Interviewed by Gabriella Alziari
“[The best thing about being a builder is] seeing people find an expression of creativity and the power of working together, one brick or bale at a time, to create a structure that then can be lavished with artistic expression.”
Liz Johndrow is a builder from Vermont. She works with cob, earthbag, adobe, strawbale, earthen plasters and floor systems, and timber framing. During the last few years, Liz has taken on a prominent role as a natural building teacher and facilitator, traveling internationally to help town residents and communities learn the joys and advantages of building. She is currently running The Nicaragua Pueblo Project in Nicaragua, working with communities to build safe homes from natural resources and learn useful building skills.
Where did your journey with building begin?
When I was young, I loved the woodworking tools in our little basement workshop and was always making things down there. Then I worked on a women’s carpentry crew for two seasons in my twenties, when I was a young single mom. I was fascinated with structures, particularly ones that embraced nature.
Tell us about yourself and your work.
I was a massage therapist for nearly 20 years. I’ve always been a hands-on person and always interested in health, nature, and creating things and community. And I was a single Mom who was incredibly resourceful in providing for my small family. This has all formed my recent work of natural building. Building for less environmental impact, creating beauty in function, supporting women’s empowerment, and working with the raw materials that nature provides.
What kind of planning is put into creating a new structure?
I like to design from the needs of the community and see how we can creatively meet those needs. In Nicaragua, there is an extremely limited budget to work with so we have to consider that! Then I like to add some fun factor; playfulness in the design. It lends to a lot more creative exploration, which is huge for those who don’t have many avenues or support towards such expression.
Do you prefer certain materials over others? Which ones?
I love, love, love, clay based soil to work with. It’s a truly magical material that allows for endless expression with so little environmental impact- before, during, and after.
How do you feel once you have finished a piece?
Like a proud mama.
Your work has given you the opportunity to travel. How different would your career be if you had stayed in the United States?
I would be seeking to work for those who have the means for natural beauty and expression in their homes. A ‘natural’ building in a more challenging US climate could easily cost several hundred thousand dollars. Natural building is very time consuming and labor intensive. But I also have the opportunity to work towards high performance homes for low income people. For example, I’m about to lead a volunteer straw bale home build for a Hopi family on the Hopi Reservation in AZ through The Red Feather Development Group.
Can you talk about your group work?
Do you mean community builds? This is the good stuff. This is where people of all skill levels come together and find where they are willing to explore, find their way as a cooperative in that moment in time, and discover a creativity within that they are willing to bring out. It breaks barriers and it creates inclusion. That and the clay soil; it’s truly magical and empowering.
One example is creating a way for the community to tell some stories of their history, their land, what is important to them. And then bring those stories to the wall of a building. Here is a link to that album (Reminds me I need to write a blog about that!)
What is the most rewarding thing about being a builder?
Seeing people find an expression of creativity and the power of working together, one brick or bale at a time, to create a structure that then can be lavished with artistic expression. And providing safer and healthier spaces for families to thrive.
Have you made connections or friends through this job that you might not have otherwise?
Natural building community is a special group of people. Artists, building science geeks, champions for people to create beautiful and affordable spaces– all around caring and supportive folks that freely share their knowledge and expertise!
How is it being a woman in your field? If it has been difficult, how have you overcome previous challenges?
I’m fairly feisty and comfortable with a lot of the building skills. But I know what it’s like to feel shut down by someone who is invested in knowing more! So I try to be humble and courageous and admit what I don’t know and share what I do. I try to remember that at all times and to help women trust their instincts, their creative energies, and loosen the performance anxiety reins. I try to think of myself as a skilled student who is passionate to share what I know with others. Like I said, natural building is labor intensive. If you can empower your workforce, they are going to create something beautiful with the proper guidance. It’s a win-win!
Are you working on anything now?
Always! Right now I am headed to the Hopi rez and will be there for two months to build the straw bale house. We are including an earthen floor and beautiful lime and clay based plasters inside and out. I will then be heading back to Nicaragua and Costa Rica to teach in the pueblos and also at some permaculture and eco based schools for international students to learn natural building. So my work continues as a mix of function and beauty. Everything from home improvements to beautiful lime plasters to storytelling into art mud sculpted and clay painted murals!