Cultivating Alternative Building in Turkey with the Kolûba Collective

Kolûba started in October of 2018 as we were working on a project called Sihirli Tohumlar Permaculture Farm near Istanbul, which is our biggest project so far. Derived from “kulübe” in Turkish, the word kolûba means a small hut built in the woods with organic materials found on the spot.

Some of us had been working together several seasons already, volunteering on previous projects. The team since then has changed quite a lot but the spirit is the same: building unique structures with unconventional, local, and less processed materials in Turkey. We are an informal group of six people with each our specialties. We usually have two types of projects: long term ones where we build full structures from foundations to finishes, and short term ones – usually plastering on existing buildings. The team often divides depending on technical needs, some being more into plastering, others into woodwork.

glass bottles embedded in the cob walls of Sihirli Tohumlar bathroom building

We also work with volunteers very often since there is a high demand, both from Turkish and foreigners. We all started building this way for different reasons. For some it was out of disillusionment towards the conventional building industry and a need to find more sensible approaches. For others it was an interest in craftsmanship, self-building, and a quest for independence. Ecological aspects played a part too. Most of the demand we get comes from a wealthy urban population in search of fantasized rural lifestyles who end up consuming more than they would if they went for a frugal lifestyle in the city. The last IPCC report that came out recently makes it clear once again: the only way forward is degrowth. The first step in our field is to avoid building structures that are not absolutely necessary.

The natural building scene – or at least alternative building – is practically nonexistent in Turkey. Our team is the only group operating on a regular basis with a variety of techniques and materials. There are companies building with prefabricated straw panels or doing rammed earth for example, but they do so within the standards of conventional building. There have been a handful of successful self-built housing projects and the interest is growing but still extremely marginal. A lot more people are involved on the academic level, researching materials, producing papers, teaching, etc. Yet practically no architect in the country has enough knowledge in the materials, techniques, thermal principals, carpentry, earthquake resistance, etc. to be able to design at the level we need.

Tree house at Dogali Ida project in Karaoke, Turkey

Each member of the Kolûba team came with a background other than building and learned by doing. We come from fields such as engineering, architecture, graphic design, photography, or sports. None of us trained for a building profession and yet here we are.

Turkey actually has a very rich vernacular building history and was still a vast display of fine craftsmanship until the mid 20th century. Since then most of it disappeared, both the buildings and the builders. Depending on the region you can find elaborate timber framing, stonework, adobe structures, troglodyte [carved cave] dwelling, green roofing, earth and lime based plasters, etc. With many of those materials in common, we feel a connection to past builders and may borrow from lost techniques from time to time, but it would be pretentious to claim a legacy since our achievements can’t compare.

Sihirli Tohumlar guest house in Kucukyoncali, Turkey, designed by Matthieu Pedergnana

The phrase “natural building” can be seen as overused and we prefer that of “alternative building”. Although we essentially use natural materials, these are usually more processed and transported than their equivalents before the industrial revolution. So what defines what we do is not so much the natural character of our materials but the incompatibility with conventional building codes and standards. If 18th century builders could come back and see what we do, they certainly wouldn’t be impressed by materials or skills, but by the availability of those materials and by the power tools we use.

The challenges we face are numerous and these are not specific to Turkey, but certainly shared by most teams doing similar work anywhere on the planet. The first challenge is to find the right client. On long term projects we want the client to be part of the process and collaborate with us as closely as possible. Usually our projects are in remote locations in mountains and forests, on properties in the deep countryside where we are going to set up camp and live for months. We need the basics there: toilets, showers, and a kitchen at least. If these conditions are met it means the client already has a homestead and perhaps lives on site. Therefore we are going to live together and it won’t be a strictly commercial relationship.

The next challenge is building with volunteers. It isn’t something we do systematically but if the client wants it (usually for budget-related reasons), we take in volunteers – both local and foreign – to give us a hand. Over the years we started having enough demand to be able to select the most experienced or motivated people. We ask for six hours a day, six days a week, and minimum three weeks of stay which is above most standards and should hopefully bring us highly motivated individuals. Yet working with volunteers is still a challenge for us. Despite claiming experience a lot of people can hardly hammer a nail properly, and you can’t blame them since they are coming to learn.

We have a choice of wood to work with, straw is available anywhere, prices are relatively low, vacant land is plentiful, and nature is beautiful throughout the country. Also, it’s not all about complying with building regulations like in the West. With a bit of diplomacy and connections most legal issues can get solved. There is still a certain freedom to building here. We’ve done some strawbale, cob, adobe, rammed earth, but most often we deal with timber framing, slip-straw insulation, earthbag, plasters, etc.

As for our future plans, we progressively want to switch from building for others to building for ourselves. We started preparing a project on a large piece of land that would allow us to build a number of common buildings to accommodate guests and offer educational content related to building on a broader scale. We have a long way to go but we believe we need to diversify our activities instead of simply jumping from one project to the next. Over the years we have acquired some technical experience that we need to put to use, not just to answer the needs of a small and unstable leisure housing market, but also to extend the influence of this type of building in Turkey and inspire other builders.

The collective can be reached on Facebook as Koluba Kolektifi

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