Learning new things is always one of the best parts of travelling and volunteering for me; so, having the opportunity to work with and learn about adobe building techniques at El Terreno has been fascinating for me. I’ve always enjoyed building things and general practical work, and so discovering that you can build durable, warm houses and other things from all natural materials has been so interesting!
We were blown away at how strong just some clay, sand and vegetation can be with the right proportions.
When Joshua asked if I’d like to restore the old cob oven on the property in order to make some pizza, I was all in! Cob ovens are typically built on a solid base, for example stone or brick, and then built up with a thermal mass layer (for absorbing and maintaining the heat), an insulating layer to prevent the heat from escaping, and optionally an external layer to help protect it from the elements. The first 2 layers are solely clay, sand and vegetation! Once a fire has been raging in the oven for a few hours, it is removed (with the exception of some embers) and the oven should remain hot enough for quite some time to cook until your hearts content.
It was amazing to see some of the designs when researching – a little out of my skillset as a beginner though!
We don’t know how long the oven at El Terreno has been here, but it was certainly worse for wear when I first laid eyes on it. There were several holes in the dome, it was full of old wood, the insulating layer seemed non-existent and there was no door for it. It was almost tricker to restore an existing oven with no history of how it was originally constructed, but we got to work with a clean-up first, removing all the old wood so we could see it from the inside. Not a job for a claustrophobic (or asthmatic)!
Next, the main priority was to fill in all the holes. After all, it needs to maintain as much heat as possible, and ideally not collapse either. Again, a few hours were spent inside the oven, with my helpers from the outside passing me buckets of adobe (clay and sand) and some juice to keep me going. We would have liked to do a full internal layer as there were many cracks in the original, however time was of the essence so the external insulating layer became the main priority, along with the door. The insulating layer consists of clay, sand, and straw, the straw being the insulating ingredient. It was satisfying to smooth off all the lumps and bumps of the outside for sure!
The most elegant arrival back into fresh air after patching up holes!
Before we knew it, Sunday 11th September was here, when we’d invited some people from the local community to come and try some pizza from the restored oven.
The oven worked perfectly, but some tips we learned the hard way were:
Ultimate pro-tip: always do a trial run of the cooking process before inviting guests! Unfortunately, time caught up with us and it was a bit stressful, but people got some pizza in the end and it was a good laugh.
Make sure to have a surface that gets hot enough to cook the pizza base with – we ended up having to flip the pizzas and make calzones, as the top cooked within a few seconds whilst the base remained raw! Although our very last pizza cooked perfectly – I think the oven was also a little too hot still.
Definitely remove most of the fire, especially away from the door. We had both pizza and door set alight at one point!
The oven with a bit of TLC
Overall, it was a super fun, successful project that we learned a lot from. I’m definitely taking my newfound adobe knowledge with me and making my own oven sometime soon. I encourage everyone to do the same, its rather simple and there’s so many resources online to help you!
Volunteer at El Terreno
Come and be apart of building a cultural exchange centre in the heart of the Ecuadorian Andes. You'll have the opportunity to get to know a unique culture, practice your Spanish with warm local people and get hands on a variety of interesting projects.