When Kenyan landscape artist Chris Campbell Clause was dreaming of building a house in Voi, his inspiration was something earthy, traditional like an African hut.
“But the biggest challenge is how to put a roof on a roundhouse, unless I was going to use makuti or thatch. There’s also the furnishing aspect which was proving challenging. You can’t put a square bed against a round wall. So that’s why I went with an octagonal design so it gives some straight edges,” he says.
His four-bedroom earth-house, named Tsavo House, has red and orange hues striking in the glow of sunset, blending seamlessly into the surrounding Tsavo landscape.
To achieve the earthy look, soil was rubbed onto wet plaster by hand, like the cowdung technique. It was then patiently kneaded onto the exterior wall. When done correctly, there is no need to repaint the house even up to seven years later, he says.
“In Africa, a huge part of the population lives in mud constructed homes. Take Morocco for instance, the buildings have been standing for hundreds of years, and they’re just made from soil. However, developing countries are aspiring to be where the West is, yet the West is at a stage where they’re looking at sustainability and being eco-friendly, thus returning to building out of soil,” he says.
The house took him two years to construct, and he worked with two men.
“I built the house with only two men helping me. So labour costs were minimal and the total cost of construction would not have exceeded Sh3 million,” he says.
“I wasn’t in a hurry. It could have easily been built in four or five months.”
Going with a rammed earth technique meant that transport costs were almost zero as they were hardly any building materials being brought to the site.
“I dug septic tanks and water reservoirs to get enough soil to make bricks, and we added a tiny bit of cement as a binding agent. If you do it properly, you’re supposed to cure that brick by putting it under polythene for about a month for it to gain strength over those days. The drawback is that people are impatient and want to build with the same brick they made that day,” he says.
Mr Clause has now put his Tsavo House for booking on Airbnb. There are two double bedrooms upstairs, and one downstairs, and he is currently putting up a star bed on the rooftop.
He charges about Sh4,855 ($45) a night. Some solo travellers rent it alone, others as big groups of family or friends.
A huge mountain perfect for hikers frames is in the backdrop, and a river snakes its way past the front of the house. We enjoyed a picnic by the banks and walking its length as far as we could go.
We awoke to birdsong in the morning, took naps on the hammocks on the front porch, pottered around the fully stocked kitchen making roast for lunch, enjoying spectacular sundowners on the rooftop, drove into Voi town when we needed more wine and chatted with our amiable host late into the evenings on the beautifully outfitted main lounging area.
Mr Clause is also opening up his doors to young Kenyan artists looking for residency.
“They can come and spend a long weekend. If there are too many people for the house we can set up semi-luxury tents by the river, I have showers and loos there. We can have breakfast together then go for a game drive, take sketchbooks and cameras and see what inspires us out there. Then, we sit in the studio or main lounge and I can go from person to person and give advice. A lot of Kenyans don’t have access to or perhaps aren’t taking up such opportunities because they feel it's out of their budgets, but maybe it’s not,” he said.
Having sold his first watercolour painting in 1973, today, his studio sits behind the house. Guests can look through his collection and buy whatever they fancy, and artists can draw inspiration from his career.
“Being an artist isn’t always seen as a viable career— even I was told that. I get to prove to young Kenyans that you can make a living doing this. Not only do you have to be an artist but also a business person and know how to sell your art. There are more platforms available now, with Instagram and Facebook proving successful instead of going to a traditional gallery,” he says.
His passion for the wilderness is palpable in his landscape paintings which range from elephants in the Tsavo plains to the narrow streets of Old Town Lamu, as well as more cultural pieces such as Kenyan women carrying pots on their head on the way back to the homestead.
These pieces all have different markets, and he says he is looking to help artists identify that.