Posts Tagged ‘cob’

A few weeks ago, when the temperatures dropped from the 90s into the 70s, the change of seasons seemed to be coming all too soon, and I started to worry that this house might not be finished by winter.  But we’ve been working hard, devoting every possible moment to this conversion of soil into shelter.  Cob can’t really happen once the temperatures start to freeze, as the freeze/thaw cycle weakens cob… and near-freezing water brings pain to bare feet.  However, all our effort is keeping me hopeful that this winter we’ll have a warm place to be in, as the walls are growing fast, with the south wall of the second story pretty much at it’s final height.

I wanted to share a few pictures before I head back to cobbing…

work party!

a rare view from the north, as work on the 2nd story begins...

Talitha preps the south wall for a window

a door frame for the 2nd story, this one only 3 feet tall...

round window

through the door frame...

on the south wall (notice more cat stairs to the east!)

Noel cobbing in a lintel

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We’ve been doing some more carpentry this last week, and the house now has an 8′ by 4′ balcony above the entrance, and those exterior stairs finally lead to something.

We decided to use some roundwood for the floor joists.  Noel went off into the woods with a 4 foot level, checking all the tulip poplars until he found the straightest ones, destined to become part of our balcony.

Steve and I notched them on one side, where they rest on the girder, and the other sides got cobbed in.

I have three cats that I love so dearly it borders on worship.  Each day, every time I see them, I fall in love with them all over again.  And the truth is that I really built these outdoor stairs and balcony for them.  So the other day I decided, why stop there?  Once they take the stairs up to the balcony, wouldn’t they love somewhere to go from there?  Steve and I decided to build them a catwalk on the south wall of the house, and they’ll be able to walk right onto it from the balcony.

steve & noel securing the supports for the catwalk

Steve took some pictures of us on the house, and in this one you can get a nice view of the completed balcony and cat walk:

We’ve begun to work on the roof for the outdoor bed, and hope to have all the rafters attached in the next few days, and then we can finally get back to some foot mixing.  I’ve actually started to miss it…

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Last week our wood finally came.  I ordered rough cut pine, 2×8’s for the floor joists, and 1×6’s for the flooring.  The wood is beautiful, and working with it has been really, really fun, and a nice break from mixing cob during one of the hottest summers on record here.  I have almost zero carpentry experience, but my friend Steve, a builder with Habitat for Humanity, does, and I’ve been lucky to have his help a lot lately.  Sunday morning we started with the girder…

Our design for the floor might be a bit overkill for a room with an interior that’s somewhere near a rounded off 9’x9′, but I’m a perfectionist, and I like the idea of an excessively solid floor.  So we put in this girder, a large beam running east-west which has the dual purpose of breaking up the distance the joists will have to span, and also cantilevering out through the west wall to support a balcony over the entrance.  Kristin, Steve and I worked on placing the girder into the walls, making sure it was perfectly level.

Next we started laying the floor joists, spaced 16″ apart.

When Steve came back over on Monday he brought his electric planer, and I planed wood for what seemed like years while he framed out the opening for the ladder.  This was the first time I had used a power tool while working on the house.  It was loud, and boring, but the smooth, glowing pine was worth it.  Soon we started laying some flooring, beginning with my favorite 1×6.

the first board!

Building with cob is a slow process.  It’s fun and satisfying work, but there is no instant gratification when working with cob.  Laying flooring is a completely different experience.  The floor formed underneath my feet, transforming the look of the entire house along with it.  It was so much fun we kept working until it was too dark to see where to place the nails.

When I got off work Tuesday afternoon I worked for a while by myself laying more flooring.  Soon my friend Joe showed up to help, and in no time all the flooring was laid.

the ladder opening

from below

Joe testing the strength of the girder

We”ll be continuing to work with wood instead of clay this week, working on the balcony above the entrance, and then building a roof that extends from the eastern side of the house to cover the area designated for an outdoor bed.

Building this floor seems like such a milestone in the life of the house.  A while ago I was talking with my friend Melissa  (who is also building her own cob house), about what it’s like to be taking on a such a huge project, and she said sometimes it feels like being pregnant, except no one can tell.  In a way it’s true.  Building this house consumes almost all of my spare time, and my thoughts throughout the day always come back to the house, and what needs to happen next.  If the site work, excavation, and foundation stonework were the gestation period, and then the first batch of cob on the walls was the birth of the house, then yesterday felt like her first birthday.  It was a cause for celebration, and once all the flooring was laid I stayed up there for a while with some wine, admiring the view as the sunlight faded away.

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Over the last two months I’ve watched the walls of my home grow taller each day, inching closer to the sky with each handful of earth.  As the house unfurls it’s personality is beginning to take shape, given life by all the individuals who’ve spent time here.  Working through the peak summer temperatures, so many people have already put their love and energy into this building.  Its something you can feel now when you step inside.

Once again my mind returns to the differences there can be between natural building and conventional construction.  Is it the method itself?  Its slow and intimate, with each cob worked into the wall by hand, no barriers between clay and skin, a free flow of energy from body to earth.  Maybe its the relaxed atmosphere of the work site, no loud machinery, just conversation and laughter… or sometimes no voices at all, just the birds and the bugs and the wind.  A house built that way has to end up feeling like a home, comforting and nurturing.

Whatever the reason, whenever I walk over to the house site now, I feel everyone’s personalities there.  I have been so lucky to have so many amazing people here to build with.  I miss everyone so much when they leave, but am comforted knowing that a little piece of each person stays with me here in this house.  What a gift!

liz and tanya

tanya, alli and liz on the balecob wall


tanya and joe


steve and joe

With everyone’s help, the first floor is pretty much finished.  The windows and lintels are all in, and the walls are up to the final height.  Once the sawmill down the road cuts the lumber we ordered (which was supposed to be here a week ago) we’ll be laying the floor.  And then the second story begins…

Here’s some recent photos:

the first lintel

down the path...


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Sunday was the last day of a week long cob workshop at our place.  With 8 of us working together the cottage has grown into a structure that really is starting to look like an actual building!  Here are some pictures from the last week:

day one

handmade tortillas cooked over a fire

cantilevered stairs

pile of "cobs"

putting in the last step on the last day!

making half bales for the balecob wall


balecob north wall

the "spy window"

the walls are getting so tall!

I feel so lucky to have had everyone spend a week putting their love and energy into this project.  Two people were even here on their honeymoon!  It becomes more apparent to me all the time just how much the natural building process can differ from conventional construction.  Working in the middle of July through the summer heat, we had so much fun, and everyone was so enthusiastic.  Four people have even decided to stay for another week, saving me from the shock of having to go back to working mostly by myself.

Thanks so much to everyone for your hard work and great company!

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Last week I took a mini road trip up to Philly, and along the way got to visit a friend of mine who is building a home for herself and her husband.  Most of the building projects I’ve worked on have been with the same people each time, so seeing Melissa’s project was so much fun for me, and such an inspiration!  She decided that she was going to build a house, and without ever having even seen a cob house before, she just got some books and taught herself.  This is why I love cob.

We all have the knowledge and ability and resources to meet our needs for shelter.  That knowledge is just buried underneath all the messages whispered into our ears as we grow up in our culture.  Messages about who can build.  Who is strong enough.  Who has the expertise.  Messages about what shelter is.  Messages about what our needs even are.  When we can break away from what we’ve been told, we start to realize what’s possible.

At 5’1″, Melissa is smaller than me!  But, like me, she is the main person building her home.  She dry stacked her own foundation (on a rubble trench dug 3 feet deep!), and now has her walls built up, with almost all the windows in.  When Greg and I were walking through the woods trying to find her place, we knew we were on the right trail when this is what we saw peeking back at us through the trees:

The land there is meant for cob.  Amazingly beautiful stones are laying everywhere, perfect for dry stacking, but surprisingly few stones are in her soil to interfere with digging.  And the subsoil is almost the perfect mix of sand and clay!  Melissa hardly has to add any sand!  I’m jealous of her soil, as I’ve found I have to add a lot of aggregate to my mix to keep it from cracking dramatically.

Here a stone is embedded in the wall, just asking you to run your hand along it’s surface:

What does a construction worker look like?

An architect?

A designer?

An expert?…

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Yesterday was the longest day of the year, with the season’s growth at its peak, the sun high in the sky, and a just-born baby goat on the farm.  To top off an already awesome day, the timing was perfect for putting in the first (and largest) window in the house.   At 68” wide and 66” tall, it takes up the majority of the southern wall.

Here you can see where I leveled a section of the south wall, leaving just enough space to slide in the window:

After making sure the corners are square, Noel and Gray braced the window with some scrap lumber, to make sure the corners stay at a 90 degree angle, so the window doesn’t shift at all, and will still open easily a few months from now.

Placing the window….

Bracing the window to the ground, making sure it stays plum and level…

We screwed some “deadmen” into the sides of the window, which help anchor the window into the wall as we cob around it.  Here I am cobbing in the deadman, which in this case is a piece of cedar:

Here’s the window at the end of the day, looking kind of ridiculous in proportion to the wall it rests upon:

The window on the southern side is going in pretty low, combining Pattern 222 (Low Sill) and Pattern 223 (Deep Reveals) to create an interior window seat that will be the perfect place to sit and read.  When the weather is nice I’ll have the window open, so as I read I’ll be able to smell all the herbs that will have been planted outside.

What do I mean by patterns 222 and 223?  Well, I’m referring to A Pattern Language, one of my favorite books, and a must-read before building anything!

The section for the second largest window is prepped, but I”l probably save all the rest of the window installing for our cob workshop here in the beginning of July.  Since there’s a nice layer of cob along the entire stemwall, I’ve had a lot of fun jumping up on the wall, and seeing everything from a different perspective.  Feeling the cob under my feet as it dries and hardens makes me have a lot of respect for it as a building material.  Its totally solid and rock-hard:

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A couple weeks ago my watch broke.  Then my laptop got sick.  And now my cell phone is barely functional.  The message I’ve been getting lately has been clear.  Are modern technologies able to withstand temperatures above 90 degrees?  Humidity above 90%?  A time span of more than a few years?  In a few hundred years my laptop will be just another item slowly releasing its contents into the earth and water around it.  So will my cell phone.  And my watch.

What will this cob house look like in a few hundred years?  Maybe a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchild will be sleeping upstairs with a few cats, replastering every once in a while, fixing any leaks in the roof.  Maybe it will have been abandoned, the field long since grown back into a forest, and the clay, sand, and straw returned to the soil.  A family of black bears will have found the urbanite foundation, still standing, creating a perfect shelter…

I made my first foot mix a couple weeks ago, thinking about the materials under my feet, and where they would be when I was gone.

The other day my friend Feezor came over and we dug around in the neighbor’s scrap wood pile, scavenging enough pine and cedar to make a custom door frame.

A great thing about designing and building your own house is being able to build with the size of your own body in mind.  I’m short, standing tall at around 5’3″ with shoes on.  The front door will be 5’6″, and 23 1/2 inches wide.  It feels good to stand in a doorway made just for you…

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Every spare second of my time over the last week has been spent moving around pieces of concrete.  I wore holes through the fingers of my gloves, and then wore my fingertips raw.  When I laid the last chunk of urbanite today I almost didn’t know what to do with myself for the rest of the day.  I just hung around the house site for a while, walking some on the foundation to test the stones, and make sure they didn’t move.  Now that the foundation is finished, the wall is ready for some cob!  I can’t wait to get some mud on my feet.

south wall

west wall & entrance

north & west walls

So, today I did use a little cement to mortar the bricks in the threshold.  The guy at a local building supply store gave me a free bag of concrete that had busted open. Here’s some mortar action:

And the threshold:


And here I am gloating over my beautiful, beautiful stemwall:

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The south wall of the foundation has grown to stand 18″ above ground level, which means that part is finished.  Once the wall was up to ground level, I started stacking the urbanite on it’s side, instead of laying it flat.  I feel like this method allows for more creativity, and I’ve been having so much fun dry stacking lately.  The wall is also going up much faster, partly because stacking them on their sides means I get more height with each placement, but also because I’m using much smaller pieces, which I can pick up and use quickly, instead of struggling to slowly drag some massive chunks of concrete onto the wall.  The different shapes and sizes of the pieces make a more interesting wall, too…

south wall

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