To Build These Homes, We Chose an All-Women Crew

The Mudgirls collective redefines expectations about what a construction site is supposed to look like—child care, breastfeeding breaks, and all.
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Workshop participants positioning windows in a cob wall.

Photo by Brianna Walker.

Guiding Principle: We are a women’s collective and seek to empower ourselves with employment and the skills to build
 homes.

When the Mudgirls collective was taking shape, the concept of an all-female crew was largely a means of addressing the gender divide in available paid work on the Gulf Islands [of British Columbia]. Women were doing underpaid (or unpaid) gardening, home care, cleaning, and child care, and the men were getting living wages doing all the other jobs. On the islands, “all the other jobs” are about building things, moving things, and digging things. If a couple broke up, sometimes the women would actually have to leave the islands because they were unable to support themselves and their children. We figured that if we learned how to build houses, we’d be addressing two issues, at least: We’d have jobs, and we’d have houses! The challenge: It’s not a straightforward thing for girls and women to access those skills. Women generally don’t grow up around tools and building things the way that many guys do. Trade schools and construction sites aren’t always welcoming to women. Like women before us, we could have gritted our teeth and run that gauntlet of proving ourselves according to someone else’s priorities, but we had no interest in perpetuating the values of the economy in general and the practices of the housing industry in particular. (In case we haven’t said it already: The housing industry is an incredibly wasteful, environmentally destructive activity that results in energy-sucking toxic boxes that enslave people with mortgages. Boom.) We needed a new way to approach skill-building, and we wanted to put our values into practice, but to do it, we needed to carve out a niche that was ours alone.

Two workshop participants share the heavy load. Photo by Brianna Walker.

We felt some urgency around this—we were a bunch of urbanites and new mothers with no money and few skills. We needed to provide shelter for our families, believing that the world was going to end next year. If this was going to actually happen, we were going to have to enter into a whole new set of relationships with materials, culture, and economics in order to make it happen.

No problem, right?

Ummm … the patriarchy

Much like climate change, some people think patriarchy doesn’t exist. It’s a fact that women often have to justify themselves more and fight harder for the spaces they want to occupy, whether it be flying a plane or carrying a stupid rock across the yard. How were we going to disrupt this state of affairs?

Deciding on an all-women crew effectively hit pause on expectations about what a building site is supposed to look like and how builders conduct themselves. It created a space that asked the question “So, this is different … How is it different?” It reminds us that we don’t have to follow the rules if they don’t make sense. It’s a signal, broadcasting that we have given ourselves permission to make this look the way we need it to look. If we’re women, we’re going to do things in a way that makes sense for that reality. We’re going to have free child care, we’re going to care for ourselves because we don’t just have to be strong for our job, we also have to be strong for our families. It’s not just a metaphor: Those hungry babies are going to get breastfed at lunchtime! At the same time, we’re assuming that the people who come to our workshops are there because they have the same struggles and questions as we do, so we’re going to try to make sense of it all together. We remind ourselves of what worked for us: keeping the learning cheap, the work accessible, and providing free care for the kids. This might limit what kind of clients we attract, but it ensures that the clients that choose us understand where we’re coming from. Because our values are front and center, we don’t find ourselves in situations where we feel disrespected or exploited. So guess what—we love our job!

A little dirt never hurt. Photo by New Society Publishers.

Mud mind

Our decision to be a collective of women is intimately bound up in the materials we use. Cob, apart from being breathable, strong, beautiful, and light on the Earth, is incredibly accessible and requires no special tools. The materials themselves have not been commodified and co-opted by the consumer economy—they are cheap or free, and there are no codes dictating how they should be used. The literature we encountered was populated by women who joyfully encouraged an experimental DIY approach. Mud is abundant, forgiving, sculptable, immediate, and real. Building with earth while contemplating how to be lighter on the planet imparts a feeling of direct connection with the primal forces that feed our lives.

So, our newly minted collective didn’t need special tools, we didn’t need special skills. We didn’t have to invest money nor pay for further schooling or equipment. We could just begin. We could also totally screw up and start over without blowing the budget.

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The fact that cob is not part of building codes is relevant: It was much easier for a group of women to become dominant in the field. If there’s no big money to be made because the materials and techniques aren’t part of the industrial supply chain, let’s face it—chances are there’s not going to be as many guys around already staking out that space, telling us how it is. Cob-building was ours to inhabit and define. The fact that it was necessary to embark on our experimental building projects in more remote places, where the codes were not enforced, was another limiting factor that ended up being an incredible tool for our empowerment. All of this was awesome. Nobody could tell us we were unqualified, because nobody was qualified! Nobody could walk up and kindly offer to operate the chainsaw on our behalf (i.e., disempower us), because we were way in the backwoods of Lasqueti Island, in that amazing forested laboratory of cool, resourceful, supportive people and possibilities! We could learn and share, screw up, and haul ass to our heart’s content.

After two workshops, two weeks of post and beam and foundation work: upcycled tire roof, wattle and daub upper-story walls for speedy lightweight structure and looming move-in date. Photo by New Society Publishers.

Girl gang

The question of why we are women-only is one half of the equation; “Why are we a group?” is the other. We came into this work with shared questions, concerns, and needs, many of which stemmed directly from our experiences as women. We didn’t necessarily recognize some of those things as women’s issues until there was a critical mass of us all trying to function with babies tied to our backs. If there had been only one mother, that mother would have stuck her kid in daycare and we wouldn’t have thought twice about it. That’s what the dominant culture tells us to do. Because we were all women, we suddenly noticed what was going on. A group brings in more experience and insight; more complications and solutions; and more support in times of stress. A group is more resilient—it can change, add or lose members and still be the group. A group is also a ton of fun. We bring the skills, but we also bring the ruckus. Having each other to turn to for help and camaraderie is the most amazing thing.

Excerpted from Mudgirls Manifesto: Handbuilt Homes, Handcrafted Lives by the Mudgirls Natural Building Collective. Published May 2018 and reprinted by permission of New Society Publishers, newsociety.com.

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