FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Katy Bryce & Adam Weismann

KATY BRYCE: Together we run an ecological building company called Cob In Cornwall, which focusses on cob, essentially, that's our main building material. We've obviously here in the U.K., in Cornwall, which is on the far southwest coast of England, and we focus on the sensitive restoration of old, ancient cob buildings. But we also do new build of cob, and applicable finishes, so lime finishes, earthen plasters, etc. So that's our repertoire.

ADAM WEISMANN: I started building at quite a young age. At about age 8, I started building forts in my backyard, little tunnel underground forts. I absoluetly loved working with my hands, being outside, getting dirty, eating mud, all the rest of it. And from there I started building skateboard ramps, so I started doing a little bit of wood-working, construction work, things like that. And then I started building ponds and getting into stones and stacking stones and creating mosaics with stones and creating walls with stones. Really it wasn't until we were introduced to the Cob Cottage Company where we started building with earth and building cob walls and appliacble finishes and whatnot.

KB: We both enjoyed working outside, but we first came to Cob Cottage Company with the view to wanting to build our own home. I think that's why we both went and did the apprenticeship course, was because we really wanted to take it into our own hands, to buy some land and learn how to build ourselves a house. We did the course, and we were just completely taken with it. It changes everyone's lives, really, to do that course. And from there, I don't think we ever made any conscious decisions that we were going to make it part of our life, it was just a momentum / snowball effect. There was no question that it was going to be the main focus of our lives and our occupation, and that was how it happened. We haven't had time to build our own house yet [laughs].

DAVID SHEEN: How did you first hear of the Cob Cottage Company? How did you first decided that you wanted to build a house from cob?

KB: It was a very serendipitous event, very random. We were on a trip up the west coast [of North America] to find the perfect place to settle down and build a house, and we didn't know about cob at that point. We were at Powell's Bookstore, in Portland, Oregon, and we'd been in there for about 4 hours, as you do. We were at the last place, we were about to leave. And we were on the bottom floor, where they have the second-hand books, and I came across this cart that had all these books that people obviously had been pilfering through, and they were ready to go back on the shelves. And I was attracted towards this rather cumpled-looking brown thin booklet. And I picked it out, and it looked like it was from the '70's, or something. And it was the Cob Cottage Company's first publication they ever did. I was a reader, and it was a collection of articles about cob in Britain, adobe, and just bringing earth building together. And we both looked at it, and we were like, "Wow, this looks pretty interesting!"

AW: We were just fascinated by it, it just looked so interesting. We wanted to find out more.

KB: But we were kind of like, "Oh, shame, it's from the '70's." And then we looked, and then we realized that it wasn't, that it was in the last 5 years. And we realized that we were about 30 miles from where they were based! And so we gave them a ring.

AW: Next day, we went there. Sat on a rocket stove bench, looked at some of the walls, and touched them, and realized that that was definitely something that we wanted to dedicate our time to. We had no clue that we wanted to dedicate our lives to it. We wanted to learn more about it, take courses, do whatever we had to do.

DS: At the time, you hadn't heard of cob building in England? [To Katy]: You grew up in England...

KB: Yeah, not really! I mean, everyone knows the archetypal, picturesque chocolate box thatch cottage, and generally, that kind of building is made out of cob. But, to be honest, it's hard now even to think back and to think if I did know about it, but I don't think I really did know anything about cob in Britain, until recently. But it certainly helped, when we were trying to convince the parents! My mom was like, "Oh, yeah!"

DS: So, after the apprenticeship, you came back to the U.K. and began to work in the field?

KB: It was a very different, and quite a sobering experience, coming back here and working on a project. It was very different. To start with, the method was different, you use a pitchfork. So you really don't get your hands in it. I would say, in the States, in the way that we were taught, it's that very tactile, touchy-feely, you put all your heart and your soul into it. Whereas, we can here, and it felt like we were on a conventional building site, really, but just the material was different. So the approach was still quite conventional and conservative, it was just a different material. They come from this history of tradition, instead of a new wave, of a new movement, where it's used as an eco material. It's more, "Let's use this because historically, it's interesting and important." You can understand what I mean.

So it was quite a sobering experience, and it was quite a harsh experience, because you've come from the woods, where we were living in the woods, and it was just wonderful, quite community-oriented. And then suddenly, we were on a work site, 9 to 5, they paid for it, it was a very different experience. But no less valuable.

It's about preservation, about conservation. It's about retaining it for its architectural heritage. That's where its value came in. In all fairness, the guy that was doing it, he did have issues of sustainability. That was an issue for him. But it was lower down on the priority list than its architectural value.

Completely opposite end of the spectrum. And we were somewhere in the middle. And we were, "Which way do we go?" And hopefully, we've tried to bring them both together. And ultimately, it's all the same, anyway.

DS: How else is the British cob scene different from its US counterpart.

AW: We actually use a JCB. It's a large front-load tractor, to mix up all of our cob. So we do about 20 [metric] tonnes a session. So we'll literally mix up about 20 tonnes a go, and then feed off that. And then it takes us about, I don't know, 4 or 5 days to go through about 20 tonnes. And so we're literally, with a pitchfork, taking big scoops from the pile, and placing it onto the wall, positioning it, scooping it, positioning it. So we're not actually using our hands, we're actually using a utensil, a tool, to pick it up and do that. We find that it's much quicker, but you don't have the same interaction that you normally would. You're not actually picking it up with your hands and mixing it by your feet. It's a different connection that you have with the material.

But then, having said that, we do smaller projects where we'll mix all the product, all the cob by foot. And so we'll do it all by foot, barefoot, and using our hands for doing the earthen plasters. So we're trying to marry the two styles together. But when we first came, it was all mixing by tractor, and all by pitchfork.

KB: I think the main difference is that for the big projects, we mix with a machine, because commercially, it's just not viable to mix. The cost of us standing there, tromping each mix, it's just not commercially viable. And also, we both want a level of sustainability for our bodies and ourselves. If you're doing a big project, and there's just the two of us, and we're to mix it all by foot, we'd be wrecked! No energy to do anything.

And also, another big difference is that the cob here, there's this natural layer of shale, which is the aggregate that we use to mix it. It's just above the subsoil layer. And that's very sharp and stony, you actually can't mix it up with bare feet. So like Adam said, it's a different relationship with the material, really. But when we do smaller projects, and sometimes there are projects that are logistically challenged, that you can't actually get machinery down into, and then that's wonderful, because we have that skill of being able to do it.

AW: Mix it all by foot. And yeah, there have been different occasions where we've been building on a very steep slope,and there's no way, like Katy said, to actually bring in a JCB, or anything. So we'll just try to source it, as locally as possible. So we'll just try and source the clay, dig it up, and then just mix it by foot. And that's just been invaluable, those skills.

KB: I think, as well, we don't use the "cobber's thumb" that Ianto does, that we were trained to do. Because when you use a pitchfork, what you do is you compact it with a pitchform head. So you compact it all together. When you're using you hands, you can't do that. Hence, that's Ianto's philosophy of the cobber's thumb, sewing the straw together. But we do it by compaction, rather than sewing it all together. So that's another difference.

AW: We also stand on top of the walls, walk on top of the walls, try and compress it from the top. So it will actually splooge out, and then we trim it back.

KB: We also have something which I think is a traditional British thing. We have something called a "thwacker", which is a big caveman tree-trunk, you could also use a cricket bat. And when the wall is sort of green hard, you stand on top of the wall, and you compress it with this big sort of tree trunk. You compress it from the sides. It blends all of the different lifts together. That's another difference.

DS: How have you been received in the British building scene?

KB: I think when we came, I wouldn't say we struggled, but definitely, when we first set up the company, like I mentioned earlier, lots of time here, we're not working in the backwoods with a group of nice, like-minded people. Quite often, we're working on a building site where, especially with restoration projects, we're brought in because the council, the conservation offices have said that this part of the building must be put back in the traditional way. So a lot of the time we're working amongst conventional builders. And that continues to be, sometimes, now, but certainly in the beginning, when we were a little bit more intimidated by that, it was quite tough. Because we'd come in, and first, we had an American, and then a woman on the building site, which are two things which were alien species to them. So we had that barrier to get over, for a start. And then we were doing something that took 10 times longer. They just knock it down and whack it up in concrete block. Plus, in Cornwall, the Cornish, they're a little bit more separated from the rest of the country, and so they're sometimes a little bit more

AW: They can be quiet cliquish. People who are outsiders are outsiders. It takes a couple of generations for people to actually come into a village and get accepted in the village.

KB: So in that sense, we were received rather skeptically. And we really had to work very hard. Really, it was tough.

DS: But you were finally accepted, not only by your fellow British builders, but even by members of the monarchy?

KB: So we knew that Prince Charles has an interest in eco building, organic gardening, organic vegetable production. So we wrote to him, and told him what we were doing, and not really expecting to get a response. We just thought we'd put it out there, and if nothing came back, then that was fine. And actually, he responded very positively, and invited us to go out and see him at Highgrove, which is his house, and spend some time with him, and just tell him what we were doing.

So we obviously accepted the offer. We went out one very cold February afternoon, and talked with him in his house, and then he took us around his garden. He's very interested in Greek Orthodox religion. And he has this earth sanctuary I think it's earth block in his garden. So he wanted to share that with us and show us that. And it was an honour to go in there. And he'd actually brought together a whole load of craftspeople a stained-glass craftsperson, and someone who had done some beautiful wood carvings, and he brought them all together in this one little building. It was a really wonderful experience. We really feel like he's behind what we're doing.

AW: We met the Queen. I guess that's his mom. This was in 2003. We got an award called the Pioneers Award. Which was completely out of the blue, that was another thing that just astounded us. We're just working away, doing very simple building techniques, and somehow it got us this award from the Queen. And she invited us to come to Buckingham Palace! And so we spent the evening in Buckingham Palace with a bunch of other people. And she just said that she was very interested in what we're doing and reviving traditional skills and traditional crafts.

KB: It is amazing how it helps when you've got someone, and you explain to them what we do, and they're like, "Weird, wacky people, they're in the clouds!" And then unfortunately, if you tell people something like that, it makes them sit up and listen. Actually, it's good for cob because it makes people take it more seriously, because unfortunately, they reckon, "Well, if the Queen's going to take it seriously, then it's worth being taken seriously." And so it is quite a powerful statement, actually. I'd always been anti-monarchy before, but we got that invitation, and then I was excited! [Laughs] And then I thought, "How fickle and shallow you are, Ms. Bryce!" "Yeah, the Queen, The Queen!" And before, I was like "Down with the Queen! [Laughs] I saw myself in my truest colours. But I was saying, it's a powerful statement, I think we can use that to our advantage. If it makes people take it more seriously, then that's a positive thing.

AW: Exactly, especially with people who are dealing with a hierarchy, and people who are in governmental system and building system, they do perk up a bit. If they know that we're dealing with those sort of people, they'll take it a bit more seriously, especially when it comes to building codes and things like that. So, in a way, it's been very positive.