Building a Simple House… or Not

When I set off for this magical land, Kenya, 7 months ago to build a house many, my friends and family included, thought I was a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.

The jury is still out.

The house is going smashingly, but there are a few things I’ve learnt along the way about simplicity, being green, expectations and keeping the ego in check.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the desire to design and build a house had sat on my list of things I wanted to do for some time. Last year, I seized the opportunity. With global slowdown in recruitment, I had some wiggle room. Recession can be an opportunity, it’s all down to perspective!

On New Years Eve 2009 a drunken chat with one of my best mates, a newly-fledged architect, resulted in a pact; to head out to Kenya to use his talents and my over enthusiasm to see what we could get done.

It’s been a fascinating process. Herein lie some lessons:

1)    Conflicting aims

I realise that from the start my aims have been somewhat entangled.

When I set out, I was looking to build something minimalist, cheap and simple. A few hundred bags of cement and a number of lorries worth of materials later, I wonder whether this building (or ‘jenga’ – Swahili for building), is any of those things.

I also wanted a building that was a home away from home but also, ideally, an investment – so that I wouldn’t loose money. I’m not quite at the stage of retiring just yet, so even though it was never my plan to try to make money, I didn’t want to pour money down the drain, if it could be avoided. Plus, if I’m going to keep the house, I want it to be able to pay for itself. This means I will have to be able to rent it out to folks with different requirements.

As such, during the design process I found myself not being brave enough to go out on a limb and build things according to mad specifications – instead in some cases I went with ‘the norm’. Plus, having never run a building project here before, we had enough on our plates building normally, rather than breaking the mould.

Often functionality, rentability and pleasure win over simplicity and greenness. If I’d built a cabin – it may well have been cheaper, greener and simpler, but perhaps no one would have stayed in it and it would have been too hot, or only lasted 10 years before needing to be re-built?

The lesson is that simplicity or environmental leadership isn’t always easy, or even possible when coupled with a desire for comfort or an investment. A balance is needed. I have dreams of simplicity that often cannot be met by the demands of practicality. I am always learning. Simplicity is a journey, of which this has been another big step.

2)    What is an eco-building?

I wanted my house to be as green as possible within realistic aesthetic and price boundaries.

A green building should be desirable and comfortable, rather than super-green and no fun to live in. If no one wants to stay in a house, is it fulfilling its purpose?

I believe that we’re only going to convert people to the environmental movement if we can demonstrate convenient actions, rather than inconvenient truths. As such, I wanted my house to be as or more comfortable than other buildings in the region, yet much greener. The environmental elements should be a plus, not a minus.

The house (the foundations and columns at least) is made of concrete, as this is the only material that can be guaranteed to last in this climate. Plus it is cooler, stronger and easier to build from. Local builders have plenty of experience building with concrete. Could we have done it another way? For sure.

Could we have done it more efficiently, with the time limit, the budget, the local talent, the lack of qualified structural engineers and made a building as nice? Maybe.

If you build a house out of wood and it lasts 20 years with high maintenance (remember this is a tropical climate), is that better than building a house out of concrete that lasts 70 years?

We tried to experiment with adobe floors, but they ended up being moved and got broken. In the end, the local builders weren’t familiar with the process and so going green in this way became more about the blind leading the blind, which is why they broke something that looked like dirt to them, but was valuable to us.

We’ve gone for compost toilets, solar panelling and water collection – but will they work? Will the toilet become overrun with insects and have to be replaced? Will people like or resent using them? Will the showers be warm enough, or even too hot? Are solar panels actually greener if you factor in the transport from a faraway land and the lack of energy needed to keep a house out here running?

Above all, I must also bear in mind that at the heart of this construction process lies a environmental issue that can’t be removed, namely flying over here in the first place. However, does this outweigh the benefit that my money has had providing local employment for tens of people and the purchases that have gone into the local community? Buying the ‘makuti’ – the thatch that goes onto the roof, resulted in my making friends with and purchasing 25,000 pieces of this thatch from the villages around my house, which was a big boost to the local economy. How do you measure that, versus a single flight?

As Tip the Planet develops, I hope that many of these questions will be answered with one resource. For now, we can but guess.

It aint easy being green.

3)    What does simplicity mean?

This house has further challenge my definition of simplicity. It is another possession. Possessions can undermine our attempts to simplify. It will cost time and money to maintain. If the roof leaks, it’s going to be a huge pain to get it fixed all the way from the Europe or the US. Owning a house here directly contradicts one of my not-too-distant blog posts.

Yet despite being an investment, I haven’t put my entire life savings into this project. If it doesn’t work, I will have lost a lot of time, effort, love and money… but with impermanence in mind, we must remember that nothing, absolutely nothing, lasts forever. Plus 2012 is just around the corner, so the world is about to end anyhow, if you’re a Mayan believer.

To date, this project has been a huge net positive in my life, despite the hassle. It has been one of the best 7 months I’ve ever spent and I have loved the exploration, learning and environment.

The moment that the house becomes a net negative, I will move on. Hopefully I can sell it for more than it cost me to build – in which case I will have money in the bank.

However, I am also prepared for the eventuality that the house might fall down, or be worth nothing when it’s finished, or even God forbid, for it to be confiscated Zimbabwean-style should Kenya ever go politically or economically downhill. That is why I’m happy to be here and spending this time, regardless of expectation.

4)    No to self

One of the key lessons in simplicity is that perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but nothing left to take away. It’s something I try to aspire to. Mostly, as in the case of this sentence for example, I fail.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re even close to perfection with the house. Yet, I love what we’ve achieved with the place and, for the time being, there’s very little I’d take away. In retrospect, we could have done things differently, but for now I’m going easy on myself.

One of the clearest lessons for me has been the, ‘don’t you think you need a…’ phenomenon. You can start out small and simple, but then someone says, ‘well if you’re going to rent this house out don’t you need a…’ and you think. Yep. I probably do. Suddenly you have 3 bedrooms rather than 1 and plumbing rather than a long drop.

I’ve seen a number of houses out here that have snowballed into massive buildings because of this phenomenon.

The same thing can happen throughout life, as you layer on needs and wants on top of the other.

As E. F. Schumacher said: Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”

Not to self, say no. Or is that – no to self?

5)    Other people

Hermits aside, there’s more than just you involved in almost every project. Everyone has a different outlook, intention and desire. Working with an architect (even if they are a best friend) a contractor (who is paid by the day and therefore is incentivized to complicate) and others, means that each person wants to get something out of the process. No one can get exactly what he or she wants without compromising others.

It’s give and take.

I feel that we’ve done a fantastic job of finding a happy balance.


And so, with just a couple more months of building and finishing to go, which is going to stretch even the most optimistic of project managers, I’m loving watching ‘Ruby Hall’ take shape. So named, not in an attempt to belie grandness, but a grandmother. Ruby Hall was my mum’s mum’s name. It’s such a cool name and slightly tongue in cheek, so this project is named in memory of her – after all, if it weren’t for her none of this would be happening.

As we get closer to finishing, or not finishing, I’ll post some more photos.

Now I have to run off into town to make another trip to the bank and go and buy some guttering. Oh the glamour.

However, as the sun sets and the men working on the site have whistled and sung their way back home, I will be sitting up in the unfinished rafters of my new place, watching the herons, ospreys and pied-wagtails as they stalk, squalk and chirrup their way around the site. Then, I shall slip through the mangroves and go for a phosphorescent swim as the darkness descends and remind myself that simple or not and despite the daily challenges, nihilism, uncertain future… and all the rest – I am as happy as I’ve ever been.

3 thoughts on “Building a Simple House… or Not

  1. no pictures of the house?! i would love to see some. also where in Kenya- Malindi perhaps?

    Much Aloha

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