Cob Building In The Counrty
Originally uploaded by arifm.
I had long been looking for a cob building experience. There was a workshop being offered in the north of Thailand to build housing for orphans - an international exchange of ideas. What could be cooler than that? Alas the event conflicted with chapter meetings of NAPO for which I was program director. Besides I had flown so much last year I would have to plant 900 hundred trees to make up for my carbon emissions output. Much better to find something closer to home. So when the Solar Living Institute offered a five-day cob-building workshop near Santa Barbara I signed up.
With cob, you just have to jump in and do it. Before setting up camp, before introductions and a lecture on the history of mud hut building, you take off your shoes, roll up your pant legs and stomp in the mud. And here I was worried about what shoes to bring.
Then, if it wasn't enough to get your feet completely muddy, we were to grab the mix and make footballs. Now thick with straw fibers, we had cob. Sasha had us form a bucket brigade and we tossed the cob footballs to each other towards the building site. That was the fun part. I was as happy as a pig in, er, mud. Really what could be more like play? I hadn't seen my feet this muddy since I was nine. Everyone had a smile on their face.
Then we introduced ourselves. We had an environmental engineer who worked with oil refineries, a stain glass artist who also made ceramics, an auto mechanic with his own shop in Ventura, his wife who ran a wholesale jewelry business, a pre-school teacher, three college age interns and Guner the owner, whose great, great, great grandfather had farmed this land after an oil company had explored it and moved on. We could still see the four waist high cement footings in the road where an oil-drilling platform would have been built, had there been oil. I pitched my tent next to one. The view from this site was a stunning one of the coastline all the way to Santa Barbara and out to the Channel Islands.
The structure we were building with Guner and his friends was a storage shed. But more than that it was a party house. This was the lawn where Guner and his wife had gotten married. Many more celebrations were expected and the storage shed would have a cob oven at the end of it and a long built-in bench to take in the fabulous view. (I secretly hoped to return once the building was completed. Few buildings are completed by a workshop alone.)
When Sasha told us she had built her own little house, mostly by herself, and that it was 16 feet high at one end to accommodate a loft, I couldn't have been more impressed. We had a dozen people on our crew, all mixing as much cob as we could every morning. Then most of the afternoon was spent pressing the cob onto the wall. In a week or two, we would have achieved the height needed. It took Sasha all of spring, summer and fall to finish her house, hauling buckets of cob up scaffolding. A carpenter friend helped her with cutting rafters for the roof. The house was roofed with corrugated tin.
In Devon, England where our style of cob building is native, the traditional roof is thatch. As long as the roof was maintained the building could last for centuries. I asked Sasha if there were cob workshops given in England. None. Not even by Americans. And though there was an award winning cob-building company that restored traditional thatched houses, no one in England seemed to be interested in learning to build with cob. In Thailand, however, where the native building material is wood, the cob workshops given by an American couple, draw hundreds wanting to learn the "new" building method that was so cheap and easy to do.
Gunner himself had graduated from Humboldt with a self-created degree in eco tourism, then sailed someone else's boat to Australia over two years. Now he was a carpenter working with salvaged materials and fallen trees he milled himself. On a break we took a tour of his workshop and living space. It was in a canvas dome fitted with handcrafted custom cabinetry. I interviewed him extensively about his homemade composting toilets with their red worms. He was doing everything I had only read about in books. I felt like a dilettante.
What fun these country people were having. I was tempted to move to a rural area and become a homesteader myself. The back-to-the-land movement of the 70's fizzled out largely because not enough people had homesteading skills, but this generation did, and I too was learning. The more I learned about earthen buildings (from the stack of books Sasha brought) the more I realized how smart people used to be. Here they were not only using local, sustainable materials to build with, but their houses lasted for centuries. It made our stick and drywall, plywood palaces look like a theatrical stage set in comparison.
As we toured the homes of solar enthusiasts, I realized that here too, were examples of serious commitment to transforming energy consumption in our consumer lifestyle. We might call ourselves solar homesteaders. And yes, lots of ideas were shared. Still, I had been deeply affected by the feel of cob in my hands; I had gained a deeper appreciation for what we could do with just the materials at hand, the very soil under our feet. Not only could we grow our food in it, but we could grow our houses too. I had no idea mud could be so clever.
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