VARVARA VALCHANOVA – Earth Builder

Varvara Valchanova grew up both in Bulgaria and Algeria and studied architecture in Grenoble (France), where she graduated in 2002. Afterwards she specialized in earth construction at the Research Centre for Earthen Architecture (CRATerre) in Grenoble. After moving to the Netherlands in 2005, Varvara worked for a small architecture office in the Hague specialising in ecological building. Currently Varvara works in the field of advanced lightweight structures with Buitink Technology in Duiven.

Varvara lives in Holland and has three children, however, these facts never stop her from coming back to Bulgaria every year. In a small mountain village, she is reviving the old tradition of earth building. Fortunately, this skill has not been completely forgotten and it deserves the chance to survive into the future. She and her husband have bought three houses in the abandoned Rahovitza – a neighborhood outside the village of Kosovo (Asenovgrad) in the Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains. When Varvara and her husband bought the houses, there was no road leading to the buildings and they were almost in ruins. Varvara however, managed to recover their authentic charm with her tireless work and growing enthusiasm. She uses solids and stones from the hills and hardwood from the nearby sawmill.

The Master

Varvara’s love of earth building started while studying architecture in the University of Grenoble. In order to make her living and study at the same time, she started working as a builder-plasterer using natural earth plasters. At CRAterre, she explored this further and joined international and European projects in Central Asia, Africa and Europe. She is amazed by the soft colors and full variety of shades of the natural material. A master does not use common terms as “clay” and “cob”, because they do not fully express the different building techniques she uses. That is why Varvara has chosen the term “earth building” for specifying all the construction techniques, which include subsoil as a main construction material.

The material she uses for the earth building is the subsoil hidden under the upper layer of the ground – the unfruitful soil, made of small stones, fractured into different sizes by erosion. Soil, which is suitable for construction, should not contain organic substances because they decay and are a good hosts of mould. Varvara has dedicated herself to earth building in every aspect – she has planned and carried out the restoration of many old houses in the Rodopa mountain area using earth building techniques. She also organizes an international architectural camp for alternative building techniques in the Rhodope Mountains and has published a book called “Earth Building”, written in Bulgarian.

The book is the result of the experience she has gained, it has loads of information on how earthen materials are extracted, tested and prepared, what kinds of earthen building techniques are used in Bulgaria, as well as some useful tips and tricks for preserving old buildings.

The Technology

Local materials and traditional techniques, enriched with the latest science and design for low-carbon, healthy and beautiful living spaces – is what the slow technology of ‘building naturally’ is all about. Modern materials often contain noxious impurities, which even in small quantities, can affect health. Earth building is completely ecological. Unfortunately, today it is so rare to be able to find someone who can repair and restore old houses. Someone who works with due skill and respect for the work of the old masters. But it is encouraging to find that Varvara Valchanova is one young architects who has succeeded in renovating a few old houses in both a sympathetic and authentic way.

The Slow Tech Campus

Varvara Valchanova’s aim is to inform people about earth building and to teach them how to use natural materials for building. Since 2004, she has organised architectural summer camps in Rahovitza, where everyone, especially students of architecture from all over the world, can participate and learn about earth building. During these seminars, they learn about the characteristics of earth as a building material, field tests that will enable them to identify the right soil for building and the main earth building techniques. The participants gain practical experience on adobe planning, straw-earth infill and plastering. A guided excursion to nearby villages gives them the opportunity to further explore traditional building techniques and their possible adaptation to modern requirements.

The Book

Varvara Valchanova has gathered all the knowledge she has gained, together with her professional experience, in a construction guide dedicated to earth building. The book, “Earth Building” is written in Bulgarian and was officially launched on the 26th of November 2013, at the House of Culture in Plovdiv, under the auspices of the festival, ’’Sofia Architecture Week”.

The book reveals the features and the properties of the building material which has been used in Bulgaria for millennia. It explains the parallels between the geology of a specific terrain, the properties of the local soils and the different building techniques. The book gives information on how to extract, how to test and prepare earth materials, which are the key building techniques in Bulgaria, as well as lots of useful information about the conservation and restoration of historic houses. The book’s main purpose is to arouse the interest of  Bulgarian readers in the opportunities which earth can give, as a natural and ecological construction material, towards the restoration and maintenance of existing buildings, as well as being a reliable material for a new, eco and bioclimatic building.

The Building Projects

After five years of hard work and building activities, the Kibela house in the Rhodopean hamlet of Rahovitza is now complete. Varvara and her team mainly used local and affordable materials. The internal climate is unique and interactive. The walls are built with timber/black pine with an infill of light earth and insulated with reeds. The ground floor and the ceiling of the house are insulated with perlite. The ground floor is covered with a Bulgarian limestone and the first floor is made from pine – varnished with a linen-based product. For the kitchen, she opted for a Bulgarian stove – Prity, and for the first floor, a Norwegian stove – Smarty from the Nordpeis company. The kitchen furniture was made by the local carpenter from oak and for the worktops she integrated limestone that was leftover from the floors. During the spring of 2015 an open doors event was held.

Completed projects:

  • The Kibela house in Rahovitza, Kosovo, Rhodope mountains
  • The Bendida house in Rahovitza, Kosovo, Rhodope mountains

The Award

Terra [In]cognita, earthen architectures in Europe is a European project financed through the framework for the EU “Culture 2007-2013” program and also supported by the French region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur. One of its principal objectives is to make the public more aware of earth architecture, the earthen heritage and the modern application of earth as a building material. An award for “Outstanding Earthen Architecture in Europe” has been given to 42 construction projects selected by a 9 person jury from 6 different countries (France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, United-Kingdom, and USA). The buildings were judged under 3 different categories:

  • buildings with an archeological, historical or architectural interest
  • buildings presenting a remarkable or pertinent intervention (restoration, rehabilitation or extension)
  • buildings constructed after 1970

In this context, the Bendida house in the Village of Kosovo – Narechenski Bani was given an award in 2011 under the category “Buildings presenting a remarkable or pertinent intervention”.

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