Cob Building Basics: DIY House of Earth and Straw

Build your own mortgage-free home with low-cost and local materials using cob-building.


| October/November 2013



Cob house in California

This retreat center’s storage building features an attached cob oven and natural paints.


Photo By Chris McClellan

In early 1999, a young woman from Florida happened across an article online about the recent revival of an ancient British method for sculpting dirt houses. Intrigued, she used her savings to travel to Vermont for a five-day workshop, where she learned how to mix clay, sand and straw by foot, and then knead lumps of the stuff into solid walls nearly as durable as concrete.

After returning to Florida, she and some friends used the techniques she had learned to build a small pottery shed in her parents’ backyard. Some people predicted Florida’s humid air and torrential rains would melt her “mud hut” back into the ground. Following Hurricane Lili in 2002, however, the sturdy little building, which had cost just a few hundred dollars and a summer’s labor to build, proved to be one of the few buildings left standing in her neighborhood. Christina Ott had discovered cob building.

Cob-Building Origins

Cob building gets its name from the Old English term for “lump,” which refers to the lumps of clay-rich soil that were mixed with straw and then stomped into place to create monolithic earthen walls. Before coal and oil made transportation cheap, houses were built from whatever materials were close at hand. In places where timber was scarce, the building material most available was often the soil underfoot.

Building with earth has a long and successful history. Cob construction is particularly easy to learn, requires no fancy equipment, uses local materials, and can be done in small batches as time allows — making it extremely accessible to a wide range of people. (See DIY Cob-Building Technique, later in this article.) After her initial success with cob, Ott traveled to Oregon to apprentice with the Cob Cottage Company. When her family relocated to the mountains east of Nashville, Tenn., Ott used her new skills to build a small cob house for just under $8,000. By age 23, she was mortgage-free and teaching cob-building workshops all over the United States as the “Barefoot Builder.”

In the U.K., tens of thousands of cob buildings are still lived in, some of them more than 500 years old. When the British immigrated to the United States, Australia and New Zealand in the 1700s and 1800s, they brought the technique with them. In Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, parts of Asia and what is now the southwestern United States, cob was developed independently by indigenous people. In Yemen, cob buildings stand that are nine stories tall and more than 700 years old.

However, with the industrial age came factories and cheap transportation in the West, making brick, milled wood, cement and steel readily available. Mass production led to mass marketing and the promotion of these new materials as signs of progress. The perception of cob as “poor people’s housing” led to its near demise. By 1985, there hadn’t been a new cob building constructed in the U.K. for more than 60 years, or in the United States for at least 120 years.

vera
10/30/2013 11:16:45 AM

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avalona22
10/19/2013 2:59:43 PM

Very beautiful. I live in an ecovillage founded by Gabriel of Urantia (http://gabrielofurantia.info/) and we have earth domes, straw bale houses, yurts, and houses revamped to be more eco-friendly. Harmony with nature is the right way to live - thanks for posting this, it is a valuable resource.






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