The One-Day Cob House

Reader Contribution by Kyle Chandler-Isacksen
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“What would it take to raise a cob house in one day?” That was the question Coenraad Rogmans (of House Alive!) and I asked ourselves one sunny morning in September of 2013. 

We were at his place in Oregon during a week-long building party brainstorming on doing a second workshop at our urban homestead in Reno, Nevada.  Coenraad led one on our land the previous May which we held over two three-day weekends.  While a successful workshop it lacked the energy and cohesiveness of his usual 8-day complete cob workshops done on his land in the wooded hills of southwestern Oregon.  Sitting there in the sun in front of his most recent building, the “Jelly Bean”, we couldn’t quite get the right recipe for a meaningful cob experience in the urban setting.

That’s when it hit us: What if we did it in one day? With lots of people. Like a barn raising.  With a festival atmosphere.  Complete with music, face painting, costumes … with Burning Man overtones. Could we do it? Can it be done with cob? 

Cob is clay, sand, and straw mixed with water. It looks like mud…because it is mud. It is also basically adobe, which more folks have some clue about.  It is an ancient way of building that produces long-lasting, beautiful, sculptural homes with thick, sturdy walls and sculpted reliefs and niches.   

It is known as a very slow way to build. It rises, inch by goopy inch, for no more than a foot or maybe 18 inches in a day. It is mixed in small batches by foot. It is human scale.  It is known to be labor intensive.  It is labor intensive. It’s labor intensive in the way that any thing of beauty takes time to create.  It is beautiful and breathtaking and feels right.  A wall compels one to touch it.  It has a deep and profound soulful essence like fire, like being under water, like music, like a full moon on a meadow.   Cob is worth the time it takes, the human hours it takes to get it up, up, up.  

We put out the call in December and immediately the responses came in.  It was a tantalizing offer apparently hard to ignore: three days, 50 people, a complete cob house,offered on a sliding scale from $50, all within the city of Reno, in a quick three days (2 ½ really). Something stood out about the respondents, as well.  There were more organizational folks, non-profit types, cultural creatives. A group looking to build homes for the poor and homeless. A group from a farming collective that donates its produce to the hungry.  A family of five with a hankering for new living.  Now it was on, money was coming in, folks signing up. How will this work, anyway?

We just met for four days at the site in Reno. First order of business: Let’s build a wall and see how it works. At the Be the Change Homestead (at the other end of the block from the future building site) we dig up some clay and cart over some sand from a neighbors. We move some urbanite from an old wall site and start with a foundation. Katy has garden expansion plans this year so we’re making a big, sweeping garden wall in our front yard and why not start now? It’s going to be beautiful, that wall, with an arched gateway, mosaics of stone, niches and nooks and little windows to the street.  It will reach and include our mailbox as some big-mouthed, grumpy creature with an oversized maw. 

We start to mix with a couple friends.  We get a late start as Coen’s hung-over from a casino trip the night before.  It’s warm and sunny on this January afternoon and we take our time mixing.  Our plan is to build up fast using cordwood between globs of cob.  Cordwood cob is not a new technique but it is, perhaps, underappreciated.  In a couple hours at our leisurely pace we are up to four feet high at 12 inches wide.  Enough for a day we decide and want to test it.  Coenraad climbs up onto the wall.  We want to know if this method could hold a roof right away.  Coen weighs 150 pounds and his two feet take up 30 square inches.  That’s 5 pounds per square inch – nearly 5 times what we believe a roof will be. 

It holds, perfectly.  Our confidence is buoyed.  Onto designing the cabin.  

If you’re interested in being a part of this workshop in May, contact me.  

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