FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Michael G. Smith

After graduating from college, I spent a couple of years living in Costa Rica in the rainforest, working primarily on rainforest conservation and reforestation. I had gone to Costa Rica with a kind of na•ve idea that I was going to help preserve the rainforest from destruction. And I worked with some incredibly talented and motivated and smart and far-thinking local people, who had exactly the same objective.

But what became clear was that the forces that they were dealing with weren't local; the forces were global, and had to do with this apparently insatiable hunger for resources, for stuff, that drives our consumer culture. Especially places like here, in the United States, but increasingly all over the world. And that as long as that hunger, that drive for resources, and the cheap energy that makes it possible to move things like forestries from places like Costa Rica to places like Hollywood, where hugs amounts of tropical woods are used in movie sets, just as an example, that's going to continue to happen.

So what I became really interested in, was working on the demand side. Is it possible to offer people a different paradigm, a different cultural paradigm, that says: What's really important to us is our relationships with the people around us, our relationship with the place that we live, our relationship with the stuff in our lives that we eat, that we clothe ourselves with, that we build with.

I think by focusing on those relationships, I think there's a ripple effect, a positive ripple effect, that will lead out into the rest of the world. And I think when people aren't connected, aren't paying attention to where the stuff in their lives come from, it's very, very easy for these huge, out-of-control environmentally devastating industries to do whatever they want. Because the consumers aren't paying attention to what the consequences of their purchasing actions are.

So I became really interested in trying to educate people in consumer societies, and specifically in the United States, because that's where I'm from, that another whole set of options is available to us, which basically are, in some ways, much more similar to how traditional societies have lived. We can feed ourselves. We can grow a lot of our own food. And I'm not saying that trade, per se, is evil, or that it's even desirable to eliminate trade.

So the time I spent in Costa Rica was very, very eye-opening for me. Just getting out of this country, seeing a little bit of how other people in other parts of the world live, and also, really for the first time, traveling through Central America, really seeing the impacts on people's lives of our lifestyle here, our foreign policy, our military empire, etc., etc. And that kind of politicized me, in a way that I hadn't been previously.

And I think how most of my political action... You know, I sometimes go to a protest and carry signs, and march, and chant, and so forth. But what feels like a more positive use of my time, is trying to create models that people can look to and say, Oh! that guy over there built his own house for $2000! He lives on $500 a month! Maybe that's something that might be possible for me...

The whole technique of cob was something that I just kind of came across almost accidentally. The person who deserves most of the credit, I'd say, 70% of the credit for introducing cob into this country is Ianto Evans. And the person who next deserves the most credit is Linda Smiley, his wife. So the two of them had built a partially cob cabin for themselves sometime in the mid-1980's, which they inhabited for about 5 years. At the end of that time, they moved, they left the property where they had been building and teaching, and had been so impressed by the cob, actually, that they were like, Wow, this is one of the most interesting things to us, that we have to offer.

Other than their single experiment, as far as we know, there hadn't been a single cob structure constructed in North America in at least 100 years. There was some cob stuff built on the East Coast, mostly in New York State, but also in Ohio, and some of the other states, in the late 1800's, mid-to-late-1800's. There was certainly adobe happening on the West Coast and the Southwest. But their inspiration and their models came both from Britain, where Ianto's from, and also from Africa, where he'd spent quite a bit of time, working on other kinds of projects.

In addition to doing the cob work, they were involved with a lot of international permaculture, sustainability, appropriate technology transfer, and that's what actually got me in touch with them. I had heard about that work, and was very curious about it. Ianto also had done a lot of research into sustainable gardening and food production, and both of those things really interested me. So I happened to get in touch with them just at the point where they were getting ready to start the Cob Cottage Company, and it seemed like, Yeah, I could go help out with that for a bit. I had some building background, carpentry background, etc., that was going to be helpful.

So I just kind of ended up showing up and helping them build their second cob house, which they're still living in. And that was the spring of 1993 that we started that. By that winter, they were moved into that structure, it's a very, very small, very sculptural, very carefully designed, almost entirely cob structure. And that was only the second cob building that Ianto and Linda had worked on.

So we were in the process of building that we were learning a lot, teaching ourselves a lot. And a lot of that came from just having a pretty experimental attitude of, What would happen if we did this? You know, What are the limits of this material? How far can we push it?

So this shelf up here is built using a technique called corbelling. It's made entirely out of cob. There's no reinforcing in it other than just extra straw. And that was a technique that we came up with while working on that Heart House, Linda and Ianto's second house. We built the shelf like this for a bookshelf, never having done it before, or seen it done, or heard of it, and I'm not exactly clear where the idea came from, I presume it was probably Ianto's invention.

But as the cob wall continued to go up, we needed a scaffolding to access the top of the wall for building. And I remember the day that I found myself sort of hesitantly putting one foot, and then the other foot, onto this cob shelf, to see whether it would support me, and kind of half-thinking that the whole thing was going to collapse, and I was going to end up on the ground. That didn't happen! And pretty soon we had 4 or 5 people standing on a shelf like this, continuing to cob the wall up over our heads.

There was a very magical process of building that structure. Materials kept showing up for us in very kind of magical ways. There's a particular window... We were giving some thought and some attention to things like, Where's the light and the sun going to be on the solstices and the equinoxes? and that sort of thing. But the actual manifestation of how those things interact within that building were partially serendipitous, also.

So there's a circumstance, for example, where, at sunrise on the summer solstice, and really only for a day or two on either side of the summer solstice, the rising sun comes in through a certain window and casts a certain pattern right above the wood stove in the house. And this is something that is one of Ianto's big strengths, is noticing and paying attention to the sort of cosmology of the place where we are, and building in and designing into our living structures little signals and little reminders that things are changing, that the earth is moving, that the cycles of time are passing and continuing and returning.

And that's really a departure from how most of our architecture and building happens in our culture and in our climate, which is not at all place-centred. It's very typical for buildings to get designed completely without the designers ever having been to the site. It's fairly typical for a lot of the building components to be assembled in a factory somewhere hundreds of miles from the site where they're going to end up.

The extreme example of that, obviously, is the whole mobile home phenomenon, where the structure is built obviously completely independent of the site, and it's trucked in and plunked down on a foundation. And it's incapable, because of how it came to be, it's incapable of really responding to the conditions on the site, and having any kind of conversation with the site.

And for me, and for Ianto, also, I think, that's one of the things that makes a good building, is a rich, deep conversation between the building and the things around it, ad the people in it, too.

So, a lot of what Cob Cottage Company came to be was kind of a traveling school, where we would be contacted by somebody who wanted to build a cob house, often, in many cases, somebody who had taken a workshop from us previously, but not exclusively. And we would bring a workshop to that person's site, and through the process of teaching a workshop, we would help with the construction of the building. That's still a lot of what Ianto and Linda do, and what I do a little bit of, but less than I used to.

So we started traveling and teaching, mostly up and down the West Coast of the United States and into British Columbia, but a little bit wider. Ianto, particularly, has traveled a lot more to Western Europe, the Eastern United States, and other places, too. But I think that it was very, very valuable for us, to travel and experience the conditions on all these different sites; to go to, and sort of seed, or fertilize a new pocket of culture in different places.

What we found, kind of to our surprise, was, despite the fact that there had been no cob construction done in the last 100 years in the United States, and practically none in Britain in the same period of time, lots of people were really interested in this stuff. It had some kind of appeal that was extremely strong for lots of people.

And nowadays, although I certainly wouldn't say that cob is a household word in the United States, a lot of people know about it. In the last 3 years, we've sold something like 30,000 books. So, I'm fairly sure there's hundreds of thousands of people, at least, possibly more, possibly millions, at this point, who, if you said 'cob building,' wouldn't think you were talking about corn cobs, which is what most people who've never heard of it before think. And that's a pretty rapid rate of dissemination into the culture over, what seems like a very short period of time to me.

So, at least in a certain segment of the population that may be predisposed to pay attention to this kind of stuff, the technique has made pretty significant inroads into the consciousness and the collective imagination quite quickly.

The biggest advantage, I'd say, of earth building is that earth is such a ubiquitous material. Most places that people are building, there's earth. And that's huge! That's a huge, huge factor. I think it's hard for people who are raised in an industrial society, where energy is very, very cheap, to understand the significance of that fact. Because we're used to thinking nothing of moving, you know, huge amounts of material, including very heavy material, very long distances.

But traditionally, throughout the history of humanity, that has not been an option, and it's very possible that will come to be less of an option in the near to middle future, even in wealthy places like the United States. So just learning to build with the stuff that is there on the site is an incredibly valuable thing for us, I'd say, at this stage in our history, to re-learn that.

There's a technical aspect to building with earth that makes it very accessible to lots of people. Even natural materials that are commonly used, one that springs readily to mind is wood, require a little bit more training and technique to get good at. Carpentry is actually, as it's practiced currently in the western world, is a very technical skill, it's a craft. And people take years to learn how to become good carpenters. Most of the earthen building techniques are so simple that people can learn how to do them in a matter of hours to days.

And then we have lots of experience with Cob Cottage Company in workshop teaching of people who took, say, a week-long workshop, with very little to no previous building experience, and went from that directly into building their own homes. Usually people require some help with the more technical aspects of the building, especially the carpentry, things like wiring and plumbing, if those are included into the home. Those are things that people can't learn as quickly. But the actual earth-building technique is so simple that most people can pick it up very quickly.

One of the other big advantages that earth has as a building material is its weight. Because earth is a massive, heavy material, it has the ability to store heat, or conversely, to store coolness, over a long period of time. A heavy earthen wall, and this also goes for other heavy materials like brick and stone, takes a long time to heat up, and a long time to cool down. And it turns out that that's critical for efficient passive solar construction. If you want to build a house that is going to be heated mainly with the sun, you need a way to store the heat that's coming in from the sun during the daytime, and keep it in the building to release during the nighttime, which is when you really need it.

In the daytime, the sun's out, temperatures are high, everything's good. But at night, temperatures are going to drop, you're a lot more likely to be inside your house at night, and that's really when you need that heat! So the thermal mass of earth, either in your walls, or in your floor, can hold and store that heat until you need it. And that's true not only on a daily cycle, where you have daily temperature swings, hot in the middle of the day, cool at night, but also over longer periods of time.

Another way to do that, or another way to take advantage of that thermal mass, is by having the mass of the cob or other earthen material in close proximity to a wood-burning heat source. The wood stove right here is built right up against this surrounding cob hearth. So when the wood stove is going, it's releasing a lot of heat through radiation, some of which is projecting out into the room to warm us directly. I can feel a lot of heat coming off that stove right now to me. But in addition, a lot of that heat is going back and being absorbed into this cob wall, and the cob is heating up. So what that means is, in an hour, we can stop feeing the wood stove, the fire will go out, but then the cob will be continuing to heat the space.

And that principle's been used for millennia, probably, particularly in really cold climates like Scandinavia, where there's something called a Finnish stove. Germans had a similar technique called a kakalofen. Chinese had something called a kang. All of them are basically very, very heavy massive wood burners in which you can make a very hot fire for a short period of time, heat up all that mass, and then have the heat from that mass continue to radiate and heat your space for a period of time afterwards. It's a much more efficient way of using the energy that's released by the combustion of the wood than relying entirely on the heat that's released at the time of combustion.

So, again, it's using the thermal mass of the earth as a battery to hold the heat for when you actually need it.

The biggest disadvantage of adobe is because it's made of a lot of little separate units that are kind of stuck together with mud, but there's no real continuity, there's no tensile connection between all those different units. If you get a big shake, or the ground moves, in an earthquake, or something like that, there's a tendency for those units to shift and come apart. And, in the worst-case circumstance, for the building to collapse. So, adobe, of the 3 major load-bearing techniques is probably the least strong in earthquake conditions.

And the actual ingredients and mixture in a cob building can be very, very similar to what goes into an adobe structure. It's once again a mixture of clay and sand and straw. And there's some huge advantages to [cob], relative to the other techniques.

One is we don't need any forms. We're just building and sculpting our walls in place as we go. You can do sculptural stuff with concrete, etc. etc. But to do a curved sculptural concrete building, you first need to build a curved form, which is fairly technically difficult. To achieve the same result out of cob, you don't need any special tools, and you don't need any special training. So, it's very, very easy for people without much training and without much technical background to achieve really spectacular results. In fact, it's practically inevitable. [Laughs]. I've almost never seen anybody build anything out of cob that wasn't beautiful. So that's pretty remarkable, in and of itself.

The other significant advantage besides the sculptural qualities of cob is that if you build carefully, you needn't have any seams, any weak joints in your entire structure. So the ideal is, you're always adding the new cob onto the wall before the cob underneath it is completely dry. And you're able to "sew" using either your fingers, or using a tool that we call a "cobber's thumb," which is a worked piece of wood. You're able to sew the new cob into the layer of web, sticky cob underneath it, and you're able to get very, very good connection, good adhesion between those layers.

I haven't been myself to Africa, but I've seen photographs, where one of the solutions is to build each course of cob sort of triangular in section, actually kind of like a upside-down heart shape in section. And then the next upside-down heart shape locks itself in place on top of the previous course. So there are certainly ways around the poor connection that you tend to get with coursing. But, just as a general statement, I'd say cob has the potential to be much stronger in earthquake conditions than especially adobe. Because you don't have all those inherent weak points in the seams between the different courses.

You know, any of these techniques, you can build with very, very few tools. So, with adobe, really all you need is a form, and you can do the rest, you know, a shovel's helpful, a wheelbarrow's helpful, and a hose is helpful. With rammed earth, it's pretty much the same, you need a form and a tamper. With cob, the tools that you actually need to do it are even fewer. You could pretty much just do cob with a stick or a shovel or something. A tarp, a few buckets, a wheelbarrow, a hose, a machete, those things are really, really helpful, and I wouldn't encourage anybody to try to build a cob house with nothing but a stick. But it is a very, very low-tech technique at its root, as are all these other traditional building techniques.

Now what that doesn't necessarily mean is that cob has to be a low-tech technique. And in fact, there's some limitations, there are some pretty severe limitations on treating it as exclusively a low-tech technique. The majority of the work that goes into a cob building is in mixing the cob. That can take up to three-quarters, two-thirds to three-quarters, of the labour in the building of the actual cob walls themselves.

There are ways, pretty good ways, to mechanize that. So, either using a tractor, a technique called tractor cob; using a mortar mixer; in Britain, they're using just a heavy truck, and driving back and forth over the mix, and mixing it that way. So, it's certainly feasible, and reasonable, I would say, to throw some kind of industrial equipment at the cob process, and speed up the mixing part of the equation a lot.

And I think what that enables, is it enables projects to happen more quickly, it enables people who are working with a budget and a tight timeline, which most professional builders, most contractors are working under those circumstances; it enables them to consider cob as something that they could use in their professional work. So I'd say that's a positive development that's happening lately in cob.

Still haven't seen it really turn into a mainstream technique that's being used for mass marketing, mass housing developments, and maybe it never will. But in the meantime, I think the biggest impact that cob is having is allowing people who want to be building for themselves, and who don't have a lot of resources, or a lot of training, to learn a technique quite quickly that enables them to build a really beautiful and really special home for themselves.