Denied Cement, Re-Building with Mud

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RAFAH, May 7 (IPS) By Eva Bartlett- Jihad el-Shaar is pleased with his mud-brick house in the Moraj district of Gaza. The 80-square metre home is a basic one-storey, two-bedroom design, with a small kitchen, bathroom and sitting room, made mostly with mud and straw.

“My wife and our four daughters and I were living with family, but it was overcrowded, impossible. We knew we had to build a home of our own,” Shaar said. “We waited over two years for cement but because of the siege there is none available. What could we do, wait forever?”

So he decided to do it with mud.

Building earthen structures like bread ovens and small animal pens is a technique many Palestinians are familiar with, but extending the method to houses isn’t a notion that has taken hold in Gaza.

Jihad el-Shaar got the idea from his travels in Asia and the Middle East. “I travelled in Bangladesh, India, Yemen, Turkey…they all use some similar technique of building houses from earth. All you need is clay, sand and some straw.” These he mixed with water, and poured into brick moulds that were left in the sun to dry for three days. Good enough to build a fine house with.

While some Gaza residents speak of shame at the way life has ‘gone backwards’ with the siege – using cooking oil in cars, wood fires for cooking, and horse and donkey carts for transportation – Shaar is proud of his clay home.

“In the winter it is warm, and in the summer it will be cool. There’s no problem with leaking, and this type of house will last a lifetime,” he says. “And it was cheap to build. A house this size made of cement would cost around 16,000 dollars at least. This one, because it was made with simple, local materials cost just 3,000 dollars.”

Prior to Israel’s crippling siege on Gaza cement would have cost 20 shekels (about five dollars) a bag. Now, with cement among the many banned items, what does make it into Gaza through tunnels under the Egypt border costs ten times as much.

The 3,000 dollars Shaar spent was mostly on support metal and on the flakes of straw used in the mud bricks as a strengthening agent. The metal bits, formerly just over 1,000 shekels a tonne, are now quadrupled in price, which contribute to making an otherwise cheap building process still somewhat pricey.

Straw abounds, but due to the siege it is more often used as animal fodder, rendering it more precious and driving the price up. Clay and sand, found all over Gaza, must still be transported to the building site.

Compared to a cement home, the mud homes Shaar has designed and taught others to build are nonetheless the most practical and immediate solution.

Nidal Eid (35) has seven children and has been renting a home in the Rafah region since his house was bulldozed by the Israeli army four years ago. Larger than Shaar’s and still in its nascent form, Eid’s home will take another two weeks to complete, he estimates, and will cost roughly 4,000 dollars.

“It’s going to be fantastic,” Eid said, adding mud mortar and new bricks to the waist-high wall he has already completed. “We make about 1,000 bricks every three days.”

The work, he said, was shared between six people. “I couldn’t wait any longer for the siege to end. I have a family and we need a house, so I’m building this. Everything is difficult in Gaza, but we have to find ways to get by.”

A tour through Jihad el-Shaar’s home shows all sorts of creative touches to the simple structure. Inlaid shelves are custom-sized to hold gas lanterns, dishes, ornamental vases, books…an earth-brick bed eliminates the need for an additional bed frame. The 35cm thick walls keep the house surprisingly cool, and the wooden windows propped open by poles allow the breeze to pass through.

This sort of idea is catching on. Yousef Al-Mansi, minister for public works and housing says the ministry will build a school, a mosque, and a clinic out of recycled rubble from bombed buildings.

The Gaza crossings online database of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) records that only two trucks carrying construction material have been allowed into Gaza since Jan. 19 this year. Israel’s assault on Gaza ended Jan. 18.

While 4.5 billion dollars in aid money for reconstruction has been pledged by international donors, to date Israel has not permitted the entry of materials into Gaza.

During its three-week assault Israel destroyed some 5,000 homes and 20,000 buildings.

“Since I’ve made my house, I’ve got many calls from people, especially in Rafah, who want to rebuild their houses using this technique,” says Shaar. “There are entire families living in tents. Why not build a home like this? Because of the siege, we’ve found other ways of living.”

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13 comments

  1. Dear Eva,

    I found your blog entry on mud houses fascinating. Jihad el-Shaar’s house, with its simple, functional layout and shuttered windows, and walls with built-to-size niches and shelves for family possessions, reminded me of Laurie Baker and houses he built in India.

    Baker was an English architect who originally went to India to work for a leprosy mission, but who stayed to promote housing for the poor. (Wikipedia has a ‘Laurie Baker’ page you can click on for more details of his life.) He quickly realized he’d been poorly prepared in England learning to build houses for the English upper and middle classes to build homes in India for the poor, so he studied and improved on local methods. His booklets are available free of charge online. I feel certain your Gazan friends would find them interesting.

    Please go to the http://lauriebaker.net/work/work/booklets-and-writing-by-laurie-baker.html page of the Laurie Baker website, whose homepage is at http://lauriebaker.net . Scroll down the page to ‘Download Booklets’ and download especially booklets (1) Brickwork, (6) Houses- How to reduce building costs and (7) Mud.

    You might also want to download booklets (4) Rural House Plans and (9) Rural Community Buildings.

    Please do wish Jihad el-Shaar and other Gazan builders well for me, and please do continue to report from Gaza.

    Sincerely,
    James Wiegert

  2. May I translate and publish this article (including a few photos and the video of the brick-building) ? My blog carries information on Gaza published in English to French speakers. (http://carol.blog.tdg.ch). Hats off to the creativity and steadfastness of the people of Gaza. And infinite thanks to you for your work.
    Carol

  3. Dear Carol

    thank you, you certainly may translate this and any other articles/postings!

  4. Pingback: Earth Architecture

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