Natural Building

Natural building is a focus at Rancho Mastatal. We take pride in designing and building our structures to minimize the impact on our environment and maximize their sustainability. We use local labor and resources - to not only build our infrastructure but also community. 

Building with native and unprocessed materials is an empowering experience. We strive to partially curb the tide of constructing primarily with concrete, a common practice throughout Costa Rica and a material with an enormous carbon footprint. 

We are one of the leaders in this field in Costa Rica and welcome you to join us to learn more about green building.  What follows are brief descriptions of some of the natural building materials and techniques that we use at the Ranch.  For more information about our naturally built infrastructure, please continue reading and looking or click here.  To stay in one of our naturally built structures, please see our Accommodations page.     

Materials

Wood

Wood is an abundant material in our area that we use extensively for our building projects.  This incredible, renewable and relatively easy-to-use resource is a mainstay in our building infrastructure.  All the wood that we utilize in our structures is sourced and milled in our region and oftentimes from and on Ranch property.  

earth

This abundant material is one of human's oldest building materials and used regularly for Ranch building projects.  This materials has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years throughout the world as building and homeowners better understand the variety of benefits of using this ubiquitous materials.  Costa Rica has a history of building with earth using a technique called bahareque or wattle and daub, and we are proud to be a part of the movement of reintroducing earth as a commonly used building material in our adopted country.  

Straw/Natural Grasses

We collect straw after each rice harvest and gather strong natural grasses from the roadsides and pastures in and around Mastatal. The materials are free and plentiful. Once dried in the sun for a few days, these materials are used in our floors, cob buildings and wattle and daub walls. In cob construction, the straw/grass acts as the rebar would in a concrete structure. It essentially holds everything together.

Bamboo

Bamboo has become one of our favorite building materials over the years. Even though at this point in time we purchase much of the bamboo that we build with from a friend's farm, we have planted a great deal of this magical grass that we use for a variety of building and non-building applications. Bamboo's versatility, functionality and flexibility are unbelievable. When you visit the Ranch, you will see that we use bamboo for just about everything, from posts that hold up a building to pencil holders. We have worked a great deal with Martín Coto, one of Costa Rica’s most well-know bamboo builders. He has endowed us with a number of techniques that we have been using for many years now. Bamboo is strong, sustainable, and an appropriate resource to build with in the tropics.

STONE AND ROCKS

We utilize rocks and stones from our local rivers to build and face foundations and for multiple permaculture applications. It is an abundant and beautiful resource. Working with stones can be a mesmerizing and intensely gratifying experience. “Rock runs” are a common and popular activity at the Ranch and oftentimes include an elongated dip in one of our beautiful waterways. 

Manure

Manure is plentiful and easily procured in Mastatal due to the area’s history in cattle ranching. We use it in our floor mix, in some of our earthen plasters, and in our daub mixes. It’s a wonderful material, readily available, and free or extremely cheap. Many people get a bit squeamish when first presented with the prospect of handling animal shit. Most are won over in a matter of hours after realizing its multitude of uses and benefits and its wonderful soft and squishy consistency. We must admit that the smell can be difficult to eradicate from your hands and toes but a little help from lemon juice and tea tree oil usually gets the job done.  And once you pay your dues, you'll better be able to participate in the countless poo jokes that are so common around the house.  


TECHNIQUES

Cob

Cob is ancient method of building that utilizes clay, sand and straw or other fibers. The raw materials are mixed thoroughly together, in our case with our dancing feet motivated by a bit of bluegrass or rock and roll, and then applied wet by hand. This is probably our favorite building material. There’s just something about the ease and beauty of cob. It is incredibly sculptural. Anyone working with cob becomes an accomplished artist in a matter of days. We use cob to build ovens, lay floors, and construct houses. Our clay comes from the nearby town of Salitrales, from a friend’s farm (salitre means clay in Spanish). For the fibrous material, we harvest a plentiful and incredibly strong grass that grows along roadsides. Our sand either comes from local rivers or nearby quarries. Cob seems to be making a comeback throughout the world and we are pleased to be leading the charge in Costa Rica. 

Wattle and Daub

Wattle and daub traditionally consists of a woven latticework of flexible wooden or bamboo members called wattles that are daubed with a mixture of mud, clay, animal dung and chopped straw. It is normally whitewashed to increase its resistance to rain. This is a technique that we have been incorporating more and more into our buildings. It is a wonderful system for non-structural walls and goes up relatively quickly. We have been using split bamboo for the wattles and a mixture of clay, manure, sand and wild grasses for the daub.

Timber Frame Construction

The rainforests of Central America might not be the first place that you think of when you hear the term “timber frame construction” but this age-old technique of joining large, dimensional timbers using mortise and tenon joinery and wooden pegs has become one of our most popular building styles.  Attractive and gorgeous timber frame buildings dot our campus and community and thanks to our close building friends SKIP DEWHIRST and LIZABETH MONIZ who introduced us to timber framing in 2007, we have become quite proficient over the years building at this way.   

Lime and Earthen Plasters

With burnt lime (quicklime) purchased from a regional kiln, we make our own lime putty. This is then made into plasters, renders and paints. Lime is making a resounding comeback with natural builders. Roger Whalley, after taking a lime plaster course in Wales in 2004, came back to the Ranch brimming with excitement about the possibilities of working with lime. He spearheaded the movement to incorporate lime into just about every new building project at the Ranch. We have just scraped the tip of the iceberg with this exciting material and plan to integrate this much more into future constructions. 


RANCH INFRASTRUCTURE

We have some 30 covered structures that make up the Ranch infrastructure.  Aside from two buildings that we renovated upon arriving to Mastatal, we have designed and built all of our structures.  We are not architects or professional builders and try and demonstrate as best as possible how each and every one of us can participate in the design/build process.  We thank Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, VT for instilling this philosophy in us.  


Starboard cork

In early 2008, we began construction on a timberframe structure called Starboard Cork, named after a song written by Deivis Garcia and commonly performed by Alan Smith and his band The Porchistas. This structure is the part-time home of long-time friends and frequent visitors Alan "Sucia" Smith and Geoff "Grandelon" Kinder and when they're not in Mastatal, we use this striking building, poised in front of some of the most breathtaking views of La Cangreja, for visitors. The timberframe and wattle and daub house, designed by Tyler See, Geoff and Al and constructed with the hands of many is a fabulous place to live and stay.  It boasts two beautiful bedrooms, a spectacular common space, wonderful earth sculpture reliefs, and amazing stained glass and natural art throughout.  It is accompanied by a lovely timberframe composting toilet/shower structure thanks to the hard work of Ranch friends Anne Fleusche, Erin Campbell and others. The house is powered entirely by the sun and has running water.  Please leave your blowdryer at home if you want to stay here.  We do occasionally rent out this structure.    


ceiba lounge

The Ceiba Lounge was completed in 2014 and is a part of a larger structure in the Main House area that is also home to the Ranch whole foods processing and fermentation kitchen or our "Foodsmithery".  Jules Davey was the lead builder who made this project happen. The Ceiba, as most people it for short, was made using 5 different earth building techniques including wattle and daub, cob and taquesal.  The floor is poured abode and the walls are finished with a combination of lime and earth plasters.  This space is used mainly as a hangout and meeting space and helps to alleviate some of the people pressure from the rest of the Main house.  


La casucha

This structure was built in 2007 and was our first foray into timber frame construction.  Since then, timber framing has become of our favorite building techniques.  La Casuchaa is the home of Ranch core team members Scott Gallant and Laura Killingbeck.

We used locally harvested pine and pilon for the frame, cedar for the floor and teak for the deck frame. The walls are made of a combination of wattle and daub, cedar and bamboo. It's a simple yet awesome structure.  This extremely private cabin sits on the edge of the rainforest on Jeanne's side of the property and provides an amazing space to view wildlife, meditate, do yoga, or to simply enjoy the company of others. This space is for the more adventurous though it does have access to a beautiful composting toilet and electricity thanks to a small solar array that provides dependable light. The pure beauty and tranquility of the immediate area and the comfortable queen sized bed more than make up for its lack of modern comforts.  And for early morning hikers, simply plop out of bed, walk a few steps, and enjoy the solitude and beauty of the rainforest.  We doubled the size of this cabin with a sitting room addition built in 2014. 


The honey hut

This is the Ranch's newest structure and home to two spectacular bedrooms and a beautiful porch with views towards the forest.  The composting toilet and shower that accompanies this structure are still under construction and scheduled to be done in early 2016.  The building has an independent photovoltaic installation that powers 4 LED lights.  There are no outlets.  The showers and toilets that currently service this structure are a short 2-minute walk from the house.  The timber frame structure was designed and built by intern Sam Gibbs with the help of many, most notably Skip Dewhirst, who helped with much of the head scratching and roof details.  It's our first hip roofed building.  


the hankey house

The incredible apprentice house was designed and partially built by its namesake Rob Hankey, an English legend who spent many months at the Ranch in 2006. The Hankey is constructed with local materials such as clay, straw, sand, earth, bamboo and locally harvested wood and is home to five double beds with a maximum capacity of 10 people. The house has running water, electricity and a common room with a couch and chairs.  It's one of two multi-story structures at the Ranch and definitely one of the most innovative and beautiful edifices on the property.  The Hankey House is served by an awesome composting toilet and a gorgeous shower structure right next door.  It is also just a stone's throw from our hen house, beautiful orchards, and trails leading into the beautiful forest and to nearby swimming holes.  This structure is rented out to guests in the low season.  


la choza

This beautiful handcrafted house and Tim, Robin and Sole's current home was designed by Robin and built with the help of many hands using cob, wattle and daub, lime plasters, bamboo, locally milled wood and recycled fence posts. It's a wonderful space featuring bamboo, wood, and earthen floors and two styles of earth construction. The site is also home to a beautiful earthen and bamboo composting toilet and outdoor shower and fabulous views to the highest point in the La Cangreja National Park. The front yard space is the site for some of the Ranch's bonfires.


the classroom

Our delightful, open-air and spacious classroom, located behind Jeanne's House, provides an awesome space for lectures, presentations, yoga, meditation, studying, reading and hanging out after hours. This bamboo framed structure also built using cob, wattle and daub and wood, comes equipped with a secured storage area for educational equipment, hammocks, two large tables with benches, a lab space, rocking chairs and great views into the forest and out to one of the Ranch's agricultural areas featuring bananas, pineapples and plantains. It's built on the edge of the rainforest and offers wonderful access to Jeanne's trails and house. It also boasts water and electricity, a screen for watching movies and showing presentations, and a massage table.


composting toilets

The Ranch has five composting toilets and an equal number of outdoor showers, all constructed with the same amount of care, craft, and beauty as the living structures found throughout the premises. Rancho Mastatal successfully composts almost all of the human waste generated by its inhabitants and guests and uses the rich compost throughout the permaculture farm. The use of composting toilets saves an enormous amount of precious water, provides the Ranch with valuable fertilizer and greatly reduces the stress on the Ranch's septic systems. Composting toilets are new to many people that visit the Ranch and take a little getting used to but most people leave the Ranch with a newfound love for the technology and a curiousity for how to build one at home. 


biodigester

We are currently capturing methane produced from our biodigester toilet to cook with in the Ranch's kitchen. The biodigester also provides the Ranch with nutrient-rich fertilizer for our nursery and fields. We encourage as many interns and guests as possible to use the biodigester toilet so that we can maximize our methane production in an effort to reduce our dependency on imported propane. It's a simple, life-changing, eye-opening and magical little system. Jose Luis Zuniga, the organic coffee and vegetable producer who provides us with all of our java, helped us to design and build it. We are sincerely grateful for his important contribution. This system provides us with product that both enhances our vegetation and allows us to cook while keeping methane, a damaging greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere. Another step to close the loop.


TOOLSHED, BARN AND WORKSHOP

We have a fully functioning work area that includes a timberframe/wattle and daub toolshed, a bamboo barn, and an open-air workshop. The structures themselves provide inspiration as well as a wonderful environment for interns and local workers to learn about natural building techniques and furniture making and work on a whole host of building-related projects. It's a comfortable, enjoyable and entertaining setting that provides countless memories for those spending time in this area of the Ranch. We have a full assortment of power and hand tools, locally sourced materials, a section on natural building in our library and competent builders on site, all which provide an ideal situation for building enthusiasts.


guest structures

We have a number of structures that we rent to guests and visitors.  Please see here for more information about those buildings or to inquire about staying in one.  


We owe sincere thanks to an incredible number of people who have contributed their time, expertise and energy to make Mastatal a center for the natural building movement. Our dream of a little Hobbit Village in the middle of the rainforest continues to evolve and we hope to expand our building curriculum in the coming years. For upcoming workshops on natural building, please see our Course Calendar. Please come down and check us out and/or attend one of our yearly workshops to learn more about how you can more responsibly build.