Learning how to build natural homes, DIY
We built an Indian tipi
In April 2012, my partner and I left Queenstown in our van, with my upright piano, to travel across New Zealand and refuge in the North island for winter as we both prefer summers to winters. We set the goal before our departure to find a farm that would let us built a tipi on their land and live in it for winter. We could so well imagine ourselves by the fire, in our self-built indian tipi, reading books, cooking, knitting or so, while winter was raging outside, cold and uninvinting.
The Providence wanted that I met a filmmaker taking so shots of me the last night I played piano by the lake before our departure, and as the conversation went on, we told him all about our crazy plan. He reacted straight away saying: "I know the right place for you to build your tipi, I have stayed at The Farm for a while, Mike and Helen will let you do that on their land, I can almost garantee !". And so it did, a mere 2500 km and 4 months later, after having crossed almost all of New Zealand in the van, playing piano, fishing, tramping and discovering, we arranged with the owners and started to build our tipi on their land along the Russel Road, one hour north of Whangarei, in the North Island.
We never built a tipi before, but we had all the time in the world, and the motivation. We wanted to experience building our own home, no matter how temporary it was going to be (we lived in it about 2 months) and that for two reasons: empower ourselves by giving ourselves the realisation that 1. we can build ourselves a shelter 2. that is cheap, natural and confortable.
So after discussing the location of the future tipi, and the logistics of materials, we studied deeply about 4 differents manuals we found for free online. Off we went to chop off 15 young trees about 7 metres high and 25 of diameter at the base. It sounds like a lot, but it wasn't considering the 1000 acres of land their was available on that farm, amongst which about half was forest. It took us two weeks to chop them, bring them back to the shed, take the branches off and bark and sand them. We were just the two of us, a man and a woman. I think we might not have had the appropriate tools either, but machettis did the trick anyway, the warrior's way :) And we took the time to do this properly as it is important that the poles were as smooth as possible to prevent the canvas to rub on them and break.
Once all 15 trunks were laid for storage and drying as much as it could, we watched the digging of rocking earth in the quarry and the excavating of the plateform for building the hard floor for our tipi. All of this was done by the people in the farm, using their machines. We actually didn't plan on building such a big thing, but they insisted on it as they wanted to use the tipi, after our departure, for the kids camps they organized every summer. So we did excavate and so we did dig...and so we agreed on building a hard floor (my first intention was to make a wooden floor our of pallets).
We laid flat a long sheet of purposely made water resistant plastic, then started to build the box for our tipi floor. We used a mix of earth, cow manure and a little bit of cement for the "concrete" floor. And we got hundreds of recycled beer bottles from the recycling depot in the nearby village, to lay down as both filler and insulation (as the air locked in the bottles insulates more than the earth). We decided to pour the floor by sections, very much in a pizza slices style and separate the sections with scrap wood from the saw mill (also part of the farm). Like this, most of what we used, apart from the plastic and the cement so far, was natural, found on site or recycled waste.
It took us about two weeks to get the digger to excavate and dig (more a matter of getting someone to do it then actual work time), the truck to work and bring the rocky earth, the recycled beer bottles (3 trips of a trailer full each), box and mix and pour the concrete over top of aligned bottles laying on a tampered bed of earth. We decorated the floor with a spiral of sea shells we found on the nearby beach to give it some spirit and increase its natural feel. And as the shape of the tipi is a cone, it felt like it made sense to put a spiral on the floor shooting to the center, where all the poles join together in the air.
Once that was done, we were pretty stocked, we could already see the size and shape of our tipi! But next was the canvas mission, off we went for another two weeks of sourcing a cheap canvas, a sawing machine that would work with it, and last but not least... saw it together as a tipi!
Of all the tasks involved in building the tipi, sawing was by far the hardest. Because there are 20 metres of canvas to feed in the sawing machine, and it all jams and the thread breaks easily. I ended doing most of it as my partner had lost all enjoyment for it. We eventually got there, cut the doors, and the holes for the pins to go in where the two ends meet above the door, and there was a big handfull of canvas bits left over. It was quite incredible, we had just ordered the perfect roll, 33m by 2.20m, for our 6m diameter tipi.
When the canvas was ready, a mere two weeks later. It was time for the final test: matching the canvas on the poles !!! So we got the poles and the canvas up there, and put it all up together, three of us. There is a proper way of rising the poles, three for starters, then adding the others on by one in a specific order to interlock them nice and tight. Then a rope comes to lock them all together at the top. Once we got that sorted, which took a while as it takes someone to climb at the top to jigsaw everything nice and tight, and do the knot, we went on to putting the canvas up. For beginners like us, it wasn't child's play at all: the canvas weights a lot, and you've got to lift it all up at once at the top of a pole, up to 6 metres high !!! That's how hard it gets. Once you get it up there, if you are lucky and it ended up at the right height, right where the poles cross, you've got to wrap it around the pole structure to "close the jacket". It sounds easy but in fact, it takes a bit to get it all adjusted onto the pole structure as well. I actually ended up sawing the poles by 20cm to make everything shorter so that the canvas would actually reach about 10-15cm above the ground, which is what is recommended. After a couple of days, we got it all right, and we could then rejoyce in the pleasure of sitting inside the tipi, around the fire.
Living in the tipi we built was a fun, empowering and nice experience. We loved the fire inside to whichi ambers we would drift to sleep. We loved to wake up with the birds, just before dawn. It felt like we were cosy inside while connected with all life outside. The sun would shine through the trees and cast its shadows on the canvas, a little mice would visit us every morning, birds nightlife was peaceful and grounding. We had our little composting toilet, and tap water. As for the rest, we just hung out :) I highly recommend the tipi experience, and in fact, we loved so much that we thought we would build one again once we get a land somewhere, to live in it while we build our permanent home.
Here is a little video I made back in the day, fast forwarding the photos of our trip surrouding the tipi experience. Hang out to your socks, it's going fast :)
Music by Rene Aubry
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