The Be the Change Project and House Alive Natural Builders conducted a three-day cordwood cob house-raising workshop in early May in Reno, Nevada. Registrations and interest in the months leading up to the “One-Day Cob House” event were great and we gathered on Friday morning with 60 people and high hopes. Cob is known as a slow and laborious building technique and this effort, as far as we know, was a first. Friday was a set-up and skill building day and included a tour of our project – an electricity, car, and fossil-fuel-free urban homestead – to strengthen the container of the weekend and share the broader vision behind our project and this most unusual of natural building workshops. Saturday was the build day – 6:30 a.m. start! Sunday was a light day of cleanup, some base coat of plaster, reflection and goodbyes. We raised a 184-square-foot cob cabin that weekend but what we really built was a beloved community.
It was three o’clock on Saturday afternoon when I left the building site on my bike to get a line level from my house (our “Be the Change Project”) two blocks away. Five minutes later I was pedaling my way through marble-sized hail ricocheting off me and the road. My heart sank as I figured our ambitious effort to raise a cob house in one day was doomed.
We had risen at dawn that morning – all 60 of us - and started building at 6:30am. Progress was good at about 10 inches an hour. We assembled the roof on the ground without a hitch. The workshop participants were a wonderful, interesting, and hard-working group from all walks of life: a team that builds houses for the homeless, a couple from a Jewish urban farm and education center in Berkeley, a family with three girls from the foothills of California (the girls orchestrated the Friday night talent show all on their own), older women homesteaders, young single guys just getting started in natural building…
But alas, the weather was against us. May in Reno is a tricky time of year with any kind of weather possible. I had checked the weather forecast daily for the past 10 days and saw it go from good to bad and worse. While Friday, the first day of the workshop where we did skill building, harvested clay, and gave a tour of our project, was pleasant with sunshine and a light wind, Saturday called for afternoon rain and temperatures dropping throughout the day. And that’s just about what we got.
“All well”, I thought as I biked back to the site, “We gave it our best.” Our planning and organization was outstanding; our lead instructors, Coenraad and James of House Alive, are some of the best around; our group of 60 was outstanding with a healthy mix of folks with cob, Earthship, and carpentry experience. “Maybe tomorrow we can get the rest done.” I thought. “We can tarp it, hope for better weather, and pile into the main house to get warm. After all, a cob house in two days is pretty amazing, too.”
But then, I heard it: cheering! 60 joyful voices raised up against the hail in a chorus of whoops, whistles, and hollers. They were celebrating the hail and the hard weather that was pushing against them. I turned into the site, leaped off my bike, and dashed to the building. Hands blue and pink from the cold were piling cob higher, muddy shoes were dancing atop batches of cob, cordwood was being handed up the walls, and people were straddling bales and barrels and ladders to get to our highest layer of – all with smiles. It was going to work. We were going to do it. A cob house in a day!
We called it quits on Saturday at about 6:30pm and considered the day a great success. We had raised walls six and a half feet high and built and hoisted, with 100 hands, a roof to top those sturdy walls. We were tired and cold but also effervescent and joyful from a good day of side-by-side meaningful work. The cabin will host interns, guests, and maybe even a new resident to be part of our growing community. With earthen plastering, light straw clay infill of the box-beam, and an earthen floor, there is still much to do. But it will be done with the help of many more hands and hearts learning and experiencing the joys of natural building and the joys of a living community. It will also be an object of great beauty, something most of our modern homes (and by extension, our modern lives) sadly cannot claim.
Most folks were gone by one on Sunday (it was sunny and warm, by the way) but a small group of us locals and friends remained. We were lazing about munching on leftovers and reflecting on the weekend, still in awe at what transpired. Someone mentioned the hand blessings done by Katy. Another shared how one participant found the workshop by Googling “Cob Party.” We laughed about the face painting and agreed the African drumming group was incredible. I remarked about how cool it was that James (of House Alive) flew to Reno from the Galapagos Islands just to be at the workshop and wound up co-leading it. And what about those kids who organized the campfire talent show! I think all of us sitting there at that moment would have agreed with what another friend said the next day, “I feel like anything’s possible with this community.” We feel so blessed.
There will be another “One-Day Cob House” build next year, near Reno. Contact me if you’re interested in being part of another phenomenal workshop.
Photos by Shannon Welles
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