Building homes and communities


BRATTLEBORO -- When Liz Johndrow first discovered community natural home building during an early mid-life crisis about 15 years ago, she was amazed at how the work brought people together.

Johndrow, 53, who lived in Windham County between 1980 and 2010, had been a massage therapist, which is a solitary profession.

She was looking for other work at the time; work that brought communities together and which helped teach people to create something for themselves.

Johndrow took a women's carpentry workshop in New York in 2002 and found that she enjoyed building homes and was good at it.

She studied with other builders, eventually becoming a contractor and then a teacher herself.

After a few years of building and teaching she found herself mostly helping wealthy people build expensive timber frame homes.

On one job one day, outside of Aspen, Col., there was something tugging at Johndrow.

She decided she wanted to work with underserved communities and she met a woman on the job in Aspen who was doing solar power work in Nicaragua.

Johndrow was encouraged to go down to Nicaragua to meet the people there and help out on the solar project, and while she was there she saw an opportunity to share her natural home building skills.

"The first time I went to Nicaragua I was doing soul searching," she said. "I was looking for work with deeper meaning."

That trip led to a life-changing passion for Johndrow; to teach women to build better and more sustainable homes for themselves and their families.

She has been down to Nicaragua three times now, has a burgeoning non-profit group and on Tuesday she will share her story at Brooks Memorial Library.

Johndrow will be at the library Tuesday, July 29, at 7 p.m., to show photos and talk about her work in Central America.

The talk is free and open to the public.

Johndrow has started an organization, the Nicaragua Pueblo Project, which seeks to teach women and men natural home building skills.

The group, she hopes, will one day bring builders, architects, engineers, and volunteers to underserved areas of the world to teach natural home building, which uses mud, clay, wood, stone and other materials native to the area to create safer, cleaner more secure buildings.

"It is amazing to watch these women learn these skills and help them realize they can do more than haul water and make tortillas," Johndrow said. "They are improving their lives and improving their homes and learning skills they can use."

Johndrow first went to Totogalpa, Nicaragua, in 2011 to help out with the solar project there, though she was keeping her options open to sharing her natural home building skills.

Totogalpa is in the northern region of Nicaragua, a part of the country that was severely affected by the Central American wars in the 1980s and 1990s; the people there live in extreme poverty.

The region was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the land still is littered with land mines from the war.

In Totogalpa she found some of the people living in adobe homes, and she wanted to help organize a group to gather the women in the area together to learn to build, which was traditionally the work of the men in the area.

Johndrow also said local cement companies are pressuring residents to tear down their adobe home to put up cement structures, which Johndrow claims are more expensive, less comfortable and harder to maintain than the traditional adobe homes.

Using local materials and building methods, Johndrow said she is introducing modern techniques that make the buildings cleaner and safer.

"I wanted to teach the women there what I knew and help preserve that culture of adobe," she said.

She left Nicaragua after her first visit late in 2011, after working on the solar project, with a plan to build support for her home-building efforts.

She also had to return to the United States to make some money for herself after largely volunteering in Nicaragua.

She returned in November 2012, leading additional workshops with women to teach natural home building.

When she is in the U.S. Johndrow travels around the country, teaching natural home building, and now, trying to build support for the Nicaragua Pueblo Project.

"I think I have found that work I was looking for. I want to grow this work so I'm supporting this endeavor for the rest of my working days," she said. "At this point I have no other choice."

For more information, visit

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. Follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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