Volunteering at a sustainable building site in Estonia

From Tallinn I went to the national park at the Baltic Sea coast called Lahemaa. There I stayed for almost two weeks with Mari and Jim, a young couple who live off-grid in the forest [off-grid: not being connected to public networks like water, electricity or waste water].

When I first arrived at their place I was amazed: On a small clearing there was an arrangement of buildings: A small cabin, an outside kitchen, a greenhouse and sheds for ducks and chickens. And there was a fenced vegetable garden right next to a small creek. Further in the forest I got shown another big, round building with a transparent dome on the roof: the sauna.


And even further there were tents in different places, and also the “bender”: A structure of bent branches, covered with tarps, resembling an igloo in the forest. That is where I stayed. It had a wooden flor, a big bed in the middle of the room and enough space to stand upright. Only insulation was more or less nonexistent, but the army sleeping bag they had provided me with was more than sufficient for keeping me warm at night.

Jim and Mari
Mari and Jim

Immediately I was integrated into the workflow. There was a lot to do, they had invited to a “restaurant day” the next day. We cooked curry for thirty people, with lots of homegrown tomatoes and other vegetables, arranged tables and seating and just shone the whole place up. When the guests arrived everything looked nice and tidy, and they really got the experience of being in an open air restaurant in the forest.

This arrangement was part of one of their NGO’s, as I later learned: They want to show people how to build with natural materials and how to live sustainable. They also have different workshops going on, for instance on how to repair and set up broken solar panels.

Their other NGO is an international eco-volunteering network called thePOOSH (http://thepoosh.org/) which connects interested people and travellers (like me) with people who need help with their building projects and want to share this experince.

There were still many things to do before winter at Jim and Mari’s place, and we decided to launch into two major projects: Firstly building a battery bank. Jim had more than 30 12V lead-acid batteries that had to get connected and needed a new home. We did everything from scratch, planned, fitted and wired the whole thing. It was a lot of work, but it the end it was a dream come true: Now there is power, and light, just one switch away! (You really get to appreciate this for most of us rather normal thing if you have lived without it for as long as they did, I bet!) For now they will have to occasionally charge the batteries through their generator, but the plan is to move from fuel to solar and probably even wind power…

Insulating the ceiling

The second project was insulating and building/cladding the ceiling to their bathroom, an annex to their living cabin. This, like everything you do by yourself, took a lot longer than anticipated. But the end result was definitely worth the effort!

Cellulose in the livingroom

Jim had gotten several cubic meters of cellulose, a natural insulation material (basically old newspapers, shreaded to dust and treated with some kind of fire retardent) that we were going to stuff into the gap between the roof and the reed mats which would function as ceiling and finish in one.

I learned a lot while staying at this amazing place: From different working techniques and tricks to inventing and designing different solutions. For there were always new and unforeseen challenges. But that was what made it fun and rewarding, because in the end we always managed to make it work.

3 thoughts on “Volunteering at a sustainable building site in Estonia”

  1. Wow, i could hear the wonder and appreciation in your voice for that beautiful place (especially when you were at the sea). thanks for the quick video…we know that it is not up to your standards, and we know that you are without much free time to work on art projects, etc. keep those short quick very informative films coming…it is great for us to really “see” what you are experiencing, (and still there was editing, music -nice how you slowly, slowly turned up the level on that…barely perceptible at first)

    Anyhow, well done and god speed to you

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