It wasn’t until one landed on me that I realised that some termites can fly. As we huddled around the one fan on the Sala (communal building) at Panya Project (Moo Bahn Mae Jo, near Tae Taeng, Chiang Mai) we watched the huge array of insects and bugs come and join us – a small snake, a large bug which looked like a cockroach but apparently wasn’t, flying beetles, salamanders, unending flies, mosquitos, moths and butterflies. Around us there was a concert of noise from frogs, birds and crickets. So loud that sometimes I struggled to sleep at night. In our earthern building without external walls there was little to stop the onslaught of bugs, and yet there was also something magical about being so close to nature. We began to debate whether all nature was good – as some struggled to rehabilitate the snake and rescue the cockroach-like bug. The only thing collectively agreed upon was that it was acceptable to kill mosquitos and flies, and non-one could think of a good thing to say about mosquitos. By that time most of us were covered in their bites.
It wasn’t just the humans who were suffering under this onslaught, the buildings themselves had had to be built to withstand insects – using raised concrete foundations to protect the adobe (clay and straw or rice husks) walls from being eaten by termites. The roof was in the main concrete aggregate fibre with a thatch edging as the heat, rain and humidity quickly degraded the natural materials. A roof made from a thatch of local grasses only lasted three to four years. In the neighbouring project of Pun Pun (a sustainable learning and seed centre) they had started using metal poles rather than wood as supporting beams in their lager structures for both strength and to better resist the degrading power of the natural elements.
When the storm came (it is the rainy season) with dramatic thunder and lightning, the winds blew the rain into the sala and my bedroom (in a newly constructed adobe and bamboo dorm). Things did not get soaked, but damp enough for us to rush around moving and protecting books and laptops. This was despite all the buildings having huge overhanging roofs.
I realised then how much I liked external walls. Despite having lived and worked in Australia, and for a short time in north Queensland, I have never really experienced a tropical climate like this. I can cope with bugs and flies and the odd snake, but the heat and humidity was beginning to get to me. The buildings on site had been designed to facilitate as much air-flow as possible in order to counter the heat and humidity. There was also little point trying to keep the bugs out, rather everyone slept under mosquito nets wrapped under our mattresses. Many of the buildings had significant ventilation space – either space between the walls and roof, no glass windows (just an open space) or using woven bamboo walls. This made the most of any cooling breeze and had the advantage of blurring the boundary between the building and nature – you could not escape your surroundings.
Staying in such eco-buildings in a tropical climate has made me realise not just that I am culturally attached to the need for external walls, or that I have a desire to shut out nature from my home, but that building in Britain is almost easier. Our main problem is how to keep warm and dry without using too many resources. Consequently our building need to be more robust than here (northern Thailand), but they rarely over-heat. As the climate around us changes, however, we might do well to learn from the eco-buildings here which are designed to withstand intense heavy rain (several are raised on stilts at Panya) and the heat of the dry season without using air-conditioning.
(Ban Mae Jo, Thailand, 2nd July)