By: Linda Lacy
Aspects of Homesteading with a Mud House or Cob House
• Unbelievably inexpensive
• Ancient, proven technology
• Adaptable to any environment
• Durable and waterproof
• Thermal mass plus insulation
• 1/3 of the world today owns these
Mud houses are riding the wave of a cultural comeback. With our supply of lumber slowly shrinking, the popularity of earthen homes is seeping into the American psyche. What is more abundant than mud? What could possibly be cheaper than the dirt under our feet? In England, there are homes hundreds of years old made from earth. Sir Walter Raleigh (the guy who searched for the city of gold, “El Dorado”) was born in this cob home built in 1484 and it is still standing today. Just in one county in England, there are over 20,000 buildings made of cob! These homes can stand rock-solid for hundreds of years without needing repairs.
There are many forms of earthen building: adobe, sod, rammed earth, straw-clay, wattle-and-daub, and then the English term “cob,” which is basically a mud, straw, and sand mixture. This is what I saw at “Aprovecho,” an intentional community in Cottage Grove, Oregon. The pioneers at Aprovecho experiment with various combinations of earthen building techniques, and the first cottage we saw on our tour was a yurt style cob structure. What they did was construct a yurt without the canvas covering, used the “wattle-and-daub” method to cover it in mud, and constructed a thatch roof to top it all off. I think they had the most fun decorating.
Next up on our route was a mudwork-in-progress. This cob/straw-clay/strawbale home will be 200 square feet plus a loft. When we saw this place, the builders had only been working on it for a month, which seemed like lightening quick work. The strawbale walls are chinked with mud, and eventually the entire structure will be covered in cob, a mixture of sand, straw and mud.
Another method was used for one of the walls called “straw-clay,” where you basically just mix straw and clay, shove it in a wall “form,” and then squish it down until you can’t squish anymore. The form is then moved up to build more wall. Part of the structure was also just plain old cob, which requires a little support, hence the baling wire. The team is pressed for time, hoping to get the roof on before the rainy Oregon autumn. One innovative feature of this cob home is the installation of a rocket stove. The heat from the fire will circulate under the cob bench, spreading the warmth under the buns and through the whole structure evenly. You could even sleep there on a snowy night.
The finale of the tour was a look at a finished cob home. Most of the timber used for the building was harvested on Aprovecho land, and this has more of a traditional square shape, but it’s solid, ecologically sound, and will outlast a stick-built. It may seem scary to try something that doesn’t fit in with the norm of society, but building with cob is simple, intuitive, basic humanity. We did it as children, and we can do it again. There are only a few basic tools needed, and there are workshops popping up all over the country teaching people how to build with mud. One such place, Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, in Missouri, has experimented with earthen homes as well. Brian Liloia, one of the residents, built a cob home with no experience at all. (See www.theyearofmud.com) Of course, he had help from some of the other residents (a whole other article about the importance of community!). His home has a “living roof,” is about 200 square feet, cost him $3000, and best of all – no mortgage!
Cob buildings have several advantages, physically and emotionally. The physical benefits are obvious:
• Low cost – the most expensive part of building your own cob home will be the land and the other components like windows, flooring, plumbing, and electric. Using recycled materials can keep these costs down.
• Ecologically responsible – minimal use of timber, cement, and machinery needed.
• Completely healthy environment – no toxic chemicals used.
• Energy efficient – high thermal mass, insulation, and low use of fuels.
The emotional benefits are basic and primal:
• Cob building is a fluid, creative, artistic process.
• Freedom is exhibited through curved walls, arches, niches, and decorations.
• Builders are sculptors, using all five senses to raise a home from the mud.
• Shaping the clay, earth, sand, straw, and water into a dwelling in the silence of nature instead of to the sharp noises of electric saws and hammers is priceless.