Artist Heidi Vilkman is a poster child for natural building in her magical cottage that includes earthbag/cob/strawbale/cordwood building with a living roof. She describes herself as "an artist, film-maker, dreamer and a builder of a natural cottage in Finnish woods, where I originally come from."
This young woman built her little storybook home in the woods in three months over the Summer of 2012 with very little money, all natural building materials from the surroundings, her bare hands and feet, and some help from family and friends. It is a unique mishmash of natural building types artistically blended. She calls it Elaman Puu, or Tree of Life, her homage to nature and the trees of the woodland where she grew up.
Heidi first began by making sketches of the home she visualized. Then she made a clay model. She dug pits on the land looking for possible clay sites for plastering the walls. You can see in the attached slide show how closely her finished product fulfills her dream sketch and model.
She did not want to put concrete on her sacred space where she spent her childhood. The base is a rubble trench foundation and compacted gravel. A roundwood frame with a self-supporting reciprocal roof is made from materials harvested locally. The reciprocal roof leaves a circular hole to form a skylight for natural lighting. She tarred the heavy posts and stood them on the compacted gravel base, with more gravel then spread over the base, compacting, burying and securing the posts. Heidi's father did decking on the roof, cut fascia board lumber and attached it to the eaves, so she had her protected building shell with a temporary tarp on top under which to build.
Earthbag stemwalls were laid around the timbers. Steel rebar instead of barbed wire was used to keep the earthbag rows together. Heidi, with helpers like Carla and Michelle, cob plastered the front of the earthbags and added cob over the windows. Heidi dressed the earthbags with stones for protection from rain. A layer of birch bark was laid on top of the earthbags as a damp-proof membrane under the northern wall's straw bales and the south wall's cob and cordwood.
She used six bale rows high, making half bales with an upholstery needle and copper wire for every other wall row. She started the first layer of the strawbale wall on the layer of birch bark with a thin layer of cob. She dipped the bale bottoms into runny clay and stuck them onto the wet cob, with some steel rebar ends buried inside which stuck above the earthbags. Her father made a wooden window frame for the strawbale wall, then fixed a round window inside the frame. He found the thick piece of glass that had been in his shed for at least ten years and neighbor Jani cut it round. Heidi filled gaps with bundles of straw and cob.
Jani built her a unique rounded doorframe from bits of wood they had for a door almost 67 inches tall, above which Heidi cobbed an arch. Her blog says the door "is tall enough for me, children, childminded adults and hobbits." The ceramic tree insert she made for the door allows you to see inside. The door says "Peek through and you will experience magic."
Her talent really shows in all the creative parts like sculpting with cob her tree of life wall and on the northeast wall her cob pizza oven inside the wall with a baby dragon mouth opening to the outside. She started the oven form with sand and strawless cob and realized it was meant to be a wing. She sculpted a dragon's head, formed nostrils and pierced some channels through to the fire pit. Then lighting the oven, she "waited anxiously - and suddenly - and ever so gently, few swirls of smoke started flowing out of my baby - a dragon is born!" She lit more small fires inside the oven to help it dry, because it gets limited sunlight on that north side.
When it became time to install the skylight window on top, Jani, having some prior experience, helped remove the tarp off the roof, and lay old rugs, cardboard and underlay over the wooden
planks so the 8 x 8 mm, or about 26 x 26 foot, waterproof pond liner would not be pierced. Heidi cut the hole in the plastic middle, and Jani connected the dome skylight into the window frame with his electric screwdriver.
The final work was the crown, the living roof. She wanted it to be forest-like, so she bought turf blocks and scavenged for moss, bilberry and lingonberry plants in the woods, using pieces of the forest floor. There was about 538 square feet which had to be covered as soon as possible to protect both the roof from weather and the liner from the sun's ultraviolet rays.
After pouring her heart into this wonder, Heidi returned to London to make a living with her art work. Her kind family and neighbor said they would finish filling the roof with plant materials which remind her of her childhood trips to the forest. Her mother sent her pictures of the fall and snow scenes, as the cottage and its finishing jobs waited for her return.
Browse the slide show of Heidi's pictures of her dream forest dwelling and be inspired to follow your own dreams. Read her blog for more pictures and details of her building project. Watch a video and follow her on her Facebook site. Purchase some of her artistic creations like jewelry, felt hats, pottery and wall plaques, paintings, and photos on her TaikaEarth Etsy site. Taika means magic in Finnish. Living in London now, pursuing her artistic work, Heidi plans to return to her forest elf's nest in February 2013 with another creation, a baby daughter, inside her.
A previous article about a mini sylvan retreat in Finland that was permit-exempt there explained that the counties around Greenville, South Carolina do not allow any such permit-free building.
Even though Heidi's cottage has no plumbing or electricity, it would still require a building permit in this region of the United States.