The Art of Cob Building With Our Friends Dreamweavers Collective
How did you find yourself in the world of natural building?
I found myself searching for connection – to all of the essential pieces of life: food, water, shelter, a healthy environment, spirit. I grew up at first, not realizing how disconnected I was, but I slowly became aware of how all of my actions and choices had far-reaching consequences, connected to things both near and far. So I began searching for ways to eliminate the negative, destructive consequences. The natural building world was a portal into connecting all of those essential pieces in a positive way. When I was 17, I took a three-week long cob workshop with Pat Hennebery of Cobworks, and it opened up a world that before experiencing I had only dreamed about.
What is a cob home?
Cob is an old English word meaning “lump”. In this case, it pertains to lumps of clay, sand and straw mixed together, which once compiled and sculpted form an incredibly durable and beautiful building material. Cob is essentially the same as adobe, but instead of making bricks the walls are monolithic due to adhering continuous layers of slightly wet material and sculpting and trimming the wall as you build up. Earth, in general, is used as a staple building material for many people on this planet, and has been for millennia. If it’s treated correctly, it will last for millennia as well. There’s an old saying that “If you give a cob house a good hat, and a good pair of boots, it will last forever”. Which means, if you give the cob a good roof overhang, and a good stemwall/foundation to keep the cob off the ground, no matter the weather it will withstand it. It’s fire proof, incredibly strong, sculptable, easy to maintain and repair, holds up well in earthquakes, bugs won’t eat it, and it’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Due to its ability to retain heat and cold, it’s ideally suited for moderately cold and desert climates, but can be adapted and combined with other natural building methods to suit almost any place.
How are these homes different from current conventional buildings in terms of the environmental impact and sustainability?
Natural buildings come out of the landscape and blend directly back into it. Whether you’re sculpting a home from the ground beneath your feet, harvesting windfall or selectively cutting trees for roundwood timber framing, hauling straw from a local farmer for straw bale, bale cob or light clay construction, or collecting items like windows and construction waste to keep materials out of the landfills, you are shifting the shape of the natural materials at hand. Buildings should make the environment better than it was before, rather than creating ruins. Conventional buildings (even “green” buildings) are typically full of manufactured products – concrete, fiberglass, drywall, fasteners, plywood, paint, plastic, styrofoam, asphalt shingles, tar paper etc. – all of which typically come from far away. At the end of their typically short life, they end up in the landfill or take a lot of energy to recycle.
The conventional building industry is responsible for a huge amount of global CO2 emissions and worse. The chemical and material compounds of conventional building materials pose health concerns when manufacturing them, working with them, and when living with them. In a modern, air tight, conventional building, you require many complicated, expensive systems, and building professionals to keep the building functioning. Not to mention you’re typically completely surrounded by a plastic bag “vapor barrier”.
Another key to the sustainability and beauty of natural buildings is their ability to breathe. Most natural homes are able to absorb and release air moisture without any negative implications, compared to conventional buildings which tend to trap moisture and cause mold issues. Through a skewed economic and social system, based primarily upon the perception of Western wealth and privilege, the conventional home building industry has taken traditional, simple and accessible building techniques away from many cultures and communities around the world.
Are there some environments in which these homes are more suited to be built than others?
Different techniques are better suited in different environments; however, natural buildings have been made in every inhabitable environment on earth. Traditional cultures developed different building styles to suit their specific environment and are usually the best baseline. However, there are certain things that are more readily available now (straw bales, glass, recycled materials, different roofing materials, etc.) that might change the baseline design and help adapt traditional building techniques to modern times and to reduce energy needs. Earthen buildings with thick walls are ideal for the desert, or moderate climates where earth is abundant. Whereas straw bale or light clay provide better, high insulation in colder climates, or where there is extreme heat. Often times, a combination of materials and techniques makes the most sense. You can also use passive solar design, and other techniques to help buildings better adapt to any environment. Keep in mind that small buildings are much easier to build, maintain, adapt, and fit into the environment (unless you plan on housing many people).
How long does it take to build an entire cob home?
A motivated couple can build a small cob home (300 sq. ft. or less) in a summer, as demonstrated by the Cob Cottage Company in Oregon.
Where do you guys live?
We currently live in a 100-year-old wood framed house, with no insulation (a mostly natural building) in Victoria, BC, Canada – a traditional Songhees, Lekwungen First Nations territory.
Were going to be doing a two-day Cob Oven Building workshop with you in March! What is that going to be like, and what can people expect to take away from that?
There will be mud. Your hands and feet will get dirty. You’ll laugh. You’ll learn about natural building, cob, ovens, stoves, fire, and more. You might make some friends. You’ll enter the natural building world, and discover how much more there is to explore, and by which to be inspired. We’ll play with fire. We’ll build an oven out of earth. You’ll connect to something ancient.
Sign up for the weekend long immersion workshop here!