FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Elke Cole

My story, a little bit about me: I have a background in architecture in Germany, and got into cob building in 1994 with the Cob Cottage [Company], and Ianto has ever since been my mentor, and friend. I started teaching with him, and later started Cobworks with Pat [Hennebury] and Tracy [Calvert] on Mayne Island. And I've been working in this general region, which is the west coast of British Colummbia, Canada, and a little bit into the States, and on one project in India. So it's been making connections further than here.

... I did the cob workshop, and it gave me another way of looking at the world. And I don't think that anybody can do it any better than Ianto. To give you that -- something! And it worked it's way into my system over the years after. Like, it's way too much to get when you're sitting there with him, but slowly you feel it coming through and out again, and it's been integrated. And now I'm basically living the reality that I saw as a possibility then.

When I'm looking at what I do now, in terms of work, is I design houses like this [Climate Change Demonstration Building]. Almost all of the design work I do now is natural hybrid housing. Right now, I've got one on the table that's not, but... I teach people and I live with people who are about change in the world. So it's both my professional community, as well as my heart family, it's all the same thing! I really felt that at the [Natural Building] Colloquium this fall.

And I built part-time, so it's a nice flow of going inside and creating outward, and then expressing and exploring with people, and then just getting really grounded by doing the work. That's a whole other feeling of accomplishment right there. At the end of the day, you're tired, and you know that, you can see what you've done, and your body can feel what you've done. And you sit down and celebrate, you know? And to be able to go through those cycles in a year is great. I like that a lot. That's a really fortunate thing for me.

My teaching lately has been focused on longer programs, not so much workshops any more, where people come and live and learn here at OUR Ecovillage for 10 weeks in the summertime. We live and camp together. And so it's all about community building, learning how to live and work together: which is personal leadership, which is communication, which is all the challenges around knowing yourself and respecting others.

Every building on this land will have to be permitted, this one is permitted, as well. It takes relationship-building with engineers.

Our building codes here in Canada are changing. It's more a performance code that's being adopted now, which, in a way, will help, and it'll make it more and more, I think, necessary for people to work with professionals. And in the end, it's about getting a permit, it's not about building to code, and to distinguish that one. That's the first thing I tell people, it's not about building to code. There's no building code for cob, and I don't want one. It's about having the permit, and working with someone who will support you with that, and that's the engineer role.

And I think that sets us apart. Cobworks, too, those buildings have all been permitted, too. But that does set us apart from what's been going on in the States, for the most part. I know there's a couple that have permits, but not much. I think it's more facing up to it. It's more going in there and working with them, not doing it in the backwoods, as much fun as that is. [Laughs]. It's way easier not to have a permit. It's not way easier, but it is easier.

And in that, then, training people to be "professional natural builders," which is where I see the line of movement that natural building is pushing right now. We're on that thing of getting out of the fringe, getting out of the back woods, going into the more professional builders' and designers' realm with it. I don't want to call it 'mainstream,' because I don't think that's quite right. It is introducing a different way to the mainstream building scene, it has to communicate with the mainstream, but it isn't trying to fit into it. I am certainly not trying to fit into it. There's a lot of things that I want to do differently.

I've been trying to talk... with people in how they approach work in general. Saying that, if I am working, it has to align with who I am, what I am, what I am about in the world, kind of thing, and what my passion is, so that the reward out of my work is not only money. It's a really poor motivator. That's pretty obvious. So if I get out of my work the satisfaction of a beautiful result, or the feedback, or the connection with the others that I'm working with, that I get a feeling of self-expression, that I get an expression of my passion, or what I'm about. If that can come through my work,, then I'm in the right place. And if I can't be in that, then I need to go find a different place to work.

People don't like to hear that. Some people do, because they're in line with that, but other people feel threatened right away, because they know they would have to leave, if they were operating under those principles. And that's a work ethic question, in a way. And it ultimately is not sustainable if you don't work in line with your being. I've always thought that people do the work that is for them to do, somehow. And that they need to find that. It's not about finding a job, it's about finding your work.

It is a good platform, though, for natural building, in this situation. And this being a demonstration site is, of course, pretty helpful, too, because the intent is to teach; we have a school for sustainability here. And the intent is to share with the wider world. So people will come here all the time and visit and look and talk and get an introduction to stuff. So it's not just building this thing in the backwoods somewhere, where it's serving the occupants only. This is serving a greater picture that way.

The prime focus here that is stated is education and community as a bottom line for everything we do, or as a common thing for everything we do, it's kind of a core curriculum, you might say. This is why we take the time to have morning check-ins, several levels, community meetings. When I look at the actual production work time that we get out of a week here, [laughs] it's maybe 3 out of 5 days. Other time goes into explaining and instruction time, and it goes into community time, one way or another... it's about getting to know each other and working with other people, and knowing who else is around, and having relationships.

So we do all this to build community, and to allow people to explore a different way of being that they might not be able to practice all the time, everywhere. But when I go back to my first cob workshop experience: once there is a seed, and once there is an experience of something that honours people differently, and has a different respect for people, and somehow invites them in, basically into themselves, right? -- or is supposed to be helping them in that process, somehow -- so once that seed is there, then it'll do what it does.

One young woman came in here yesterday, and she really got it. First of all, she suddenly felt that she didn't have any real life skills. And that learning how to build like this would be a really valuable skill. And fairly easily obtained. And that reminded me of how I felt. Even though I was an architect, I didn't really know how to build a house! In theory I did, but I had no idea. And when I came out of that cob workshop, my world had changed, because I felt like I had the power and the know-how -- and it's not know-how in the head, it's know-how in the hands -- to do it. And that changes your world. So the empowerment factor in this whole thing.