For years, I dreamed of building my own home using natural materials. But time passed, and I started to think about what I could do with the house I actually owned and lived in. In the end, I carried a shovel and some hand tools into the backyard of my vinyl-sided split-level ranch, and started building a cob house — an elflike playhouse for my children.
What took shape was a small cottage built of stone, cob (clay and straw), and wood, much of it gathered on-site. It took far too long to build, and demanded an endless supply of sand and clay. But the process was pleasant and rewarding. The structure emerged organically, dictated as much by available materials as the shape of our small city lot. A grove of hemlocks at the edge of the property provided an idyllic setting; however, the steep pitch and rocky soil presented challenges for excavation. As difficult as this was, the digging yielded enough stone for a rubble trench and a mortared foundation. It also produced good clay that went into the walls, plus contributed the material for the attached wood-fired pizza oven.
Recycled timbers formed a post-and-beam frame covered with a steep gabled roof. Walls of 6-inch-thick cob went up slowly, molding around salvaged windows. The cob was mixed on tarps, stomped and squished by the small bare feet of my two daughters and the neighborhood children. Poppy, my 3-year-old, was especially good at screening clumps of dried clay. Ella, at 8, drilled holes with a masonry bit in 100-year-old slate shingles.
Other features included a cob window bench, poured adobe floor, and a row of narrow arched windows on the west wall. A rustic cherry and maple ladder leads to a sleeping loft, the floor of which is made of thick hickory boards milled from a nearby shagbark hickory tree. Windows can be propped open with stainless hardware lifted from an old Lyman fishing boat. Overall, the finished structure blends into its surroundings nicely.
It’s a pleasant and inviting space — one that has added immeasurably to the feel of our home and is reflected in the laughter of the children who play there.
Ithaca, New York