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Cob House Project by Chuck Tippens

Say the word “cob”. What does it mean to you? When we mentioned to our friends and family that we were going to build and live in a cob house, we received the same response.

“You’re going to live in a house made of corncobs?”

“No. This cob is a combination of clay, sand, straw, and water. When mixed in the right proportions, they create a material that you can build with, like the clay in art class. The houses end up having thick earthen walls that dry hard like stone.”

“Oh! A mud hut! Like what we see in pictures of Africa.”

“More like parts of England. Those houses with the thick white walls and thatched roofs. Some have been continuously lived in for hundreds of years.” Thus our conversation on the benefits and disadvantages of cob begins.

People are always amazed on the versatility and dependability of an earthen home. Our society has focused our thoughts of construction to only include wood, metal, and concrete. Stone, brick, and other earth options are for decoration, such as stone or brick facades on buildings or water features with rocks and the like.

The truth is that earth is a much better building material than lumber. Most cob houses look like they “fit in” with the planet, unlike their conventional lumber built cousins that often look like a blemish on the Earth. There is also less waste with cob than lumber.

Cob is stronger, and more flexible. It acts as a temperature moderator, keeping it warm in winter and cool in summer. Creativity can be more easily expressed in cob than a lumber house. Imagine the freeness of clay only in house-size. Forget 90-degree corners, make them rounded, it’ll just be stronger. Cob houses perform incredibly well on seismic tests. Cob building is also much easier to learn to build with than lumber building. Most people learn the basics in about an hour of hands-on training.

Building with cob can also be a source of pleasure, connectedness, and spirituality. Anyone who has ever worked with clay can describe the joy it can bring, and cob tactility is very similar. The sensations of building and molding cob walls, and watching this structure grow, often delivers many feelings of pleasure, joy, and self-confidence. Working in a labor intense activity with other people brings about a connectedness with them. Shared experiences can form a tight bond among a group. Getting our hands dirty also connects us with the Earth. Seeing a finished cob house with a natural roof, one can imagine it arising from the ground, as if the Earth itself were providing a shelter for us. This can bring about very spiritually charged feelings as well. Being with others, working toward a common goal, having a good time, building with items from the Earth, one can get a sense of what religions teach, if not practice.

The downsides of cob are mostly a creation of society. The one inherent drawback about building with cob is that it is much more labor intensive and slower to construct a building. The other limitations usually have to deal with building codes, permits and inspections. Permits are fees counties charge in order for you to have something done to your own home. Building codes were constructed around conventional building materials, (wood, metal and concrete), so usually don’t include cob. The builder must convince the local county that cob is acceptable. Then out comes the inspector to say whether what was done is good or bad, or needs to be redone.

Right now, I hope you’re all thinking, “Wow! How can I learn more?” I’m glad you asked. This summer our family is building a cob house for the grandparents (us) to live in on the farm. We’d love to have help and teach people how to build with cob.

After much planning, reading, traveling, and hands-on education, we think we’re ready. We started this journey by just wanting to build our own home, but conventional methods didn’t meet our needs or wants. I first read about cob in a Mother Earth News article about Becky Bee. A little more research brought us to The Cob Cottage Company, then out of Cottage Grove, Oregon, where they taught classes. That’s where we stopped for many years, just reading everything we could find on cob and dreaming.

Finally the stars aligned and we had a place to build and the money to take classes. By now The Cob Cottage Company was teaching on their place outside Coquille, Oregon, so we took a number of classes and volunteered a couple of weekends. We came home and started applying what we learned. We, along with a friend, built a wonderful structure that houses our Rumford fireplace and earth oven. Then this past year we, again with friends, built a composting toilet and cob bathhouse. That project should be completed this spring.

We’ve learned a lot and are ready to pass it along to others, in exchange for help building (I did mention the increased labor intensity, right?). Some of the topics include foundations, cob mixes and building, window and door installation (so easy), floors and roofs. Topics such as electricity and plumbing will be talked about but we aren’t experts. We’ll also cover tools and materials needed.

For a much better enticement, read “The Hand-Sculpted House” by Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, and Linda Smiley. “The Cob Builders Handbook” by Becky Bee is another good source of information. There are also cob articles in past issues of “Mother Earth News” magazine.

Chuck Tippens is an Organic farmer, orchardist and cobber. He and his wife own and operate Whistling Frog Farm outside West Salem, Oregon.

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