My son, inspecting the construction site. Photo by author

I Have Zero Construction Skills and Not Much Money. But I’ve Managed to Build an Adobe Home in Patagonia

Argentina Sustainability
by Cathy Brown Feb 22, 2017

I’m a single mom of three teenage kids and I work as a travel writer. I’m unfortunately not a trust fund baby and I don’t happen to have a sugar daddy. So, while I manage to make ends meet quite fine, I’m not in a situation to outright buy a house where I live in Argentina. Mortgages are not the norm here where cash is king, and for that I am actually thankful.

While I live debt free, I do live paycheck to paycheck. I looked and looked, but couldn’t find a house here in Patagonia for less than $100,000 (although rent for a decent house here is about $400 a month, go figure). But I didn’t want to continue to rent — I wanted to create a stable base for my family. A home that felt like us, that was ours, one that I could envision my hopefully-someday-grandkids running around in.

I won’t bullshit you and make it seem like everything has gone down in a way that anyone, anywhere can recreate my situation. My family was lucky enough to have been given ten acres by an huge-hearted ex-boyfriend, for whom I will forever be grateful. Without that leg up it would have been much more difficult for me to realize my dream of building.

So what’s a girl with a piece of land to do when there’s no Home Depot within thousands of miles, no savings account to be able to contract out workers, and, let’s be honest, no real building knowledge whatsoever? If Argentina has taught me anything, it’s how to be creative. Bring it back to the basics. Research, talk to people who do know a thing or two, and stock up on local wood, straw bale, clay and sand to make adobe and start living off the grid. Here’s what I’ve learned in the process:

I can’t do it all alone, and that’s okay.

I’m fiercely independent. In the past I lived in a fantasy world where I thought I could somehow mother three teenagers, work full time, travel around the world, be there for my friends, cultivate food for the family, raise animals, learn to drum and paint, and build a house, while giving 100% to each project.

Let’e be honest — something had to give. I’ve taken in volunteers through WWOOFING, and have learned that the more ideas thrown around, the more energy, and the more hands, the better. My house will not be any less my house if I let someone else put mud on the bathroom walls. I used to almost think that I had to suffer to earn or deserve something, and that’s not true. I’ve learned that it’s a strength to be able to ask for help when I need it.

building an adobe house in Patagonia

The kids are helping with the building process. Photo by author

building an adobe house in Patagonia

The kids are helping with the building process. Photo by author

I’ve learned patience.

I grew up in a middle class town of Michigan, where one would go to the bank, get a mortgage that they could not afford, then hire out a construction crew that would come in and make a house appear.

Meanwhile in Patagonia, I buy as much wood and clay and sand and straw as I can afford that month, then get to work the couple of days a week I have available to focus on the house. If the car breaks that month, that means less materials. If I travel, nothing gets done at the building site. I’m almost two years into the house and I have the structure finished, the roof, the insulation, and I’m almost all done with the interior adobe. I realistically have more than a year left before the house is technically ‘done’, and probably another year after that until it’s done how I want it to be done, with all of the finishing touches.

I’ve had a hard time with this, because my sister in the US started her house at the same time I started mine…and she’s been living in hers for over a year now. I’ve had to learn that it’s not a race, and to appreciate that when mine is done, it will at least be free and clear.

I’ve learned how much I’m willing to sacrifice in order to build a home for my family.

I window shop and see new shoes and my mind immediately thinks of how many cubic meters of sand I could get with the same amount of money. I get invited to go wine tasting in Mendoza and I decline because I want to finish as many walls as possible before the rainy season comes. Instead of spending money to rent a house while we build, my three kids and I chose to move into a super rustic, teensy-tiny structure that was already on the property, giving up any sense of privacy or personal space until we can move into the larger house.

I continue to surprise myself with how much creating this home means to me. Almost every other expense or use of time and energy seems silly and secondary at the moment.

The view from my future living room. Photo by author.

Just because I’m not a builder does not mean I can’t or shouldn’t build.

Building a house with zero skill or knowledge is daunting but not impossible. I’ve picked people’s brains, I’ve spent hours on youtube, I’ve read books and websites, and I’ve learned a ton just by screwing up and re-doing things. Watching walls go up has been one of the most empowering things I’ve experienced in my life. With intention, patience, the openness to experiment, and the ability to laugh at my disasters and start over, I’ve been able to create a home for my family.

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