Eco-Building: Muddy Feet and Creative Minds

Eco-Building: Muddy Feet and Creative Minds

This article has been written in collaboration with Enviroschools and includes text and images re-published with permission. Published April 2024.

Learning with and from Nature

Have you ever made your own mud bricks or cob wall? How can we design buildings and outdoor spaces that incorporate mātauranga Māori and inspiration from nature?

These are just some of the engaging and hands-on experiences that can emerge from learning about ecological building principles and techniques. It’s also fun to get muddy!

This Spotlight brings together stories from Enviroschools based in the Waikato, Te Upoko o te Ika a Māui | Wellington and Ōtākou regions, with inspiring examples of projects in primary and secondary schools. We also explore how teacher professional learning and student workshops have led to increased confidence and interest in this context which sits across multiple learning areas and encourages a strong connection to place. The final section includes a list of resources, such as the Earth Building Association of NZ (EBANZ).

"Earthen building techniques have been used successfully for thousands of years and they are even more relevant today as we strive for a zero-carbon construction industry. At a purely human level, they create healthy, beautiful buildings that people thrive in." - EBANZ Chairperson Delia Bellaby 
Enviroschools Ecological Building Theme Area

Enviroschools is a national programme supporting over 1,500 schools and early learning centres with long-term sustainability journeys, where ākonga connect with and explore the environment, then plan, design and take action in their local places. The kaupapa is embodied in five guiding principles that underpin the whole Enviroschools journey: Empowered Learners, Learning for Sustainability, Te Ao Māori, Respect for Diversity and Sustainable Communities. 

Ecological Building is one of the Enviroschools Theme Areas used to explore and support learning and actions, along with Energy, Water of Life, Living Landscapes and Zero Waste. The key concepts are:

  • Building expresses people’s culture and relationship with nature
  • Buildings come from nature and return to nature
  • Ecological Building works with nature and enhances the health and wellbeing of the whole community
  • Ecological Building is a co-creative process, with principles we can apply to everything we make

“By exploring and embracing these concepts, ecological building can be a pathway towards living and learning together in a healthy environment, that strengthens our links with our wider community and our natural world.” – Pg 7 Enviroschools Ecological Building Theme Area Resource.  

Registered Enviroschools can access hard copies of the Theme Area resources through their Enviroschools facilitator and digital copies from the Team Area of the website. 

Inspiring Student Projects and Actions

This section includes examples of some of the ecological building projects that have developed as ākonga explore this context. If you’re inspired by the ideas then read the full articles by clicking on the bold links or continue to the following sections about teacher workshops, student activities and resources used to support this learning. 

Warrington School, Ōtepoti Dunedin

Enviroschools facilitator Tess MacKay has been supporting ākonga to transform their ecological building skills and plans into a real structure at their school. Below is a summary of her reflections about the process for the students so far, with the full story here

Since our Ōtepoti Ecological Building Hui in September 2023, Year 7 and 8 students at Warrington School have been refining their eco hut design, finding a site, considering the environmental impact of their hut, practising making adobe bricks and presenting all this mahi to their school Board!

I am no expert on earth building so I relied heavily on the Enviroschools Ecological Building Theme Area resource to guide us and also connected with experts in the community and region, with ongoing support from EBANZ. Early planning included spending time moving around the school grounds observing and engaging with the buildings through the “Sketch fast – draw slow” activity. We talked about the materials used in these buildings and explored more environmentally gentle alternatives. 

Students practised ratio testing for adobe bricks and learnt the properties of clay, sand and straw. Suggestions made by EBANZ experts have led the students to decide to build the structural frame of the building from timber, with support from Cook Brothers Dunedin in using materials diverted from landfill. The advice from experts has led to many changes in design and materials, and at this point they will be making adobe brick using paper pulp!

When I see the connections the students are making between their own wellbeing – “Eco huts are great places for being calm,” and the environmental benefits of earth building – “lowering our exposure to toxins, conserving water, lowering energy and waste”, I can see that they have already built strong foundations, or in Earth Building speak “Good Feet”  - Tess MacKay, Enviroschools facilitator

At the start of 2024 students are writing letters to their community inquiring about diggers, clay pits, builders’ sand and straw bales. The school would like to work with their local marae & mana whenua to include traditional mātauranga Māori practices into the build – most likely art work in render or weaving and dying processes in the thatched roof. Students have mapped the community garden area that the eco hut will sit within and measured out the footprint of the build. We'll update you again when we start building!

Waikato Schools

Schools in the Waikato were invited to take part in an Enviroschools Ecological Building Challenge in 2023. A range of approaches were taken to the challenge from the schools that participated, including an outdoor interactive space at Marian School inspired by Hundertwasser, model-making and design of an outdoor classroom at Matangi School, treehouses and fairy villages at Rototuna School and ngahere exploration at Forest Lake.

Watch the video below for a wonderful overview from the students involved. 

Wellington East Girls’ College

In 2020 teacher Katherine Haines wanted her students to think holistically about ecological design, taking into consideration how buildings can work with nature and enhance the health and wellbeing of the whole community.

Students engaged in thinking about how buildings could acknowledge and be part of the history and natural features of the land. In thinking about the people that are mana whenua, and the people that would use the building and how, they were asked to consider kaitiakitanga, manaakitanga and to ensure cultural safety was part of their design scope. To gain an understanding of these concepts, they consulted with mana whenua through their Enviroschools Facilitator.

      Student 'Eco Home' model

The College has included an ‘Eco Homes’ unit in junior Science (Yr 9 and 10) for years. Initially the learning focused on contemporary science ideas and building model houses. Working in groups, students take on specialist roles in areas such as water, electricity, landscape and building, and they now explore both western science ideas and mātauranga pūtaiao before creating their final designs. They have used an activity with different momo/types of wai from the Enviroschools Water of Life theme area, explored ideas about culturally sustainable architecture and carried out an ecological buildings survey from the Ecological Building theme area.

Ngāti Toa School, Porirua

    Learning building skills

Enviro leaders at Ngāti Toa School have designed and created an outdoor classroom including a mud kitchen and native planting.

Ākonga have written a story about their project and in their words they wanted to “make a mud kitchen for people to play with sand and water without going inside (to get water) or having to pay for it (the water). We are also planning to put in a rainwater catching tank (free water) as part of this project.”

Mud is fun! It’s better to play outside! 
- Ngāti Toa School student  

Cromwell Primary School

Cromwell Primary cob wall

Students at Cromwell Primary School were inspired to design and build their own ecological structure in their school playground after taking part in a workshop with Enviroschools and EBANZ.

The whole school has been involved, along with a local early childhood centre, and the wall is starting to take shape (see image). You can you read about the process in this article from the Central App. The next steps include plans for a roof and mosaic tiles for the surface. Teacher Barbara Caughey sees multiple benefits for tamariki such as improving teamwork skills, mental and physical wellbeing, and strengthening tuakana teina relationships.

These projects are all the result of learning and skills that have been developed over time and in the following sections we explore examples of educator and student workshops.

Building Capability: Educator Workshops

The Enviroschools Ecological Building theme area resources were updated in 2021 and the first step for some Enviroschools regional teams was to spend time exploring the resources with hands-on workshops and trying out activities with teachers. 

Not everyone has confidence in themselves as a “builder,” but, as the team from Enviroschools Te Upoko o Te Ika a Māui found out on their Ecological Building Team Day in March 2022, there are myriad ways to experience this theme area and its key concepts and a great way to get your head around it is to get hands-on. 

“I think that’s an important part of the ecological building process – getting people in touch with the idea that we are actually all builders and can use what we already know to explore building in whatever form.” - Gill Stewart, Wairarapa Enviroschools facilitator 

In March 2023 the Enviroschools Ōtākou | Otago facilitation team were invited to a workshop on Natural Building Materials and Techniques in Tīrau, Cromwell. Led by Delia Bellaby and Elizabeth Norris of Earth Building Association New Zealand (EBANZ), they were taught the art and science of combining clay, sand, straw and water to build robust structures.

“The experience left us buzzing with excitement to share this knowledge with our schools back home.” - Tess MacKay, Enviroschools Facilitator Ōtepoti Dunedin
Waikato educators build huts

Enviroschools Waikato delivered a series of Ecological Building workshops in August 2023 for teachers across the region. A number of the activities from the resource were experienced as ways to build understanding of the key concepts of this focus.

The workshops were also an opportunity to hear about and ask questions about the Waikato Ecological Building Challenge running through the remainder of the year. This was a fun and creative approach to empower all learners to explore Ecological Building and be inspired to take on small building projects.

“It was an opportunity to look at our connection to places and spaces, creative processes and design. We enjoyed exploring quiet spaces in nature, tools for planning projects, some great hut building and tasty kai.”
– Alex Daniels, Waikato Enviroschools Facilitator
Muddy Feet & Hands: Student Workshops
Students making cob

Enviroschools Wairarapa have been exploring Ecological Building with ākonga for the last few years, with workshops in July 2022 and March 2024 at Te Kura o Papatuanuku Wairarapa Earth School, South End School in Carterton.

Creating cob out of clay, straw, water and sand has been a real highlight. The tamariki stomped and danced their way to creating this locally popular building material. They then developed structures out of it, testing its qualities and their design theories.

“The cob was like mud and the walls kept falling down. We had to use different techniques like squashing it around willow branches to keep it up.”
- Yr 6 student Wairarapa

In a scavenger hunt, participants found structures that shelter, funnel, and provide places for animals to live in. They observed sunny spots, welcoming structures, and places that use nature to create meeting areas.

Putting in order life cycle activity cards of different materials generated discussion about the long and short term effects of the building materials we choose to use and how important insulation and orientation is helping to save money and create warm, dry and healthy homes.

The second part of the workshop involved planning and drawing up a project using some of the ecological building concepts they had learned about. Projects included a pizza oven, an outdoor kitchen, and a quiet outdoor space where people and nature could thrive.

“Knowing we are part of nature and working with nature, rather than trying to dominate it, is going to lead to better outcomes for the sustainability of our world and us.
Creating opportunities for our young people to learn in the natural environment, and then take action in their schools and homes is important for their wellness. It is an age-appropriate response to the climate crisis and shown to encourage hopeful thinking.”
– Gill Stewart, Enviroschools Community Facilitator

As touched on earlier in this Spotlight, in September 2023 Ōtepoti Dunedin Enviroschools hosted an Ecological Building Hui for students in Years 7 - 10. With a focus on the key concept “buildings come from nature, and return to nature”, the facilitators used the Enviroschools activity “Life Cycle of Building Materials” to spark this conversation with students. Students also heard from a sustainable carpenter who uses construction waste to build projects for community groups and schools in the region.

The workshop was really hands-on with four Earth Building technique stations: Cob, Wattle & Daub, Adobe Brick and Rendering onto carpet. This was a resource-heavy activity and involved a lot of preparation prior to the hui, but the students loved these stations.

“We can build things other ways to help the world.” – Student

The remainder of the day was spent outside, building models. Students worked together to bring their plans to life. Facilitators provided an array of natural materials and students used the clay mixtures from the workstations. Teachers at the event were also inspired, seeing the possibilities within the Technology learning area, including senior NCEA courses.

The Ōtakou region Enviroschools team have also hosted student workshops in the Clutha District, with five schools taking part in an earth building hui in March 2024.

“We liked the model building and going through the stations because it was fun making things and playing with the mud.”
- Student

Watch a short video here or below, with highlights from the event.

Students in Central Otago have also been learning how to make mud bricks during a recent session in Alexandra. They were invited to take part after learning about the need to restore bricks for a local historic cottage.

        Making mud bricks
“Learning how to make adobe bricks and discovering the history of Vallance Cottage was a great way for the schools to connect with local history and think about future projects. Everyone was surprised that such a large family lived in the tiny, cosy cottage for so long. The bricks we made have gone back to the schools. We are looking forward to seeing what they decide to build!”
- Lucy Francke, Enviroschools facilitator

The Earth Building Association of New Zealand (EBANZ) is pleased to support the project in collaboration with Enviroschools, in bringing the history of earth building alive to both local school children and professionals in these workshops.

We hope these stories have inspired you to explore your local places, observe the wonders of te taiao, connect with mana whenua and community experts and get stuck into some creative, hands-on learning. Some resources to spark ideas are listed below.

Resources for Educators

Connect with Enviroschools and if you’re already part of the programme then get in touch with you local facilitators to access resources about Ecological Building. 

Earth Building Association of NZ website has a section with education resources. This includes slideshows from primary school workshops and also adult workshops for specific earth building techniques. 

Māori architecture - whare Māori article from Te Ara online encyclopedia of NZ. 

Whare Uku:  Sustainable fibre housing documentary from Ngā Pae o te Maramatanga. This short video (10 mins) discusses research led by Dr Kepa Morgan, using harakeke and soil on site to build strong, sustainable houses based on mātauranga Māori. 

RNZ article and interview with Reuben Taipari about whare uku.

Read another RNZ article about a climate-friendly home in South Auckland.

Ultrawild children’s book by Steve Mushin.

“Ultrawild is an illustrated science and design book about tackling climate change with hilarious engineering ideas and extreme rewilding known as ultrawilding.”

Read Empowered Students Share Stormwater Designs for ideas and resources about water sensitive urban design and outdoor spaces.

School-gen, from Genesis Energy, has a list of education resources focused on renewable energy.

Watch this video about Better Building from Wao in Wānaka, based on workshops and innovative ideas from local builders.

Auckland Council has produced a Sustainable Home Design Guide.

NUWAO aims to develop nature-based urban design solutions, rooted in Indigenous knowledges that support climate change adaptation and individual and community wellbeing in different contexts across Aotearoa and Oceania. Their website includes information about the winning designs from their 2023 design competition

Visit the Biomimicry Institute website for background information and a range of resources. Watch Janine Benyus’ TED talk Biomimicry in action or read her book.

Students can explore Ask Nature which includes a section with advice for educators.

Visit the Biomimicry Youth Design Challenge website which has free resources and ideas. 


Thank you to Enviroschools and all of the facilitators, teachers and ākonga who contributed to the stories included in this Spotlight. 

Main image credit: Wairarapa students making cob. Photographer: Lucia Zanmonti