Sculpting a Life: An Oregon Cob Cottage

1 / 11
The sculptural possibilities of cob are evident in this fireplace, which warms the patio just outside Linda and Ianto’s cottage.
2 / 11
Rustic beams are perfect for drying herbs in the garden shed.
3 / 11
A fire warms the garden shed, where Ianto and Linda store produce.
4 / 11
Curves and circular rooms are one of Ianto’s trademarks, giving the cottage a romantic, almost medieval feel.
5 / 11
Ianto and Linda’s cob cottage is one large room, with a loft bedroom and built-in benches that save space.
6 / 11
Cob construction allows the builders to mold arched windows and nooks. The window is salvaged.
7 / 11
A cob wall snakes around the property, creating a courtyard atmosphere.
8 / 11
Students attending one of Ianto and Linda’s cob workshops crafted these “butterfly” windows in the garden shed.
9 / 11
An outdoor cob bread oven bakes perfect loaves.
10 / 11
Linda Smiley and Ianto Evans live a simple, yet visionary, life in Oregon.
11 / 11
Linda and Ianto are able to eat from their garden all year-round.

The morning mist hangs low over Ianto Evans’s and Linda Smiley’s cob cottage retreat in the rolling countryside of Cottage Grove, Oregon. A fire crackles in the outdoor fireplace; another warms the bread oven. Ianto and I sit on a cob bench facing the garden, a bountiful plot rich with kohlrabi, leeks, parsnips, rutabaga, broccoli, and fava beans, all frost-hearty vegetables that keep the cob cottage residents in fresh produce year-round. There are flowers bursting with bright colors; purple snails; yellowjackets; bright-winged butterflies; and a handful of Steller’s jays, one of which has appointed itself Ianto’s personal alarm clock and hiking companion. And all around us, cob structures–a cottage, a greenhouse, an oven, a fireplace–are tucked behind a rambling cob wall.

“How much does it cost to build a cob cottage?” I ask.

“How long is a piece of string?” Ianto counters.

We share a laugh as I realize that if I am to understand life behind these cob walls, I’ll need to abandon my usual way of thinking.

Building of necessity

It has been twelve years since Ianto, born in Liverpool and trained as an architect, and Linda, a native Californian and recreation therapist, built their first cob structure, an experiment that grew both out of need and curiosity. That first venture was an L-shaped addition to a wood cabin.

“It attracted a lot of attention,” Ianto recalls. “We didn’t set out to attract attention; we set out to create housing for ourselves because we had no place to live.”

But four years later, with the cob addition still standing–and, Linda says, “giving us a lot of joy”–the pair decided it was time to share what they had learned about the natural construction. Ianto expected the usual “back to the land” sort of folks who had always shown an interest in his natural building experiments to attend his first cob workshop, and he wasn’t disappointed. What he hadn’t counted on were the others.

“As soon as we started doing this stuff, it was a whole different thing. Middle-class people with blue rinses would show up totally enthusiastic about this stuff. It astonished us,” Ianto says. “Here we are, eight years into this project, and we’ve had, for instance, four people from England, one from Thailand, one from Korea, a wildlife rehabilitator from Manhattan, a real estate lady from Georgia, and a South American multimillionaire who has his own jet. These are people taking workshops on how to build a mud house. Is this strange or what?”

Building a life

Not that building a mud house is such a difficult task in itself. Essentially, cob construction (“cob” is the Middle English root for a “rounded mass, lump, or heap”–in this case, lumps of earth) involves mixing sand and gravel, a bit of clay to make it stick, some fiber such as straw to keep it from coming apart, and water to make it malleable. Proportions vary according to need. An interior wall will have more mass so it can store heat; an exterior wall, more straw for insulation. Cob for a floor gets less fiber so it’s not too bouncy. Cob for an oven gets less straw inside, where it would simply burn, but more outside, where insulating qualities are needed. Structures are finished with whitewash and paint.

But what students at the workshops learn goes well beyond Cob Building 101. They learn about an entirely different way of life–one you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a multimillionaire.

Here in the forested hills, Ianto and Linda have created a life both simple and visionary. Ianto often washes his clothing on a primitive washboard and showers under the hose in the garden. They heat with a down-draft wood-burning mass stove of Ianto’s invention, which, he says, burns almost completely clean and doesn’t waste heat. They don’t drive unless there’s good reason. They don’t take the daily newspaper or watch television or even tune into the radio. And they don’t pay a mortgage. Yet, says Ianto, “We feel rich.”

“You are looking at a system of building where you maximize your own skill and time and minimize the money you put in,” Ianto says. “That’s the choice you make. You don’t have that choice if you are building with aluminum siding and steel girders or sheetrock. Here’s a whole different way of looking at building. What it’s saying is, ‘I want an involvement in my own building. I’m not going to go to work to make the money to buy the gas to get to work to pay the government. Whatever is left I am not going to give to the bank so I can borrow a house from them for thirty years until I’ve paid for it.’

“You’re starting at the other end. You’re saying, ‘What have I got? How can I build with the resources I’ve got, which are my hands, my brain … my time?’ You look around and say, ‘What is in this region? What is here that no one wants? I am going to have to dig foundation trenches; let’s use the stuff that comes out of the trenches to build the house.'”

In the couple’s two-story, 120-square-foot main cottage, dead and crooked poles left behind by the logging industry frame the walls, while earth excavated when the site was leveled makes up the cottage structure. The stone on the floor came from excavation for a new road that was cut through a national park. Front double doors are seconds–one with a hole drilled in the wrong place, the other shorter than standard–though still, Ianto points out, plenty tall.

As for the windows, Ianto says, “Every dumpster in this country is full of glass. Finding glass is so easy.” All told, he estimates the cottage cost less than $500 to complete, though a less experienced individual might expect to pay roughly $2,000 for the same house.

Building meditation

While Ianto professes to be somewhat puzzled by the enthusiastic response from such a diverse array of people, Linda thinks it’s as natural as, well, mud.

“I call it ‘intuitive design.’ Remember way back when, when our grandmothers would make cakes from scratch rather than buy ready-made cake mix? It’s kind of the same thing. What becomes radical about it, what becomes new to this society as we know it today, is that a lot of us have forgotten how to create our own building material, and that’s what we are teaching here, basically from scratch. Right from the earth. It can’t be any simpler; it can’t be any cheaper.”

And, unlike traditional building methods, which often require the expertise of an architect or builder, unlike other art forms that may prove daunting to the non-artist, anyone can work with cob. Anyone can appreciate the rewards.

“When you put that stuff in your hands and start working,” Linda says, “it’s a total massage to the whole body. We teach what we call ‘body cob’–mixing and building, using your feet to mix and your hands to sculpt. The way we teach and approach this is more like a building meditation. It’s about relationship to self, others, place, site, what you are trying to create.

“When you go to the store and buy a piece of lumber to build your house, you don’t get the experience of the creation coming from the earth and your body. It’s really building from the heart rather than your head, the ego. When we are truly ourselves, stripped down to the true self, it’s a pretty happy state of being. It has all those positive qualities. Love, peace, joy. One amazing thing about building as meditation is it becomes an art form where you can actually sculpt spaces that… emulate those qualities, and once you do that you live it.”

Building a revolution

The couple, who have two assistants–cook and gardener Hop Kleihauer and his wife, office manager Susan Kleihauer–are now twelve years into what Ianto describes as a thirty-year project, and they are, he says, exactly where they’d hoped to be.

They offer workshops on how to build bread ovens, down-draft mass heaters, earthen floors, and even cob art, and they recently opened their first school, The North American School for Natural Building in Coquille, Oregon. Students begin with six weeks of intensive, in-class training and are then placed with natural building professionals for an apprenticeship. After six months, they are certified as natural builders, teachers, and designers.

Ianto and Linda, with help from Michael G. Smith, have also written a new book, The Hand-Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage (Chelsea Green, 2002).

In the next eighteen years, Ianto hopes to take his message further. Much further. “We would hope to see a revolution in the way that construction is done in the industrialized world, led by the United States,” he says. “There’s a very broad public awareness to natural building that wasn’t there five years ago. The public has caught on. What we have to tackle next are engineers, architects, legislators. We have this 200-year-old paradigm that comes out of the Industrial Revolution, and it’s not working for us. A lot of people know that, but they don’t know what to do. We can offer solutions. We can offer realizable, concrete solutions that people can do for themselves.”

It just feels right

As the noon sun warms the wooded hillside, Hop brings a steaming pot of soup made fresh that morning from the garden, Linda pulls warm bread from the cob oven, and we sit down to lunch by a crackling fire.

Linda recalls a visit earlier in the week when two curious passersby dropped in. “He couldn’t stop saying, ‘Wow, this just makes me feel so good. This is so great. Thank you for doing this.’ And I realized, we did it. I was trying to create a sense of sanctuary so when people walk in that gate, they feel a sense of inner peace. He experienced that.

“It was kind of, yes, this is why we’re doing this. It really does inspire people in how they can create place and space to improve the quality of their lives.”

For more information visit The Cob Cottage Company or call (541) 942-2005.