The Work Groups: Building more than houses.

by Peter Cock

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   This story is as much about building community relations as providing shelter. It is as much about building commitment to a place and learning to work with the materials nature provides of earth, sun, wind, rocks and trees. The experience taught us how to reconnect with nature by working with its locally expressed elements.

   We have used all kinds of ways of earth building: mud brick, rammed earth, pressed blocks and earth pour. The last is a more recent use, as we have found it to be the most labour efficient and it can be used during all seasons. Twenty five houses later what we have created is a terrific variety of earth, timber and stone constructions, some large and complex, others small and simple.

   The building groups began in 1976. Like our community plans, our house design tended towards the grand. Of course mine had to be an autonomous house design, with the first Victorian solar centrally heated house with multi levels and angles that are never right. Sandra, my partner was a life saver in her dogged determination to keep going. I suffered from my ideas being so far ahead of my hands. Thank God for the blindness and arrogance of youth. I had never built a house and had trouble hammering in a nail without bending. I was scared. Luckily I was OK as a labourer and as an organiser of materials and help. House building involves so much to do and so many different domains of design and construction; from energy systems, landscaping, concrete pours, woodworking to stone wall construction, hunting second hand materials, best deals and more. It always takes longer than your worst fears. Our home, which we dearly love, took 7 years to complete. The sheer energy involved, the strain as well as delight means that it is no wonder most people get others to build their houses and spend their lifetime paying for it. Most owner builders say that the key to success is to approach building your home as a life style, building as part of your everyday life.

   A key to making the experience achievable and pleasurable was the community. Most of us knew something we could contribute to building but none of us knew it all. So we formed the first Moora Moora building group, which was simply 7 home builders agreeing to work together once a week building our houses. A roster was drawn up so that each week we rotated whose house we were working on. It was up to each home builder to organise the tasks and allocate the work force. We would meet for coffee in the morning and review what was to be done. The host provided lunch and drinks. We developed a system of credits and debits over time so that individuals were free to come or not without anyone feeling that they were missing out. We very quickly established who was good at what. As a group we found useful ways of employing each other and learnt to become comfortable with different levels of skill, standards of care and levels of courage to have a go. It is amazing how mistakes can add character to buildings, or can be hidden and not matter. We each in our own way all wore a design or building cross. For some it was doing everything by hand, for others using stone work, for us it was building too complex a building, that would sustain our interest and pleasure for a lifetime - and so far it has.

   Our group consisted of 3 couples and a single mum. We were in the 25-35 age bracket. We worked together for over 4 years. Our success inspired another building group to form. They worked together on another day of the week. Our group stopped when most of the work was done and our houses were livable. After that, building cooperation was on a person to person, largely barter rather then paid basis.

   This group provided the support structure to keep going and not to become overwhelmed. We all learned new skills through trial and error and were freed from having to do it all ourselves. Even so in our case, we also employed some outside labour.

   After making houses livable, there was then the slower development process. For example, houses were built usually in either formal discrete stages or informal ones which involved constructing a shell, then fitting it out with core living areas and then bedrooms. The final phase; the never to be completed finishing touches, is usually done much latter and often in tandem with updating.

   I return to the beginning. Out work group built houses, but much more. It built friendships, mutual respect, feelings of ownership for the whole community.


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