gerry Archer in their book, Dirt Cheap (see EG 17). They also live in Mallacoota in a very organic, very beautiful mudbrick house.

Later again, a long wooden bridge (320 ft. long to be exact) was being replaced by a shorter concrete bridge. The builder planned to burn the old bridge! With another friend, we bought the wooden bridge and Sue and Phil Eather are now living in a bridge-timber-mudbrick house with a mezzanine floor enveloped by trees.

No need to tell you the 1001 uses of bridge timbers – mainly old 9 in. x 4 in. and 9 in. x 9 in. hand-adzed pieces. Fairytale stuff!

That brings me back to the birds. As soon as the flats took shape, I planted hundreds of native bushes, particularly grevillea. Now there are so many lorikeets, bower-birds, parrots, cockatoos, honey-eaters, finches, kingfishers and gulls living and working here that a recent visitor counted 23 species on the ground in one day. This did not take into account the huge black cockatoos, white-breasted sea eagles, heron, egrets and gang-gangs flying above.

Since there is no frost, solar hot water seemed a safe bet and has proved to be not only ecologically desirable, but economical for the district.

Through the Melbourne Trading Post (a newspaper for private buying and selling) I bought four secondhand pot-belly stoves (average price $20.00). They are Romesse stoves and very old. One is so cracked that you can see the fire glowing at four places around the body, but they are cosy, efficient, safe and comfortable. The cracks actually allow you to check the state of the fire without opening a lid!

I talk to my guests about recycling and each flat has a “voluntary” bucket for organic waste. It is a sweet and peaceful thing to see a Melbourne businessman trundling to the compost heap with his kitchen refuse. In exchange I offer free carrots, pumpkins, tomatoes, and my own specialty – kohl-rabis – from the organic garden, in season.

Kohl-rabi grows beautifully here and I feel it should be given a strong place in all vegetable gardens. They grow very quickly, quickly enough to beat the white cabbage moth at times when the cabbages are hopelessly overrun, and seem to grow the whole year round. They’re nice to eat raw (like an apple), or cooked or steamed.

Newspapers are used to line garbage bins (no plastic anywhere in the flats, no laminex table-top monsters) or to start the pot-belly stoves in winter. Kitchen waste goes to the compost heap, bottles are cut up for a future building project (inset mosaic work with the sun shining right through the mudbrick walls) or broken up for aggregate in concreting (such as footings). Cans so far go to the tip (any suggestions?).

The mudbrick flats are excavated into the hillside. Even though they have a beautiful view of the lake and the ocean, they are hardly visible from the water or land.

Of course, I didn’t build the flats all by myself. There have been many friends helping, or should I say many people helping that have turned into good friends. Some just stopped on their way through and some are here still, five years later. Now there are five houses going up in mudbrick at Mallacoota. I am living in one of the four flats and would not consider living in anything else but mudbrick again. Should Earth garden friends pass Mallacoota, please come and have a cup of tea.

July 1983

Since 1977 there have been about 30 mudbrick houses started, each one being remarkably different. There are now six flats and I have built a mudbrick house for myself. Diving continues to be my main income earner. The offer of a cup of coffee is still open!

June 1991

Since the last update to this story, much has happened. Good and bad. I got married and divorced. This is the sad part. Also I have stopped abalone diving and am pretty busy around the flats.

Possums, marsupial mice, bandicoots rediscovered their old stamping grounds and despite their occasional destructiveness, they are very welcome. I feed all the natives to my best knowledge, and consider it paying rent to the original owners.

Since the flats are now established and I managed to obtain 77 acres of farmland (three-quarter treed with a mythical rainforest gully and right next to the flats!) I have indulged in my passion for birds further and there are approximately 20 different races of chooks, ducks and geese roaming the flats, the farmland and the two ponds.

Delivering scraps to the compost heap has become even more rewarding for the “tired business executive” as there is free birdseed and fresh eggs (blue, green, brown, white and tinted) to be picked up on the return trip. After all, the chooks and bower-birds rake over the offerings and what is left turns into sweet smelling humus.

And again, the nearly impossible has happened. The native and domestic fauna are getting on well together, they even seem to compliment each other. At any moment my guests sitting in the living room of their flat might watch a parade of: King parrots, rainbow lorikeets; next a troupe of guinea fowls might check out if there is any seed dropped from the bird-feeders; a family of eastern bushrats (they are native that I prefer to call pygmy wombats, rats sound dirty) will cavort outside the ceiling to floor windows; Wonga pigeons and satin bower-birds will enjoy the northerly sun; silkies or Barbu d-Uccles (chooks!) stroll past to some more shaded place, etc. etc.

And this goes on all day to be replaced at night by a procession of possums and long-nosed bandicoots, hoping for a sweet bun, apple or, most enjoyed, a banana.

A two-minute walk down to the rainforest gully makes one aware that there is good air and extraordinarily good air. The tall trees must be oozing pure oxygen.

A half hour spent down there patiently sitting in the shade of fern trees and gain lilly-pillies might reward the visitor with the call, or even better, the display of the ‘resident’ lyrebirds – and with deep peace.

Obviously, I still enjoy living here and my guests have a chance to recharge their city-worn batteries, to their delight, and mine.