Week 9 – Eco-building in the Pyrenees, Hosting a project and community living

Over the 5 weeks spent with Pierre I observed how he managed us helpers, his projects, his family life and himself.  I imagine the whole process could be quite physically and emotionally rewarding but also draining – dealing with various people from all walks of life, interrupting your routine, sharing your space, managing the build, training, supervising, etc.


As mentioned in a previous post, community living often seems harder than the project or building itself. So, this week’s post is from Pierre’s perspective. We’ve asked him some questions which he has kindly answered for us.


  1. How many helpers have you had?

So far, to the present day, which is in the third season, I have had about 30 helpers (5 in season 1, 20 in season 2, 5 so far in season 3).

  1. Why are you using volunteer helpers?

I haven’t thought about why before. It happened in a genuine way, welcoming anyone who wished to come. I’m thankful for their interest which in itself brings in energy to keep things going (most of the time).

  1. Do they usually come in groups or individually? And how does this affect the work/living dynamics?

I receive groups and individuals, in balance. As a subjective experience it depends, of course, as with an individual a one-to-one relationship can be more focused. When a group is already formed it will have its own internal dynamics in which I will have to introduce myself or stay aside. However, in both cases, the main concern is that everyone is happy with the times we share together around the building project and annexe.

  1. On average how long do helpers stay? What is a good period of time?

The average so far is around 10 to 15 days, which with some (most) is short and I’m sad to see them go. So far no one has stayed longer than 5 weeks in a row which was your group, so I can’t define a “bad” period of time as it all depends on character.

However, independent of how long they stay a certain pattern occurs:

Phase 1: the arrival with enthusiasm

Phase 2: the reality (instead of illusion of projection and expectation) of hard labour and repetitive tasks might be found boring and tiring (or not)

Phase 3: the interest is fading away maybe and the mind is on the next host or project but still here physically

Phase 4: Good bye and re-adjustment to solitude. It is nice when a helper, a friend, comes back as they come back knowing what it is all about and the projection expectation is not so strong.

  1. What do you like/dislike about the use of helpers?

I like having helpers. It’s a very nice opportunity to meet new people while continuing to be active on the project. It’s brilliant. I used to move around a lot when I was younger so now it feels like others are moving around us. As most helpers have come here with learning in mind, my responsibility is to provide pertinent data.

  1. How do you organise your helpers?

I organise them according to their capacity that is expressed, their interest, their ability to face new challenges, self confidence, and the timing and priorities of the building diary. I keep in mind how to sustain interest by providing various ranges of tasks. In eco-building this is not a problem as there is so much to do to process the natural material. The meaning arises with the connection from raw material to building material.

  1. How do your helpers react to you?

Most  have been in their twenty’s. With most we develop a feeling of friendship through living together, activity and the living environment. We make quite clear about the rustic nature of accommodation so for most helpers it has not been a shock – for some even attractive (it is funny when it is a cultural shock; the bender and bucket compost toilet). However, for all who stay long enough, it has always been a success and pleasure for them to rediscover simplicity of living and the project.  The project is an ordinary building – a studio and family house – but what can be extraordinary is that it is done by non-professionals, in a slow motion with plenty of time to think about the process.

  1. What do you expect from your helpers in terms of hours/day, skills, and daily duties?

Everybody who wishes to help is welcome. Most helpers have not been experienced in building but most show an interest in eco-building and come here with the aim to learn and experience – that in itself is already a good basis for quality. The average hours and duties are specified at the helpex website as a form of tacit contract, but from the first helper most have done more – I am confident in self-regulation. As it is not a holiday camp in the south of France there is plenty to do. I try to be vigilant so that helpers are at ease to have time for themselves.

  1. How long do you estimate you spend training helpers? How does it affect the pace of your project?

Since it can be quite simple, as in one step tasks at times, it depends on the real interest and my ability to explain. Once again, there is always a task to match to anyone according to their capacity at the time, so it’s more about identifying that. Of course, there are different levels but the most enjoyable is when helpers make the phase of the project they are in their own… “if you see a job, it’s yours!” sort of thing. But normally I explain the why and how I do the task but let it go naturally as it’s an opportunity to discover another’s way of doing it.

  1. What is the cost/benefit ratio from the financial expenses on the one hand and the use of (inexperienced) helpers on the other?

In a way it’s invaluable, as we are talking of how humans relate to activity. I will not do for the sake of a bed and meal something that is meaningless to me and will have great difficulty to do it for the sake of ‘good money’ anyway. Even with a professional the input and interest in the matters are inestimable. To put in other terms, being well balanced is a life experience, working, living together for that time and sharing the knowledge and the unknown.

  1. How do you balance out your personal needs and home life with having to be with helpers for long periods of time?

It’s fine. We get to know each other and most helpers are very flexible as they on a personal journey themselves.

  1. Because its a construction project, is gender a preference/issue?

No preference at all. Maybe more females have come so far – some of them were very strong – but once again is not strength but the ability to find appropriate answers to practically solve a problem and to relate to the data provided by experiencing natural material.

  1. If a helper was to get hurt on your site doing work for you, who would be responsible?

I have not been thinking about that before. Helpers should have insurance according to Anne. Of course security is a main concern on the building site anyway, like keeping the tools tidy, keeping access free and great vigilance of the surroundings at all times. However this alone cannot be a guarantee as one second is enough for an accident. In a way it is the great difference between experienced and inexperienced people – how they will interact with their surroundings and the side effect of activity (cleaning and tidying the tools at the end of the day). I have found myself going around tidying after them a lot sometimes, but hey…!!!

  1. How do you relate to your position of authority in managing your helpers? (How do you balance the need for directing people with the desire to let them take responsibilities?)

That is a tricky one. Since I am not against better ways of doing things and I know that I don’t have all the answers, I remain open so a good surprise may occur.

  1. As a host, what recommendations would you give to other hosts?

Be in tune with yourself and open to others, grateful to new experiences and approaches that others bring in… but I am not too keen in giving recommendations to others, so this one is to myself..


So, what do you think?

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