Building With Cob From the Ground Up

Everything old becomes new again. Building with cob will leave you with a functional structure that is also as asthetically pleasing as your imagination allows.

| October/November 1998

Our desire for a place of our own seems to begin as soon as we are moderately self-aware. From the moment I was strong enough to climb trees I spent half my childhood in a tree house my older brothers had built. I don't know anybody — anybody normal anyway — who didn't frequent some kind of a "fort" as a kid. As adults, we chase after a place of our own to an almost obsessive degree. It becomes the common justification for our daily toiling. Yet what is one of the most natural expressions of our humanity is completely out of reach for a great number of people. While some people consume tons of natural resources building colossal houses, others are scraping and saving, clipping pictures, and dreaming of the day they'll be able to afford a home.

The luckiest people I know are those who have learned how to build something themselves from the ground up. Not only do they have a far greater chance of acquiring their own place regardless of the monetary cost, they inevitably also have the most comfortable places. They fit their home around their lives, not the other way around. They make all their own decisions, and they know when they go to bed at night that what they sleep under wasn't hastily glued together in a factory; it was made with the care and attention of their own hands. I didn’t know much about building with cob, and I’m not an architect or engineer, but I chose to attend a cob building workshop early this summer because I still believe I possess the ability to make something lasting and beautiful to live in. And I believe most other humans probably possess this ability to a greater extent than me, since I don't relish operating anything other than a hand tool.

Cob is a mixture of clay, sand, and straw that is placed handful by handful on a building foundation. Thick walls sculpted from the material turn rock hard as they dry. The walls are fully load hearing and need no rebar or forms to support them. Building with a material as simple and strong as cob is a great equalizer. You don't need any machinery, very much money, or big hairy muscular arms to build with cob. You do need some land and access to day, sand, and straw either from your land or somewhere else. You need to he able to use your common sense, follow your intuition, and be willing to get very dirty. (These are things I try to do as often as I can anyway.) Most of all, you need a lot of time, more time than any other ingredient. At the workshop I attended in Arkansas, 20 people came to learn about cob and help Ann Lasater build a 200-square-foot hermitage at her Ozark retreat center. We started with a finished foundation and roof, worked four to eight hours every day for a week solid, and managed to get half the very small building's walls about half way up. The workshops will continue in October and then again in the spring until the walls reach the roof.

You can't rush cob. You must build slowly or your walls will not have the proper time to harden and hold themselves up as you build. Many folks love the slow process and love working in the clay and sand with their hands and feet. Becky Bee, our workshop leader, likes to compare it to making a sculpture big enough to live in. This kind of slow-going handmade method can't help but impart the building with a lot more character and warmth than any fast form-laying machine-operated building technique can ever hope to. It gives you time to be in your house before you live there, and this will inevitably cause you to redesign it to fit your life as you go. You might find, for example, that you could put an alcove in that wasted space, or that there is just enough room in the bay window (cob is perfect for bay windows) to put in a window bench. If you plan to live in the place the rest of your life, attention to such details means a great deal.

I suppose not everybody likes the accessibility of this type of building. Thus, nervous building code inspectors, contractors, and people who have no faith in the perseverance of individuals will most likely ridicule your cob home. "How can you build a house, handful by handful, of nothing but dirt and straw? Won't it turn to mud and wash away as soon as it rains?" You can tell them that cob probably originated in an area of the world renowned for the dampness of its climate—England—where some cob buildings built in the 16th and 17th centuries are still standing. Some 50,000 cob buildings constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries are still in full use in England today.

Cob is safe, and is increasingly recognized as such by building codes. Arizona is the only state with building codes that specifically allow for cob construction, but many post-and-beam buildings with cob infill have been approved in other states. Recently, Vancouver issued a permit for a completely load-bearing cob house. Natural builders see this as a precedent for permits elsewhere.

7/10/2009 12:32:33 PM

I would love to get involved in this type of building. I have decided on this method because it looks cheap enough that I could afford it. I have been dirt poor for 12 years, working minimum wage jobs and trying to get ahead and am a single mother. So the thought of ever having my own place... it's a pipe dream. Then I happened up on a cob article and started researching self sufficiency and cob building. Then I started getting on real estate sites and going to realtors and looking for land in Washington State that is just bare land. I've found a few with lots of acreage at around $12-15000 dollars, or small RV lots for less. While the RV lots probably won't do the trick, I could easily see myself doing this. If I can ever get the student loans paid off and save enough money, I may be able to do this and finally have "my own place" in six years when my daughter is grown. God willing.

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