Posts Tagged ‘cob’

About a month into the construction of the roof, it’s still not complete… but it’s coming along, and looking awesome.  I’ve been frustrated lately with how little time I’ve been able to spend working on the house.  I’ve been out of town a lot, first for Thanksgiving, and then to attend a cheesemaking course at a nearby university.  While out of town my laptop (among other things) was stolen, which means I’ve lost thousands of photos, including the vast majority of the photos from this building project.  And then I came down with strep throat…and jury duty.  Day after day of jury duty, which still isn’t over…and as I sit in deliberation with eleven other people in an overheated room, my EPDM pond liner sits patiently on a pallet by the cob house. 

All my complaints aside, a lot of work on the roof has happened, mostly due to my friends Greg and Steve.  I’m forever indebted to them both, because they’ve each spent a lot of time here lately, working on giving my house a sexy, sexy hat. 

The first step, after raising the ridge beam, was placing all the roundwood rafters.  They’re all tulip poplar, harvested from our woods, and each one was notched by Greg where it attached to the ridge beam.  They’re long enough for a 2.5 to 3 foot overhang, except on the west side of the house where there’s a 4 1/2 foot overhang! 

Once all the rafters were in place, we started with the decking.  The sawmill cut some 3/8″ by 10″ boards for us, which are thin enough to bend a little with the curves of the roofline.  The decking is attached directly to the rafters, and will be exposed in the interior of the house, as the ceiling in the second story.  Each piece of decking had to be custom cut, and we spent a lot of time making trapezoids.

The next job was attaching all the fascia, which are the boards that’ll hold in all the soil for the living roof.  We used pine and cedar milling scraps that were flat on one side and rounded on the other.  The boards varied a lot in shape, width, and thickness, which made it really fun for Greg as he custom cut each piece.   

fascia and 4.5' overhang

After all the decking and fascia were up, Steve put a layer of rigid blue foam insulation over the decking.  They’re scrap pieces from the Habitat work site dumpster, all odd shapes and sizes, pieced together with duct tape into a strangely beautiful blue board quilt.  I’m totally bummed that I lost all my pictures of this part of the project…  But I do have some pictures of the way Steve got the blue board up onto the roof, which was by throwing each piece as if it were a frisbee…

I had an old pool liner that I got for free, but it came with its fair share of teeny pinholes.  So I broke down and bought a new EPDM pond liner, which cost me $400!  Eeek!  We put the used pool liner over the blue board layer, mainly to keep the insulation from blowing away until we can get the EPDM up onto the roof.  The pond liner weighs between 250 and 300 pounds, so it’ll take the effort of a few people to get it up the scaffolding and onto the roof.  Hopefully that’ll happen sometime in the next few days!


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After cobbing day after day without a break, in addition to working full time, I’ve let the pace slow the last couple of weeks, spending more time hanging out with friends, reading, taking walks through the woods, and finally returning some phone calls and emails.  As the sun sets earlier each evening, just to wake up later each morning, I’ve been hearing the pending winter weather whispering to me, telling me to take it slow, and catch up on some sleep…

We have still been working a lot on the cob house, cobbing some random spots, trimming and shaping walls and window reveals, and doing some much needed site clean-up.  I built a hearth for our tiny wood stove, out of urbanite and cob (I’ll post some pictures of it soon).  And Noel and Gray spent a lot of time in the woods, harvesting and de-barking tulip poplar to use as rafters.

For the ridge beam I found a nice sourwood tree with a gentle curve, and Noel and I spent hours last weekend shaving all the bark off.  We only have one drawshave, so Noel and Gray made an improvised drawshave by taking a large knife we had dumpstered from behind the thrift store, and pounding it into a piece of wood, creating a double handled blade.  It actually does a great job getting the bark off all the roundwood!

On Sunday we managed to carry the ridge beam out of the woods and place it on top of this two story building.  It took at least eight of us to haul it from the forest, and even with that many people it was still really, really heavy.  My shoulder is still sore…  But its worth all the pain, because I’m really looking forward to not having to see this anymore:

On Monday my friends Greg and Steve worked on placing rafters and securing them to the ridge beam.  Each rafter is notched where it rests on the beam, and also secured with screws.  The ends of the rafters that rest on the wall will also be attached to “deadmen,” which will further anchor them to the walls.

Noel rounds the edges

About half the rafters are in place, and we’ll be working later this week on the rest of them.  Soon enough I’ll be able to fold up all these tarps, and sleep peacefully through rainy nights…




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Throughout this project I’ve had many, many people share their time and energy with me, helping to slowly build this home.  At this point more than fifty people have spent time here working on the house!  There are two people in particular who have given a lot of themselves.  Joelle and Alexor signed up for the week long cob workshop we taught here back in July.  But a week of building wasn’t enough for them, and they ended up staying here for over a month, working through the hundred degree summer heat to help build our home.

Since Joelle and Alexor were here to watch the house begin to grow from a few inches of cob into an actual building, it’s fitting that they came back to visit and help cob as the walls reached their final height.  We worked all day long for 3 days, and as the sun was about to set on their last day here, we were cobbing over the final course of straw bales in the north wall.  And now the house is ready for a roof!


Alexor foot mixing

north wall ready for the third course of bales

Kristin cobs in a lintel (and more cat stairs...)

Alexor cobs in the last window

last course of bales for the balecob wall

Noel drives split bamboo through the bales

bales and cat steps

ridiculously tall...

As we worked on the second story these last few weeks, I just couldn’t help myself, and I decided to add more cat stairs, and another catwalk, and then more steps…

So, in theory, the cats should be able to walk up the steps to the balcony, and then onto the south catwalk, then up more stairs to the east catwalk, and from there take some more steps around the north side of the house back to the balcony, making a complete circle.  All this is going to make the house pretty awkward to plaster.  But I really love my cats…

cat stairs!

Last week we finally used the last of the clay subsoil we had piled near the site when clearing the land and digging the rubble trench.  I’m actually surprised the pile lasted as long as it did, and we got through most of the second story before we had to start using some clay we had from digging a biochar pit last spring.  The new clay soil is really, really high in clay.  A beautiful deep red clay that will be perfect for plaster.

red, red clay

There are still a lot of random areas that I need to go back and cob, but the walls are at their final height, and the next step is the living roof.  I am eager for the house to have some serious rain protection, so that I can enjoy thunderstorms once again, instead of worrying about my cob baby, moving tarps around in a somewhat hopeless attempt to keep the walls dry.  Lucky for me our whole region has been in a serious drought…

The look of the house has been transformed again this last week, and I find myself walking over there often, climbing up the ladder to the second story, and then just sitting in silence, reflecting and daydreaming.  As I sit there and look at the earthen walls, I’m filled with so many emotions, and I feel so much love for this house, not only for providing us with shelter, but for bringing so many amazing people into my life.

To everyone that has helped us build, thank you so much!

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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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