Here in central California summers are very hot and dry. Being outside can be uncomfortable, so we wanted to create a naturally cool (cool as in temperature) area for our son. Since the ground here is full of clay, we thought a cob layer on a playhouse with a living roof would provide sufficient cooling ... and it works! This play area is one of the coolest spots on the property during the blistering hot summer heat. It also stays bone-dry inside during the winter.
Since I used scrap-wood and earth already available to me, I only had to purchase a few items. Total Cost: $30.00
Rather than focus on building the actual structure, this instructable covers the cobbing part of the project.
This project was spaced out over two months to give each step plenty of time to dry, settle, harden and adjust.
Step 1: The Structure
Using some leftover wood from a previous construction project, I was able to put together a sturdy frame to hold the living roof (which is very heavy). I also used some oak limbs for columns in the front. Those limbs might look thin, but the oak-wood here is like iron, and will probably outlast the rest of the structure.
The living roof is around 5 inches deep, with a layer of roofing tar at bottom (dried properly), thin layer of gravel on top of that, a layer of old cotton rug found at the local thrift store on top of that, and finally the soil. I have 2-by-4s spaced out to help hold the soil in place (you can just make them out in the photo). Also, plenty of drainage along the edges for excess water to run out of. Note that there is plenty of roof hanging away from the house all the way around.
Step 2: Underneath the cob: stain, paint and moisture barrier
To keep the wood dry, we caulked and painted the inside, and then stained the outside with a dark brown stain. Tar paper was used as a moisture barrier between the plywood and cob to prevent rotting. You can see the black tar paper against the plywood. I then added some scraps of wood strips around 1/2 inch thick, and put a layer of wire fencing on top of that.
The result: sturdy wire fencing held 1/2 inch away from the surface. This will be what holds the cob in place.
You can also see that I have brought in rocks and earth around the base of the playhouse. This gives it more thermal mass, which is how this structure stays cool during the hot summer. Thermal mass will absorb the heat and release it at night.
I also added sand in front of the house for comfortable barefoot playing.
Step 3: Muddy Muddy Cob
Now comes the fun part: mixing and mudding. The dirt where we live is naturally clay, so the only thing we had to bring in was sand. Luckily, when our neighbors moved out the month before, they left a large sandbox full for us to use.
The sandbox was almost impossible for the kids to play in during the summer because it was in the sun, and also had turned into a kitty litter box. Burning hot sand with stinky cat poo — yuck!
Converting the sandbox into a more fitting play structure for our climate was the right move.
As there are plenty of websites that cover mixing cob, I will forego that here. I will just go so far to say that most of the websites I read about cob were people building serious houses, so they were very rigid in their requirements of fine-sifting the dirt and carefully measuring the mixing amount.
Since I was building a mere playhouse, I was not so hard on myself. I simply dug up the natural clay, mixed in sand and straw, and plopped it onto the house.
It was a lot of work! Even this tiny playhouse required quite a few wheelbarrows full of clay that I had to dig up. We have a seasonal creek bed that I can dig as much as I like. It had plenty of tiny gravel bits, clay and sand already, so I just mixed it with the sandbox sand until it felt right.
You have to use your feet to get the mix really blended well. Don’t even waste your time trying to do it with the shovel.
Mix the mud, straw and sand until it is like peanut butter. Plop it on the wall starting from the bottom. Continue until it is completely coated.
Let it dry for a week or more.
Step 4: The Final Layer
Once the thick layer of mud has sufficiently dried, there will be cracks all over. Not to worry, that is natural. The final layer will take care of that.
By making a mix of some slightly sifted clay, sand and cattail fluff, you can add a final layer that will seal those cracks and provide a lovely light brown finish. It does not take many heads of cattail, as each head will put out a huge amount of fluff.
You can also use horse manure, which also has a fine fiber in it that will work. I used a mixture of both the cattail and horse manure, since some nearby neighbors have horses and it was easy to get. Once it is mixed up and dries it does not smell like horses or poo, just a clean sort of earthy smell.
You can see more photographs of this project on my original Instructables post.
Photos by Adam Robertson