We move in




Almost exactly to the day two years after building – we move in to our own home 🙂

The next post will be a thank you…. .but some photos of the house. 
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We have established a veggie garden in the front. 



Sitting down for a well deserved rest this time not on the ground but on furniture…..

DSC_1390The inside of the house starts to look like a home….


House lights from recycled materials, with an artist’s touch

It has been a while since our last post. As the house moves towards completion the finishing touches is what most people comment on. Now you really can’t see the house has been built using sandbags – the walls look like any other wall you would find in a conventional house. So should we have bought ordinary lights, doors, kitchen and bathroom cupboards, our house would certainly have lost some of it’s special character, and definitely some of it’s intent, which was to do it naturally, and to keep our footprint light and green. But here enters my mom, steadfast and stubborn, and even though she would say I’m the visionary, she kept saying: “normal lights will not fit in my house” and “that man thinks I will not have wooden cupboards he’s got to think again, it can be done” and so on and so on. I kept nodding, admiring her determination, whilst my mom described her imaginary “natural lights” and insisted that she started making and buying lights before the house exterior has been completed. This meant she could purchase it over time and she can get exactly what she wants.

And here enters our angels Lumin and Chris. Perfectly sent with their abundant artistic hands, minds and hearts and a complete appreciation and understanding of my mom’s dream. One by one they crafted each light and mirror fitting in our house – with care, patience, creativity, and soul. From the start we never felt that they were service providers that treated us as their clients, we were friends. And having had many experiences of how cold the building world can be, they not only created our lights, but really brought so much warmth and character to our house.

So herewith follows a little tour of each light. We first noticed Chris’s fishes made from driftwood at our friend’s dentist practice. Stunningly made from driftwood collected on their daily excursions on the beach, and the fish’s head made by Lumin in her pottery studio. Could we not turn this into a light? The fish sits above the staircase and looks magnificent.


My mom sourced two sneezewood poles, originally used for fencing, with the holes and even some of the original wire still in tact from a generous farmer. Could we not turn those into lights? Chris made lights out of these hanging from the ceiling which took quite a bit of time on the technical side of things.



To cast light on the kitchen counter, Lumin suggested we take one of the frames we used to build the house, and fill it with recycled wine glass bottoms, that she fired in her pottery oven as glass panes. The effect is magnificent and the only showpiece of the frames used to build the house.


To light the working area over the stove, Lumin and Chris sourced enamel lids from scrap yards and made a lovely piece of it, that now hangs over the stove in the kitchen.


For one of the bedrooms, Chris and Lumin combined a mixture of driftwood with glass and pottery pieces to make an unusual and unique chandelier. During the day, the sun hits the crosses and casts beautiful light reflections on the walls.


Using bits of glass picked up from the beach, and a whole collection of “lost keys” Lumin made a glass fitting for the bathroom.


A simple light for the guest toilet, that fits with the wooden theme.



This light was made to fit the mirror, all made by Chris.



Handmade mirrors from driftwood and old railway sleepers. 


Chris made a lovely piece for the hallway, using driftwood and mounting it on swiveling metal rods. The three pieces swivel individually, casting light in different directions through the hallway.


Lumin and Chris can be contacted as per details below. Expect a warm and hearty engagement.

Lumin James Originals: 072 514 8658

Just Naturally Driftwood Creations (Chris): 074 129 5012

Wooden kitchen cupboards

The kitchen cupboards

The kitchen cupboards

All of the cupboards in our house have been made from wood. Chris Constanza from Wattle and Daub put the cupboards in for us. Chris volunteered on our natural building workshop where he did a lot of the cooking. We approached many kitchen cupboard companies to get quotes on using wood. Most conventional kitchen cupboard companies were reluctant to use wood stating that it would be to expensive and difficult to work with and strongly advised us to use melamine. One company suggested using wood in the kitchen would cost close to a R100 000 ($ 11 000).

Chris the chef preparing lunch in the solar cooker

Chris’s quote was very reasonable and his workmanship was of the highest standard. We can honestly say that of all the service providers that were involved with our house in the building of it, Chris far out-shone the others in terms of professionalism, quality and respect for our property. He was also the most accommodating and insightful when it came to understanding our vision for the cupboards and the “look” we wanted to achieve. He incorporated the recycled wooden boxes that my mother salvaged from my grandmother’s garage. These wooden boxes were used to deliver paraffin in and my mother stripped the paint of the boxes to reveal the old “advertising emblems” engraved on the sides of the boxes.

Salvaged paraffin boxes

Salvaged paraffin boxes

paraffin box drawers

paraffin box drawers














Chris used these boxes to build a food storage cupboard and pull-out drawers. The kitchen tops and doors are made from black wood (Acacia melanoxia) and karri wood (Eucalyptus diversivolor). These trees are invasive exotics from Australia and using it helps to clear alien vegetation and preserves our indigenous hardwood species.

We used all of our left over half tins of varnish for treating the interiors of the cupboards and a natural varnish for the exterior.

The scullery

The scullery

The varnish brings out the color of the wood

The varnish brings out the color of the wood

Chris Constanza lives in St Francis Bay and works in the Kouga area. He loves challenging and different projects (I think our house fits the bill 🙂 ). Chris Constanza (www.wattleanddaub.co.za – 076 828 6100 – chris@wattleanddaub.co.za)

The Natural floor is done

The bedroom floor

The bedroom floor

The final lime layer of our natural floor has been put down. The floor comprises of a rock layer, followed by a cob layer and then two layers of lime plaster. We used clay and earth to add color to the lime. The first layer of lime cracked considerably and we did a series of experiments to see how best we could get the last layer not to crack. Our experiments showed that adding cement is not required, which is great.


Once the last layer of lime dried, we sealed it with a combination of linseed oil, turpentine and natural floor wax. The end result is beautiful. So far the floor is holding up well, it does not dust and is fairly waterproof. It is really easy to clean, just sweeping up dust and washing with water.

some more experiments

some more experiments


The final product – sealed with linseed oil, turpentine and beeswax

We used a combination of techniques to put the last layer of lime down. We put the floor down in one continuous go, without the use of any material to allow for expansion. It took some experimenting to crack it but the end result is amazing.


The house that Susan built

Article that appeared on the green business guide: 

The house that Susan built

What makes a house green? Is it the energy saving features? Is it the high thermal properties of the building walls? Or is it the relentless pursuit of a journey to create a home that makes as little impact on its environment as is humanly possible?

This is the question Susan and Jakkie Botha of Jeffrey’s Bay set out to answer when they decided to build a sustainable house for their mother.  Susan and Jakkie set out to prove they could build a green home using local, natural materials and could keep the cost within their limited budget.

Susan and Jakkie run a successful, edible landscape business in the Jeffrey’s Bay and Port Elizabeth area called Urban Harvest. By their own admission, they confess they knew nothing about construction and its management, so their first step was to embark on a fact-finding mission to determine which of the natural building styles would best suit their requirements.

After much consideration, sandbags were selected as the most suitable natural material to use for the construction of the house. The bags chosen to hold the sand are made of a robust geotextile material and they were readily available from the local market. The structure utilised approximately 20,000 of these specialised bags. The sand was sourced from a nearby quarry and delivered to site by the truck load. Each of the bags holds approximately 7.5kg.

The foundation was made using a crushed stone sub-base topped with sandbags. It was recommended the sandbags be filled with 1:10 cement to sand ratio for improved strength. The structural wood & galvanized sheet latticework forming the outside walls, sits directly onto the sandbag foundation. Questioning the structural integrity of sand bag walls, Susan and Jackie first carried out a field test, which demonstrated clearly that sufficient structural integrity was derived from the sheer weight of thousands of sandbags.

Although professionals were required at certain stages to fine-tune the design and the construction process, it was quite surprising and on some level, liberating to learn how the Botha sisters made use of resources available to them to achieve the majority of the build by themselves. They made use of a free version of Sketchup to draw up a 3D model of their plan and received useful tips from friends such as how to use a clear, water filled hosepipe to work out their levels.

Knowing their limitations and understanding the need to quickly learn the construction ‘tricks of the trade’, the best thing Susan and Jakkie did was experiment, experiment and experiment some more. When they bought the plot, they spent 12 months researching and closely studying the local weather patterns.  Weather patterns are an essential observation for proper orientation and design of a passive house.  Most importantly, the sisters listened carefully to and aimed to meet their client’s requirements.

The Botha sisters were surprised to find that they were not the first to attempt such a feat. A short time searching the Internet yielded many examples of people who have succeeded in building their own house from natural materials, right here in South Africa. This was a very important find for them as a precedent had already been established and allowed them to approach local authorities with built examples that helped to explain their own application. The local building authorities’ requirements had to be taken into account as the utilities connections would have an effect on the buildings eventual orientation.

The building process itself was a series of highs and lows. It was a very steep learning curve for the sisters, involving continuous experimentation with different materials of various recipes. For example, the ideal solution for the exterior walls was a wire mesh fixed to the sandbags, plastered with a cob mixture and sealed with lime/prickly pear juice mixture. This recipe was perfected after considerable experimentation. The building walls took approximately 1 month to erect, with an average of 5 people working per day. Sitting inside, one can appreciate the impressive thermal quality of the building envelope, even when gale force winds were battering the other side of the walls.

There was obviously a lot of preparation work to be done before building could begin, as the sandbags needed to be filled by hand. This is when delegation of priorities set in and team-work became an integral part of this project.

As soon as word spread that the building had commenced, many people expressed a desire to be part of this exciting project. People from as far as Cape Town came to J-Bay to volunteer their services and expertise. This was truly becoming a community project. Susan and Jakkie were also able to raise much needed funds with practical courses during the construction process.

In addition to the ‘natural’ building materials used for the building envelope, a solar water heater has been installed on the north facing part of the roof. The intention is to add further efficiency features such as a 50,000 litre, ferro-cement water tank for rainwater harvesting and a photovoltaic installation. A black water digester was considered, but the volume created would be too low for the system to function effectively. A composting black water system is currently being researched. It is worth noting that the roofing material was also selected on the basis of tests undertaken by manufacturers to show the effect their materials would have on rainwater collection. Some roofing materials could not guarantee that the water harvested would be suitable for residential consumption making them unsuitable.

The one factor remaining to consider is costing. What did this building cost and how does it compare to a conventional building? According to Susan, the 160m² cost approximately R450,000, which works out to approximately R2812/m². The Kitchen still needs to be accounted for, pushing the final per meter price to approximately R3500. There was a higher than usual man hours invested into the construction of this natural house. That translated into a higher total labour cost. However, there were many man hours invested but not considered in the costing as they were invested by volunteers who bartered those hours for experience. Furthermore, many of the building materials could not be considered in the per meter price as those materials were sourced at no cost. For example, the prickly pear is considered invasive and farmers were all too happy for them to be removed from their farm. The stones for the sub-base were also sourced from the adjacent properties at no cost. Another unexpected cost, considered in the final cost estimate was material loss due to theft.  Susan estimates R50,000 was lost due to theft of materials and the subsequent security costs incurred with trying to minimize such loss levels.

Through trial and tribulation, Susan and Jakkie have created a truly natural house that does not negatively affect its environment and aims to be as energy and resource efficient as possible. It will be very interesting to see how the house settles into its environment and how it evolves to become even more efficient with the addition of various technologies. The lessons learnt from this trailblazing construction will no doubt be employed in other natural buildings throughout South Africa, aiding the spread of energy efficiency in a country with limited and overstretched resources. 


By: Khaled El-Jabi

Natural Building Course – 10 November 2012

Natural Building Workshop – 10 November 2012 

This one day workshop will provide you with a good overview of the entire process of building a natural home. We will tell you the story of building our sandbag house in Jeffreys Bay and give you a practical demonstration of each step from laying the foundations to applying the cob and natural lime finishes. This is a very special course, you will be told our story, from start to end, with all the insights required to start building your own house.

We will cover the following topics:

Visioning and creating a project plan for building your own home
Overview of different natural building techniques including wattle and daub
Getting your plans approved by the municipality
Laying sandbag foundations

Building walls using sandbags
Building walls using wattle and daub
Plastering with cob and natural lime

Laying down a natural floor
Cost breakdown of building

We will use powerpoint presentations to explain certain steps as well as practically building with sandbags, making cob and natural lime.

Bring pen and paper, sunscreen and a hat
We will be handling earth and other natural materials so it is advised to wear comfortable, old clothesCost: R650 (Lunch and teas will be provided)
Date: 10 November 2012 Times: 09h00 to 15h30
Venue: 3 Dandelion Close, Jeffreys Bay
Spaces are limited and bookings can be made by e-mailing susan.botha@gmail.com

Natural Floor Experiments

We are busy putting the natural floor down – I remember this was said to be the last thing you do – so that is quite amazing. The first layer is rock and cobbles followed by a layer of cob and then two layers of lime. The layer of cobbles was compacted using a heavy “dropper”. The cob layer followed and took some time to dry. It was compacted somewhat from all the traffic on it and this makes the lime layer we are putting on a bit thicker, instead of 20 mm it is closer to 25 mm. 


The first layer of lime we added color to using a combination of two different earths, one a very deep red and the other a cream yellow. This gave us a light brown finish, since the lime does bleach out the color.

The surprising factor was the lime cracking as can be seen in the photos.

We have now done various experiments to see how we can minimize the cracking. One involves adding prickly pear juice which works well as a water repellent and we used this to seal the walls after it was plastered. Another experiment that is working well is to cover the plaster with plastic. This allows the plaster to sweat and dry slower, which minimizes cracking. We have also added 8% cement to one sample, although this is not environmentally friendly, we would like to compare the strength of this sample to the other natural ones. I have also added a photo here of one of our samples that was left without plastic and cracked. If all goes well we should be able to put the second layer of lime down within a week’s time….. can not believe we are moving into the final part! So exciting 🙂

Oh, and another tip! Mixing lime plaster with your feet can be very, very painful. Boots are recommended and gloves for your hands – happy natural building 🙂