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Artistic natural building design

Ten years ago I set on a magical journey to build my own artistic natural building, Elaman Puu, by hand.

Published on:

August 22, 2022

Contact Heidi
Artistic natural building design

Apart from being an illustrator and surface pattern designer, I have embarked on various other art projects during my life; some smaller, some larger, but most of them equally interesting. One of them, however, is my most ambitious creative project and my article will give you a peek into this special accomplishment in my life.

The background to my natural building

In Summer 2012 I set on an epic journey in a personal sense – to build my own artistic natural building. The aim was for the house to be a homage to nature and creativity, both inside and outside of my imagination. The landscape I chose to build on, was the one I had spent my childhood at in Finland, finding fairies and hidey-holes, playing with twigs and flowers, as well as my friends and black cat, Maija. Next to my childhood home, by the edge of the forest, over the Summers that followed; I hand sculpted my artistic natural cottage mainly by using hands, and few power tools.

The project grew from a sweet idea in my head into a small community building project; which my parents also took active part in, and volunteers from around Europe came to help out and learn about building with natural materials. During the first Summer, my cottage, named Elaman Puu (Tree of Life) sprouted from the ground like a magical mushroom, and taught me so much about life, the importance of creativity, community, self-belief and persistence.

Me hugging my natural cottage - the only house I ever want to hug.

Natural building is intuitive building

I sincerely think that if every person built their own shelter, this world would be such a different place. There is no way a building one builds by him/herself is just a building. When its walls are full of memories, when its floors are full of footsteps, when its roof is full of conversation, when the trees that support the house have seen me grow up from a toddler to an adult. There is always playfulness involved with building with natural materials – it is inviting an exchange, a dance almost.

Using natural building materials

Building naturally is about considering the soil, the landscape and the climate, when choosing which natural materials to use; in my case, I used various materials and techniques, including cob, straw-bale and cord/cobwood. I wanted this experimental and artistic house to be an educational journey into intuitive building, inner knowing, and personal empowerment: to be able to say I can do it, I will do it, rather than finding excuses why it won’t work.

My build could have easily failed; I had never built anything prior to this – yes, I had used a power drill and a jig saw, but that was about it. However, what kept me going over the building process was a dream. A real one, and a conceptual one. I had dreamt about the cottage already been built and standing. And I was dreaming about making that into reality. I felt nothing was going to stand in my way and stop this from happening - myself and my doubts included.

Mother Nature cob sculpture I made on the wall.

Freedom of imagination

The foundation was made with gravel, the walls with a mixture of clay, sand and straw. Stuff children play with and make mud-cakes from. Building my cottage was like child’s play: I was making mud cakes all Summer long. But it wasn’t child’s play in the physical sense, it was incredibly strenuous and hard work. But I loved almost every minute of it, come rain or shine. Because I was free to do what I wanted with it.

There was no one breathing in my neck, saying this is not how someone should be building. Rulers and spirit levels were banned from the build. On one day I thought I wanted to make a dragon pizza oven into the wall that would somehow puff smoke when fired. No one told me it couldn't be done, and neither did I. So I started building one and to see what happens. The dragon pizza oven is still there and baked many delicious pizzas over the years.

My daughter Pinja blowing air into the pizza oven

Creative choices

A natural builder who I spoke to before starting the building work said to me (when I asked about how to do it): 'It’s a bit strange to say, but once you start working with the (natural) materials, you will know what to do. It is all inside of you, intuitively, the knowledge.'

Hearing this, the inner child in me leapt with joy – and slight dread. Because I didn't really know what I was doing, and the idea was just to let go and trust the process.... yes, exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

I sculpted the outside of the cottage to look like a tree has taken hold over it, like the whole building is still part of nature. I created a beautiful Mother Nature sculpture on the inside walls, with her hair spiralling from the entrance to the other end of the building. I built the doorway to the dwelling to be lower than a standard door, because I wanted the person who enters to feel like they are entering somewhere special, a bit less formal and more child-like and playful. I added hammock chair, instead of ‘real chairs’ to be able to see and enjoy the different features and roundedness of it all.

Everything inside and outside the cottage is as environmentally friendly as possible, the two main windows are old sauna windows, which I got from a family friend before any foundations were even laid to the place.

The materials needed are so simple, yet they can be used in such a varied, creative ways. It is wonderful to think that most of the materials were found on site, apart from the green roof liner and the straw bales which were from a horse farm about 10 away.

More than a box with doors and windows; my natural building is a circle, infused with life, memories, people, community and meaning. And lots and lots of hard work.

Building with mud is magic!

Natural building is building with nature

In my life as an artist, I am always looking for ways to grow and interpret life creatively. Even though my natural cottage, at least in theory, is now complete, its story will never really end. By being a natural building, it continues to live its own life. The earthen plasters need replacing, the clay paint needs refreshing, the wooden parts need oiling and staining. Earth lives, expands, shrinks, lifts, lowers back down. Like patterns in nature, my natural building is filled with them.

This Summer I replaced a crumbling part of earthen plaster at the back wall, fixed a torn EPDM liner on the roof and tidied the whole cottage internally from hundreds of cobwebs woven by spiders during Covid time when I was unable to visit Finland. The Summer before, I fixed the lime plaster on the walls, and added solar electricity points inside.

I am replacing the earthen plaster on the back wall.

Creative work is love made visible

By talking to other natural builders when I started the building work, I knew that the work involved with natural building never really ends; but because the materials are so accessible and the work so meaningful, that doesn’t really matter. Like Gibran says: ‘work is love made visible’. Or at least should be, if one loves his/her work! My original blog for the build has so far had over 155.000 views so I know my work was of interest to other dreamers and creatives too.

About three Summers ago I finished a composting toilet behind the cottage by the woods. I used light clay straw technique when building it, which means I was intent on using the leftover materials and wood from my cottage build. (Light clay straw is a mixture of straw and clay slurry).

By thinking creatively, I managed to make an unusual, yet solid structure over few Summers, with minimal environmental impact but with maximum creative impact. I called the outhouse ‘Raven House’, because at the time of building, I witnessed ravens circling the wood around me. I also painted Raven designs into the inner walls with iron oxides, and my daughter Pinja created some of her own birds too.

I hope that one day I will be able to do another natural build again, but a bigger one - in case that happens, I will be writing another blog about it. Be sure to follow me on my website and social media. If you want to check out my Youtube channel, you can see some of the making of videos whilst I was building my cottage

Me sketching in front of my cottage in Summer 2022

I am a professional illustrator and freelance pattern designer, based in UK. Please check out my pages and other blog posts for creative ideas and projects. To hire me to design for you, please email me with your project details at: info@heidivilkman.com

Useful links:

If you are interested in natural building, here are some useful links to get you started: 

My original Cobdreams blog (with the whole story)

Sigi Koko's page on natural building: https://buildnaturally.com

Oliver Swann's Natural Homes resource: http://naturalhomes.org

Talking Natural Homes group on Facebook

Books on natural building: The Hand-Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage: The Real Goods Solar Living Book

Building with Cob: A Step-by-Step Guide by Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce

Building with Straw Bales by Barbara Jones

The Straw Bale House (Real Goods Independent Living Book) by Athena Sventzell Steen

Earthbag Building: The Tools, Tricks and Techniques (Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series, 8) by Kaki Hunter

Me standing on my artistic natural building in 2022

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