FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Ian Marcuse

My name is Ian Marcuse, and I'm a cob builder by hobby, I guess you could say; and the other part of my life, I'm a student, I'm studying urban planning.

You know, I used to be an environmental activist. Well, I still am. But I was very involved in forest activism, in protecting the temperate rainforests. And I was doing a lot of organizing, a lot of blockade organizing, a lot of civil disobedience organizing, educational, fundraising, the works.

And that got to be a burnout. In many ways, we were constantly reacting to the forest industry, and we were angry, and we were really wanting to see the forest corporations just leave. And that was a tough battle. And I think after 4 or 5 years of that, I got really tired.

Anyhow, I took a year off of activism, and went down to California to visit some friends. And they were building a straw bale and cob structure. I'd never heard of cob before. So I was really, really amazed. It was great. I was like, Wow! This is really cool! And they told me to go up to Cob Cottage Company to visit Ianto's buildings. And we went up. And I was immediately taken, I think, primarily by the artistic elements to cob building. I just felt they were really beautiful.

I came back to Vancouver with friends. We started talking about cob building, and incorporating cob building into our activism, in terms of incorporating the concept of tree-free housing into the campaigns that, say, GreenPeace was doing around tree-free paper, and so forth. So we saw this cob building as a really innovative angle to address the forest question, the logging question.

And we organized a workshop in Bellocullo in a First Nations community. And that community was very much involved in their own struggle to save their forest up in the Bellocullo region, mid-coast area, where there's considerable logging. So, we pitched the idea to some friends up there, who'd worked on some Native sovereignty issues in the past, and they quite liked the idea. And they saw cob as fitting into their own campaign and strategy to promote alternatives to stick-frame housing.

So we organized that workshop, and brought Ianto Evans up, and that was our first workshop. Yeah! We learnt a lot on that workshop, and we made a lot of mistakes. But it was a real learning ground for us all. That's more or less how it began.

So, following the Bellocullo project, I felt I had enough confidence to take on my own project. And I had been fortunate enough to live in this incredible space here in Vancouver, in this very, very large garden. So we had the space to build a small cob structure. So we thought, let's do it! It's a great learning opportunity.

And to date, there had not been a cob house built in Vancouver, so it was the first one. So we thought, this is a great opportunity to do something in the city, and it's accessible, so a lot of people could get involved.

So this cob house was the first cob structure built in Vancouver. And at that time, not many people knew about it. Certainly, building officials didn't know, so that's why we kept it under 100 square feet, so we didn't have to deal with code, or permits, or any of that. We had 70 people come and help build it, so it was very much a community building project.

And since it's been built, it's been remarkable, we've had hundreds and hundreds of visitors. People are really, really interested in it. And it's a pretty well-known little project now. And there are a few people around the neighbourhood that know about the cob house, and bring all of their friends to visit it, as well.

And the other really wonderful thing about having a little cob guest house in your backyard is you get a lot of visitors that want to sleep in it, people from out of town. And I've lived in this space for 16 years, and I can honestly say that I've met easily over 2000 people, and many, many of those people are people who I've met that have come to either stay overnight in the cob house, or come to visit the cob house, because they're interested. So it's been just a wonderful way for me to meet people.

People love it. People just love it. People fall in love with it. Of course, everybody asks you, Can you build me one? Yeah, it's pretty cool.

What's really fascinating about cob, for me, is how it's caught on in the public imagination. It's like wildfire, it's like magic. I think of it as magic, in the sense that such a simple idea has caught on to such an extent that everybody in Vancouver knows about cob now, almost. At one time, in 1996 or 1997, no one had heard of cob, but in a period of 5 or 6 years, the whole city knows of cob. We have a city council that is now supporting cob building on a much larger scale, however realistic that is.

After this project, I put together a proposal, worked with the community garden group, and we put a proposal together to build a small gathering place in one of the local community gardens. And at that time, the park superintendent turned the project down. They had not heard of cob, and justifiably had concerns, and really were unfamiliar with it.

Now the Arts & Culture representative with the Parks Board thought it was one of the best proposals that she'd seen. It integrates art and culture, it integrates environment, environmental sustainability, and it integrates community building. So it was a perfect proposal from an arts and culture perspective.

A year later, there was the opportunity to build a popcorn stand in Stanley Park, and cob was considered, because it met this criteria. So the Parks Board approached me to build that building, and of course, I jumped on the opportunity. I mean, Stanley Park is the premier park in North America. It's one of the most beautiful parks in the world, and [thousands of] thousands of visitors go to Stanley Park yearly, so it would be an amazing opportunity to showcase cob building. It was very, very exciting.

From the very beginning with this project, there was absolutely no resistance. The Parks Board unanimously supported it. The hierarchy, the bureaucracy was fully behind it. I was amazed, I had no opposition, no one say, No, you can't do that. Everything I wanted, we got. It was such an easy process. And I largely attribute that to people at the very top of the political system and the bureaucratic system getting behind the project.

To have the cob structure built in one of the busiest parks in North America will allow it to be seen by thousands and thousands of people, so it's really going to, I think, give cob a lot of exposure. A lot of people internationally are going to see it. I think having the city get behind it and support it to the degree that they have legitimizes cob in a way that we haven't seen before, at that level.

The project was highly successful. We did engineering tests, we had engineers working with us, and they're all very, very confident with cob, and they're very happy with how it performs seismically. And structurally, it's a solid little building. I think it's clear once you look at it that it's a good building, it's performing well, and the City is very open now to talking about other projects.

All along, we saw the Stanley Park project as also providing educational opportunities, as well as testing opportunities. And we wanted to do some cob testing, as we were building. And we were fortunate enough to get the University of British Columbia, as well as the Technical Institute interested, as well as engineers in the City. And we were able to get a student intern to do some cob testing, some materials testing.

As well, the university was very interested in doing some seismic testing, and they made available their labs, the seismic shake table and everything for us, at no cost, Steve Lay, who was my partner in the project, he coordinated the seismic testing, so he built a scale model, and we were able to test it at UBC.

And that was really exciting. But as I said, a key part of building the Stanley Park project was the testing and the educational and the data, the research.

First off, this garden and this cob building are very much loved in the community. A lot of people know about it, a lot of people come to the garden just to hang out in the garden, or they come to visit the cob house. And just recently a developer bought the property. We tried to buy it ourselves, but really weren't given the full opportunity to buy it, and consequently a developer has bought it, and has plans to redevelop the whole site. He wants to take down all the trees, take down the cob house and put up a couple of high-end duplexes.

Now the interesting part of this story is that the Parks Board are very interested in buying this property, because they recognize the value of this garden, in terms of the community amenity. But we also live in a park-deficient neighbourhood, a very park-deficient neighbourhood. So the Parks Board are interested in acquiring the property. And they have told us that they would like to keep the cob house, as part of the garden.

Unfortunately, the developer -- well, it's a bit of a long story. I mean, we went to the Board of Variance, and we stopped the development for the time being, but the developer is digging in. And now he's hired lawyers, he's suing the City, so we don't know what's going to happen. We do know that the Parks Board is still very interested in buying the property. It's hard to say what's going to happen. We've organized hundreds of people in the community, gathered 1600 petition signatures to save the garden and the cob house. 28 organizations have supported us protecting the garden.

We put forth a vision to create an educational centre here. And, as part of that educational centre, which would include gardening and composting and all of that, would also include natural building, because we already have a cob building here, as a demonstration structure. But there are lots of opportunities to do more natural building in the city. And the City is very interested in that vision.

At this point, the developer is digging in, and you can see, the cob house has been boarded up. The developer boarded it up because he's concerned that it's a liability, that somehow it's an "attractive nuisance" -- which is ironic! "Attractive Nuisance" is a legal doctrine that applies to children, where children are attracted to something possibly dangerous, like an abandoned car, where they might hurt themselves. But the cob house, because it attracts so many visitors is considered a nuisance, from the landlord's perspective.

People come and visit this cob house and they fall in love with it, it's a peace and lovin' place. Nobody gets hurt here.

So we're going to have to wait and see what happens. We're hoping that the developer will not tear the cob house down. He said he may, but that he'll wait until the outcome has been decided. Either he proceeds with the full development and we have no recourse, or not, and the Parks Board does buy it. In that case, we're hoping that the cob house can stay, and become part of the new creative space.

Yeah, it is totally ironic that I'm all about housing, affordable housing, accessible housing, and I've been evicted from my own home. But that's the nature of living in the city! The city, it's brutal. And developers are bulldozing every little bit of it to rebuild skyscrapers and expensive housing.

In the neighbourhood I live in, which is a very interesting neighbourhood, East Vancouver, which used to be a very affordable, more of a lower-income neighbourhood, is quickly turning into a very expensive place to live. I hope to stay in the neighbourhood and find something else nearby, and I hope to continue cob building.

And one of the ideas that I have is to maybe build my own cob house in someone's backyard, and present it or showcase it as an example of affordable infill housing. The City is very interested in, as we said, sustainability. And densification is part of that strategy. And infill housing in particular, meaning, building smaller granny suites, smaller apartments in backyards, filling in some of the open areas in backyards, for example. So I could see a place for cob as an infill building. It could be community-built, it could be owner-built, perhaps more affordably than a regular house.

I think the City would be open to that. So I'm thinking maybe I'll ask a few friends, I have a few friends that do own property in the neighbourhood, and I'll see whether or not they're interested in maybe getting involved in this kind of project. It would be a larger building, and it would have to be permitted, but I think we have the support of the City now. I think that we could get a permit to do such a structure, which would be amazing.

One of the key lessons learned in living here is the importance of physical space in creating community. Having a semi-wild space in an urban environment is so precious, it's so sacred. So many people come here just to be in this space because it's a little wilder, it's not a manicured park. And having this space to build a cob house, also. There's not a lot of space in this city.

And this space has brought a lot of people together. And it's really this outdoor wild space that has brought everyone together. And we've created amazing community here. And the community that we've created here, you just can't replicate very easily. And if we lose this to development, I think it's going to be really sad. Not just for myself personally, but for the whole community, for the whole city.

Yes, we need density, we need apartment buildings, we need housing, of course. But we really need to save these sacred spaces, because they're so important, especially in the city, where we don't have the access to big trees, or to wild spaces. And it's so vital for our mental health, and our physical health.

And the cob structure here has been magical. It really is, kids love it. It's just been so important to the neighbourhood to have this space. Not just for educational reasons, but just for the soul, for our spirit. To be in a space that really sings to you, that really expresses these qualities that are grounded in nature, and I think, really speak to our deeper subconscious craving and desire to connect with nature. The cob house allows us to connect to nature, the garden allows us to connect to nature, and in the city, there aren't many opportunities to do that. I think that's the saddest thing about losing this.

On the positive side, it's been here for 6-7 years, it's really turned a lot of people onto cob, so it's made a lot of people happy.