Week 6 – Eco-building in the Pyrenees, Natural Painting, Plastering and Designing

This week saw us continuing the ceiling insulation, sanding and painting the timber ceiling and flooring with  linseed oil, painting window frames with natural paint and applying cow dung plaster.

Linseed Oiling

The linseed oil is actually a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine mixed 2L:330ml. It is used to protect the timber from the elements andincrease its durability. It also increases its resistance from being destroyed by insects or fungus. From what I’ve read, the function of linseed oil as a preservative is believed to be related to its action as a water repellent and drying agent rather than a direct biocidal activity.


Natural Painting 

The natural paint is a mixture of pigment, linseed oil and a touch of turpentine to thin at the end.  I loved learning how to make my own paint as it’s so easy and I’d love to do it in future for my personal art too.

Cow Dung Plastering

According to my book ‘The hand-sculpted house’ by Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith and Linda Smiley, exterior plasters all over the world have traditionally been earth, dung-clay, lime-sand, lime-clay, or in very arid zones sometimes gypsum. The choice seems to depend on your climate and local resources. For example, permanently damp conditions will rot fibre, so people in the windy wet climates of the British Isles have used lime for centuries while in sub-Saharan Africa clay-dung is very durable and still used today. It is no surprise then that Pierre decided to use the dung-clay method on his home given the amount of free supplies in regional France and his experiences in India, where they use it to line the floor and walls of buildings owing to its disinfectant properties, insect repellent properties and cheap thermal insulating properties. Clay dung plaster is also moderately resistant to rain.

Before I continue, some notes from my readings for those feeling squeamish about working with cow dung… Very few pathogens can transfer from either cow or horse manure to humans. We have found that working with it does leave our hands smelling of manure (even after much scrubbing) which lasts for a day or two afterwards, but I’ve read you can oil your hands to prevent this… or you could just wear gloves! Also, in India they often use cow urine as a disinfectant on wounds and according to Ayurveda (traditional system of Indian medications and treatments), both cow dung and urine are antiseptic so it is widely used for treatment of various skin and gastrointestinal problems. Apparently, there are at least 48 known types of medicines that can be made from cow dung!

Animal manure is an excellent source of short, pliable fibres. According to ‘The hand-sculpted house’ (and Pierre), fresh cow dung contains enzymes that help to plasticise clay, creating better bonding for a more durable plaster. In West Africa, cow dung is gathered fresh and set to soak in the clay pit. After 3 days of fermenting it stinks, yet when dry has very little odour.

Both horse and cow dung are used over the world and it is possible that the manure of other ruminants would work: goats, llamas or sheep for instance (although they tend to masticate finer so their manure has shorter fibres). If fresh dung is not available, dry will work, but the fibres need to be intact, not decomposed. Dry dung should be rubbed through a screen to break it apart, or try soaking it first as we did with Pierre.

So, our first step of making the rather fragrant cow dung plaster involved putting fresh cow dung (sourced from a nearby farm) in a cement mixer with water.

The water in this case had been previously mixed with cow dung and left to ferment for the reasons mentioned above – the enzymes should bond with the clay, making the finished wall more durable.Once well mixed we sieved the grass out to leave a dark green, liquid cow dung perfect for our plaster!

Next we mixed 1 bucket of sifted earth with 2 buckets of sand, ½ bucket of the liquid cow dung and some water before finally mixing in ½ bucket of flax fibre. We then watered the wall and applied the cow dung plaster to provide a sanitised home which will be protected from insects, termites and mice! I read that if the plaster cracks, it needs more manure, so it’s generally a good idea to do a test patch first.

As a side note… I’d like to share some information about flax fibre with you, as I enjoy researching the materials I’m using. An interesting note about flax is that it literally can not grow if pesticides are used so it doesn’t damage the environment like growing cotton does. It’s also very strong. Flax fibres come from the linseed/flaxseed plant and are amongst the oldest fibre crops in the world. The use of flax for the production of linen goes back at least to ancient Egyptian times. Flax fibre is extracted from the bast or skin of the stem of the flax plant. It is soft, lustrous and flexible; bundles of fibre have the appearance of blonde hair, hence the description “flaxen”. It is stronger than cotton fibre but less elastic. The best grades are used for linen fabrics such as damasks, lace and sheeting. Coarser grades are used for the manufacturing of twine and rope. Flax fibre is also a raw material for the high-quality paper industry for the use of printed banknotes and rolling paper for cigarettes and tea bags. With so many uses, you can see why it is perfect for our interior plaster too!

Here are some photographs of the interior and exterior wall plastering:



Designing Objectively rather than Subjectively

Throughout the week there were many discussions with Pierre about a myriad of topics but mostly art, design and architecture. They inspired me a lot. Pierre was showing me the plans for his house and the many studies he has completed to understand space. By using tools like sun charts, wind roses and simple observation, he explains that a design can become more OBJECTIVE rather than SUBJECTIVE.

Pierre shared with us the scientific tools provided during lessons at a superior art school in Paris during the mid 80s and 90s by a teacher who promotes anonymity. These tools and topics have been developed collectively over time by many people and not a specific individual. Pierre has been understanding and experiencing these ideas for more than 20 years. He talked about how we define space – within a room or a clearing or even within our sight line outdoors. Then, within that space how we can look at the sun’s movements by using a sun chart (also used in Permaculture, look at a previous Sector Analysis I have completed) to make decisions about placement of design elements throughout the year. Using the data about the sun angles and times Pierre studies the space within his building design and displays the following elements of architecture on diagrams. These are called elements because they exist in all architecture. How we compose these to design space is up to the individual… just as words are elements of a sentence and we can all compose them differently to express the same idea.

  • Transparency Corridors – determining the lines of site through a building to the outdoor spaces
  • Dead Angles – areas within the space that do not get much light and we can compensate by painting these areas lighter colours; Pierre also talked about painting using chromatic balance – choosing colours to brighten spaces and adjust for shadows, to add warmth and give our eyes the opportunity to see a variety of colours. He recommended reading The Treaty of Colours by Goethi which is what inspired him. For instance, blue gives a feeling of space (sky), red of warmth and yellow to brighten whereas your eyes get plenty of green from outside when surrounded by nature.
  • Diagonals – by drawing the diagonals in the spaces we can observe the longest lines of site inside a space and therefore be aware of how we place walls and furniture which will cut the space if put across a diagonal.
  • Body of Light – by observing where the sun falls through a window, you can see how the body of light in a room changes over time; Pierre has even drawn this body of light every 15 minutes over the course of a day to connect himself to light and time.
  • Views – thinking about from where you sit, work or stand what can be seen – the sky, earth, other people…

Pierre explains that designing in this way gives us a direct relationship to the sun and therefore time – this allows us to witness the mechanics of the cosmos. He wonders if it is this loss of direct connection to the mechanics of the cosmos that makes people look for esoteric connection. I think it’s an interesting idea. I have definitely found much peace through understanding and depth by connecting with my environment and natural rhythms rather than faith and belief systems.

Famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (who designed, for example, The Guggenheim Museum and Fallingwater, shown left) also believed that ‘the closer man associated himself with nature, the greater his personal, spiritual and even physical well-being grew and expanded as a direct result of that association. He liked to refer to his way of thinking of nature as Nature with a capital ‘N’ the way you spell God with a capital ‘G’.’ He defined organic architecture as ‘one in which all the parts were related to the whole as the whole was related to the parts: continuity and integrity. But in an even broader and deeper sense, he said that an organic building, wherever it stood in time, was appropriate to time, appropriate to place and appropriate to man’. Otherwise it could be considered simply fashion or sham.

Whilst Wright didn’t design with sustainable local materials, we can take his ideas on designing space – ‘letting the human being experience and participate in the joys and wonderment of natural beauty’ – and combine them with eco-building techniques and observations/studies of our natural environment (sun, wind, rain, slope, etc.).

Using the idea of design becoming objective rather than subjective and understanding Wright’s emphasis on designing for human beings, I suppose we could also do a human analysis of sorts to add data to the design process.  Just as we map the natural paths and flows of people and animals on a property before doing a permaculture design (look at a previous Sector Analysis I have completed)  we could investigate the movements of the intended inhabitants to aid in decision making of design elements in a house – their daily routines, where they like to read/do craft/entertain/etc in summer or winter, how often they visit certain places of the house, and more – to design an efficiently used space with a natural, useable flow throughout the days and seasons.

Lastly, Pierre left me with this thought which I find very interesting: Space conditions behaviour.

Think about it… think about how the placement of a television affects people’s behaviour… how the design of our streets and communities conditions our movements, interactions and buying patterns…

All of these processes really appeal to me. Perhaps it’s the engineer coming out in me, trying to complete a requirements capture, but one that is more aligned with humanity and nature. But mostly I feel a lot of freedom in designing like this. Design normally seems to be about impressing people, abiding by numerous standards and regulations, and budgets! I’m loving learning to work with nature and using her abundance sustainably. I can’t wait to design, build and live in my own home one day. In the mean time I’ll keep learning, observing and sharing with you…



  • manny amadi

    Enjoyed reading your explanation about the cow dung plaster, and impressed with the results. Good luck on you project


    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Hi Manny. Thanks for your comment.. checked out your website and it seems you are quite an experienced plasterer! I hope we’ve inspired you to experiment with cow dung 🙂


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