We are in southern Oregon, learning to build a house with our own hands… and our feet. For cob, the natural building material I’ve written about before, is usually mixed by treading it with one’s feet, and sculpted by one’s hands. A mix of sand, clay, straw, and water, it can often sourced from the very site on which it is built.
During this 9-day intensive cob building course at the Cob Cottage Company, our bodies have come to know cob. We mix it, stomp it, roll it, dance on it, carry it, smear it, smush it, sculpt it, trim it, poke holes in it. Oh, how raw the soles of our feet and the palms of our hands felt on the first day! But we’ve gotten tougher since then. We’ve developed a sense for what good cob is supposed to feel like, and how to make it with different kinds of soil. Our group is building a single, meandering garden wall, which allows us to experiment with a variety of building techniques: doors, arches, niches, sculptures, benches, windows, glass bottle details, plasters, roofs… Working with earth all day long, with very few tools besides our bodies, is indescribably satisfying. In the evenings, our bodies are tired but happy, and after a delicious meal and a fireside chat, we sleep like babies in our tent by the creek.
And the work itself is so much fun! The mixing and building process inherently brings together the builders. In spite of differences in age and levels of experience, we have bonded just like the sticky globs into which we work our earthen materials. Starting from day one, we were getting to know each other building, laughing, getting dirty, and making decisions together while fine-tuning the consistency of our cob batches, arranging heavy chunks of urbanite for the foundation, helping each other push wheelbarrows of sand up the hill, re-twining bales of straw, or sculpting arches until the two sides meet to create a window or a doorway. There are no toxic materials or hazardous, noisy tools involved, nothing that blocks out conversation. Some of the participants’ kids join in; a deer comes frequently and spends time in the meadow right by our wall. This is what I love about natural building: not only is it an accessible, affordable, and ecologically responsible way of creating shelter, but it also inevitably creates something else in the process: community. How’s that for a by-product of construction?
For anyone curious about the how’s and why’s of cob building, I’d recommend the book The Hand-Sculpted House. The Cob Cottage Company itself is an unparalleled source of inspiration with its many, many cob buildings and other structures. But that I will have to save for a later post. In the meantime, here are some of the steps of building a simple house: