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10-week Natural Building apprenticeship


September 21, 2017 @ 1:20 pm - December 2, 2017 @ 1:20 pm Contact

In 2017 House Alive will be returning to one of the most magical places on earth: Jhamtse Gatsal children’s community. Located in North Eastern India, on the border with Bhutan, it is a place filled with love, beauty, adventure and community. Our 2015 apprentice group built a cob cottage from start to finish during our 8 week program, using almost exclusively local materials.

As a natural building apprentice, you will go through the extraordinary experience of being part of a building process from the very beginning until it’s completion. Almost all learning happens by working and doing. Apprentices are involved in sourcing and processing materials, making design decisions, dealing with weather related issues, planning and strategizing.

 Woven throughout our time, there will be lectures and discussion on design and appropriate technology, components that will help you fill out your building knowledge.

 For all of us who were there in 2015, being part of the community and spending time with the staff and children, was an incredible highlight. We build with them, we played with them, we sang with them and had some of the most amazing parties with them, celebrating different holidays and events.

 There is an HBO documentary made about the community called “Tashi and the Monk”. You can find it on the Internet and see a trailer here. You can also see a short video on “a day in the life Jhamtse Gatsal” on Youtube.

A documentary of our 2015 project can now be seen on YouTube.

What will you learn?

 We will again be building a 200 square foot cottage from start to finish. Apprentices will be part of every step on the way and become confident builders as the building progresses. They will get a deep understanding and develop significant skills in the following areas:

  • Rubble trench foundation
  • Stem walls, in particular working with natural stone
  • Recognizing and finding the right materials for earthen construction
  • Mixing and building with cob
  • cob niches, arches and other sculptural details
  • Adobe brick making and building
  • light-straw-clay
  • Various forms of finish earthen plasters
  • Earthen floors and ceilings
  • Basic carpentry skills
  • Roof construction and insulation
  • Installing Windows and doors
  • Installing plumbing and electrical
  • Model making
  • Design strategies
  • Composting toilets
  • solar hot water
  • solar electric

 Our book “House of Earth” will be used as the text book for this program.

 Although hard to describe, living and working in such a unique community and environment will undoubtedly leave you filled with new insights on life. We all process these experiences differently, but the impact is undeniable.

The daily schedule

 7:30   breakfast

8:30   building session 1

12:30  lunch

1:30   Building session 2

4:30   Lectures and/or free time (usually alternating days)

6:30   Dinner

After dinner we sometimes get together as a group or partake in events taking place in the community.

 Most weeks there will be at least 1 day off. There will be little or no time to travel outside of the community. There is a small town about an hour walk away that has a few chai huts and stores. There are beautiful hiking opportunities starting directly from the community.

The location and community

 Jhamtse Gatsal children’s community was started about 10 years ago by a former Tibetan monk, who everyone calls Genla. It serves about 80 children from 3 to 18 years old who come from the surrounding villages. The children were either orphaned, abused or neglected. They sleep in dorms, are fed, get health and dental care, a great academic schooling and an incredible amount of love and attention. As a result, the children and the adults form a community of true “love and compassion” (the translation of Jhamtse Gatsal: “garden of love and compassion”). It’s hard to move across campus without meeting a smile, getting a hug or seeing something beautiful happening!

The area is considered “the foothills of the Himalayas”. The mountains are georgeous and majestic. At 6500 feet, there is still a jungle forest, including monkeys. Small villages, constructed of mud and stone, are dotted all around Jhamtse Gatsal. As you walk through them you feel like you are thrown a few hundred years back in time. Traditional forms of agriculture bring rice, millet and root vegetables to the region. There is great poverty, but little violence, homelessness or hunger. Many of the man live in cities to work on construction projects and bring back money for their communities.

 The whole region is steeped in Tibetan Buddhism, with lots of prayer flags, pictures of the Dalai Lama, temples and a kind and gentle demeanor. Few people speak English, although all the children speak at least a little. The region is considered ethnically Chinese and China thinks it should belong to them. As a result there is a large (but friendly) Indian military presence in the region and it is restricted for most foreigners. We are able to get special permits for apprentices through our contact with Jhamtse Gatsal.

The food

 Delicious food is prepared for us every day. It is nutritious, plentiful and safe. It’s mostly vegan, with an occasional hard boiled egg, and, for special occasions some paneer (Indian fried cheese) or chicken. Plan on eating lots of veggies, rice, beans and grains. Catering towards special food needs is not an option.

 All drinking water is boiled and safe to drink. In 2015 no one got sick as a result of the water or food served in the community.

The Weather

 Right around September, this region will end its monsoon season and heads into a drier period until about April. During October/November there can be lots of sunny days in a row, with an occasional period of rain. As the winter sets in, temperatures drop at night, and eventually will settle around 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Towards the end November, days can still be pleasant, with temperatures around 60 degrees, but as soon as the sun goes down, around 4:30 that time of the year, it can get chilly. Because the community is built on an exposed piece of land, it has the most amazing views, but also a lot of wind, which can make it feel colder than it actually is. It usually does not snow.

 None of the buildings are heated and people live with hats, warm jackets and thick blankets. There is electricity but there are blackouts almost on a daily bases, at least for part of the day. Candles are popular and available for sale in the nearby town.

The travel

 This place is as far as you can get from any major city. Apprentices need to gather in the northern city of Guwahati on September 21, at noon. There are flights from all major Indian cities to Guwahati, such as Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. Apprentices will be picked up by car at the Guwahati airport to start an 18 hour, 3 day car ride over a 14,000 foot pass. As time goes on, the roads will get increasingly rougher and the scenery more spectacular. Many people say that the hardest part about Jhamtse Gatsal is getting there!

Health and safety

There are no vaccination required for this region, although in 2015 most of us followed the suggestions from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) to get a hepatitis A shot and a typhoid immunization. Malaria is not an issue this time of the year and in general not a big problem in the region.

Jhamtse Gatsal has a small clinic with all the basic medications and first aid stuff on hand. Often, but not always, there is also a volunteer nurse or doctor on site. The nearest hospital is about a 2-3 hour drive, depending on the condition of the roads.

As mentioned earlier, all food and drinking water is safe.


 There is no mail service and packages will never arrive. There is also no phone available. There is slow, limited wifi, mostly good for email and an occasional text. Media rich sites such as Facebook are not practical or appreciated due to their limited bandwidth and data plan. When the power is out, so is often the Internet. (They do have some solar electricity back-up).

The cost and what is included

 The total cost of the program is $3850. This includes:

  • 10 weeks of instructions, 5 or 6 days a week
  • 3 meals a day
  • Lodging, shared (not heated) rooms, blankets, you bring a sheet
  • Showers, sometimes warm, depending on electricity outages
  • All travel, food, hotels to and from Guwahati
  • A copy of our book “House of Earth”
  • Special permits for that region ($300)

 You need to arrange/pay for:

  • Travel to Guwahati
  • Your Indian visa (different from the special permits for that region)
  • Immunization (optional, but recommended)
  • Travel insurance (optional, but recommended)
  • Snacks, candles (optional, but recommended)

 Of course the airline ticket is going to be a large expense and can vary in cost. Having said that, most people should be able to do the whole appreticeship for about $5200.

How to apply

In order to apply you need to be in good physical health and over the age of 18.

Because of the special nature of this program, we ask people to go through an application process. This includes answering some questions via email and eventually a short interview via Skype (or some sort of video call).

Once you are excepted into the program, we will ask you to to secure your spot by making a deposit of half the total fee ($1925). The balance will be due by August 15th, 2017.

In the Spring of 2017, all participants and staff need to work on getting a visa for India. We will help you with this process. This is also the time to take any immunizations you might choose to take.

Here are the questions we would like you to answer carefully, so we get an idea of who you are:

  1. Tell us about yourself: name, age, gender, where you live, where you grew up, what you do for money, what do you do for fun?
  2. Why are you interested in this program?
  3. What, if any, experience do you have with (natural) building? (Not required)
  4. What experiences do you have with hard physical labor?
  5. Where have you traveled before?
  6. Have you ever been part of community living? How was that for you?
  7. Anything else that would help us get to know you?

Send the answers to these questions to Conrad.housealive@gmail.com

Please feel free to contact us with any further questions. We are also happy to get you in touch with people who took part in the 2015 program.


September 21, 2017 @ 1:20 pm
December 2, 2017 @ 1:20 pm
Event Category:


Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s community
North Eastern India, India


House Alive!
(541) 899-3751