Building With Oregon Cob - A Leap of the Imagination by Becky Kemery
You live in an apartment in Portland, or perhaps in a community house in Eugene. For now you’re paying rent, but someday you’d like to get out of the “rent-race” and get your own place, perhaps on some land in the country. You’re also someone who cares about living in harmony with the earth, trees and other creatures. So you wonder how to make it all work. How can you create a shelter for yourself that will be safe and secure, warm in the winter and cool in the summer and easy on the environment at the same time?
Owning your own place may seem like it’s years down the road, but now is a good time to start thinking about it. You don’t have to spend $100,000 on a house, get stuck with a thirty-year mortgage and owe your life energy to a bank. With some forethought, you can free yourself from the mortgage trap and build without depleting forests and harming the planet.
Think about it. If you dedicate a few years now, perhaps beginning with a few weeks this summer, you could in some future summer build your own place, a home which might reflect you, your personality and values, rather than the social and environmental values of developers and contractors. You could make your own choices about things such as siting, systems (like wastewater, greywater, heating and cooling), shape and style.
Cob: An Oregon Story A primary consideration in any building project is the suitability of the building materials and methods to the climate and weather conditions of the region. This is especially true in the Pacific Northwest, where our long wet winters provide unique challenges.
In the mid 1980’s Oregon architect and builder Ianto Evans and his partner Linda Smiley went in search of a healthy, inexpensive building method that would be well suited to the Northwest. Ianto grew up in Wales, surrounded by centuries-old structures made from earth rather than wood. Since the climate and weather conditions are similar to the Northwest, it seemed natural to research these earth building methods. In 1985 Ianto and Linda visited the British Isles and found two cob buildings, centuries old, one in Wales and one in Ireland. Though the local weather in both locations, according to Ianto, “made Western Oregon’s climate look benign”, the structures, while suffering from neglect, were still sound.
Cob had not been used as a building method since the late 1800’s; there were no builders (and no books) to learn from. So, after closely studying the two buildings, Ianto and Linda went home to Cottage Grove, experimented with various mixtures of clay, sand and straw, and built a cob house. “We weren’t convinced that cob would actually function here,” says Ianto, “but we needed a house, so we built ourselves a cob cottage in the late 80’s and lived in it for four years, through the two harshest winters of all time. We used a battery of thermometers to help us continue our research, comparing the cob building with a parallel wooden building of the same size and on the same site.” After four years of successfully living in their cob home, in 1993 they founded the Cob Cottage company with builder Michael Smith and began teaching workshops.
“Public interest got so great that we started to teach courses,” says Ianto. “However, our form of cob building was different from the traditional form. Because we had no direct information on how traditional cob was done, we had to reinvent the process. We put more straw in than the original, much more sand and much better quality clay than had been used traditionally. What we now call Oregon cob is a very carefully compounded mixture which is structurally much stronger than traditional cob.”
The strength of the Oregon cob mixture allows for thinner walls than the traditional 24 inches and has engendered a more sculptural approach with curved walls, niches and built-in benches and shelves. Oregon cob buildings have a magical sense about them that has cast a spell on many. At this point, about a thousand participants have been through Cob Cottage workshops. Cob Cottage produces books (like The Cobber’s Companion by Michael Smith) and a semi-annual newsletter (the CobWeb) and maintains a web site: deatech.com/cobcottage.
Becky Bee and Groundworks Becky Bee was impressed with old cob farmhouses she had seen in New Zealand, and apprenticed to learn this unique form of building. She went on to found her own cob company, Groundworks. Becky’s vision is to help women create their own homes outside of the patriarchal system of bankers and mortgages, and the conventional lumber and construction industries. Teaching this simple and natural method that can be learned from a book or in a week-long workshop, Becky has watched women gain the confidence necessary to build their own shelters, making use of aspects that come naturally to women—like community, and connectedness with the earth, and using hands and feet to build.
“What I teach people is what they already know,” says Becky. “We’ve been making mud pies—and mud houses—for many centuries now. It is in our cells. I’d rather remind someone that they already know, and help them figure it out, than tell them how to do something. It’s such a different way of teaching women and it works well and is incredibly empowering.”
Becky’s book, The Cob Builders Handbook, started out as a pamphlet to answer questions and wound up being a step-by-step guide covering every aspect of cob building. “Cob is so simple,” says Becky. “It’s thrilling that my book goes out into the world and people write me or come to visit me and say, ‘I bought your book and I went out and built my own house.’ And they come up and give me this great big hug. They are mostly women; young women, old women, women who’ve never built anything before. And they send me photographs of the most amazing structures they have built.”
The Murphy, Oregon-based builder spends time teaching in New Zealand, Australia, and throughout the U.S., but most of her workshops this summer will be in southern Oregon, as will be the Women’s Natural Building Symposium which she will be hosting in June. “One thing I do a lot of is answer questions. Anyone who’s cobbing or anyone who’s seriously interested can email me or write and I’ll answer their questions.” Becky may be reached at: [email protected], or www.cpros.com/~sequoia, or through GROUNDWORKS at PO Box 381, Murhpy, OR 97533.
Summer Gatherings & Workshops An incredible way to get an overview and a hands-on feel for sustainable building (and permaculture) is through natural builders gatherings, like Build Here Now in June at the Lama Foundation in Taos, New Mexico or the Natural Builders Colloquium on Vancouver Island, BC, April 26-May 2. There are general workshops offered by different centers, like the Natural Building Workshop, held July 16-21 at the Real Goods Institute for Solar Living in Hopland, California. And there are workshops which focus on a particular method, like the Cordwood Workweek July 16-20 at Earthwood Building School in upstate New York, or three-day Earthship Seminars offered from May-Sept. with Mike Reynolds in Taos. Check out natural building websites for dates beyond what is included in this article.
San Francisco Institute of Architecture For the more academically inclined, the San Francisco Institute of Architecture is dedicated to thinking differently about building concepts and practices. Started by Architect Fred Stitt in 1992, classes are open to architects and novices alike. The school’s philosophical bent leans heavily toward the work of “organic” architect Bruce Goff and his emphasis on creatively integrating environmental and human needs; also in the mix are values of natural process, economic simplicity and raising human consciousness through architectural form.
For more information on this innovative school, view the institute website at www.sfia.net or call (925) 299-1325 for information and a catalog.
To create a culture of life Starhawk writes that, to create a culture of life, “we need an economics, an agriculture, a politics of liberation, capable of healing the dismembered world and restoring the earth to life. Most of all, we need to make a leap of the imagination that can let us envision how the world could be. Then we need to consider, step by step and in concrete detail, how to bring our vision about.”
Natural builders and a new breed of architects are creating paths for us, the concrete details that enable the vision to happen. But ultimately what is behind the movement is this visioning, this imagining of how the world could be and what it will take to create a culture of life.
As cob-builder Ianto Evans says, shelter is not simply “use-neutral spaces that we fill with ourselves and our things. We need to think about architecture as something that surrounds us, not something we climb into. We are no longer building boxes, but gloves, like a snail building a shell around its body, a robin building her nest.”
Architecture comes out of our consciousness and in return affects the level of consciousness to which we have access. Ultimately all the study, all the workshops, all the building together is about moving us to a place where shelter is also temple, reflecting and nourishing Spirit, and expressing our place within (not outside of) the natural world and true human community. Together, we are making that “leap of the imagination”.
Becky Kemery supports her writing habit with jobs as a cook and tradeshow carpenter. She is currently in north Idaho writing a book about yurts. She was in downtown Seattle for the earthquake (“it was terrifying!”) and plans to miss the next one.