Ecopreneur: Four Weeks, Three Interns, Two Cows, and 120 Cubic Feet of Mud

10/11/2009 08:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The mud pit was empty, the rice straw hadn't arrived, and the cows were nowhere to be found. When we arrived, we found our workers taking a prolonged smoke break, burning daylight with their tobacco with nothing to show for the hours they were supposed to have already worked.

Our project for the day was to mix 120 cubic feet of straw-reinforced mud to construct a small parapet wall for the Panigram Pavilion. Panigram Resort will be built from mud and bamboo -- both locally available, extremely sustainable materials -- so it was important to me to incorporate mud into the design of our demonstration pavilion (even though building with mud during the monsoon season was not advised by the villagers!)


Rice straw is mixed with the mud to make it stronger and prevent cracking

Making mud is a long, labor-intensive process. Each batch requires three and a half hours to complete and we barely had enough daylight left to finish the two batches required. After assessing the situation, I concluded that seven hours might be just enough if all of the interns helped the workers. Doubtful that we could actually finish, my interns and I looked at the workers on the opposite side of the canal; their faces mirrored our skepticism.

With me counting the minutes, our workers on break, and noon quickly approaching, Jonathon and Brian sprung into action. Grabbing shovels and baskets, they jumped into the mud pit in the middle of the canal that my architecture intern, Chi Chi, prepared the day before. We started filling the workers' baskets with sticky mud from the riverbed as dozens of local Bangladeshis gathered around us. Not wanting to be outdone by the bideshis (foreigners), the workers picked up their pace and within twenty minutes, the mixing pit was filled with mud and ready for the straw.


Jon and Chi Chi get mud from the riverbed as the villagers watch

Chi Chi selected this mud pit because it was right next to the pavilion site and Koli and I tested the mud and confirmed that it was the right type for building. At the time, we thought that the mollusk shells in the riverbed might make a nice wall texture; only the workers foresaw our imminent discomfort.

While we watched the workers wet the mud, I explained to my interns that it should have the consistency of fresh play-doh or modeling clay; I informed them that the only way to really tell when the mud is ready is by walking in it. So Chi Chi, Jonathon, and Brian shrugged their shoulders, kicked off their flip-flops, and joined me and the workers in the mixing pit.


Chi chi stomping the mud

At first we reveled in the cool sensation of mud between our toes. Childlike, we threw straw into the pit, working it in with our feet. But after a couple of minutes, as our workers predicted, we felt the biting sting of the sharp shells. As the shells gouged our feet, relations with the workers started to improve; Bilal grimaced and Brian yelled out, then Sukropar and Chi Chi both swore in Bangla. Soon, the three interns were laughing and joking with the four local workers: Sham, Bilal, Shukropar, and Nepal. When the cows finally arrived, our new friends even showed the interns how to drive the cows around the mixing pit.


Brian driving the cows to mix the mud

By lunchtime, we finished the first batch of mud. Eager to try the local techniques, Brian asked Nepal to help him make a gamcha (thin, Bangladeshi towel) hat so that he could carry the baskets of mud on his head like the locals. Excited by Brian's enthusiasm, Nepal and the other workers joked and laughed as they outfitted Brian Bangladeshi style. The eight of us worked quickly, and in no time at all we emptied the mud pit.


Bilal helps Brian carry mud like a local

After releasing the workers for lunch, we rested in the banana grove, enjoying a comfortable breeze in the shade. Brian stole food from Chi Chi's tiffin (a local "lunch pail" with three round, stacking boxes) and forced down the liter of oral saline that I insisted he drink.


Brian napping behind his tiffin and water bottle filled with oral saline

When the workers returned to the site, we started the second batch of mud. It seemed to go faster than the first round as our increasingly cohesive team found its rhythm. As the sun started to set we finished the mixing. We were about to congratulate ourselves on a job well done when the sky suddenly became dark and a torrential downpour threatened to wash away our hard work. Frantic to save over three hours of labor, we rushed to fill any available container with mud and carry it to the covered pile next to the pavilion. As the spectators ran for shelter in the banana grove, two little boys recognized the importance of keeping the mud dry, stepped forward, and started filling baskets with mud.


Hundreds of villagers came out to watch us work

Working now together as a close-knit team, we managed to save the last bit of mud as the rain stopped. We then paused for a picture -- exhausted and muddy, but relieved that we saved the entire second batch. Shaking hands, acknowledging the new bond that had been forged between us through hard work towards a common goal, we departed with a bit more respect and understanding.


The mud team: Sham, Bilal, Chi Chi, Jonathon, Brian, Kristin, Nepal, Shukropar, and two village boys

This article, written by myself and my media intern, Brian Grambow, is cross-posted with the Panigram Resort website.