Building with nature in mind – international workcamp in Bozevce

Almost two weeks ago, 12 volunteers from 10 countries flocked together in Bozevce for a 16-day workcamp in Kosovo.

Being the first out of two workcamps in Bozevce, these weeks are dedicated to finalizing the second floor of a building on GAIA’s Permaculture estate through the means of natural materials and building techniques. This entails customizing straw bales to form solid walls, securing them with rebars and adding a layer of a cob mix (straw, sand, clay) to protect the straw walls with human power.

GAIA’s estate functions primarily on permaculture principles and ethics, one of the ethics is integral to this month’s workcamp: Fair Share – this means that you share goods and knowledge with another to improve both the collective and individual wealth of knowledge, well-being, but also that of our planet earth.

Since most of the participants were not familiar with the ethics and principles of permaculture, the first few days served to provide them with a concise, yet short introduction and how these were applied by GAIA in Bozevce. A solid understanding of permaculture is integral to the understanding why GAIA decided to follow natural building strategies and materials found within the close distance of their estate, instead of conventional tools and concrete to fill up the walls with. One way of getting participants familiar with the benefits of natural materials was by instructing them to come up with house building plans that include the new knowledge on building with natural materials. Not only did we learn about alternative heating systems and the use of thermo panels on roofs but also how participants from different cultural backgrounds came up with different solutions.

After the first few days of learning about permaculture, natural building and getting to know each other, we began our serious work on the roof on Monday. A regular day of work would start at 6:00 am when the early birds get up to rise with the sun. Others would gather around the beautifully hand-made wooden table around the tree soon afterwards to take their breakfast until 8:30 am. The work day would start at 9 am after a short briefing about the work schedule of the day. The day would be divided into 4 working sessions with coffee, water and cookie breaks as well as lunch and dinner in between of them. Given the fact, that the temperatures gradually rose to almost unbearable 40 degrees – we adjusted the hours in the second week to begin earlier in order to prevent our bodies from smoldering in the scorching midday sun.

In the first week, work mostly set up the straw walls and fixed them with nets. This entailed a sequence of different tasks ranging from setting up the scaffolding around the facade of the building, cutting straw bales and fitting them into the wall constructions, plugging wholes with extra straw and flattening out the walls with blanks and strong arms. We mostly work in different groups throughout the day’s working shifts so that every person did not feel stuck in a task that they did not enjoy. Overall, this strategy retained the enjoyment of work task but also ensured that each person was able to learn how to conduct the different working tasks. Without labeling the strategy as a way of practicing Fair Share, it also aligned with the permaculture ethics.

On several days, the camp was visited by neighbours and KFOR soldiers who expressed their interest and curiosity in what we are doing in Bozevce. For most locals, building in this manner is not new to them but part of an old traditional way of resource efficient construction work. However, the fact that building this way requires more human power and stretches the duration of the building process, if one does not have enough helping hands, most of them have been opting for concrete as the main building resources in the region. Despite this trend, we all agree that using straw for wall insulation remains the single most resource efficient material in the area that respects environmental boundaries and climate stressors that come along with fossil fuel industries producing conventional house building materials.

For the participants, the workcamp has been a unique opportunity to learn beyond the beaten path of house construction but also to disconnect from their busy everyday lives. Each of them readily adapted to the surroundings of the estate and the specific living conditions of Bozevce. One might conceive of the idea to put down mobile phones and not having the possibility to escape to big city life as uncomfortable restrictions to how they usually spend their time, but actually function as enablers to become more aware of the natural and social environment by living minimally. Reducing one’s possibilities of how to spend their free time such as surfing the internet, going out for drinks or enjoying other forms entertainment has both bounded the group together and enabled each of us to reconnect with the natural environment and bodily senses. Put differently, GAIA’s workcamp teaches us in many ways of how to feel more with less.

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