Cob Construction Returns to North America with Natural Building Workshops


Barn Raising Workers Outside 

A group of about two dozen people gather on a wooded hillside in Northern California. They are women, men, and children, ranging in age from three to 72. They come from many different backgrounds: students, a professional truck driver, a potter, a couple of architects, a retired bureaucrat, a single dad accompanied by his young son, a woman with severe physical disabilities. They look like a pretty diverse bunch, but they all have at least two things in common: They are here to learn to build their own environmentally friendly homes, and all of them are splattered with mud from head to toe.

Cob Construction Returns to North America

I attended my first natural building workshop in Oregon in1993. After completing a degree in Environmental Engineering, I had spent two years in Costa Rican rainforest, volunteering for a sustainable forest management project. I was searching for ways to use my construction background to make a positive difference to forests everywhere, to help develop building alternatives based on earth that would leave more trees standing. When the workshop was over, I approached the instructor, Ianto Evans of the Cob Cottage Company, and asked if I could join his team.

For the next five years, Ianto and I and other members of the CCC traveled all over North America and beyond, training groups in how to build their own homes from the ground under their feet. Although the constant travel became tiring after a while, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. I learned so much and met so many amazing people – many of whom remain close friends to this day.

How Natural Building Addresses Climate Change

Twenty-seven years later, I still believe in the power of mud to change the world. In fact, the urgency today seems higher than ever before. Worldwide, construction and operation of buildings generate nearly 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). To meet Paris Climate Agreement targets, we must eliminate all GHG emissions from the built environment by 2050. The only way this could be possible is if we trim wasted energy from the building sector in many different ways: increasing the energy-efficiency of our buildings by using passive solar principles and excellent detailing; making smaller homes that are built to last much longer than those produced by the profit-driven construction industry; improved materials technology including recycling and carbon sequestration; and the increased use of local, natural materials.

Building with locally-harvested materials reduces GHG emissions from both the manufacturing and transportation sectors, sometimes nearly to zero. For example, many builders harvest clay soil from the building site during the levelling and excavation process, then use it to build the house. Using simple, low-tech techniques that anyone can learn, clay soil can be turned into walls, floors and plasters with only the addition of sand and straw. You can use machinery to mix clay, sand, and straw into cob — or you can use your feet. Building with local materials also concentrates environmental impacts where the communities using them can take responsibility for sustainable management and mitigation.

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