Saturday, October 17, 2009


The finishing touches on the cob cottage have been pushed to the back burner over the past week, replaced by a quick and dirty backyard makeover project. My family down here (Elaine, Doug, and Ian) just recently moved out of their small loft apartment and across town into an even smaller Craftsman bungalow.

The house was vacant for a good while (the exact time frame is still unknown - my guess is 22 years) and subsequently was in need of repair. The house looks great after a summer of renovation, but the backyard, as of a week ago, had a much darker story to tell. Doug and Elaine hired me and my cob colleague, Danielle, to do some transformational design/build work.

Here's what we started with:

(above) looking back from the gravel driveway
(below) view from the back of the yard

The first step was to clear out anything green that wasn't a big tree - to give a sense of what we were working with in terms of terrain, soil quality, and shapes of spaces.

Notice Danielle's sinewy neck.

You can see in the photo above that our clearing work led to the discovery of some trash. Unfortunately, the photo does not at all convey an idea of how much trash we found. At least 22 years worth of it.

Here is the front panel of a car (that was completely below ground level):

And here is a truck bed full of the other scrap metal that came out with it:

We took this metal to a recycling company and (ecstatically) received $30 for it.
If you've ever gotten rid of a dishwasher, car, or steel rod, this is where it is:

We also took two heaping truck loads of yard waste to Durham's disposal center, and a load of trash. The vast majority of the trash was not sitting on top of the soil, waiting to be picked up - it had to be unearthed and then removed by axe, mattock, pick, sledge, or raw human grit strength.

The main idea of the whole yard is to create a space for the dogs to run around in, and a play space for Ian (and other humans). To accomplish this, we decided to break up the rectangle of a yard with a voluptous cob garden wall.

First, we laid out the shape of the wall with bricks. This allowed us to run up onto the deck (where the photo is being taken from), get a view, and then go back down and readjust them. Eventually, we realized our curves. The wheelbarrow and I are in Ian's space, and the dogs will have the yard surrounding Ian.

Last Sunday was trench day. Doug, Danielle and I dug a trench following our line of bricks.

The trench was then filled with gravel and 4" perforated drainage pipe (just like the trench underneath the walls of the cob cottage, except much smaller). It will perform the dual function of providing the wall with a solid footing below frost line, and acting as a drainage system to expediently move any water away from the wall.

Once the trench was filled, it was time to lay a foundation for the wall. Because of time pressure (I am leaving North Carolina in 5 days), we decided to use concrete block. The intention is to have a wall that is half block, and half cob. The block will be stuccoed, and the cob will receive an earthen plaster, giving the wall a two-tone look.

Laying block:

Although using concrete is the ultimate sin in the eyes of many natural builders (including myself), Danielle and I had fun with it. Neither of us had any experience laying block before that morning, and we ended up with a satisfyingly gorgeous and solid wall.

Next came cob. We had been intending to use a mortar mixer to mix the cob (another, lesser natural building sin), but found that the mixer we had wasn't quite right for it. We would have had to mix really wet batches, and wouldn't have been able to get much height on the wall each day (a wall of wet cob will slump and squish under too much of its own weight). So in the face of 49-degree days, we took off our shoes and began the dance:

Because the soil from the backyard was full of glass, metal, and other assorted foot dangers, we had to source soil elsewhere. So it is with urban cob. We found a very local Craigslist advertisement for "free fill dirt," and have been taking loads of it. I am quite pleased with the quality of our cob. Its gray color looks totally different from the bright red/orange cob we made for the cottage, but it's just as strong (and beautiful! the clay in the soil ranges from gray, to purple, to deep red-brown).

Speed cob. As the cobber, I keep my head up and cob with fury. As the thrower, Danielle balls up the cob as quick as she can and whips it to my open palm.

Above is a deadman in the wall - a gnarly chunk of roundwood that we buried in the cob. This will allow us to attach a wooden frame for a gate later on.

We cobbed bottles into the wall (we excavated dozens and dozens of bottles in our initial clearing of the yard - one of the nearby houses used to be a pub). Sometimes people cob in bottles with the intention of letting light through, but we were just using them as filler - to get a higher wall, with less cob.

This will be the entrance into Ian's space. We will make it grand.

More photos soon.

1 comment:

  1. Nice curve to the wall. How high will it be? I know that Lilo is a pretty good jumper.