Going for green: Crista Cullen on building a mud hut in Kenya


Gold medal-winning hockey player and Vitality Performance Champion, Crista Cullen, never imagined her retirement from sport would involve a mud hut in Kenya. For World Environment Day, Jennifer Wallis asks why she started afresh

Crista image_3_mud_hut

Difficult as it may be, let’s cast our minds back to 2020. Working from home has been enforced for many; leaving the house is only for stocking up on essential items, the unthinkable has happened – we’re in lockdown. 

Cafes, gyms, libraries are status: closed. Lights in beauty salons and hairdressers are off. Playgrounds are constricted by red tape. Silence is only broken by the dial-up of Zoom; our crutch to socialise, celebrate birthdays and keep fit. 

For gold medal hockey player and Vitality Performance Champion, Crista Cullen, this wasn’t to be her ‘new normal’. A mud hut in Africa would be… and yes, you did read that right. 

“I wanted to see if I could use my time [in lockdown] in a meaningful way”

Crista Cullen, Vitality Performance Champion

Unphased by living offline – she grew up on an off-grid conservancy in Kenya – Crista, in the midst of writing her conservation master’s thesis, seized an opportunity to practice what she was preaching.

Inspired by local tribesmen who live off the land, and aghast at the sheer vastness of the carbon footprint created by modern buildings, she set out to build a house in a more sustainable way. 

“I wanted to see if I could use my time [in lockdown] in a meaningful way,” she tells Vitality Magazine from her home Kenyan home, now fully installed with Wi-Fi. 

Using the same method as the local tribe, Crista, enlisting the help of a friend, made the bricks from a healthy supply of mud, nature’s oven (the sun) and her bare hands.

No fire, no cement and no-one to do it for her.  What stands today is a unique and, quite frankly, a stunning home. Coloured glass bottles project dappled sunlight through them, evoking an ethereal stained-glass window, while multi-coloured glass offcuts, laid out like mosaic, form the shower floor. 

Crista used anything she could, quite literally, get her hands on. Old wood, discarded items and what fell from the sky are common features throughout. The floor, the bed – all made from mud.


An audacious mission and one that presented its fair share of challenges.  “The land is all on rock, so to try and build a foundation on rock is very difficult as clearly rock moves,” she laughs.

“The other thing we needed to think about was drainage; it's mud, so when it rains, what do you do about drainage? You don’t want someone to be washed away in their mud house at night.” 

Local residents would also have to be taken into consideration – ants. And ants really like mud. But Crista’s mission was all about working with the land and working with nature – not against it.

“It was a very fulfilling experience,” muses Crista. “Covid was tough for a lot of people, but this was a great way to do something meaningful and show that we don’t always need to build in the ways that we usually build…it’s about working with what you have and being adaptable.”

Crista’s commitment to sustainability is admirable. But it’s not every day that the average person can up sticks and move into a mud hut in the name of sustainability.  

Drawing on her time in sport, though, Crista notes the “1% marginal gains” that make a difference in a performance environment between winning and losing. “Why can’t we do the same in the world of recycling, or the world of growing your own produce?” she asks. 

“Let’s teach children about growing herbs. Growing a little bit of watercress on your windowsill can be massive learning for children around where things come from,” she enthuses.


Becoming more conscious of where our clothes come from, the products that we use on our skin, and where our food comes from, are all small things that can help us make these 1% marginal gains when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint.

Brits, for example, are partial to a cuppa. But what happens when we want one? Do we fill the kettle to the brim? Or could we fill it with just the amount of water required for a cup or two?

Our electric use, do we leave plug sockets turned on with phone chargers connected? Could we even consider swapping out our regular light bulbs for LED lights? By making small, practical adjustments, we can make a positive difference.

These simple and positive acts can also have an impact on our health. Swapping driving to the shops for walking or cycling helps to keep us in good, physical health. In turn, this helps ease the burden on our healthcare system. 

“There is a direct correlation between physical wellbeing and your ability to impact your environment”

Crista Cullen, Vitality Performance Champion

Crista reiterates that it’s about finding what works for you. Ask yourself what is practical in your world? Look at your lifestyle and figure out what small adjustments you can make.

This will make the world of sustainability seem less daunting – knowing that there are little ways you can make a difference.

Taking the time and effort to check the labels of the food we eat, or why not try an ‘accountability checklist’ on the fridge, ticking off the recycling as you go; it could even improve your mental health. 

“There is a direct correlation between physical wellbeing and your ability to impact your environment,” Cullen concludes. “Knowing that you have contributed to a greater good leads to you feeling more fulfilled and it can enhance your psychological and mental wellbeing. 

“I know I do for sure when I do good for the planet.”

Have you been inspired by Crista's story and want to hear more about her eco-friendly lifestyle?

Why not tune into our Vitality Talks session on June 26 at 12pm, where she'll be joined by Vitality's Chief Sustainability Officer to share their thoughts on sustainable living and how small acts can have a big impact.

Register here to secure your place.

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