Friday, November 20, 2009

The human oven project

Just got the photos from Andi of the cob sweat lodge that I mentioned in the previous post...

Andi really pushed me into an experimental mode that I'm not always comfortable in as a builder. The dirt in the cob is just the topsoil that we pulled off the site in the initial excavation. I was worried that it had too much organic matter, and too little clay, but Andi wouldn't budge on her decision. It seemed to make a fine cob, and I'm glad we tried it!

I was also (and still am) concerned about the hurried foundation. It's just a bunch of big rocks laid about 1-2 inches below ground level. It's a healthy, good-natured sort of concern stemming from my past experience with foundations. For the cob cottage in North Carolina, I spent 2 months excavating and digging/filling a drainage trench, and another full month with Mike laying the stone foundation. For Andi's sweat lodge, we spent 20 minutes digging, and then 45 minutes laying the stones.

That being said, this is a perfect structure to experiment with. The worst that could happen is that it cracks over time (with the ground shifting, and frost heave), and falls in on itself. The materials are all natural, and will just return to the earth.

Clay slip was applied to all of the foundation stones as a "glue" before the cob went on.

It was great to feel the mud of Iowa on my bare feet for the first time; I will admit that my toes were desperately frigid by the end of each mix.

We took some handsaws with us down the hill to the magical willow tree and harvested some of the most flexible, straight branches. With even spacing around the circular shape, the branches will be stuck down into the cob; then they will be bent up into a dome shape, and Andi will weave slip-straw (bundles of straw coated in wet clay) between this framework. This will provide the shape and structure of the form, and then a layer of cob will be applied on both the inside and outside faces of the dome. Photos of this process some day soon.

I love the site that Andi chose for the structure. It's just off the main path that extends across the meadow and through the stand of trees that you see in the photo. There are five or six trees that form a circle around the sweat lodge, almost as if they were asking for a circular mud friend.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Time has passed

Quite a bit has happened with a variety of people in different places over the past month:
1. Backyard Garden Wall Project
2. Finishing the Cob Cottage
3. Road Trip down the West Coast
4. Time in Iowa

Photos would be more helpful than words in explaining what I've been up to, but my documentation skills have been sorely lacking. There is an avalanche of images stored among 4 or 5 cameras across the country, and I hope to collect these over time. In the meantime, here's what I got:


Danielle and I worked like dogs, but sometimes even a dog gets beat by the clock. The decision had to be made whether to do rushed & sloppy work to get it done on schedule, or to put a hold on the project and continue with solid craftsmanship in the spring. We chose the latter. I decided to leave the wall uncovered for the winter, as an grand experiment in how durable unprotected cob can be (fully explaining the Allen Guarantee to my sister - any damage to a wall built by me will be repaired free of charge).

Here is a video of mixing cob in the front yard. This is the first time I've ever seen what I look like when I mix. I had always pictured it looking like a salsa dance, but now I see that it doesn't.

When we initially pulled loads of trash out of the yard, we came across hundreds of bottles. Some we assessed as unique enough to become part of the wall. Arguably, our favorite bottles were the "chug-a-mugs." The idea behind this beer was to have a wide-mouthed bottle so that one could really throw back twelve ounces rather expediently.

I went outside early one morning and noticed that the sun found a hole in the tree canopy through which to really light up our chug-a-mug linear six-pack. Look at that color! At around 7:00 AM in mid-October, this will be an anticipated yearly feature of the wall.

In addition to bottles, we uncovered a lot of bricks. I had Eric Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" on my mind, and the pile of bricks turned into some wall art. (He will have legs and antannae made out of black ceramic tile someday in the future when the wall is plastered)

Above is the entryway into Ian's play space. It will have a cob archway, and a gate.


Here are the two wooden shelves that were shaped, sanded, shellacked, and installed overnight (the red plaster blob around them is looking spotty because different areas are at different stages of drying):

Here is our "double-boiler" system at our brick fireplace in which we heated the linseed oil for the floor treatment:

And here is the first coat of oil onto the floor (out of 4 total coats). The linseed oil penetrates down into the earthen materials and adds stiffness and durability:

A small helping of oatmeal to celebrate a sleepless night of building:

I wanted to paint the door canary yellow, but we ended up going with a more natural look with a coating of shellac to match the shelves:

This is Margo the gardener and Sheila the pup, the cottage residents-to-be!

Here's how we left it:
Thank you Danielle for all the photos!


The reason for pulling an all-nighter on the cottage was because I had a flight to Seattle booked the next day. This was the beginning to a three-week adventure all the way down the coast to Los Angeles. I traveled with a college friend, Jeremy, and we were able to spend time with a lot of friends along the way.

After almost a week in Seattle, we hit Portland and then Eugene. Jeremy ended up buying this car, so that we didn't have to rent one:

After Eugene was Cob Cottage Company, a place I missed dearly over the past year:

(above) This is the sink where I brushed my teeth every night and morning during the apprenticeship. Behind the sink/mirror is the solar shower. The arched doorway that you see is part of a 60-foot garden wall that was built during my original cob workshop. The building in the very right of the picture with plastic over it was brand new to my eyes. It was built as part of the 2009 apprenticeship program, and will function as a showerhouse when complete (which will be a nice luxury during the cold winter months!).

(below) This is the Bedrock, the house that I helped build during my apprenticeship a year ago. It was really neat to see it totally finished, with the windows installed, the curtain, and some new mosaic and plaster details:

You can get a glimpse of the bowl-shaped green roof of the bedrock through the gorgeous quadruple-wide panoramic window in the Ridge House:

One of my favorite parts of the design at Cob Cottage is the tremendously long garden wall that weaves throughout the property and links almost everything together. A lot of the cottages are just "growths" off of this main wall. Here are some images taken from different points of the path:
This is the cob oven in which we baked bread, pizza, desserts, beans, roasted veggies, and all other sorts of food (to the right in the photo, with the antler handle on the little wooden door):

The Myrtle was the first building ever built on the Cob Cottage campus. It is now used as a library/hang-out space:

My friend Max lived at Cob Cottage for the past year and a half. He's become very interested in fire and heat; here is a stunning Rumford fireplace that he built.

Looking up at how beautiful these leaves are on the temporary plastic roof has given me all kinds of clear roofing ideas for future projects:

After Cob Cottage, we slept at the top of a waterfall for a night, and then among the Redwoods the next night. I really must retrieve some of Jeremy's photos and give myself a bit more time to reflect before I can properly share these places.

Next came San Francisco for 3 days. And then the lengthy, yet spectacular coastline drive down to Los Angeles, where I spent four days with the whole crew: Jeremy, Justin, Mikie, and I. A really solid trip.


From L.A., I flew to Minneapolis, took a bus to Rochester, MN, and was picked up by my dear friend Andi, who proceeded to drive me back to her land in Iowa. Andi and her husband Ian both took cob workshops from me in May. The time spent on their land was exactly the contrast I needed after being overwhelmed by Los Angeles.

Andi and Ian bought the land in June, built a house in 6 weeks from pallets, strawbales, and mud, and have been living in it since! It was very fulfilling to see that they took away knowledge from the workshop and then combined it with their own ideas and resources to build a shelter that is completely unique to them. Perhaps one of the more unique features is Ian's drumset under their sleeping loft:

They plan on living in this building through the next two winters, and then moving into a more finished cob house (which they will be building over the next year and a half):

Some nice bottle work for extra light and style:

An earthen oven in-the-making (they are both incredible bread-bakers):

Andi and I worked on a cob sweat-lodge project. The basic idea was to build an earthen oven big enough for three people to sit inside. It will function just like a bread oven: heated by a wood fire until the cob walls have been saturated with heat, and then pulling out the fire and crawling in to sweat as the walls radiate the stored heat. We got the site leveled, the stone foundation layed, and about a foot of cob on the wall.

It was a wonderful time, and a place at which I know I will again find myself someday in the future.

Now I am back in Syracuse, NY, and heading off this weekend to work at Stony Creek Farm for the winter!

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.